The Spanish siesta is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest inventions of human civilization and justifiably famous around the world. What most people don’t know is that it’s usually followed by a small, delightful meal known as merienda, usually a coffee and pastry, often eaten in the company of family and friends in a congenial outdoor café. One of my earliest memories of Spain is sitting in a plaza one late afternoon, watching people talking and laughing and sipping their coffee at small wooden tables. Dogs lolled in the shade. Kids ran in laughing circles around the fountain. Everyone seemed to know each other. It felt warm and intensely tribal, and their very closeness underscored the fact that I was an outsider.
Spending time in a foreign country can feel like being trapped behind a glass wall. We watch people going about their lives, even interact with them, but all the while we may feel that we're separated from them by an invisible and impenetrable barrier.
Modern travelers are going to extremes in an effort to avoid that feeling of standing on the sidelines. We want to connect with locals in ways that provide deeper, richer, more social media-worthy adventures abroad. Google “authentic travel experiences” and you’ll find 831 million articles such as the Huffington Post’s How to Live Like a Local in Spain (siestas were featured; merienda wasn’t) and Forbes’ How Authentic Is Your Vacation? We read about people paying top dollar to spend an hour alone in the Sistine Chapel, go hang gliding in Nepal, have dinner cooked by Roman nuns… Today, anything (that you can afford) goes.
A generation ago, Billy Crystal’s run with the bulls in Pamplona seemed like the height of extreme tourism.
When this year’s encierro (as it’s known locally) takes place as part of Pamplona’s San Fermin festival, held from July 6 to 14, more than half of the 20,000+ participants will be foreigners. Going by last year's figures, this will include about 4800 Americans, 2200 folks from Australia or New Zealand, 800 Britons, and a mere 739 from Pamplona itself. The event Hemingway immortalized as quintessentially Spanish has evolved into a theme park action sport catering to foreign tourists. Like renting the Sistine Chapel for a private viewing, there’s nothing wrong with doing it, but if you’re looking for an authentic connection with locals and their culture, this isn’t the best place to find it.
So how do we connect with foreigners on their home turf? I believe the key is to be open to serendipity, a state writer E.B. White calls “willing to be lucky.” Travel is full of chance encounters — at the very least with hotel staff, bartenders, guides, drivers, shopkeepers, and fellow diners in the plaza. Make the most of these opportunities.
Of course, you can’t strike up conversations with strangers in a language you don’t speak. But when you can communicate, you'll often find locals are more than willing to reach out to you. I was recently on a bus between Gatwick and Heathrow airports, and as I sat down behind the young driver, I asked some random question like, “So have you been driving this route long?” He spent the next hour sharing about his life, his upcoming fatherhood, and his dreams; it was a fascinating and endearing glimpse into his world.
Next time I feel like an outsider, I’m going to remember that bus driver. He taught me that I don’t have to figure out how to break through the glass wall. Because the truth is, the glass wall doesn’t actually exist; it is entirely a product of my own mind. Our feelings of separateness are, as the Buddhists have been saying for centuries, simply illusion.
People are people the world over. Some are delightful, some are jerks, some just want to sell you a cheap bracelet and get on with their day – much like the people in your hometown. Afternoon snacks may vary, but whether they’re nibbling yak cheese, baklava, or fluffy Spanish pastries, the locals know that food tastes better in the company friends. And if you are willing to be lucky, you may find yourself invited to join that congenial circle.
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“Do you have any idea how hard it is to buy a guidebook for Albania?” I asked a friend recently. “I could almost hear the Amazon computers thinking, ‘Seriously? Why would you want to go there?’” A response I’d been getting a lot lately from various humans of my acquaintance.
“Albania I can understand,” said my friend. “It’s the guidebook part I’m having trouble with. You still buy actual guidebooks? Why not just download the Kindle version?” My friend, who is somewhere in her seventies, is a big advocate of new technology.
“I tried doing that on our trip to Portugal.” I shuddered. “Never again.”
I’d downloaded a popular Portugal guide, which had apparently simply been scanned from the print edition without any real attempt to adapt it for e-readers. Navigation was exceedingly awkward, and the photos and maps were inscrutable. Worse, the text was constantly interrupted by random factoids. I can only assume that in the original book this information was neatly corralled into shaded boxes discretely positioned off to one side. Now, it sprang into the middle of the text demanding attention, like a drunk gatecrashing a party, and I had to spend all sorts of time picking my way past it to get back to the topic at hand.
That’s when I started thinking about some of the old, low-tech travel tips that are still the best option.
1. Read guidebooks in advance of the trip. My Albania guide just arrived, and I’ve been flipping backwards and forwards through it, enjoying the photos, maps, and various tidbits of information that happen to catch my eye. An actual book lets you wander about poking into odd corners in a way that the Internet, with its direct links, simply can’t. I learned, for instance, that Albania’s driving fatalities are among the highest in Europe, and congratulated myself that I’d journey to Tirana, the capital, in the safety of a railway car. But later I read, “There are no trains to or from Tirana. The station has been demolished and the railway lines have been asphalted over to build yet another new highway.” Say it ain’t so! “Until recently,” commented another section, “Albanian roads were so bad that it was difficult to drive fast enough to kill anyone. Now, though…” Obviously the transportation piece of this journey is going to require considerably more thought, and possibly body armor. My point is guidebooks let you browse leisurely for info while planning (and re-planning) your visit. They’re far too bulky to carry on the road; you’re better off Googling destination specifics as needed. But for scoping out places in advance, books still have lots to offer.
2. Get a map of the region. Yes, I mean one of those folding paper maps like the ones you took on family road trips when you were a kid. Online maps are great for getting from Point A to Point B, but for an overview of how countries, mountains, roads, ferries, and trains meet up, you want a regional map. Go online to check for recent changes; my brand new rail map of Europe still shows a train line running right into downtown Tirana.
3. Don’t rely on a translator app for real-time conversation. It’s awkward to pull out an iPhone, open the app, type in a phrase, and ask cab drivers or waiters to read the tiny screen or listen while you butcher the pronunciation. And there is no way they’re going to take time to tap in a reply, let alone one that is spelled correctly enough for the app to translate it properly. You’re better off using a mixture of English, hand gestures, and a few key phrases written down in advance.
4. Carry a small notebook in your pocket. I know how old-fashioned this sounds, but writing is still the best way to ask unpronounceable questions in a language you don’t know. Jot down the name of your hotel, the bus you’re seeking, and local dishes you want to try. It works like a charm.
New travel technology can make your journey easier, safer, and more fun in countless ways, and I know people who claim they can’t wait until an iPhone can be permanently imbedded in their body. I’m a bit more selective. I love my e-toys as much as anyone, but it's comforting to know that you can still rely on time-honored, low-cost, low-tech solutions to get you where you want to go.
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I knew something was wrong when our cab driver, a twitchy guy with glassy eyes, popped the clutch, stalled out, then tore off into traffic as if we were being pursued by the undead. Careening along Madrid’s freeways, he kept squirming, fidgeting, mumbling, and spitting out the window. When he wasn’t doing that... “Yikes!” whispered Rich. “He’s sucking his thumb!”
We rapidly reviewed our options: (A) leap out of a vehicle going 80 kilometers an hour on a crowded freeway, (B) confront a dangerous lunatic behind the wheel of a speeding car, or (C) act casual and pray. With some reluctance, we chose (C), which turned out to be the right call.
“And that,” said Rich, when we’d grabbed our bags, flung the driver a twenty, and gained the safety of the sidewalk, “is why the taxi industry is in so much trouble. If this was Uber, I could have used the app on my phone to file a complaint two minutes into the ride. But with taxis ...” I could easily imagine the reaction of a Madrid cab company if we reported a driver for uncouth behavior: No crash? No injuries? And your point is...?
Built-in feedback is just one reason for the roaring success of what’s called the sharing economy, collaborative consumption, or peer-to-peer (P2P) commerce. In exchanges organized via websites and apps, people rent out something they don’t need all the time, such as a bike, apartment, or someplace your dog can bed down for the night while you’re out of town. Feedback protocols vary, but generally customers post ratings on the host’s platform, affecting the popularity of the individual provider; users are rated, too, and those who complain frequently and frivolously find fewer providers willing to serve them.
The system isn’t perfect (what is?), but it builds a sense of community and inspires a level of trust that’s significantly higher than you might feel for something as anonymous as, say, Madrid’s taxi service. Of course, bad experiences can happen anywhere, to anyone. Women, who make up about half of all participants in this new marketplace, will want to pay particularly close attention to the security issues and commonsense precautions addressed in articles such as “Is the Sharing Economy Safe for Women?”
P2P commerce isn’t new; we’ve shopped on Craigslist and Ebay for years. But recent technological, social, and economic changes now make sharing infinitely more feasible, launching a $15 billion industry that’s expected to grow to $335 billion by 2025. Travelers are riding the crest of the wave, purchasing an unprecedented range of services that are cheaper, easier to access, and lots more fun.
TRANSPORTATION by private car (solo or shared) can be arranged with just a few taps on your smart phone, thanks to Uber, Lyft, BlaBlaCar, and others.
LODGING in private homes (shared or all to yourself) was pioneered by Airbnb, which is now a giant global network. HomeAway, VRBO, CouchSurfing, and others offer countless alternatives.
DINING with locals in their homes adds a rich culinary and cultural flavor few restaurants can match. Hosts and menus are profiled on such sites as EatWith, VizEat, Feastly, Cookening and Eatwithalocal.
COMPANIONSHIP — and no, I don’t mean that — can be arranged through such sites as as TripTogether, Wandermates, and the rather alarmingly named Thelma and Louise; I can only assume they don’t actually require you drive off a cliff at the end of every road trip.
Feeling overwhelmed before you even start? TravelPeer offers guidance and updates in their e-newsletter. ShareTraveler.com has complied a list of 350+ options, leaving out the giants and including such specialized sites as language-practice meet-ups, volunteer work in exchange for lodging, and gay-friendly private rentals. As a savvy traveler, you’ll want to check the fine print (watch for hidden service charges and cleaning fees) and read reviews very carefully.
When I get those follow-up emails asking me to rate my experience, most get four or five stars (with one notable exception.) I love the quirky, colorful places I find on P2P sites, but I still use conventional hotels and restaurants when they’re more convenient. I even take taxis when I’m in Madrid — but I look the driver over very, very carefully. If he’s sucking his thumb, I’m out of there.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I don't accept sponsorships of any kind. The companies included in this post are here because I thought you might find them interesting. I haven't tried every one of these options, and I welcome input and feedback. What's your experience with the sharing economy?
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Not everyone likes being invisible, but I often find it refreshing — and convenient, especially when I’m on the road. As “a woman of a certain age” — too old to require construction workers to launch into catcalls, too young to inspire Boy Scouts to assist me across the street — I can choose to slip quietly through the world without a fuss, observing rather than being observed. “I am never happier,” notes British journalist and author Storm Jameson, “than when I am alone in a foreign city; it is as if I had become invisible.”
Becoming invisible isn’t terribly difficult, as the authors of this famous attention test discovered.
Under ordinary circumstances, I find (spoiler alert!) dressing up in a gorilla costume doesn’t actually help you go unnoticed, but my point is that in a busy atmosphere, it’s not that difficult to fly under the radar. Surrounded by people clamoring for attention, often simply avoiding extremes of behavior and dress is enough to let us fade comfortably into the background.
“We live in a time and culture that value display and are largely indifferent to the virtues of passing unnoticed,” writes author Akiko Busch. “If we don’t get the interest, attention and recognition we think we deserve — whether we are men who have retired, women of a certain age (over 50, like me) or millennials who obsess over their brand visibility — we tend to file grievances. . . Which makes me wonder if it is time for all of us to reconsider the beauty, elegance and imagination that can come with being unseen.”
One of the small, peculiar pleasures of my Seville life is walking past the nearby high school when the kids are outside on break. They gather in small groups on the sidewalk, chatting and flirting and flexing their muscles the way kids do. To them I am completely invisible; I can walk through cluster after cluster of kids without anyone glancing at me or seeming to know I exist. And yet, as if alerted by radar, they part before me like the Red Sea, rippling apart to open a path and flowing back together when I’ve passed. One day I stepped forward just as a kid making a point flung out a hand, and he smacked me in the chest. He leapt a foot in the air, turned white then red, and regarded me with open-mouthed shock, as if I had just materialized out of thin air wearing a gorilla suit.
Breaking the illusion of invisibility can be startling, as actress Mindy Kaling discovers in this popular Superbowl ad.
Travel is one of the best opportunities to practice being invisible. You’re in a strange place where no one knows you, so you’re unlikely to be dragged back into the limelight by running into someone you knew in high school or met at a conference last summer. If you’re lucky enough not to speak the language, nobody is going to attempt to engage with you for very long. And that leaves you free to watch the world unfold before your eyes, visible in all its splendors, rich in nuances that for once you have the time to appreciate.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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