“I’m not a resort type of gal. I like real travel.”
A lot of travelers love to talk about this vision of what #authentic travel looks like or what the differenence between a tourist and a traveler is. There’s a big push now to travel more “like a local,” to branch out, get “off the beaten path”, etc.
Weird buzzwords and fantasies of not being labeled a tourist (we’re all tourists) aside, this new trend in travel has potential. In theory, it could promote sustainability by moving tourists away from inundated hotspots like Barcelona and Cancun and out into the surrounding areas, spreading their tourist dollars more equitably and relieving cities from over-crowding and price inflation. In theory, it could lead to an increased interest in things like rural and community tourism, which are generally better for local economies. In theory, it could inspire travel to be thing it’s always touted as, that thing that opens our eyes to other cultures, brings us closer and shows us our shared humanity, teaches us new ways of living.
In practice, though, it often still tends toward travel as neo-colonialism. In practice, people often come back from these #authentic journeys feeling that a month in the mountains of Nepal entitles them to talk and write about Nepalese culture as if they’re an expert. And then they go on to write and talk about that culture in a way that still diminishes it to one-dimensional stereotypes and portrays them as some strange “other” with weird, backwards customs that they don’t understand.
We, as travel writers, can do better.
We can still serve as a conduit through which our readers, perhaps strapped to their 9-5 office desks or saddled with too much debt to venture out, can experience and learn from the places we are able to visit. We can still describe our experiences and tell people the best bus route to take to get from point A to B. But it’s time to hand the mic over to locals when it comes to explaining a culture that isn’t our own. If travelers are truly interested in seeing places “like a local,” then doing so will only improve the quality of your writing and increase your readers’ interest.
Besides, if we’re going to write about a foreign country, I personally think we have an obligation to seek out and include local perspectives in our writing. Publishing a travel article positions you as an authority on a place, and as such, it seems irresponsible to do so without ever speaking to a local.
Here are some things I’ve done to include more local perspectives in my writing. I’d love to hear your ideas as well.
1. Interview locals
This is the most obvious. Sure, it takes some extra time and work, and it’s not always possible, but it’s one of the best ways to incorporate local perspectives. Plus, it really increases the quality of your content and makes it more interesting.
Think critically about who you’re interviewing and try to get a wide range of people. Don’t just interview the owner of the B&B that sponsored your post. Consider how the housekeeper of your B&B and the owner might respond to your questions differently. Consider how an afro-Cuban and a white Cuban might reflect differently on Cuban culture and history. Not doing so is like writing an article about public opinion on Trump in the United States and only interviewing people at a Trump rally. Remember, other cultures are just as complex and multi-faceted as our own.
Always cite your sources, whether an official interview or casual conversation. Write full names of the people you quote or photograph (making sure to ask for their permission to be featured), and include what part of the country they’re from. Ask them how they’d prefer to be credited. Leaving people nameless encourages your readers to see them as one-dimensional, generic representations of an entire culture instead of the complex individuals that they are.
2. Include casual conversations with locals
If you’ve been wanting to write an article about street food in Mexico City, let locals know when you meet them and ask what they think!
Even if you don’t have time to do an official interview, TALK TO LOCALS where you are whenever you can. Ask them questions, be curious, and genuine about listening. Avoid judgement and stereotypes, and don’t offer opinions you aren’t asked for. You want people to open up and give you sincere views, opinions, and reflections that aren’t prodded or influenced by you. I think that Humans of New York does a great job of modeling this.
This shouldn’t be forced or fake, motivated solely by the desire to get more info for a piece you’re writing. If you make an effort to converse with locals while you travel, be it your tour guide, your cab driver, or your bartender, out of a genuine interest in what they have to say, you’ll remember their answers and likely include them in your writing simply because you gained important knowledge. How Not to Travel Like a Basic Bitch does a great job of throwing local opinions into her articles.
3. Quote credible sources
You can also use Google to find writers and journalists from the country you’re writing on. If you’re writing about the history of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and why you see “FSLN” and red and black flags spray painted all over buildings there, you’ve probably read a book or some articles on the topic (I hope). Quote them! Don’t take all the credit for things other people taught you.
Perhaps you’re writing about a cultural event you attended in another country. Find references to that event in literature, poetry, movies, etc, (from that country, not from Eat, Pray, Love) and quote them!
I know we aren’t journalists, and we don’t usually get paid enough to pour hours and hours of work into our articles (although neither do journalists anymore, hence #fakenews). But we should put in a solid effort to source credible, non-biased materials if we’re going to make assertions about a place, and sources that come from the country we’re speaking on are ideal.
4. Feature other bloggers
If you do find a cool blogger who talks about their home country, or a blogger who talks about the home country of their parents/grandparents/etc, feature them alongside your own posts about that country. Maybe you’re writing about Vietnam? See if you can’t find a Vietnamese blogger, or an American-Vietnamese blogger (or British-Vietnamese, French-Vietnamese, whatever!) who talks about their home country in an article. Offer up a link to their blog at the end of your post for people who want to read more aboutt Vietnam from a local perspective.
5. Go online
The internet is full of fabulous online communities and voices from all over the world. Tap into them. If you find that most of the people in your communities are from only a few different countries, branch out. Make an effort to find and pay attention to more diverse communities.
Try asking people online for input on their home countries. Be sure to ask for their permission to be quoted, and if they would like you to include a link to their social media or personal website in return.
I did this for my Day of the Dead post. First, I searched the popular Facebook travel group Girls LOVE Travel for posts asking questions about Day of the Dead and read the comments until I found answers from people from Mexico. I reached out to those people on messenger to ask if they would like to answer a couple questions for a blog post I was writing, and they were happy to respond. I also posted on the Mexico subreddit asking for local input. Keep in mind that the sources you pull from will impact the kind of information you get. Anyone who’s ever used Reddit knows that it’s more than a little bro-ed out. I got 20 participants in that thread, and 19 of them were men. So reaching out to Girls LOVE Travel users balanced that out.
I hope to include more local perpspectives in Temporary Provisions moving forward. We’re currently launching our “Like a Local” series, which will feature travel articles written about people’s home countries.
We’re also building out resource pages for various countries that will include recommended reading and viewing for people who want to gain some context for their travels. These will include popular novels, history books, articles, movies, music, and other forms of media from those countries – like the article I wrote on must-read books about Central America.
If you’d like to write about your own country, or if you have some recommendations for great books, movies, etc on ANY country that I should add to my lists, please get in touch!
What do you think about centering locals in travel writing? What are your ideas for how we can do better in our travel writing?