It’s who you know
The best shortcut to an as-close-to-real-life-as-possible experience in a faraway place is having a local contact show you the way. So make a list of relatives, old friends, friends met on prior travels, and friends of friends around the country and the world.
Come up dry? Ask your friends for their lists; heck, ask the Croatian guy who owns the diner you love if he knows anybody in Zagreb. I’ve shamelessly hung out with friends of friends in Seoul, Bogotá and Norway’s Lofoten Islands. Back when I was a public-school teacher, I even hit up relatives of my immigrant students in the mountains of the Dominican Republic and along the Honduran coast.
Sometimes that meant full-on hospitality — an invitation to a family’s Korean New Year celebration, a midnight sun party, a month of informal merengue lessons — other times it just meant solid advice on non-touristy restaurants and a number to call in case of an emergency.
Go where you’re interesting
The two most groanworthy clichés in travel are surely “Meet the locals” and “Take the road less traveled.” But put them together and you have what I’ve found to be an almost infallible rule: the fewer visitors a place receives, the more willing locals are to interact with them.
In other words, choose places where the tourists aren’t, and there’s a pretty good chance the people you meet will be just as curious about you as you are about them. (You’re American? What are you doing here? Is it true you all eat nothing but burgers and pizza?)
I once purposefully got off a Yangtze River ferryboat in a town called Badong because it had no discernible tourist attraction. Result: the tourist became the attraction. Storekeepers practiced their English, students stopped me to see if I needed help, and a hotel receptionist drove me to her favorite lamb noodle shop, ordered for me, waited as I ate and drove me back — all while she was on duty.
It’s hard to imagine anything like that happening in Hong Kong or London or Cuzco (the backpacker-packed Peruvian city near Machu Picchu). And it’s the difference between coming home with a meet-the-locals story that starts “So our Venetian waiter told us…” and the significantly more impressive “Meet my new Moldovan boyfriend.”