Live In a Place, Not On it

Travel is all about learning. In order to learn about a new place, you need to go beyond the surface.

1/1/20256 min read

Live In a Place, Not On it

“You can take the rental car now and come back later this afternoon for the paperwork. But don’t come back between 2:30 and 5:00 because we’re closed so I can pick my kids up from school and make sure their homework gets done. Come back around 5:30, I should be here then.” Where in the world would a business succeed run like this? Why would customers put up with this? Because customers here are local and understand how life on an island works. 

You meet a great party group in a local bar and everyone is buying you rounds of drinks. Wow, what a friendly place. But at the end of the night no one says “see you next time” or suggests you come back. That’s because you broke a cardinal social rule in this country, one you will not be forgiven for. You did not buy any rounds yourself. You will not be invited to join again.

How are you supposed to know these things? 

If you come to a place as a visitor you’ll experience the surface. On vacation you get a glimpse of your surroundings. If you’re on a tour you get a glimpse of things that someone else determined you need to see, which is most often typical highlights in all the travel videos. 

But the travel videos don’t include everyday life with its challenges, local philosophies, and idiosyncrasies. To experience those things you need to live IN a place, not ON it.

Truly experiencing a country requires digging deeper than the surface. When you do that you come away with an education of how people in different cultures live. And you come away with unique memories and new friends. When someone asks how I am enjoying my holiday my response is “I’m not on holiday. I live here.”

How do you get below the surface?

Live locally

Find accommodation outside the tourist centers, preferably in a local neighborhood or even a suburb or smaller town where you can easily get to the main cities. For instance when I went to Amsterdam rather than stay in the city, I rented an apt in Weesp, a small town with an easy short commute by train. Each day I could take the train into the city and in the evening sit at a cafe along the river in Weesp talking to local people or wander the streets of small shops and family homes.

While living in Spain I rented an apt across the street from a park in a traditional town within an easy commute to the bigger cities. A favorite memory is of sitting on the balcony in the mornings watching families walk their kids to school through the park. Sometimes it was grandmothers, sometimes moms or dads, sometimes the whole family. In the early evening the parade began again, this time entire families of several generations making their way slowly down to the cafes and tapas restaurants to spend the evening together. This family closeness was wonderful to watch, very different from my own culture.

In Portugal I chose a small town and an apt in the fishing village end. I am the only non-Portuguese neighbor and I can attest to the fact that the neighborhood watch is the women keeping an eye on things from their balconies. I can also attest to being watched over by them and am certain they would have my back if needed. 

Use Public Transportation

One of the best ways to learn about a place below the surface is to take public transportation. For me this has sometimes been quite an adventure. You do need to be on your toes for major train and bus stations. If you can look up the layout and size of a station prior to getting there it will be a big help. I once walked out of an airport to take the bus to my new apt in Finland only to find that there were two choices and they were in opposite directions. My apt owner instructions only said take the bus so I spent an hour figuring out which bus in which area. After a long day of travel, this was not a happy experience. Train stations can be overwhelming in major hubs, but they are typically well laid out so standing back to get the lay of the land can help tremendously. Train stations also tend to have plenty of staff to help. Find those green or orange jackets and run to them! I once had a train connection that was literally 2 floors underground from the one I had just come off of. 

Local buses are an adventure all their own. On Dominica Island the local bus works like this: Climb into a small min-van with all windows closed and steam rising in the heat, step around the 5 gallon bucket of paint, and over the 50 pound sack of potatoes, squeeze shoulder to shoulder with passengers sweating from having waited 20 minutes. The bus schedule timetable is “it leaves when it’s full”.

In Panama local buses are similar to Dominica except that the driver plays radio music that blares so loud no one can possibly talk and your ears are still ringing 5 minutes after getting off. But there is a local strategy you can use. Again, learn from the locals, get under the surface. The huge comfortable tour buses also stop at each town & you are allowed to hop on those for the same price. This is fantastic if you’re going into the city.

Get to Know People

This is not difficult if you do a little research to connect with groups before going. The most helpful tips for getting to know people are to

  • volunteer

  • join expat forums

Volunteering will connect you to the local community. Expat forums can be helpful in finding volunteer opportunities and social activities.

After volunteering in a Caribbean second hand shop long enough to get familiar with some of the customers, I learned the criteria for finding a husband. One of my regular customers looked me over one day and had me do a turn around. Her survey report was this: “I’m thinking you must be looking for a husband. The skirts are getting a little shorter and the backside is getting a little broader.” Not a lesson I was excited to learn, but an education anyway!

While volunteering for a parade committee I met a scruffy old pirate who lived on his boat and whose treasure was kept in his heart. I will always remember Jake who excitedly cleaned up his boat for us to have a committee meeting on it and who would literally give someone the shirt off his back if they needed it. His memory is a treasure for me.

Tap into your passion and find groups of others who share it. For me it’s dancing. So I find dance groups and lessons. Sharing a similar interest is an amazing way to quickly make new friends and at the same time learn a bit of language. I can say change partners, forward, back, and turn in Spanish, Croatian, Albanian, French Creole, and several others

It can be challenging to put yourself out there to make those social connections. Making new friends and sharing adventures makes the effort well worth it. 

Follow these tips for an entirely different experience than visiting a country for a glimpse. Learn about and become part of the culture by living In it, not just On it.