Museums, landmarks and tours are only part of the travel experience. Just as important, some would say more important, are the experiences you have and what you learn from the destinations you visit. Getting off of the tourist map and learning to peel back the sightseeing veneer isn’t always easy, but here are some of my favorite ways to learn more about the real cultures of the places I visit.
Different from a market experience, grocery stores are a fantastic way to gaze into the stomach of a new country. I first started visiting supermarkets as a way to save money on sodas, water and snacks. It became quickly apparent though that the visit was about much more than just saving money. While perusing a store on the outskirts of Madrid last year, I noticed something odd. There wasn’t just a nice selection of olive oil, there was an entire olive oil section. Hundreds of different kinds lining at least two rows in the huge store. Obviously the Spanish mean business when it comes to good oil. Another favorite are potato chip flavors from around the world. Last year Gary Arndt started a drive to collect as many examples of Pringles flavors as possible, and the results are hilarious. My personal favorite, but not to eat, is the soft-shelled crab flavor from Indonesia. Many groceries are pretty generic, but there are always regional oddities that pop out and reveal a lot about the area.
I don’t care what anyone says, there is always down time on a trip when you need to sit back and reenergize. Personally, if the jetlag is severe I find myself taking afternoon naps. (ok, not an entirely uncommon occurrence for me) During this much needed rest period, I usually turn on the TV in the hotel room not just for CNN International and the latest from Richard Quest, but to see what the local area has programmed for my viewing pleasure. Even if I can’t understand the language, I oftentimes find myself mesmerized by glitzy game shows or bizarre interview programs. My favorite TV travel moment is from London, where we spent some time during the NFL playoffs. My partner is a huge football fan and was desperate to find out who had won the games. I couldn’t get the internet to work, so we were stuck with trying to find something, anything on TV that would have the winners and losers. We thought we were in luck when we found an international sports program that covered everything from Pakistani cricket to endless rugby matches. We sat, somewhat impatiently, only to find that they decided to rattle off some cricket scores before returning to live coverage of a snooker tournament. Cricket and snooker, two “sports” that have as much global interest as a quilt making competition were headlined and not even a mention of American football. We went to bed clueless about the scores at home, but had become experts in the finer points of snooker strategy.
Fast Food Restaurants
This is a sensitive subject for travelers, but no matter what anyone says I guarantee that most people have fast food at least once while on a trip. The culinary aspect to travel is one of the most important, and you should absolutely sample the best the region has to offer. But, venturing into the familiar yet oddly alien world of fast food restaurants overseas can be a great experience. While most outlets, such as McDonalds and KFC, have similar offerings, they also have unique, regional specialties. In France you can get McBier and in Austria McDonalds has a great variant on the region’s famous fried Emmentaler appetizer. My favorite though wasn’t a menu item, it was the Ronald McDonald symbol itself which, in Thailand, is shown in the traditional Thai position of hands clasped together.
I am an unrepentant, dyed in the wool bibliophile. In high school I even worked in a bookstore so I could better afford my book buying habit. No matter where we go, we almost always saunter through a bookstore at least once, marveling at the titles and interest areas on display. One of my favorite literary cities is Singapore and the bookstore I visited near Orchard Road was very similar to an American style Borders or Barnes and Noble with the sprawling layout, multimedia section and of course coffee shop. The differences lie in the popular books. There were some international favorites, but many regional ones as well. It was in Singapore where I bought both Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography as well as an intense portrait of the Thai monarchy. My favorite find though was a collection of short stories by Neal Humphreys, a Singaporean humorist. Singapore is a different place and his ability to point out its eccentricities poignantly and with a sharp wit is a literary tightrope he balances well.
There are many ways to get under the skin of a place, to learn more about the people and culture that no museum or landmark can provide. What are your favorite ways to better understand a new culture and region?