How can we have more authentic experiences while travelling?


Five ways to have more authentic experiences while travelling



A lot of travellers today are looking for ‘authentic travel’ – that is, an opportunity to have more meaningful, real and immersive experiences while on a vacation. But the term ‘authentic travel’ itself is a little fluid and subjective, and when we have a week or two of travel time, how can we possibly find these experiences?


How do we locate what’s ‘real’ versus what’s stage-arranged, so to speak, for a tourist? It might help to remember that no matter what our travel style, budget or the length of our holiday is – we are all visitors to a place and that we may not possibly ever have a local person’s depth of experience and knowledge. What we may have, is a slice of their life, from events and activities that help us scratch more than the surface and give us a deeper feel of the destination.



Authentic experiences while travelling



However, what is comforting is the fact that these days a lot of service providers in the travel and tourism industry are willing to go the extra mile so that you can have a more immersive and authentic experience of a place and its culture. And while there is an element of chance and luck, here are a few pointers to get you more of these authentic experiences while you are travelling.



Dig deep and do your research


You have a lot to gain from the expertise and knowledge of seasoned travellers, professional travel guides, regional content creators and bloggers.



seasoned travellers



Many travel bloggers dedicate a section to the region they are based at, even if they are globetrotters. From their blogs, you can find some unique insights and resources about the province you are visiting – from quaint marketplaces, local gatherings, hidden gems, and even pubs and places that the community frequents. Let me give you an example. While we were visiting Sligo and its surroundings in the north of Ireland, I dedicatedly read every blog on the region by a blogger couple based in the county. From their blogs, we found out about a place called Devil’s Chimney (waterfall), and while many tourists turned away from a spot nearby not knowing about the trail, we benefited from our research. At the trail, we met an elderly couple who chatted with us about the region, about what they liked about this particular route, and we gained another tip on where to stop by on our way! They told us about a place which locals frequented but tourists often missed or skipped.




Explore festivities and festivals unique to the region


Most festivals, religious or not, bring together the larger community and as a traveller you gain insight into local customs, lifestyle and much more if you are fortunate to be part of these.


In Gujarat, India, for instance, if you are visiting during the kite flying festival (known as Uttaryan) which takes place in January every year, you may get a completely new understanding of the people and their customs – from how an entire city takes to the rooftops, the special food prepared and consumed during this festival as also the music that is played on the terraces! Similarly, if you were to visit Brighton, United Kingdom during its Burning the Clocks parade, an annual event that takes place in December, you would witness Brighton and its people in a stunningly different way. Or for that matter, the art festival in Purbeck in Dorset that features artists’ Open Studios and opportunities to converse with artists and local residents alike.


Many festivals are very well known – such as the La Tomatina food fight festival in Spain, but there are several others which, in relation, do not gain the attention from global tourists but offer a most immersive experience. Increasingly, tour providers are offering opportunities tailormade for the immersive traveller – they arrange homestays or visits to local homes so that you can be a part of the festivals in a wholesome manner.




Accept that invite


Sometimes, and this could be by pure luck, you get invited to a home, or for coffee or snacks at a local person’s place. If you feel safe, and you can crosscheck with your service provider, do grab that opportunity. How many people, even those that we know as colleagues or acquaintances, invite us to their homes? What you get out of that hour, or that sort of hospitality, goes beyond monetary value.



airbnb host



In Bruges, Belgium, our Airbnb host asked us if we were happy to have the Christmas dinner with her and her family. She also asked if we could prepare a meal for that day? While it wasn’t what we had on our itinerary, we said yes. She took us to an Indian store in Bruges so that we could buy all the ingredients. (She paid for all the groceries, including drinks and beverages.) We made chicken curry, pulao rice and raita. It was a lot of work, but we all sat down together for dinner, sharing stories, anecdotes and more. Her daughter introduced us to her friends, and our host put down gifts under the tree for all of us. On our last day in Bruges, she prepared a homemade lunch for us. Besides, throughout our stay, she gave us invaluable tips for exploring Bruges, bus routes and introduced us to her childhood haunts.


It all started with saying yes. And changing our itinerary and accepting an offer to spend more time with our host.




Delve into off-touristy experiences


Sometimes it helps to devote a part of your afternoon or evening into doing something that is not specifically positioned for tourists. You could visit a bookstore, a neighbourhood park, or even a local theatre performance. Or you could ask a service provider for tours that take you on a grocery shopping and cooking and eating sojourn along with a local chef, home chef or even a talented homemaker. There are also walking tours run by volunteers, as well as ones that take you not just to monuments but people – people who make the city come alive for you with their stories and unique life experiences.


In Istanbul, after a tour of palaces, mosques, the Grand bazaar and such, we yearned to go somewhere else – far away from tourists like us. We ended up at a local park by the sea in Uskudar where young families from the neighbourhood came armed with chairs, books, food and either sat down and enjoyed a picnic or swam. There were no restaurants, just a lone fish stall selling grilled mackerel sandwiches. We bought a sandwich each, and like other families in the park, sat down and watched the sun go down. It was definitely a better experience than a Turkish dance, dinner and drinks combo that a tour operator had suggested.




Taking clues


For food and drinks, it is often a good idea to take your clues from the local people. There will be restaurants crowding the city centre, but most residents would have access and knowledge of places that cater to the community and are family favourites. They will tell you where their university going daughter prefers her snacks and treats, the sweetmeat shop where they order their plum cake from, or which baker serves the freshest loaves.



local bakery



In Rabat, Malta, we made a beeline at a bakery where lots of locals, including workers from a nearby construction site were standing patiently in a queue. There we had the best Maltese Pastizzi, steaming hot out of a multi-tiered oven. In Istanbul, we went to a shopkeeper and asked him where his simple but fragrant box of rice came from, and he grinned and showed us the way. Sitting down on a plastic stool, we had a wholesome meal of a rice flavoured with chicken broth, chickpeas and slivers of chicken – one of our best pilafs on the trip.


Regional food bloggers and local people may point you towards some of the most authentic meals of your trip – don’t be shy to ask a shopkeeper, your cab driver or a customer at the local bakery where they like going out for a meal or source their snacks from.


And while we hope that you have more of authentic and engaging experiences on your travels, remember that ultimately it is about making most of the place that you are at. You don’t have to tick every box, neither feel the pressure to do something different.




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