“I came to get down, I came to get down
So get out your seat and jump around!
Jump up, jump up and get down!”
House of Pain
Think about how you start to piece together your vacation plans. If you’re like me, you pick a part of the world, often just country or two, and spend a few days in a few different cities before heading back home. For example, last summer I visited Northern Italy and stopped in Venice, Milan, Verona, Lake Como, and Lake Garda over the course of a couple of weeks. This kind of trip where you jump around from one place to another is quite common and obviously helps you see a wide variety of destinations in a shorter period of time.
However, when I first started planning my 6-month sabbatical travels, one of the rules that I set for myself was that I wanted a more immersive experience. In other words, I wanted to spend more time in fewer places instead of constantly moving from one place to another. I had two main reasons for this:
First, to spend only a few days in each place over the course of such a long period of time is exhausting. The packing and unpacking alone would get old very quickly. Not to mention that travel fatigue is likely to set in fairly quickly with all the flights and train rides.
Second, opportunities such as this don’t come around very often so I wanted to try a different way of traveling. Think of the place where you live… do locals ever visit the popular tourist sites? In San Francisco, locals never go to Pier 39. In Philadelphia, most of my friends don’t spend a lot of time visiting Independence National Park. In LA (where my family lives), most locals don’t spend a lot of time at the Hollywood sign. However, these are primary destinations for most tourists in each of those cities. My feeling is that the longer I stay in one place, the more I’ll feel like a local… and the more I feel like a local, the more “authentic” my experience will be (whatever that means).
Anyway, regardless of whether my reasons were good or not, I tried to design my trip with longer stops in fewer places. Now, after a month in Costa Rica, 3 weeks in Valencia, and currently entering my 3rd week in Madrid, I’ve begun to notice the differences between these two types of itineraries. Here’s what I’ve found:
Before You Go:
First, you should realize that some places are just touristy. I was recently in a very touristy town in Costa Rica for a month. In a way, the local experience was completely intertwined with the tourist experience. You could spend 5 years living at a beach resort and you’d always feel like a tourist.
However, if you go to a place with a vibrant local culture, it makes a big difference if you know someone who can help you integrate somewhat into the local experience… or can at least give you some clues about where to look on your own. I think if you’re going to travel this way, it’s best to try to make as many connections as you can, even before you go. Ask your friends. Post something on Facebook and/or maybe join an expat group on Facebook or some other website. Whatever you do, try to get some tips as early as you can.
While You’re There:
Upon arriving, you’ll inevitably spend the first few weeks aggressively exploring your new environment. To learn what it is to live like a local, you have to go out and talk to people and observe what it means to be a local in a new place. This process takes time… and it’s definitely not what the locals do. In other words, locals don’t go out every night just to see what other locals are doing that night. On the bright side, it’s during this time that you’ll start discovering hidden gems that you might have missed if you were only staying for a couple of days.
This leads to one of the first things I noticed about spending more time in a single place. There’s an inherent conflict where, on the one hand, you’ll want to get out and explore but you’ll also want to just relax. You’ll realize quickly that you can’t go sightseeing every day and sometimes you just won’t want to explore the nightlife in some new neighborhood. Sometimes you’ll just want to hang out… like you would at home. For me, writing articles for this blog has actually been a great excuse to spend some time in my room or at my favorite local cafe without feeling the pressure to go out and explore.
At the End:
Despite your best efforts, you won’t really feel like a local, even after a month. Living in a hotel or even an Airbnb does not feel like home. In many cases, the language and the culture will feel foreign to you… and that won’t change in a short period of time. Further, you have the knowledge that it’s only a temporary stay even if that information is tucked away in the back of your mind. I don’t know how long you have to stay and what you have to do to gain this experience but a month isn’t long enough.
However, don’t be discouraged!! Even though you won’t really feel like a local, you’ll definitely have experiences reminiscent of being a local. You’ll find your favorite coffee shop and you’ll go back to restaurants that you like. You may even make some friends from the area and go out with them and have a few laughs with the friendly local bartender. You’ll discover new neighborhoods and you’ll say to yourself “I could live here” and for those brief little moments, it’ll feel like home. I think that little taste of home is what immersive travel is all about.