Not every traveler finds their experiences overseas to be rewarding and if you read enough travel blogs, you will come across posts and comments from people who were actually quite disappointed with the destinations they visited. Most of the disappointment stems from arriving in a town or city or even country that turns out to be far more touristy than anything they had imagined and as a result, they find themselves struggling to engage in authentic local interactions and local experiences, which are the type of experiences they had hoped for.
These travelers often claim to feel as if they are merely a tourist in a zoo when they arrive in such places, where the only option is to stare at locals as if they were on display and enter into interactions that exist only because of tourism. And so it is natural for some people to simply want to leave a particular region or country once they conclude that there is no way to experience anything real.
While I’ve heard people mention their disappointment with many countries around the world, one of the countries that seems to pop up more often than others in such conversations is India, the country I am flying to today, in one hour from now actually.
And this is what I sometimes read about India…
There are too many tourists. You can’t have a conversation with anyone without them trying to sell you something. Nothing is authentic.
Okay, are there crowds of travelers in India, especially in places such as Goa and McLeod Ganj and Varanasi and Udaipur? Yes, there is definitely no shortage of travelers in many regions of this country.
Does this eliminate all chance of having authentic travel experiences? In my opinion, not at all.
When we travel, the only person who decides where we go and what we do each day is us. We determine the destinations we visit, we choose the places we eat and the activities we participate in and we even choose the streets we walk down. Therefore, we also determine whether or not we end up as a tourist in a zoo or if we fill our days with the kind of local experiences we hope for.
And it’s not so difficult to make the right decisions. Even in McLeod Ganj, the small Indian town in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Dalai Lama lives, and a town that is full of foreigners almost year round, you can choose to eat in a local Tibetan restaurant instead of the German bakery or the Italian restaurant, both of which cater only to travelers. You can choose to mingle with the other travelers or you can choose to head down to the Buddhist temple and strike up a conversation with a Buddhist monk.
While it might still be disappointing to find yourself in a town that is so touristy, we must realize that we are not the only people who want to travel and the reason why so many of us flock to the same destinations is because those destinations have something to offer.
I remember the last time I was in India and I traveled to Agra with two friends in order to visit the Taj Mahal, which is India’s most visited sight. After spending a few hours at the monument, we decided to get away from all of the other travelers and so, without hesitation, we flagged down a bicycle rickshaw. We then asked the driver to take us away from Taj Ganj, the main tourist area by the Taj Mahal, telling him to just cycle us to an area without any foreigners.
Ten minutes later we were in a random neighborhood, standing in front of a local cinema where a crowd of Indians were waiting in line to enter. We joined the crowd, went inside, bought three tickets for the next Hindi film being played and within moments, found ourselves trying to communicate with a large group of people who had never spent any time with foreigners in their entire life. We talked, we sat together in the cinema, we laughed, we watched the film, we chatted afterward while sipping chai and eating samosas. This was as local of an experience as it gets, even though we were in the most visited city in all of India.
And it took no effort at all. In fact, it’s so simple to get away from the ‘zoo’ that I’m confident there is no place on this planet where travelers would not be able to find such an opportunity.
Even when I lived in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, another major tourist and vacation destination, all it took was a short walk away from the beach for me to find myself in a local tostada eatery (like the one where I gave a demonstration on how to stuff your face properly) or in a cafe without any foreigners around or in a park full of local vendors selling local specialties and without a word of English being spoken.
There were even sections of the beach where I could grab a patch of white sand and spend the day among locals, without any beach bars, jet skis or beach vendors anywhere in sight.
Again, little effort required. It just took a few conscious decisions.
In addition, if we really feel that a particular destination is far too touristy to give us the kind of experiences we seek, nothing is stopping us from hopping on a bus or train and getting off at a random station, wandering into a random town, being the only foreigner around, and seeing where the adventure leads.
If we remember that it is our responsibility, not the responsibility of the destinations we visit, to create these positive experiences, then there is no reason why we should ever throw up our hands in disappointment and claim that a particular town, city or country does not offer authentic travel experiences.
Have you been to a destination where you feel it was impossible to have an authentic experience? What kind of experiences do you seek out or will you seek out when you’re overseas?