Talk to the people in the places you visit.
It sounds simple enough, but how often do you descend upon a new location and start treating the residents as if they are zoo animals? OK, maybe you aren't that bad, but I find that it's easy to be struck with tunnel vision, sticking to your scripted tasks, list of places to see, things to do, schedules to keep.
My trips have been much more fulfilling when I take the time to strike up conversations with locals who might be going about their everyday lives in these fantastic destinations I am lucky enough to visit.
This isn't even about a travel snob notion of trying to have a more "authentic" experience. I don't play that judgmental travel game. Believe me, your idea of a great experience is for you to determine.
Chumming it up with the people of the world simply makes your trip more pleasurable. I'm sure of it.
You get unique insight into what it's like to live in a place that is obviously so beautiful and interesting that you were drawn to go there.
You can discover the best foods to eat, beers to try and off-the-beaten attractions to seek out.
Or you simply can enjoy a quick, friendly conversation with someone of a different culture, which helps make this world a better place. You'll get to know about their dreams and how they like to travel and whether they have been to your country.
In Belize, my brother and I met a charming young man, a guide at a zipline course, who told us all about how he wanted to come to the United States, live in New York and go to business school. He called Bart and me "Twin Towers" because we are 6-1 and 6-4, respectively.
In the Dominican Republic, during a hike, I struck up a conversation with a teen boy who loved baseball. (Ask about the national sport of the country you are visiting. It's a great conversation starter.) We talked for more than an hour about all the players from the D.R. who play professionally in the United States.
The town's top cop also proudly told us all about how he likes to travel, too, and takes his family on holidays around Europe to places like Croatia and Serbia.
In Regensburg, Germany, I was wandering alongside Dom St. Peter, the town's famous cathedral, admiring the massive and beautiful structure, when a woman approached speaking German. I sheepishly told her that I was America and spoke only "ein bisschen Deutsche." She quickly switched to English and asked whether I knew how to get into the church that evening. I pointed her to the front as we walked around together to check it out. Along the way, she asked about how I arrived in her village and where I was from in the U.S. I discovered she had been in beautiful Regensburg her whole life, and she revealed with pride that her two children had left to go off to university and now lived in different parts of Germany. We found the entrance, and with a "happy travels," she was off but not forgotten.
In Kinderdijk, Netherlands, I took an afternoon jog around the dozens of windmills for which the tiny town is famous. On my route, I encountered a woman who was walking her dog. We exchanged hellos. She asked a question in Dutch. I let her know I speak English. No problem. (I'm noticing a pattern here. We truly are lucky that English is a required second language for many around the world.) I asked her what it was like to live in such an interesting place. "You must see a lot of tourist," I said.
It's all a matter of perspective. And you only get another perspective when you seek it out.
We have great memories from all these and so many more.
Next time you land in a new and strange land, take the time to say "Hello."
You won't regret it.