Travel tips for local immersion

I’ve traveled quite a bit, especially within the last 4 years, and in my travels I’ve developed a few habits, or things I immediately do when I’m about to set foot in a new city or country. Of course everyone has their own travel style, and well, I’d like to share a few of my quirks so that should you find yourself in a land unbeknownst to you, you can maybe steal some of them and call them your own on your path to country immersion. I’ll say that while these aren’t really out of the ordinary I’m sure, they are things that I’ve noticed others don’t typically do, or laughed at me for doing. Laugh at me if you’d like, think I’m strange, or steal some of my must-dos.

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EAT LIKE A LOCAL

Perhaps my favorite part about travel is the food. I’m obsessed with trying all the local food and traditional dishes and find that it is perhaps the single best way to immerse yourself in a new country. This is always my first method of action usually the day before I hit the road. I scour the Internet for blogs, lists, magazines, anything about staple foods of the country or region I’m going to. I have an extensive list of notes in my iPhone’s Notepad, split up by country in ALL CAPS, and this is where I make a list of food. I always skip over dishes if they’re made of foods I don’t eat or get squeamish around (pork and some preparations of seafood), but I start compiling a list of all the food I have to eat, and as I eat them I put a little star next to it on my list. It’s the OCD in me.

People that I’m with are usually A. really happy someone did their homework and knows what we need to stuff our faces with, and/or B. laugh at me when I throw a handful of “do you have this?” food-related questions at the waiter. In fact, just this last summer while in Sofia, Bulgaria, I was at a deliciously vast dinner with two Frenchies I had met. I had read and been told that this restaurant was extremely traditional and had a tremendous menu, but I didn’t see any of my list items on their menu. So, of course I whipped out my phone with my list of foods, asking if they had them secretly hidden in the menu hiding from me. They weren’t hiding, but the waiter, who was a little swift, helpful, and agitated all at the same time, kindly obliged me with a “we don’t have these, but I’ll make them for you sweetheart.” Thank you kind sir! Check check check!

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FIND A WALKING TOUR

This was an iffy one for me up until very recently, say about a year ago. I’ve always been a wanderer and enjoy getting my wander on solo or in the company of whomever I’m with. However, my feelings toward the typically free city walking tours or subject oriented ones changed when I visited Central Europe last winter. I’ve found that most (save for 1 or 2 here and there) have really enriched my travel experience and feel for a city. I’ve since made the free tour a ‘day 1’ activity whenever I am somewhere new. I’ve found that it’s only through hearing the backstory from a local guide that I’ve truly been able to appreciate a city and its history with more depth.

Of course all countries have a vast history, so it’s unfair to say one is is better than another, but I want to say that this has become a staple of mine after visiting countries that were tremendously torn by war. I’m fascinated by wars, so visiting places with such histories, to me, is best absorbed through the knowledge that accompanies it. I’d say that the most fascinating walking tours I’ve been on were in Berlin, Germany and Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina, where one tour guide was one of the most knowledgeably passionate guides I’ve ever witnessed, and one grew up and lived through the war, making it that much more special. It’s no surprise either when I say that both cities are two of my favorites.

Free walking tours are available nearly everywhere, so if this interests you, I’d suggest doing a quick Internet search or ask the hotel/hostel where you’re staying.

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GET OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

After doing a walking tour, having many a solo wander, and stuffing my face, my all time favorite thing to research when coming to a new country are the sites that aren’t listed in the guidebooks. I’ve had the most success in finding these on random blogs or by word of mouth. I am all about seeing the sites that you’re ‘supposed’ to see, but I also hate the term ‘tourist’ and I like to get away from those types pretty quick.

“Off the beaten track”s can come in any form, my personal favorite being abandoned places, which I’ve come to learn aren’t always of the utmost fascination to everyone. I’ve gotten lots of ‘OK Danielle….have fun?” in my day! Some of my best finds came in the form of a church decorated entirely in old bones just outside of Prague, an abandoned insane asylum just outside of Seoul, Antoni Gaudi’s first commission in Barcelona (which also led me to the best Patatas Bravas in Barcelona), a floating orphanage on the Ton Le Sap River in Siem Riep, Cambodia, and the world’s largest gypsy population on the outskirts of Skopje, Macedonia.

These have come to be some of my favorite recommendations to others when they travel somewhere I’ve been, as well as some of my greatest travel experiences. Getting out of the hustle and bustle and into the unknown does require some thought, an abundance of vigilance, and trusting yourself to make wise decisions, but to me can really enrich a trip and your experience in a country that goes deeper than the surface.

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FLEAING FOR SOUVENIRS

I am a flea market fiend! Flea marketing was always one of my staple weekend activities with my best friend back home, and it’s since transcended into my travel repertoire as well. This has also come to be a space-consuming travel hobby of mine, but one I can’t shake! I like to purchase souvenirs that aren’t stereotypical, and ones that I can use to decorate my home one day (wherever that may be). Ones that have some ages old story nestled in the ridges of its exterior. I don’t always do it, but I often times search the Internet for local flea markets, or if I’m lucky just stumble upon one.

I don’t flea market just to shop, as it really needs to hit me to own it. Even if I’m not purchasing anything, I love looking at the old memorabilia that came from cracks and crevices of the local people’s lives. On my recent holiday in Bulgaria, I searched for this flea market that I read about on a blog, for hours before I finally found it. It was overflowing with old WWII Nazi artifacts and communist stars and money, and it was fascinating to hold, despite the disgusting history. While in the Balkans, I really wanted a ‘Turkish’ coffee pot, and didn’t buy one until I found the one I had to have, which I found under masses of other pots in a curbside flea market in Sarajevo. The pot has a little cut at the lip, but I love that some Bosnian family used it years ago. As you can imagine, I’ve acquired quite a collection of metal ‘things’ from my travels.

I know this isn’t everyone’s taste, but I do urge you to seek out a flea market, if only to glimpse into the country’s history through its trinkets. I know I can get lost in old photographs and passports of who knows who these people once were.

FIGURE OUT THE ALPHABET

I’m a very visual person, so I realize this last one may not be so easy or of the utmost importance to many. However, I’ve found that when a language is accompanied by a completely un-Romanized alphabet, I love learning a few letters and then continuing to try and learn how to read it. Not to mention, it also comes in tons of handy.

My first instance of this was while living in Korea. Once I learned how to read Hangul, everything eased up and I could figure out so many new things that had me lost before. When I was in Greece I learned their alphabet (though I did have some help from the Greek system in university), and while in the Balkans I learned to sound out Cyrillic. Merely adopting the ability to read and sound out a language has helped me order anything from a coffee, to walking into the correct restroom when they’re without ‘his and her’s’ pictures, and in desperate times, figure out where I am on a map when it’s only written in the local language.

Since we are human and can’t help but read everything around us, I’ve found that trying to read the alphabet that’s foreign from your native tongue is probably a great brain activity to prevent Alzheimers. That’s just my thought and I’m running with it! 

I’m not saying do as I do, but rather adopt and mold methods to research your next holiday in other ways than just doing as the guidebook lays out. Traveling is the best and most rewarding education I’ve found, and in an effort to get to know a country of which you’re a visitor in, why not really immerse in the ‘why and how’ the country is what it is today.

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