There are pros and cons to hopping off the tourist trek and trying to immerse yourself in local culture. For example:
Pro – Your can make local friends who will invite you to birthday parties, celebrations of holidays you’ve never heard of, and sporting events that aren’t in any of the guidebooks.
Con – Your friends aren’t always around, and you occasionally find yourself pantomiming in front of a pharmacist and praying that the pill she gave you will reduce swelling in your ankle and will not grow hair on your chest.
The primary benefit of living somewhere, rather than visiting somewhere, is about building relationships with people. Relationships are usually better than gift shops (which is why becoming friends with locals made my list of the top ten tips for traveling with children).
During our last trip to Costa Rica, we saw coffee plants, learned how they are grown, saw the roasting and packaging factory, and learned a bit about the history of one of God´s great gifts to the world. We all thought that it was cool to go to a coffee farm.
It was super cool to come home from the coffee farm and have lunch with our friend´s 95-year-old abuelo, who still thinks he´s working the farm and uses his walker to get around the ¨farm¨and clear the fields.
And it was just plain humbling to see that same abuelo´s bed. It´s in the room of our friend´s parents, right next to theirs, and has been for three years, since abuela died. I took one look at that bed and almost started crying out of awe.
During our trips around the world, we have stayed in luxury hotels by Costa Rican standards — by nearly any standard really. For the next two months, though, we are renting a house in a neighborhood near our friend, getting a small taste of what it means to live as a Tico. We follow the local futbol team, my homeschooled, protestant sons are learning the catechism in private school for two months, and I am hanging out the laundry to dry. In the midst of that, our friend is available when I need to find a doctor or somewhere to buy dust mite covers.
If you dont’ have time to stay somewhere long enough to start new relationships, go somewhere where you already have a friend, a friend with the kind of benefits that matter. The hospitality you receive from them will be humbling, and the experience you will have of a culture different from your own will mean more to you than your memories of famous landmarks. Friends matter more than postcards.
And that’s true whether or not you are traveling.