If you'd have asked me not very long ago my preferred style of travel? I'd have said I like to go local. And I'm far from alone. In food and travel alike, industry experts and Instagram tastemakers have decided: It's the only valid way to see and taste the world.
But it's getting old. We've wrung the geographical significance out of "local" so that it exists more as a marketing buzzword. Hospitality companies trot it out to humanize their properties and to assure post-recession customers that they're still supporting the little guy. On menus (or even in McDonald's ads) it implies: "This item was grown/produced by industrious area residents who put their hearts into this specifically for you to enjoy, and by the way, they're friendly and you could totally talk to them about your shared appreciation of the earth, whether they're scrappy young bearded hipster-types or grizzled, oak-sturdy farmers with wise old eyes."
As opposed to: "This item came off the back of a Sysco truck."
In travel, the same attitudes prevail. No longer is it cosmopolitan to simply enjoy a place, to stay in a three- or four-star hotel, book a few guided tours, hit the museums, get tickets to a show, and make reservations at top-rated restaurants. No, that is traveling like a tourist, so gauche. To truly have a worthwhile experience, you must travel like a local -- go to the places locals go and eat at the places locals eat. You must stay at the places locals might stay if they didn't already live there -- maybe at a hostel or at someone's home via Airbnb, where you're treated as a short-term exchange student.
Travelers are urged to immerse themselves in "local culture" lest they miss out on the opportunity to experience something truly, ye gods, authentic.
But that's all nonsense. Let me tell you what's more authentic than your parachute trip to wherever you got a last-minute flight deal: enjoying the hell out of having people take really excellent care of you, in the most beautiful setting you've ever seen.
You don't have to punish yourself to enjoy another country
I recently blew up my own expectations of travel during a four-night all-inclusive stay at the Barceló Bávaro Palace Deluxe hotel in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, the sort of swanky Caribbean resort where luxury means a hot tub on your private balcony overlooking a sugar-sand beach which in turn overlooks the flawless sea. It's gorgeous, and the all-inclusive part of it meant I got to turn my brain completely off.
All I had to do this whole trip was show up, and every possible amenity was mine to peruse. The only time I left the property was to go on a guided dune buggy tour entirely planned and coordinated by the property. My experience of "local culture" was limited to drinking Dominican rum and smoking Dominican cigars and eating Dominican chocolate and food prepared by presumably Dominican cooks in the higher-end restaurants with white-tablecloth service by presumably Dominican servers who often spoke little English.
It was one of the best trips I have ever taken.
What I saw of Punta Cana itself, driving to and from the airport, didn't exactly inspire me to want to break local. It looked like a prototypically hardscrabble Central American city that looks like most inner-city barrios in America, plus palm trees. If you've driven past rundown gas stations, strip malls with barred windows, and rusting vehicles coughing out dark fumes, you've seen the city of Punta Cana.
I can already hear the self-righteous commenters booting up Twitter. Yes, you're ethically superior to me. Congrats.
But if you're sneering at the idea of staying at a luxe resort in some tropical paradise because it forsakes the "authentic local experience," allow me a minute at the mic. Buckle up, buttercup.
You cannot (nor would you want to) experience local life in four days
In all likelihood, you have 10 or so vacation days a year, which you need to dole out like wartime meat rations. You'd love to spend three months bumming around Thailand. Instead you're lucky to get four days somewhere. Every minute counts, and any small mistake can throw off your brief trip. So remind yourself that you -- not The Locals -- are the one on vacation. You'll have more fun if you don't fetishize them.
Everywhere you go in the world, most people are basic AF and the "touristy places," such as the hotel restaurants, are the best of show anyway. I live in Las Vegas, and I can tell you: The Locals go to all the same bullshit places the tourists do. If I want a baller-ass meal, I go to the Strip just like every other asshole. If you come to Vegas and ask me for an authentic local experience, I'm taking you to PT's. We will sit at a bar lined with video poker machines and watch sports on the flat-screens while eating burgers and drinking grade-above-macro beers and you'll wonder why you flew thousands of miles to go to the same fungible after-work joint you go to back home. But in fact that's what locals do.
Also, it's FOUR DAYS. Anthropologists spend years embedded in a single non-native-to-them culture in an effort to write one credible 40-page book chapter. You can't really think you're going to become an insta-expert on a foreign-to-you culture in the time it takes a green banana to turn yellow. Because, gosh, that would be pretty culturally insensitive, no?
Sometimes you just want a damn vacation
Vacation is, ideally, a break from stress. You know what is not a break from stress? Constantly worrying about getting your shit stolen out of your rental car or getting mugged because of your insistence on keeping it real.
A week before I left for my trip, some friends-of-friends returned from their own vacation-of-sorts in the Dominican Republic. They'd been robbed at gunpoint. Twice. They mostly shrugged it off. One of them is from the DR and her feelings were basically, That's just life there. THAT'S LIVING LIKE A LOCAL, PEOPLE.
Chilling at a resort is not, in fact, only for the simplest Americans
No one finds American travelers more objectionable than other Americans, it seems. Here's my question: Why look down on people who are just trying to have a good time? Pasty-faced waddling Midwesterners sucking down frozen daiquiris in paradise is not ruining your personal life.
Those tourists might be annoying, sure, but also rest assured that in any tourism-driven economy, their presence -- and I'm talking specifically about their wallets -- is warmly welcomed. You just focus on doing you, boo.
Navigating a new country sometimes just sucks
The week after I got back from the fabulous Barceló Bávaro Palace Deluxe -- I'm not even going to claim "Punta Cana" because really, that's not at all where I was staying -- I went to Costa Rica for a few days. It was miserable. My travel companion and I decided to do as much of a tour of the country as we could manage inside of a week (which ain't much!). That meant road-tripping through highly questionable areas on what I like to refer to as a "poverty tour," in which white people drive through remote towns and gawk at the mind-reeling poverty juxtaposed with the resort-town playgrounds down the road. You can also refer to this as colonial tourism, if you'd like.
Except for our "dummy wallets," we kept all our passports, cash, and credit cards strapped around our waists under our clothes "just in case." I fretted over bringing my laptop, again, "just in case." We ate largely from gas stations (verdict: no different than American ones), grocery stores (ditto), and roadside fruit stands (ditto, except the fruit is different), and breathed in stomach-turning diesel fumes for hours at a time, because even though the country has protected more than 25% of its land as national parks and reserves, it has no ordinances on vehicular emissions.
Also, if one must eat of the local bounty, per authentic travel mandates, chicken and rice is the national dish of choice there. Yes, chicken. With rice.
You know what's nice? Walking into a restaurant, eating and drinking to your heart's content, and leaving without having to pay.
Listen. I get it. I used to be just like you. I made fun of the waddling Midwesterners in Hawaiian-print shirts, too timid and cow-like to travel BETTER. I went so far as to claim Canada as my own -- as a native Detroiter with Windsor visible from my window, I could do so easily. I was smug in my self-assurance that traveling like a local is superior. And I rested comfortably in that superiority.
It's all bullshit.
Once you acknowledge the limits of wham-bam cultural immersion -- i.e., that it's impossible -- you can begin to understand the bliss of dropping the pretense. When you wake up and step outside of your ocean-facing room to your balcony to watch the sun rise, then graze elaborate gourmet buffets where you can just walk in, grab a plate, fill a glass with self-serve Champagne, sit wherever you want, and leave without exchanging money or even words with another human being, then meander down to the beach and grab a kayak and go explore some of the crystalline shoreline, then paddle back at your leisure and from there hit up a poolside bar before retiring to your room to get ready for dinner and then maybe ending with a nightcap in the hot tub on your balcony while listening to the sound of the waves crashing into the beach and preparing to do the exact same thing the next day and knowing it's going to be just as amazing all over again? That is LIVING, people.
If you haven't tried it? You owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in this particular travel culture. It might be the only one you truly understand, authentically even, in less than a week.
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