There are quite a few travel writing/blogging ‘givens’ that do the rounds every so often; old favourites that are rolled out and which, on the face of it, seem to be sound advice if you’re a discerning traveller who wants to experience an authentic taste of the country you’re visiting.
I don’t always subscribe to them. Some feel like tired clichés and rehashed mantras handed down from a world weary travel guru whose views are as faded as their once khaki jeans.
When you’ve stayed in another country for any length of time, you tend to view destinations in a more in-depth way. As well as noticing those delicious little differences, you also take note of how people actually live – who eats where, who visits what etc. This can reveal a bigger picture about visiting a location; a picture that doesn’t always fit the model often painted in travel circles.
Eating Where the Locals Eat
Of course anyone who wants a local flavour of the place they’re visiting should experience eating where the locals eat. But finding good, local food isn’t always quite as simple as following the local hordes. Often advice about seeking out those dim and dingy back street restaurants or ‘hole in the wall’ joints isn’t about finding the best local food. It’s about finding decent local food that is also cheap. It’s advice aimed at a certain segment of the travelling market.
The problem is the term ‘locals’ is far too much of a generalisation. Does the university lecturer eat in the same restaurant as the factory worker? Divisions in class and occupation affect restaurant choices. When I see someone advising ‘eat where the locals eat’ I immediately think ‘which locals are those then?’
Using the term ‘locals’ to lump everyone together can be to take a limited, one-dimensional view of a location.
As for avoiding eating where tourists or non-locals eat, I had an enlightening conversation with a walking guide recently. When I asked him about the best restaurants in his location he named a couple of places where locally born chefs had tried to modernise traditional dishes. He said the food was excellent but a lot of locals didn’t go as they wanted the same basic fare they always ate. It was visitors and the ex-pat population who patronised the place… until the ‘locals’ with the most adventurous palates caught on.
If you really want the best local food, don’t ask a taxi driver or follow the masses to the cheapest joint in town, ask a chef where they go to eat.
On and Off the Beaten Track
We use the strap-line Hiking and Dining On & Off the Beaten Track to get across the message that there are no boundaries as far as we are concerned. Sticking to an ‘only going off the beaten track’ philosophy can be misguided. For a start what does ‘off the beaten track’ really mean? One person’s off the beaten track is another person’s well trodden one, just as one person’s exotic is another’s everyday world. It’s all a matter of perspective.
On the beaten track is usually applied to popular holiday destinations that everyone knows everything about… except, most of the time they don’t.
I haven’t been to a popular ‘on the beaten track’ destination yet that hasn’t thrown up surprises and ‘off the beaten track’ situations within a short drive or walk.
I live on Tenerife, a place that is so ‘on the beaten track’ that it isn’t taken seriously by some discerning travellers. And yet I go to fiestas where there are 30,000 Canarios but only a handful of non-locals. Even in popular tourist resorts I can walk a couple of streets off the main tourist drag to find vibrant bars and wonderful restaurants where the likes of Ferran Adría have eaten but most visitors haven’t.
Living on an ‘on the beaten track’ island has taught me that, in many ways, the terms are a smokescreen and overplaying the ‘off the beaten track’ card can mean that a person doesn’t truly understand the joys of travelling at all, they’re simply chasing exclusivity.
Visiting Popular Tourist Attractions
Would I go to Paris and not have a look at the Eiffel Tower; visit Giza and avoid the pyramids; hit the streets of New York and shield my eyes from the Empire State Building or arrive in Agra and not worship the sight of the Taj Mahal?
Of course I wouldn’t. How dumb would that be? There’s a reason places like these are popular tourist attractions. They are a part of history; inspirational and magical. Some people complain they have to mix with a lot of… shock… horror… tourists to see them up close. So what? I’m a tourist, you’re a tourist, the folks from the town down the road from Agra are tourists.
From an early age iconic buildings and monuments like the ones mentioned had my eyes looking dreamily into the distance whilst my mind pictured one of those Indiana Jones type segues where an old twin propeller plane dots its way across the map to exotic locations.
I want to see the wonders of the World with my own eyes.
Ultimately what I’m really saying is, be wary when you read rules regarding what is the ‘right’ way to travel and experience new destinations. There’s no formula – and that’s partly the point of getting the best from travelling. We should do what feels ‘right’ to us. Call me Mister Untrendy of the travel blogging/writing world but I will continue to eat where other tourists eat, travel to on the beaten track destinations and visit the most popular of tourist attractions. What’s more, I’ll have a ball doing so and continue to pick up some unique travel experiences in the process.