How do we celebrate weddings? In New York, we typically celebrate with white gowns, lavish venues and 250 of our closest friends. In the Amazon, they celebrate with vibrant dresses, handcrafted ponchos, and stern reminders of marital duties. Two vastly different traditions united by one same core human value.
If there’s one major unifying quality of travel, it’s this unique ability to bridge gaps and show the similarities between humans on opposite sides of the world. People all across the globe — in Beijing, Moscow, St. Louis, Accra, São Paulo — have substantive differences in the way they live their lives but share a warm and familiar humanity that formed these lifestyles. Travel is about bridging those gaps — seeing how others live, and more importantly, seeing how those lifestyles mirror the values that we have, regardless of where we’re from.
Never has this been more apparent to me than when I went to South & Central America. America’s much older next-door neighbor, Latin America is an obvious choice to visit because of its proximity and deep cultural history — a history best told by the people themselves. I think it’s quite easy to shy away from talking to locals on trips. The lifestyles and language barriers can make them seem intimidating and distant. But in my experience, talking to locals, particularly in South & Central America, has been invaluable in relating to their stories on a very human level.
Why Talk to Locals?
We live in a really interesting time — a time when not only is travel more accessible and affordable than ever, but all the information we need about it can be conveniently found online. The internet is literally an evolving encyclopedia, so what’s the point of talking to people about their lives when we can learn about them from the comfort of our couches?
The truth is, it’s really easy to stay in our comfort zones when it comes to the anxieties of socializing, especially when it comes to socializing with people we don’t know and with whom we don’t share a language. But there’s a tremendous danger in learning about other cultures without hearing about it from the people themselves. When you learn about people online, you examine them in an almost textbook way. This is what happened. This is when it happened. This is how it affected people. There’s a cold robotic quality to it that leaves out the human voice and makes it seem like it’s happening to people we can’t relate to in any way, shape or form.
When the Spanish invaded South America in the 15th century, they killed off indigenous religions and replaced them with Christianity. We know this, and we know it had an immensely profound impact on the cultural landscape of Latin America. But we don’t know the effect of this massacre on the individual families, tribes, and people of Latin America, so it becomes rote and rehearsed — a statistic on a page. However, when you sit down with a descendant of a tribe that got whitewashed, you hear the lore of their family. You hear about their ancestor who was dragged out of town in chains, the broken family he left behind, the deep and raw sorrow of his tribe. It tells a much different story when it’s brought down to this human level — it becomes a story we can relate to. This is the importance of talking to locals.
Latin America’s Human Voices
The time I spent in Latin America was dotted with profound moments like these. I had the pleasure of learning the human history behind big political events I’d learned about in school. Rather than examining how coups, economic change, and natural disasters affected politics, I learned about how they affected individual people on a smaller scale.
I learned about how my Colombian tour guide’s father was kidnapped by FARC (a far-left renegade military group) and held for ransom for 12 years in the jungle. I learned about how his family desperately tuned into the radio every day to try and learn news about him. About how his brother was shot and killed by a drug cartel in Medellin. About how he was injured in a drive-by shooting and narrowly escaped with his life after watching three of his friends die.
I learned about an Ecuadorian man’s mother, who in 2000 lost all of her money when the country switched currencies from the Sucre to the U.S. Dollar. How she walked 6km home from the bank with her entire fortune in her arms, knowing the bills were effectively useless. I learned about how she worried about raising her family in her own country that overnight decided to use another country’s money.
And then I also learned about lighter stories, like when a group of Bolivian men ordered way too many Italian bowler caps after seeing them in a European paper, only to pawn them off on their wives when none of them fit, saying that small hats were all the rage in Europe.
Lastly, when I was tired of talking in my broken Spanish, I learned by watching. I watched in Peru as street vendors carried their young children on their backs, doing their best to juggle parenthood with the necessity of putting food on the table. I watched in Bolivia as a man and his young son sat next to me on a bus on the way to visit his ailing grandmother. I watched in Medellin as a millennial walked to work, dressed in a button-up and a techie backpack, doing the exact same thing that I’d do on a Monday morning.
I remember thinking, how is it that a 9-hour plane ride away from home, in a country with a different language, culture & landscape are people all doing the exact same things we’re doing in New York? And the profound truth of it is so simple: we’re all just people. We have so much more in common than we have different. We’re all doing the same exact song and dance, just with different costumes on.
How to Get Started Talking to Locals
Talking to strangers in a different country can naturally be intimidating, I know this more than anyone…but I urge you to try. If you don’t know how to start, begin with the organic first step: your tour guide. Tour guides can be excellent sources of information surrounding local culture and lifestyle for many reasons. Not only do they speak your language, but they also have a lot of experience distilling information down to something palatable for people who may be unfamiliar with their culture. They know your cultural norms and can maybe fill you in on some of theirs. They know your language and can teach you some of theirs. And most importantly, they’ve lived there themselves and can bring a level of humanity to their city that could otherwise be missing from your experience. When engaged with correctly, tour guides can really be invaluable bridges between your culture and theirs, and they’re often thrilled to make these connections with you. Take advantage of it, and you can learn fascinating and deeply moving stories about people who at the end of the day, are much more like you than you may expect.