However good your intentions are, it's often all too easy to retreat to the comfort of the hotel room and shy away from really engaging with the locals when you're on your travels. Here's a selection of holiday ideas that will thrust you into the heart of the community you're visiting and foster a much deeper understanding on the place and its people. Share your own memories of meeting the locals below.
Meet the locals – how to immerse yourself on your travels
Stay in a Ukrainian village
Central Europe – if that’s how we should think of the mountainous region of western Ukraine – is an area with few international visitors, but already a sustainable model of tourism is being developed in the area. The Rural Green Tourism Association (RGTA), set up in 1996, is a community-run volunteer organization that helps villagers earn extra income through hosting guests. For example you could stay in the wooden houses of the Hutsul people in villages like Vorokhta or Yavoriv.
Visitors can spend their time walking in the polonyas, the mountain meadows where cool breezes waft across the long grasses. After a day’s hiking, expect to be liberally plied with food and drink, all made and prepared by the villagers, such as banosh (a mixture of sweetcorn, bacon and sour cream). Hospitality is unceasingly friendly and you’ll probably get a chance to watch or join in traditional dances (typically accompanied by the alp-horn-like trembita and the sopika, a form of flute) or to listen to their plaintive folk songs.
For more information on the RGTA of Ivano-Frankivsk, nearby hiking trails, getting there and how the homestay scheme works, see members.aol.com/chornohora.
Meet the Maasai, Tanzania
On a walk with the village’s herbalist, the parched plains of northeastern Tanzania soon appear less bare than when you first looked across their expanse of wiry plants. Every few minutes he bends a different branch down from a tree, offering a leaf to rub between your fingers to smell. Or he crouches down to the ground, digs away with his fingers and pulls up a gnarled root. For every such root or leaf he explains, by motioning to a part of his body, what ailment the particular plant is used against, such as the pepper bark tree, whose rough, black bark is used to treat malaria.
People2People’s cultural safaris are made up of countless intimate experiences like these. Accompanied by a translator, guests embark on customizable tours to visit and stay with members of four different tribal groups in Tanzania. You might join a Maasai warrior bringing his cattle in at dusk, help gather the harvest on a Bantu farm, or hunt for spring hares and grapple with the curious clicking languages of the Khoisan.
No specifics are guaranteed, however, as these aren’t displays put on for your benefit but a rare chance to interact with local villagers, observing and taking part in whatever they’re doing. In rural Africa time is fluid, and you may well spend several hours simply sitting under some welcome shade chatting with the elders. Then again, you may be lucky enough to be there for a special occasion such as a wedding, where distant family members will assemble from across the region and beyond, gathering for days of celebration and feasting. Whatever you see, it will be a different Africa from the one seen through binoculars from the back of a jeep.
People2People will customize a safari to suit your needs, which can also include more traditional activities such as wildlife-watching and trekking. For typical itineraries and reservations see www.p2psafaris.com.
Stay in an African village, Zambia
To understand what daily life is really like in an African rural community, a stay in Kawaza village, on the edge of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, offers an authentic introduction to its rigours and rhythms. Guests can drop in for the day or stay as long as they like; on arrival, you’ll have a chat with your guides to plan a programme that suits. Visitors are encouraged to get as involved as they can, whether it’s learning about traditional herbal medicine, fishing in wooden dugout canoes or simply helping to prepare traditional meals.
This is no show village, however. The Kunda people, former hunters who now mostly survive through subsistence farming, have seen how low-impact tourism can protect them against the vagaries of farming in extreme conditions. Villagers who provide services to guests are given a monthly salary and the remaining profit is ploughed back into the community, improving facilities at the school and helping those most in need. And at Kawaza visitors don’t just get the chance to see the school their money has helped fund – they are encouraged to help with some teaching too.
For directions and rates see http://www.africatravelresource.com/africa/zambia/southluangwa/central/kawaza-village/.
Walk with Rastas in Knysna Forest, South Africa
From the moment your dreadlocked host greets you with a gentle knock of his clenched fist against yours and an exclamation of “Irie” (roughly meaning “respect”), you know this isn’t going to be your typical township tour. While the representatives of the House of Judah, the local church, come and introduce themselves, you notice that all the houses are painted in striking tones of crimson, yellow and emerald. One thing’s for sure: you’re in Rasta territory.
In 2003, tired of being perceived as dope-smoking outcasts, the Rastafarian community in Khayalethu – a township between the outskirts of Knysna and the surrounding forest – went to the local tourism board with a proposal. They wanted to show tourists what their life was really like, and to protect to the richness of their local forest. It worked. Guests now make visits to people’s homes and are led on guided nature tours through the surrounding fynbos ecosystem, a complex ground-level array of succulents and heathers, most seen nowhere else in the world. Those keen to hang around a little longer than a few hours can stay in one of the families’ homes.
For more info and contact details see www.openafrica.org.
Meet the Bushmen at Nhoma, Namibia
Nhoma, a simple tented camp owned and run in partnership with the nearby Bushman village of Nhoq’ma, on the border of Khaudum National Park, offers guests a chance to get back to their primeval roots. Always wanted to know how to start a fire or make an arrow? Immersed in a hunter-gatherer society, you will here.
After a morning spent hunting spring hares or porcupines with the Bushmen, learning how to make small traps from twigs and animal sinews, there’s usually time in the afternoon to join in their games and perhaps buy a few souvenir ostrich-shell necklaces. At night, after dinner back at camp, guests can trek back through the dark dunes to sit and watch the Bushmen gather to dance and sing, with their shaman often falling into a trance which, they say, enables him to communicate with their ancestors. They’ve been doing this for tens of thousands of years. Staying at Nhoma is one of the best ways of ensuring these traditions continue.
For rates, details of activities and further info on getting there see www.tsumkwel.iway.na.
Visit Bolivia's Mapajo Community
On the border of La Paz and Beni, Mapajo Lodge is owned and operated by the communities of the Quiquibey River, who offer four- to six-day guided tours through the Pilón Lajas Reserve, a dense jungle of forests, streams and unexplored mountains packed with wildlife. Itineraries on offer include boat trips along the river to indigenous villages, where guests can learn traditional fishing methods, watch locals crafting bows and arrows, baskets and textiles, or go on canoe excursions by night.
To help you understand more about the biological and cultural diversity of the reserve, the lodge runs a visitor centre with a library and a small exhibition of arts and crafts. Accommodation is rustic: there are four twin-bed thatched cabins with hot-water showers, shared bathrooms (one cabin has a private bathroom) and a hammock, while water is piped in from a natural spring. It’s not exactly eco-chic, but then the focus here is not on staying indoors – it’s on discovering the unknown.
For prices, booking and details on activities see www.madidijungle.com/mapajo.
Meet the Huaorani, Ecuador
The Huaorani have long inhabited the headwaters of the Ecuadorian Amazon, hunting game with blowpipes and gathering food from the forest. They were the last of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples to be contacted by missionaries – in 1956 – and they now mostly live in permanent settlements, though at least one clan continues to shun all contact with the outside world.
On this trip you are taken to meet the small community of Quehueri’ono (“Cannibal River”), hunter-gatherers who live in the northwestern part of the Huaorani territory. Such a unique encounter is the result of years of consultation between their chief Moi Enomenga and an Ecuadorian travel company, Tropic EcoTours. For twelve years, Tropic has run hiking tours with Moi, employing Quehueri’ono villagers as guides – a sign of its success is that a permanent ecolodge, used as a base for village trips, has now been built, with five cabins equipped with twin bed, shower and flush toilet. For several days a Huaorani guide leads you through the rainforest, demonstrating how they use plants for medicine, shelter and clothes, and how to hunt monkeys by climbing up trees and firing poisoned darts from blowpipes. He’ll also point out an astonishing variety of wildlife, including blue morpho butterflies, greater and lesser kiskadees and several species of Amazonian kingfishers.
For itineraries, prices and booking for transport and accommodation see www.huaorani.com.
Live with nomads, Mongolia
A hundred or so goats head off bleating their complaints in one direction, while a herd of cows tramps off in another. A boy of perhaps ten rides by on his horse, with no saddle. All around smoke rises from the fifteen or so gers spread across this high plain, surrounded by a ring of forested hills. Here in the Terelj National Park, fewer than 100km from the Mongolian capital Ulaan Bator, the only signs of industrialization are the occasional solar panel or motorbike.
A typical day on a trip with Ger to Ger, a non-profit organization that promotes grassroots tourism development, starts with a journey on horse or oxcart from the ger where you spent the night onto your next resting post. The rest of the day is spent doing what your new hosts do. That could mean helping them collect the sheep at dusk, milking horses (the local tipple is Airag, fermented mare’s milk only slightly less alcoholic than vodka) or being taught how to use a bow and arrow. It is highly rewarding but can be pretty exhausting. With no translator you have to communicate with a Mongolian phrasebook and any props such as family photographs you might have with you. But for anyone keen to get a taste of what travel was like before everyone spoke English and booked online, a few days riding across Mongolia should suffice.
Ger to Ger’s office is based in Ulaan Bator. For itineraries and prices see www.gertoger.org.
Stay in an Isan village, Thailand
It’s far too easy to visit Thailand and come away feeling that you never really got to see what life for Thais is like outside of the tourist centres. If you’re curious, then a visit to the tranquil rice-growing village of Ko Pet in the northeastern Isan region may be just what you’re looking for.
Ko Pet is a village like many others in the region, with the difference that it has built a lodge so that small-scale tourism can supplement incomes from rice and vegetable cultivation. Guests (a maximum of six at a time) stay in the locally built three-bedroom Lamai guesthouse at one end of Ko Pet, surrounded by a garden of palms and mango trees, and are always accompanied by two of the villagers on visits into the village – who are there to provide translation and keep tours unobtrusive.
The activities on offer – joining elders foraging for edible insects or mushrooms, learning how to weave baskets from raffia, seeing silk being produced – are not staged, since they comprise what the villagers would be doing anyway. Guides ensure these are rotated between the twenty or so participating families, so there is little disruption of routine and income is spread evenly. Ko Pet may be in one of the more remote areas of Thailand but the scheme here is showing the way forward for rural tourism in Asia.
For directions and details of tours and packages see www.thailandhomestay.com.
Visit a Khmu village, Laos
But for the Mekong River on whose banks it stands, the village of Yoi Hai is cut off from the world, with no road cut through the dense jungle that surrounds it. Living here, surrounded by the cloud-covered heights of the hills, are the Khmu – an animist tribe who worship spirits in the trees and rocks that surround them. Until recently the population was even more isolated, but in 2000 the government decreed that they, and all the other hill tribes, had to form new towns on lower ground, partly in a bid to stamp out the opium trade and partly to improve access to healthcare and education. However, many tribal peoples have struggled to adapt to these more urban communities, with alcoholism and drug abuse on the increase.
Thanks to their relationship with the nearby Kamu Lodge, however, the future doesn’t look quite so bleak for the Khmu. The lodge – comprising twenty comfortable two-person safari tents and a thatched pagoda restaurant topped with solar panels – employs staff from local communities, is responsible for building a school and also pays a monthly community fund. You’ll get the chance to meet the people whom the lodge is helping – they will show you round the village, teach you how to cast a net into the river or how to pan in its waters for gold.
For further details, including rates and booking, see www.kamulodge.com.
Take to the hills in Bangladesh
When people talk of visiting hill tribes, Bangladesh is rarely the destination that comes to mind. Yet in the dense rainforests that line the country’s southeastern border with Burma and India, there are half a million indigenous people belonging to fourteen different tribes – and unlike in Laos, Thailand or Cambodia, very few tourists make the effort to visit the villages.
For the visitors that do come, however, Bangladesh Ecotours takes guests into the Chittagong Hill Tracts region (pictured at the top of the article) to stay with tribes, sharing in traditional feasts, shopping for handicrafts, and often finding themselves the audience for an impromptu song-and-dance given in their honour. In return for their hospitality, the company provides the tribes with funds for education and medical aid, promoting conservation projects such as reforestation and handicraft development.
For prices, reservations and information on how to get to Chittagong see www.bangladeshecotours.com.
Stay with a Samoan family
Customary Samoan hospitality has helped simple, family-run tourist lodges to prosper as locals have turned their beachside huts into guesthouses. Now, on both of the two main islands (Upolu and Savaii), for US$40 or so, you can spend the night on a mattress on the floor of a little open-sided fale, with a mosquito net and maybe a locker for valuables. Your hosts will prepare dinner and a tropical breakfast and can arrange for you to go off on hikes or join in with cousins and aunties in their chores if you wish.
During the day the men venture off into the milky blue sea to spearfish from outrigger canoes, a coconut-leaf basket ready for the catch. Women weave mats from sun-dried pandanus leaves or hack at coconuts to extract the flesh for copra. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, you may get to witness a traditional tattooing session, using sharpened pigs’ teeth and ink made from candlenut soot. By night, as the sea laps at the stilts of your simple fale, you can sit and read Stevenson under the wide and starry sky.
For contact details, directions and further information on the various fales, visit www.samoa.travel.
Live with the Maasai, Kenya
Over a week spent living with a Maasai family in the village of Olturuto, in the Kajiado district 30km from Nairobi, you’ll become immersed in all aspects of daily life of the herders and their families. Helping with the chores may not seem like a holiday, but a few days grinding maize to make flour, milking the cows or collecting water from the borehole is the best way to learn what life’s really like in an African village. The reality is that most of your day is spent not working as we know it, but slowly passing time – catching up on local gossip, making arrows, weaving baskets or simply taking some time to contemplate the vastness of your surroundings.
Assisted at all times by a translator, you’ll also get the chance to talk with elders and medicine men and spend two days on a more traditional tourist activity on safari in nearby Amboseli National Park, home to elephants, lions and giraffes. And while the chance to see a lion from the back of a jeep is what brings most tourists to Kenya, very few get the chance to experience the simple rhythms of life as a Maasai.
GSE Ecotours organizes homestays (lasting four to fourteen days) in five villages in the Great Rift Valley and Central and Eastern provinces. For further enquiries contact +44 (0) 870 766 9891.
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