Why You Shouldn't Try to Travel Like a Local
be a good guest instead!
Happy Tuesday, friends! There are now well over 300 of you, which is—as my husband points out—more than the Spartan army had when they defeated the Persians at Thermopylae. Please accept this bouquet I painted as a thank you for being here. :)
Today’s essay is a bit of a hot take. It expands on an argument I made in December about why traveling like a local isn’t really possible, or even necessarily desirable (link to the original post is below). I fully expect it to cause some disagreement in the comments, which I think is a good thing—please poke holes in my theory!
But before I get to that—a friend of mine recently wrote a post on Medium about why he quit his job to travel for a year and what he learned from doing it. I really encourage you to check it out. It’s a compelling, well-written story and highly insightful. Click here to read it!
Also, you may have noticed this newsletter is about a week late. But I promise I have a good excuse! I’m working on a couple other writing projects, including a book (!) and some travel guides to Egypt, the latter of which I will post here for paying subscribers. I can’t wait to share what I’ve cooked up for you.
Have a wonderful rest of your week,
A couple weeks ago, Nick and I went to a supper club in our neighborhood for an iftar—the sundown meal in which Muslims break their daily fast during the month Ramadan. The supper club is hosted by a chef, Kareem, in his own apartment. He sets his table for 12 and serves up an incredible 9-course meal with a backdrop of soft music and candlelight.
Kareem’s supper club is the sort of thing you have to be in the know to find; while it isn’t a secret, news of it spreads mostly by Instagram and word of mouth among wealthy thirty-something Egyptians, as well as expats who are plugged in to Cairo’s social scene. Tickets tend to sell out within hours. As I walked into Kareem’s kitchen—which was stacked with sheets of hand-shaped tortellini and cone-shaped konafa for dessert—he handed me a wine glass full of sweet hibiscus juice, and I felt completely at ease, like I had finally “arrived.” This wasn’t the sort of thing any visitor to the city would find. This was an activity for—dare I say it?—locals.
As the night went on, I got to know my dining companions. The man sitting in the corner turned out to be my dentist, and the woman to my left was just as big a fan of The Crown as I am. We laughed together about how the only way to fall in love with Cairo is to surrender to the chaos. It felt neighborly and convivial. For once, I felt like a true Cairene.
The woman sitting across from me—who was half American, half Iranian, and had grown up in Cairo—had recently moved back to Egypt after spending a few years in the States. As we passed around platters of sambousek and lamb pastilla, she started to joke about applying for her Egyptian residency card.
“I had to go to Abbasiya1 six times last week,” she said. “One person would look at my paperwork and send me to another window, then that person would look at my paperwork and send me to a third window, then that person would just send me back to the first!”
“I swear, the staff there like to mess with you,” the women sitting to her left—who was Egyptian, but had studied in the U.S.—said, laughing.
As I listened to the exchange, it hit me that I would never really understand that experience, because my diplomatic status insulates me from so many interactions with the Egyptian government. I suddenly felt worlds removed from my dining companions, when just moments before I’d found plenty in common with them. We may live in the same city, but our experiences are inherently different, because I am not a participant in the political and social systems that dictate their lives.
This feeling stayed with me for days, and it lead me to the next obvious question I should be asking a travel writer: If I can live here for a year and a half and still not really consider myself a local, can anyone ever truly travel like one? In the time since, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is, in a sense, impossible—and that the philosophy of traveling like a local is more insidious than it seems.
Before I go any further, let me specify what I mean when I talk about “traveling like a local.” I’ve generally heard it described as seeking out hidden gems and facets of daily life in the place you’re visiting—things like home stays, eating in restaurants that serve local specialties, and taking public transportation.
I view this trend as a backlash to the “ugly American” stereotype,2 and in some ways, this backlash is a good thing. It shows that we have a desire to be decent guests, that we want to represent ourselves and our country of origin positively, and that we have a genuine desire to learn. There is also a performative element to it that is a little more cynical—it’s about demonstrating that you’re not one of those travelers with the white sneakers and the fanny pack, shouting phrases in English at anyone who will listen. You’re one of the classy, worldly ones. It’s about showing that you get it, and the sense of superiority you derive from that.
But even if the idea of “traveling like a local” is not entirely altruistic, isn’t it relatively harmless? Well…yes and no. Fodor’s recently published a piece on how attempting to travel like a local can do more harm than good by prompting tourists to swarm—and eventually overrun—local havens, crowding out the people they were established for. Moreover, this piece in Bon Appétit discusses how “traveling like a local” is a contradiction in terms:
locals are not spending leisurely days strolling on stunning promenades or gawking at the crank-your-neck-tall Art Deco buildings or sparkly turquoise waters lapping on fine white-sand beaches. They are making to-do lists in their heads on cramped morning commutes or scurrying between the grocery store, the dry cleaner, and the pharmacy, trying to complete enough tasks before falling into bed. The whole point of travel is to get away from the humdrum of everyday life. It is to very much not be a local.
There are a few other things I personally find grating about the idea of traveling like a local: it implies a) that there is something wrong with being a tourist (there isn’t) and b) that there is one type of “local” you can emulate, when in reality, locals have incredibly varied experiences.
But I think there is yet another, more damaging angle to this. By striving too hard for authenticity and ignoring the broader context, we could end up reducing entire cultures and political systems to their clothing and food choices—and in doing so, we might ultimately come home more ignorant that we were when we left.
Take Laura Ramoso’s comedy sketch, which pokes fun at that one girl who just got back from Greece and who’s dying to show you how much she’s assimilated into Greek culture (click the image to watch in a new window):
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This is, of course, a straw man for the sake of comedy. Not all people who want to travel like locals behave so outlandishly. But funny things are funny because there’s an element of truth to them, and many of us know someone like this—she just came back from abroad with an air of smugness and is dying to talk about how things there are just so much better. She thinks 24 hours of eating kalamata olives next to clear blue water means she had an authentic “local” experience, and that that makes her better than some dumb tourist. She has reduced an entire country to a few basic tropes, and thinks that calling herself Galatea means she understands Greek culture.
What this allows her to conveniently ignore is the tougher, more mundane reality of daily life in Greece—like the financial hardship that comes from a recent default on foreign debt combined with a global recession—and to mistake her experience of passing a few pleasurable days there for a real understanding of the place.
This sort of reductive thinking is the antithesis of what travel should be. Traveling is about expanding your mind, seeing more nuance, and appreciating the world for all its complexities. Doing that requires you to know what you don’t know. It requires you to check your ego at the door.
It also requires you to understand exactly who you are in the context of the place you’re visiting—i.e., your own privilege.
This is especially critical when traveling to places with oppressive political or social systems—depending on where you’re traveling, perhaps you will be exempt from those systems, while locals most certainly aren’t. For example: though Egypt is a police state, I, as a foreigner, am more or less exempt from dealing with the police. In fact, police go out of their way to treat me nicely. Being hassled by the authorities is a part of Egyptians’ daily lives that I (fortunately!) cannot experience directly. I try to remember this whenever I slip into thinking that life in Cairo is all about eating koshary and visiting mosques, even if those are typical Egyptian activities.
To be clear, I’m not trying to discourage you from seeking out experiences that inform you about everyday life in the place you’re visiting. Take public transportation! Learn phrases in the local language! I think those things are fantastic, and I try to do them when I travel.
What I am saying is don’t mistake “traveling like a local” for an understanding of what it’s like to actually live in a place. I am saying recognize your privilege, know what you don’t know, and don’t reduce people to their street food.
No doubt, this can be a tough needle to thread. So what should you do instead of approaching “traveling like a local” uncritically? Here are some tips.
DON’T scoff at being a tourist, and don’t be too precious about “authenticity.” Like it or not, you are a tourist, and just because locals don’t do something regularly doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing or experiencing. Remember that fado restaurant I went to in Lisbon not once, but twice? Some of its reviews on Google are complaints that it’s inauthentic and “where tourists go to listen to fado.” But guess what? Locals probably don’t go out to listen to fado music until midnight on a Wednesday in general, because they have work and family obligations! That isn’t a reason not to go. I wouldn’t call visiting the pyramids a particularly “authentic” Egyptian experience, but it’s 10000% worth doing. You’re traveling to experience something special—seize the opportunity.
DON’T impose on locals. “How to travel like a local”-type posts frequently contain advice like “if you want to know where to go, just ask someone on the train or in a cafe or on the street for a recommendation! Talk to people about their lives and religion and local politics!”3 Maybe I'm just an introverted grouch, but I really disagree with that approach. On one hand, to understand a place, you need to get to know the people who live there; on the other hand, I don’t think it’s very nice to waylay random people who are minding their own business—especially in a country where you have no idea what’s culturally appropriate or what the rules of politeness are, because you run the risk of making someone uncomfortable. Rebecca Holland ofmakes another excellent point in her post on 17 ways to be a better traveler in 2023:
Getting advice from a “local” doesn’t always guarantee good results. Think about people where you live. Does every random person on the street know the best places to eat and drink? The trick is finding the right locals.
So if you want to meet people while traveling, be smart about it. Seek out activities where social interaction with like-minded folks is expected and encouraged—things like a group hike, an art class at a local studio, or a food tour (perhaps even a supper club!). Another option is to go to bar—pulling up a stool close to the bartender and feeling out whether they seem willing to chat is a tactic that has worked well for me in the past. The bottom line: be socially sensitive. Don’t go to local spaces and bug people.
DON’T forget your privilege. See rant above. Remember that traveling itself is a privilege! It doesn’t always occur to Americans and Europeans that in many places freedom of movement is not a right, and that people in whatever country they’re visiting can’t necessarily leave. As I said when I talked about this in December:
As a tourist, you can limit your contact with and exposure to dictatorial governments. You can freely express your opinion. When you get tired of dirt and disorder, you can retreat…unlike locals, you have an escape route.
DO be a good guest! Think of it like going over to the house of someone you just met. Would you immediately act like you were in your own home, cracking open the fridge and flopping down on the couch? Or would you wait to be offered a drink and invited to make yourself comfortable? Treat people with the same respect and level of curiosity you would in your home country—not like attractions to be gawked at, or like information repositories from whom you can extract local insights. Be nice, tip well, and enjoy your trip!
Where the Egyptian Passports and Immigration Administration is located.
This should not just apply to Americans, by the way—I’ve seen tourists from a multitude of countries behaving very badly, so perhaps the more appropriate term is “ugly (insert nationality here).”
Please, please don’t do this if you are not in a country with a healthy degree of personal freedom and where political dissent is condoned. If you were, for example, to come to Egypt and ask people what they thought about President Sisi, a) you would be putting them in a compromising position, and b) you would be unlikely to get a straight answer.