Unbrave Girl on the Go: How to Live Like a Local While Traveling Like a Tourist

August 14, 2010

Tourism is dead.

That’s right, folks. It’s time to pitch your guidebooks and your daypacks and any of those pairs of pants with the zip-off legs (which, seriously, you should have thrown out ages ago because, honey, they are not doing your thighs any favors!).

These days, nobody wants to be a tourist (and, really, can you blame them? Who would choose to be the bumbling idiot in bad pants? Even though I spend a majority of my days bumbling and looking like an idiot and making questionable pants purchases, it’s not like I want to live this way! It just kind of comes naturally.)

Now, all the hip travelers want to be a local — or at least act like one.

Yep, “living like a local” is the new globe-trotting, the new backpacking, the new journey to self discovery. Move over, Jack Kerouac, nobody wants to be hitting the road anymore; they’d rather be sitting by the side of the road… preferably in a nice holiday rental or some kind of home exchange deal.

Backpacking through Europe is out. A three-month stay in a Balinese villa a la Elizabeth Gilbert is in.

Scouring your guidebook for recommended restaurants is passé; hanging out in some hole-in-the-wall that only the locals (and, well, Anthony Bourdain) know about is hip.

Forget about tromping through museums or snapping photos or buying souvenirs for the people back home (sorry, Mom!). Living like a local is all about doing what the locals would do on a daily basis (that is, if the locals didn’t have to go to work everyday).

Not to brag or anything, but I’ve been doing the whole “live like a local” thing long before it became popular.

In fact, I’ve been doing it for years.

I’ve perfected the art of avoiding museums in favor of an afternoon at the movies.

I’ve clomped around countless cities in impractical platform sandals (rather than a nice touristy pair of sensible sneakers).

I can easily pass up a day of sightseeing for a day on my couch (or on a local friend’s couch… or really any couch for that matter).

I’ll eat anything sold on the street especially if it happens to be deep-fried and served up on a stick.

While other travelers make up bucket lists of places they want to visit and things they’d like to do, I’d much rather just hang out and order a bucket of sangria (or beer or caipirinhas… or whatever the locals are drinking — as long as it wasn’t made in someone’s basement with the help of a pig’s bladder and last year’s leftover yams).

It’s not that I think the “living like a local” way of traveling is any better than traveling around like a tourist.

It’s just my way.

Traveling is like fashion, you have to find the style that fits you and makes you feel comfortable. It took me almost thirty years to admit that I look horrible in shorts and should never wear them. It took me almost as long to admit that guidebooks give me anxiety attacks and group tours bring back bad flashbacks of high school field trips when I was the only person on the bus not making out with someone. I would like to be the girl who looks cute in shortie-shorts and can entertain the idea of going on a Contiki tour without dry heaving… but that’s just not my way.

So far, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of “living like a local” while on this trip (inasmuch as one can live like a local when one doesn’t look like a local or speak like a local… or, umm, own a decent pair of pants like the locals). Admittedly, living like a local is pretty easy to do when you’re out in the middle of the Thai jungle or on a Malaysian rice farm. These places aren’t exactly rife with American fast food chains and mega-malls and history museums.

I’ve learned over the past week, that it’s easy to get sucked in by the siren call of Starbucks, sightseeing and souvenir shops (not to mention, pants with excessive zippers), when you’re in a city that actually has all of those things on offer.

After quitting my boat-building gig and landing in Kuala Lumpur last weekend, I’ve had to resist many a tourist trap temptation (as well as a few double tall lattes… okay, so I’ve done a better job of turning down the tours than I have the lattes!).

So how does a girl-on-the-go stick to her live-like-a-local travel plan when confronted with lure of must-see sights and group tours? Just follow these tips…

Use Your Imagination

Let’s imagine you are in your hometown (If you are actually in your hometown at this moment then you can save your imagination for more fun things… like imagining you’re on a date with George Clooney… or imagining that you just won a million dollars and you’re going to give half of it to me because, really, a million dollars is way too much money for any one person to have and I could certainly use a little cash right now).

Let’s imagine it’s Saturday and you don’t have to work and your family has mysteriously disappeared for the day and you can do any little thing your heart desires. (Again, if all of these things happen to be true for you right now, keep on focusing on that half a million dollars you’re going to give me… and then, maybe, go out and buy a lottery ticket, okay?).

So, what would you do?

Would you run around your hometown visiting every museum and historic landmark you could find?

Would you consult a guidebook to find out where you should eat and what you should eat once you get there and how much it will cost after you eat it?

Would you hop in a bus full of twenty other people in bad pants and hike up a mountain?

Or would you stay in your pajamas all day, eating ice cream directly from the carton while watching the entire DVD set of Mad Men Season 3; only breaking to go to the grocery store to stock up on more ice cream (which you do while still in your pajamas… because that’s how all the locals do their grocery shopping… or at least that’s how they do it in my hometown!)?

Most likely, you would choose the latter option.

After all, you live here.

Museums and guidebooks and bad pants are things that tourists do. You are most definitely not a tourist; you are a proud pajama-pants wearing native! You have all the time in the world to see the Jello Gallery (should your hometown be LeRoy, New York) or the Barbed Wire Museum (should your hometown be McLean, Texas). But you don’t have all the time in the world to hang out in your pajamas and eat ice cream and swoon over Jon Hamm because at some point you’re going to have to put on real pants (you know, the ones without a drawstring) to go to work. (If you chose any option that did not include pajama pants and cartons of ice cream, than clearly “living like a local” is just not your travel style. That’s okay. As mentioned before, we all have our own style, and, obviously, your travel style is a bit more go-getter than mine. I bet you also look cute in shorts… well, good for you!)

If you, too, want to “live like a local” while traveling, it’s important to imagine you are a local. A local never thinks about all the things she should do or should see or should eat while in her own hometown when given a little free time; instead, a local thinks of the things she wants to do or wants to see or wants to eat.

When I arrived in Kuala Lumpur last weekend, I could have easily filled the short time I had there visiting museums to learn about any number of fascinating topics like Malaysian history, Islamic art and the wonders of petroleum (as revealed by a “singing dinosaur” at the Petrosains Discovery Centre).

But, frankly, after three months of learning about rice plants and basic boat construction, I was tired of learning. I wanted nothing more than to sit in my hotel room all weekend wearing my pajamas and watching cable TV.

So, that’s what I did.

Every time I felt guilty, thinking,“Hey, maybe, I should change out of my pajamas and actually go somewhere”, I reminded myself that I didn’t have to. After all, I told myself, “I live here” (or at least I was imagining I did… along with imagining that Jon Hamm and I have a meaningful relationship… and imagining that you might give me a half a million dollars).

Do Your Own Thing

After leaving Kuala Lumpur, I boarded a bus to the Cameron Highlands, a popular tourist destination in the Malaysian mountains north of Kuala Lumpur, known for its cool temperatures, lush tea plantations and numerous hiking trails.

Upon checking in to my guesthouse, a staff member gestured towards a large notice board in the guest house’s restaurant that contained glossy brochures advertising the various group tours you could sign up for. The tours had exciting names like “Morning Madness” and “Rafflesia Flower Jungle Trekking Adventure.” One tour, the “Agro Tour,” had an itinerary that included strawberry picking, a stop at one of the tea plantations and something called “Lettuce Delight” (I’m serious). With names like these (and the promise of learning what the heck “Lettuce Delight” might be), it was hard to resist the temptation to sign up immediately for as many tours as my schedule and quickly dwindling savings could handle.

But, instead, I decided to do my own thing. The next day I set off on a hike by myself. After all, locals don’t rely on fancy schmancy tour guides to direct them where to go and minivans to whip them around from place to place; instead, they use their wits and their knowledge of the land… and maybe their own vehicle should they have one.

Seeing as I have neither the knowledge nor the vehicle (and arguably few of the wits), I had to rely on a map that one of the staff members at the guesthouse gave me. The map described the hiking trail that I chose to do as a “pleasant downhill walk” with “lovely views” of the tea plantation.

The first half hour of the walk proved quite pleasant (and paved). But I soon found myself scrambling up and down muddy inclines and crawling over fallen trees and wondering if the map-maker and I didn’t have completely different definitions of the word “pleasant.”

And then the Incident of the Pants occurred.

As I was scooting myself down one particularly muddy slope, the back pocket of my pants caught on a root. Before I could stop myself (or stop time or gravity or whatever I needed to stop), the entire backside of my pants ripped wide open.

With my entire back-end now hanging out of my trousers, I was happy I hadn’t signed up for that group tour after all. It’s moments like these that are best kept private (until, of course, you blather about them on your blog).

Besides, I already feel kind of awkward on group tours being, often, the only single person on the tour. I’m sure I’d feel only more awkward if I was the only person on the tour with her butt hanging out of her pants.

Using the little wits I had about me, I wrapped my rain coat around my waist and carried on with the hike. About half an hour later, the trail ended on a paved road leading up to a tea plantation. As I was tromping up the hill, I passed by a motley group of toothless gentlemen who leered at me as I passed by them. Even though my jacket was securely covering the gaping wide hole in my slacks, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe this wasn’t the best idea after all.

If I’d joined a group tour I wouldn’t be walking up a mountain by myself with a bunch of grungy men staring after me. Maybe, in addition to always having umbrellas and bottles of water on hand, group tour leaders also bring along a couple spare pairs of pants for any of the guests who might need them (or maybe the tour leaders know how to fashion new pants out of lettuce leaves and this is what is meant by “Lettuce Delight”!).

I finally arrived at the tea plantation were I was greeted by packs of tour groups and minivans. As the other tourists daintily sipped tea in the cafe, I woofed down two scones and contemplated ordering a third. Heck, unlike everyone else who’d taken a minivan up the mountain, I had just hiked for three hours to get there.

And, besides, I no longer had to worry about fitting into my pants!

Talk to the Locals

What better way to learn the ways of the locals than to talk to them?

You don’t want to become one of those tourists that just hangs out with other tourists, do you?!

You don’t want to be one of those people that spends all your time comparing travel stories and insect bites and tattoos over beers, do you?!

You don’t want to hang out all night laughing and chatting and hearing about how awesome you are from your new travel buddies, do you?!

Okay, maybe you do… just a little.

But let’s just say all the other guests at your guesthouse are French or German or some other fancy European nationality that can pull off smoking (without seeming a bit concerned about lung cancer) and wearing scarves (in the middle of 80 degree heat).

Let’s say all the other guests at your guesthouse are traveling with their significant others or their friends and don’t seem all that interested in making new friends… or speaking English… especially with the sorry, single American girl who is wearing mud-caked pants that appear to be duct-taped together.

Let’s just say that’s the case (not that I’m saying that was the case… but, again, use your imagination here).

Should this turn out to be the case, it’s possible that the only people who will talk to you are the locals. Over the past week, the only conversations I have had are with local people. There was the guesthouse gardener who gave me the map and offered to let me touch a dead snake that he was carrying around with him.

I also met another guesthouse worker who quizzed me about American universities as he was intent to study abroad.

When I arrived in Penang yesterday, I got chatted up by the taxi driver who assured me that I didn’t need to use a seatbelt (I did anyway) and offered to sell me Malaysian chocolates from the trunk of his taxi (I declined).

Then as I was wandering the streets after dinner last night, I met a man who drove his motorbike up on the sidewalk in front of me, shook my hand and informed me I could call him “Happy Ken.”

I’m grateful for these conversations with the local people, even if I’m not sure why these people are picking me out of the crowd to talk to (and practically running me over with their motorbike in the process).

Maybe these local people talk to me because they recognize me as another kindred spirit — another “local,” if you will… even if I don’t look or speak like a local.

Or maybe they just want to find out why my pants are duct taped together.


I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On October 25, 2011 at 11:09 am Alex said:

    That’s hilarious! Thanks for making my day a little bit brighter!

  2. On June 18, 2013 at 4:42 am Iskandar said:

    You’re lucky you’re not with the other tourists during your wardrobe break down incident.

    But you are second times lucky to get back alive. Because the Cameron Highland jungle has had a few incidents where tourist got lost.

    The most famous being Jim Thompson, the man who help revive Thailand silk industry.

    No one knew what happens to him. But the orang asli, or the aborigines near the area said their settlements were attacked by huge black apes when Thompson went missing.

  3. On February 12, 2014 at 10:12 am Megan said:

    Loved this article made me chuckle a whole lot! And it sums up exactly why my travel blog is called “we’re not tourists just curious!” we should live like locals and not tourists 🙂
    Megan recently posted..Joy in the Journey

    • On February 12, 2014 at 6:56 pm Sally said:

      Mind you, I have nothing wrong with traveling like a tourist… I have many friends who go to places and see all the sights and take all the pictures and go to all the touristy places. My problem is that it sounds EXHAUSTING. I’m way too lazy for that!


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