I hate tourists. They walk around obliviously, slowing everyone down as they consult flimsy, hotel-issued maps and fuss over pictures in front of every street corner with an assortment of cameras hanging around their necks. They ask the dumbest questions, wear the most outdated fanny packs and Hard Rock Cafe Roma (This is STOCKHOLM, Stupid) T-shirts and have an odd affinity for cheap, mass-produced crap like glow-in-the dark Eiffel Towers and organic, phallus-shaped chocolate Towers of Pisa.
Some of my hate has to be inwardly directed though, because I have so often been the tourist stopping traffic as I chase down the illegible street map that has blown out of my hands and into the busy street. Not fun. And not what your next trip has to be like. Here’s your fast track to insider status:
Get Religion: Or at least visit something like a church, synagogue, mosque or even a local chapter of a club that you are associated with at home. These are great places because locals tend to be friendly in them and WANT visitors. Suddenly, you are no longer an annoying tourist. Instead, you have been transformed into an exotic guest that they will want to invite home, show all the best places and generally entertain.
Volunteer: Enjoy doing something service-related once in a while? No better place to do this than while on a trip overseas. Not only will you feel the satisfaction of having helped people out, you will connect with trustworthy locals who are like-minded and will want to get to know you. If you are stumped for short-term service projects abroad try woofing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) where you get free food and lodging around the world in exchange for volunteer help on organic farms.
Skip the hotel and Stay at the Home of a Local: This is not as impossible as it sounds. Don’t despair if you don’t know a soul in your destination country. Check out www.couchsurfing.org. The organization has a network of people around the world who let guests crash at their places for free. Membership is great because the idea is you can host or be a guest whenever it suits you.
Forget the Blitz-Krieg Tour: If you want to feel like an insider, there are two advantages to planning prolonged stays in one place as opposed to city hopping. First, a stay of a couple weeks to a couple months will ensure that you have a rudimentary lay of the land and know the basics like good local eats, the price of a taxi and the time wasters to avoid. Second, the locals will invest more in you the longer they think you will stick around. If you are back on the train in a couple of days they won’t even bother learning your name. If you are there for a few weeks you stand a good chance of forming some relationships and learning to dodge the tourist traps in favor of some authentic local experiences.
A final word: Generally speaking, people in most places are about as comfortable with you as you are with them. If you show some real warmth and interest in them, chances are they will reciprocate. So don’t sit around feeling awkward and out of place. Insider status is yours for the taking.