Playing foosball

Me going up against the local kids in a game of “jotani” (foosball) in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

If you’ve ever listened to a long-term traveler tell tales about their adventures, you’ll have realized the best stories are not the ones about them visiting the British Museum, or standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. The best stories are the random, and occasionally crazy ones about things gone wrong – or sometimes things gone right – that involve spending time with locals doing things that are not found in any guidebook.

How do I know? I’ve been fortunate to have a few of these experiences myself: befriending local kids in Ethiopia and joining them for a game of “jotani” (otherwise known as foosball); being the only foreigners to join a secret procession in the middle of the night as Ethiopians silently paraded what they believe to be the actual arc of the covenant; and being given a ride home in a local’s donkey cart in after taking part in an Egyptian festival in the middle of the desert, to name a few (scroll down for pictures).

While stories like these used to be the norm among travelers, it’s now no longer the case. Wandering Earl wrote a thought-provoking post lamenting the death of unique, random travel experiences, where he suggests that it’s the constant accessibility of technology that is to blame.

“…when we find ourselves lost on that random street corner in a foreign country, frustrated and unsure of what we should do, we no longer walk over to the shopkeeper or ask the stranger in the street for directions or assistance. We simply pull out our iphones instead, and have Google Maps instantly tell us where to go. Or we quickly tweet to the world, ‘Stuck in Tashkent, where should I stay?’ and receive a response from others within seconds.”

What a great point.

So are random travel experiences dead?

I definitely don’t think they are, but ironically, you do have to work a little harder to get them.

As Wandering Earl describes, human interaction is key to triggering random experiences, and if you want to read a great account of just how such an experience can unravel, check out Mark’s post on Migrationology about the situation that led him being invited into a rural Chinese home.

I’ve written previously about some of the techniques travel writers use to try and peek behind closed doors, but Mark and Earl’s stories have inspired me to come up with some more ideas.

So without further ado, here are some tips on how you can go about seeking the unexpected encounters that make travel so magical.

1. Get off the beaten path. You’re less likely to have a random encounter with locals in a large, highly-touristed city where the locals are accustomed to seeing foreigners. Instead, head to the smaller cities where few travelers venture – the novelty of interacting with a foreigner will lead many more locals to try and speak with you, and perhaps even invite you into their homes. In countries that are rapidly developing and have highly industrialized cities, this is also a great way to see how people used to live (and obviously, how those in the provinces still do).

2. Go outside the tourist zone. Even within in a large city, chances are there are certain zones or neighborhoods that tourists don’t visit, simply because there are no museums or attractions there. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting things to see. Head to the areas where the locals spend their time – walk through the markets, the parks and along random streets. Often people will be so surprised to see a foreigner there that they’ll stop to chat, invite you to play in their soccer game or to join them for coffee.

3. Go to events put on for and by the locals. Whether it’s a celebration of a harvest, a national day of pride, or simply a performance put on by school kids, events like these tend to put everyone in a convivial mood. If you clap, smile and try to get involved (rather than scrutinizing the event from the sidelines), as one of the few foreigners at such events, locals will often sweep you up and happily include you in the celebrations.

4. Eat with the locals. Don’t just eat at restaurants with English menus catering to foreigners. See where the locals congregate and get on over there. Whether it’s a mom and pop restaurant or a street stall catering to local workers, not only will the food be more authentic, you’re likely to have locals trying to teach you about their food, explain the best way to eat it etc.

5. Travel like the locals. Don’t limit yourself to the tourist sightseeing bus, taxis or other transport that no one but tourists or rich people use. If the locals all travel in communal mini-vans, go ahead and use that mini-van too. Again, locals who are not used to seeing tourists take that form of transport are often endeared by the foreigner’s tenacity and will make the effort to talk to you.

6. Ask for advice. Most people not only have a strong sense of pride about their hometown, but also love to think that their opinion is valued. Stop and ask locals about their favorite places to eat, drink, shop, and visit and they will often not only tell you, but accompany you as well.

Of course, the whole point of a “random” travel experience is that it is, well, random, so forcing it isn’t going to make it happen. Nonetheless, by implementing some of the ideas above, you will hopefully put yourself in a position to stumble across the kinds of experiences that really give you something to write home about.


{Click to watch a brief video of the secret procession of the Arc of the Covenant that took place in the middle of the night in Axum, Ethiopia. The Arc is normally under lock and key in a church that no one is allowed to enter. On very rare occasions, it is brought out for religious processions and ceremonies. We were the only foreigners to hear about and attend this procession.}


A meeting with the arc of the covenant

Locals holding a ceremony with the arc of the covenant in Axum, Ethiopia. The arc is supposedly under the black cloth you see beneath the umbrellas. This is a ceremony that took place at the conclusion of the pre-dawn procession in the video above.


Communal meal

Taking part in a communal meal during a festival in Siwa, Egypt.


festival prayers

We were invited into the building where prayers were taking place as part of the festival.


Donkey cart

At the end of the festival – which took place in the middle of the dessert – we had no way to get back to our hotel. A local kindly took us there in the back of his donkey cart.

What do you think? Have you had a random travel experience? Do you have any other suggestions for how to happen upon such an experience?

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