In January, 2014, I wrote a blog about shooting culture – an article in which I treated the subject generally; not very heavy on the specifics. The wrap-up was “..get into the subject’s life a little…” but I didn’t offer any advice on how to do that.
(Now I realize that I’m getting dangerously close to proclaiming myself an anthropologist. I’m not – had to look up how to spell it.)
The remainder of this article is going to be ONLY about things that have worked for me in being allowed to get a little into someone else’s culture. You’ll probably have ways I haven’t even considered.
Before leaving home…
1. My first step is study/research. I won’t spend a lot of time and space here on how to do that but the short message is this: Get on the internet. There are thousands of pages written by others who have traveled to your destination. In learning a little about the customs, economy, or political situation you will be perceived less like an interloper and more like a visitor.
2. Learn a few words or phrases. While on the net, check out sites such as this one for the pronunciation of typical words of greeting, etc.:
This is VERY important if you have any hope of being accepted by another culture.
Once in country…
3. Travel solo (or with a very small group). It is almost too much to expect that you can bond with the natives – even a little – from within a large group.
4. Avoid hotels. We ALWAYS stay in B&B’s – even in large cities. By definition you are in the company of someone who lives there, is in the culture and who wants you to have a satisfying experience in their town/country. Over breakfast I’ll ask something like “where is your favorite restaurant and bear in mind we’re on a budget?” It’s almost a sure thing that you will be steered to a local pub or mom & pop restaurant where the natives hang out. And while you are there, strike up a conversation with the people at the next table. I start with “Is this your home?”. They’ll ask your home country and then you are off to the races. We’ve even been invited to visit a home from such a small beginning.
5. Ask for help. The picture is of me asking for map help from some locals in Antalya, Turkey. The guy in the plaid shirt actually guided us on his bicycle – and we followed in our rental car – to the little inn we were seeking. This courtesy was duplicated in many forms and in many cultures but I think Turkey is right up near the top when it comes to most welcoming to strangers.
6. You MUST get your nerve up and mix with the locals. You’re the guest. You’re the person of interest. Take advantage of that. Local people will go out of their way to talk with you and help you enjoy your visit.
7. Do your part to be a good guest. I’m reminded of an occasion in Rome when we were visiting the catacombs. While below ground the official guide noticed that The Bride picked up some trash left by an earlier tour group. At the conclusion of the tour the guide dismissed everyone else but asked us to stay for a few minutes. To show her appreciation she gave us a little memento of the catacombs and shared coffee with us before her next tour group started.
8. I take trinkets for the kids and photos of our offspring to show the adults.
9. Be interested in the other person and they will almost always open up. Admire their house, pet their dog, point out how wonderful their children are, smile at them. Greet them with the polite phrases you learned before leaving home. And ask questions. I hasten to point out that this is not meant to be manipulative – think of it as enabling.
Each of the items above is a small thing but, taken together, could be your entree to the people and their culture. Getting close to the people of a foreign country will improve your chances of making culture specific photos and — possible more important — you are going to find your trip richer and more meaningful.