Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Mark Manson, a traveler and blogger I met earlier this year in Medellin. Mark has been to almost 50 countries. He is currently running a contest on his website where he will pay for a reader’s trip to anywhere in the world. You can learn more here.
There are two ways to travel: to get away from your life or to change your life. Although there’s not necessarily anything wrong with the former, I’m interested in the latter and I hope you are too.
If you read a lot about travel, you’re no doubt familiar with the terms such as “authentic local experience” or “getting off the beaten path.” They’re ubiquitous, but unfortunately usually just marketing.
Authentic travel experiences are like the stock market: if you’re reading about it from someone else, then you’re too late.
The deserted beach in Brazil, the untouched cave in the hills of Turkey, the private roof parties in Copenhagen – these experiences can’t be found in a guidebook or on a website, because if they were, then they would cease to be authentic experiences.
The so-called authentic travel experience is not read about or followed, but rather created. It’s something you must invent yourself.
1. Ditch the guidebook
Not that guidebooks are useless or that they don’t show you cool things to do, but they can only go so far. As long as you’re following the path of a guidebook or website, you’re still on the beaten path.
So get your tourist fix, do the pub crawl or bar-hopping thing for a night or two, and then prep yourself for something new and different.
Also, once you’ve tossed the guidebook, pick up a phrasebook instead. Knowing a few basic phrases, questions or even sentences in the local language is going to get you a LOT further than the guidebook, as we’ll see.
2. Start talking to locals
Talk to locals and talk to them everywhere. Talk to the waitress, the bus driver, the guy selling candy on the street corner. Avoid the brochures in your hostel and go straight to the girl working at the front desk instead.
Become annoying with your questions, personal questions. Ask them: What do they do for fun? Where do they go? What’s something cool to do that they’ve never seen a foreigner do before? What are their friends doing that weekend?
Yes, it’s a bit pushy and presumptuous, and sure, you will get some blank stares occasionally. But you will be surprised the opportunities this simple habit will open up to you.
3. Just say “Yes” (within reason)
Unless someone is really giving you the creeps, when in doubt, just go with “yes.”
Forget about you 8 AM city tour the next day. Who cares if you aren’t sure how to call a taxi back home yet. The more you talk to people, the more you’re going to find unique opportunities in front of you.
4. Get introduced and stay in touch
Once you’ve managed to attach yourself to some local activity, no matter how drab or boring, make a point to introduce yourself to their friends and family. Also, keep in touch.
When I’m abroad, I always spend the extra money to buy a cheap throwaway phone. Facebook always works as well.
To employ this strategy of travel, you have to be willing to step outside of your little bubble, and you definitely cannot be shy.
If you do feel shy or nervous approaching random strangers in another country, start simple by asking for directions and then start asking them further questions. You’ll be amazed by how friendly and approachable most people in the world are.
Just a few examples of the type of shenanigans this has gotten me into:
After befriending the front desk girl at my hostel in Colombia, she and a couple of her friends were taking a road trip to a small town in the mountains to visit her family. She invited me along.
Once there, I met her friends and family and found myself drinking a locally brewed liquor in a high school gymnasium with her father, while her friends made futile and hilarious attempts to show me how to salsa dance.
There was a beauty pageant and I was introduced to the girl who won. I then embarrassed myself trying to dance with a Colombian beauty queen. Not many people can say that.
I had no idea where I was or what I was doing or what the event was (much less the music), but it was one of the highlights of my entire time in the country.
In Brazil, at a Couchsurfing meeting, I managed to talk my way into becoming a Brazilian guy’s roommate for the next month (forgoing my other so-called “plans” in the country).
I started playing football (soccer) with him and his friends, where one day I met a beautiful Brazilian girl. She offered to take me to a secluded beach a few hours outside of town that she knew of. Nope, that wasn’t in the guidebook.
In Cambodia, I talked to some locals who ran the internet café across the street from my hostel. They invited me out to play snooker (a mutation of billiards, I came to find out) with them. We drank $1 beers all night.
I was tired from touring Angkor Wat all day, but they told me about a local orphanage that some westerners were teaching and working at. The next day they took me down there.
Despite having never seen an orphan in my life, much less a Cambodian one; and despite originally having no interest in Siem Reap beyond visiting the temples, I spent much of the next two days playing with the little rugrats and helping them with basic English words. It was more enjoyable than the temples.
I often describe travel as a “contact sport.” It’s best experienced when you’re bumping into others. It’s not always pleasant. And at times it can be painful. But it’s the most gratifying and fulfilling.
Because I’ve come to find that the greatest memories and moments occur when you’re out of your comfort zone, when you’re out exploring beyond your borders, personal and otherwise.