To me, one of the best things about traveling is meeting people from other cultures and telling their stories through words and pictures. Talking with or observing the local people is a great way to learn about the history and customs of the destination you are visiting.
My favorite way to people watch in any city is to hang out in local cafes. A group of friends laughing at the corner table, the mother with a sleeping toddler in the seat next to mine, a couple holding hands at the counter, and two women dressed in hijabs loosely draped over their heads and shoulders speaking in a quiet tone to each other--all tell stories through their laughter, the clothes they are wearing, a gesture, or the way they speak.
I also learn a lot about a destination’s culture by visiting places of worship. In temples, shrines, and cathedrals you will find the usual gold or bronze religious statues, ancient tombs, descriptions written on headstones and wall plaques. But the way people display, and express their faith tells a lot about the local history and culture.
On a recent trip to Thailand and Japan, I spent hours walking the grounds of Buddhist temples and shrines seeking to learn its history. I immersed myself in the peaceful beauty of each location and witnessed the people’s devotion to Buddhism.
I had a three-hour tour of Wat Pho with a local farmer who shared his passion for the origin story of Buddha and the history of Bangkok with me. I observed people of all ages light incense to make offerings and say prayers at worship stations located at the Shrine of Guan Yu and the Big Buddha Temple, on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand.
In Tokyo, while visiting Senso-ji Temple, I observed a woman devoutly praying at each of the statutes on the temple grounds. I followed her path reading a few of the descriptive signs for each buddha or Bodhisattva; one promised the worshipper mercy, another wisdom, there were a few for good luck and many shared the historic religious path of a celebrated Buddhist.
Another great way to acclimate to a new culture and meet locals is to volunteer in the community. Sharing your passion for a cause with others is the easiest way to start conversations, get recommendations for places to eat or visit, and to make friends.
I am a dog lover with two rescue dogs at home. I volunteered to help Terri's Happy Hounds feed local dogs during my three months in Koh Samui. A solo rescuer on the island, Terri feeds and provides medical care to over 40 dogs across several locations. She has given each dog a name, keeps track of the strays, and is dedicated to their care. We helped her feed the dogs at a local village where we interacted with the children living there who were always eager to greet us.
Whether just observing the locals or talking with them, spending time among the people of the destination you are visiting is the best way to experience its culture and share its stories.