One of the most alluring thrills of travel is the possibility of immersing ourselves in another culture. That, however, is much easier said than done: how can we find a truly “local experience” when most of our trips last only a few days?
It’s impossible to live as the locals do until you’ve taken root in a country for a few weeks or a few months, but there are still ways to catch glimpses of how they eat, play, and celebrate. For advice, we turned to dancer and TV host Mickela Mallozzi, who’s gone behind the scenes with dancing communities from Croatia to the Cook Islands on her show Bare Feet with Mickela Mallozzi.
Go When The Party Starts
Mickela’s number-one tip starts before you’ve even set off on your trip: when you decide to travel is critical.
“There’s a lot of cultural festivals and religious festivals that involve music or dancing or food. I try to find some celebration I can focus on and work around that.”
Just as you should factor in seasonal weather when you travel to an outdoorsy locale, you should time your vacation around local holidays or celebrations if it’s a cultural experience you’re after. Food, clothing, and traditions that are reserved for special occasions will suddenly make frequent appearances.
If you tend to take your annual vacation at the same time of year, note that a festival may be celebrated in entirely different ways depending on where you go. Carnival in Venice, for example, is distinct from Carnival in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro. Mickela’s made it a personal goal to visit a new city each year.
Finally, keep in mind that the tradeoff of visiting a destination during a holiday is that museums, restaurants, and other institutions may be closed. If you want the best cultural experiences, though, it’s a sacrifice that’s well worth making.
Head Back To School
Not lucky enough to be visiting when a festival is happening? Don’t fret just yet: a local performing arts school may be able to help you out.
According to Mickela, “I just look for dance schools in the area and then communicate with them to see if there are any performances.” A music school in Ireland, for instance, led her to an intimate, 30-person viewing of sean-nós dancing.
Most travel hotspots, of course, promote spaces dedicated to traditional performances, but they tend to be directed at tourists. You’re better off going where the locals go when they’re learning to sing, dance, and act.
Besides schools, museums and cultural centers can also be good points of access. “They are very well connected to the local scene of artists,” says Mickela.
Take The Road Less Traveled
Festivals and performing arts centers may be ideal ways to find the cultural experience you’re after, but there’s a chance you’ll be fine without either. Sometimes getting friendly with the locals is simply a matter of leaving the city center.
Mickela thinks back to her experience in Aruba: “There is a concentrated area that is very touristy, and you step out of there and it’s a completely different island.” Once she left the resort area, she ran into people playing drums in the street—unconcerned with catering to visitors, the locals were entertaining themselves.
Going off the beaten path isn’t for everyone. There are plenty of reasons—ease of finding transportation, safety concerns, personal preference—that it may not be viable for you to leave the more central areas of your destination. But if given the opportunity, you should take it: you just may find the most fulfilling travel experience of your life.
Mind Your Manners
Stumbling upon locals dancing, making music, or playing a traditional game may be the dream travel experience, but there’s one consideration that trumps all others: be respectful of the community. It’s important to spectate without being a voyeur and to ask first if you wish to join in.
Similarly, don’t treat an activity with which you’re unfamiliar as something comical or absurd. If your only aim is disparage what the locals do, it’s better not to seek it out at all.
“What I hate seeing is people who approach a cultural performance but see it as silly,” says Mickela. “This is something that’s part of their identity, something they care about. I’m not going to mock them—I’m going to mimic that person so I can learn about the nuances.”
Ultimately, remember that you are a guest and that the residents you interact with are under no obligation to accommodate your wish to participate. Sometimes they won’t, and that’s okay—but on the many occasions that they do welcome you into their circle, treasure the moment. We can guarantee it’s something the average tourist will never experience.