Many long-term travelers like to brag about how they live like a local when they travel. They eschew staying in hotels and tourist areas and prefer to live in neighborhoods full of locals. Our style is very much like that; however, none of us is really living like a local when we travel.
There are some travelers who live on very meager budgets and stay in extremely humble conditions sometimes located in rural villages.
They still aren’t living like a local.
I don’t bring this up as a dig on anyone’s travel style. We all have different styles, and that’s fine. But I feel that when I remember the nuances of how I live, it helps me to see things from a completely different perspective.
No matter how humble the conditions are, I have a few things on my side that a local may not.
- If I don’t like an area, I can just up and leave. Too many bugs invading my bed, and I’m out of there. Propensity to flood? I’ll avoid it during the rainy season. Most locals don’t truly have that mobility. Regardless of income, most locals can’t just up and move. Some governments require a letter before a citizen can relocate. The expense may be too great. What do they do about all their family who may be living with them or nearby? Not once in my adult life have I ever been bound by these restrictions.
- Unless I’m somewhere like Europe, the US, or Australia, my purposely meager income is still far beyond most of the people around me. I may be living in a 1-bedroom apartment that regularly has small crabs walking through my living room (hello Utila!), but I’m not forced to live there by my circumstances. I don’t have to pay for my child to go to school. I’m not supporting other family members.
- I have more chances to increase my income if I choose. The Vietnamese hotel owner who is working sometimes 20 hours a day can’t easily do that. I keep my work hours to a minimum on purpose. If I want to earn more money, there are jobs or financial opportunities I can pick up.
- As a US citizen, I hold a passport that is powerful for travel. Most countries will gladly let me cross their border without asking me for a fee or giving me a second glance. My friend who is a Vietnam native couldn’t visit France. He had to apply for a visa, be interviewed, and submit all kinds of documentation to help allay fears he would simply stay put once there, in spite of the fact he was traveling with his partner and daughter who are both Australian. His visit was denied. For me to visit France, I just arrive, hand over my lovely dark blue passport, and walk through the door. Voila!
- I can theoretically say whatever I want about my government, but France just recently decriminalized insulting their president. In Thailand, if you disrespect the king you can and will be jailed. Bloggers in Vietnam and China are often arrested and heavily penalized, sometimes along with their families, for speaking out. I don’t live in fear of speaking out. Obviously, as a tourist I keep my mouth shut about the local government. I’m a guest in their country, and I’m not going to be rude to my host. But if I did speak out, most likely the worst that would happen is we would get escorted to an airplane.
- I’m generally not held to the same standards as a local. When I commit a social faux pas in Morocco by eating with the wrong hand, it’s no big deal. I’m a tourist. A local has to be much more concerned with the societal requirements of their culture. If I accidentally offend someone, I’ll be leaving soon. A local may never live it down.
- Because I’m not a citizen or resident, I can breeze through local life emotionally and mentally relatively unencumbered. I don’t have to be concerned about the latest crackdown, the latest tax, a new regulation, the local police constantly scamming me (although in some places that IS a problem for tourists). My life is much more carefree than most people’s. Granted that’s by choice, but not everyone in the world has the opportunity to make the same choice.
One downside is I will also most likely pay more than a local for many things. Unless I shop in a store with price tags on everything, I’m often going to be overcharged for items simply because I am perceived to have more money. No, it isn’t right, and sometimes it’s extremely irritating, but it happens, and it’s just the nature of things.
Although, I have also been in many places where I wasn’t overcharged.
Remembering just how deep my privilege runs helps me to be more patient with some idiosyncrasies when traveling. It also helps me see a local’s life through a different lens. I like to live more like a local than a tourist when we go to places, but I also don’t kid myself about just how different my life reality really is. And I’m thankful for it.
What helps keep you “humble”?