Stop Fetishizing Locals

Overdone and unreliable

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July 7th at 1:15pm

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Not a rant

A friend and colleague refers to semi-occasional appearances of "surly Scott," but this post is not that. It's not a rant at all.

In fact, I come not to complain about locals but to liberate you from them.

It's not difficult to find travel writers who fetishize locals. Travel like a local! Get the inside scoop from locals! Go where the locals go! I read these hoary tips a great deal, and they inspire the same reaction every time: taking advice from locals is a crapshoot.

I come not to complain about locals but to liberate you from them.

If you come across the right ones, and they want to talk to you, then yes - absolutely, without question - talk to the locals. Listen to them. Follow their suggestions. But it's not always easy to know who the "right ones" are.

I have defended this minority position with writers and bloggers at travel writing conferences. The look is always the same, a strained combination of disbelief and woke patience. I disagree, but let's hear the old white guy out.

Roughly 40% for sure

My main argument is as follows: how many people in your day-to-day life are full of shit? Consider your coworkers and neighbors. Many of them:

  • Are painfully phlegmatic, boring people
  • Think Chili's is a great restaurant
  • Are horrible human beings who believe it's acceptable to put children in cages
  • Etc, etc

If you ran into them on the street, would you ask for suggestions on what to do around town? No, you wouldn't. So why would that change if you were a visitor from out of town?

How many people in your day-to-day life are full of shit?

This critique goes in the opposite direction: a significant share of the population would not want to do anything I like to do. The scent of ginger in restaurants I like would turn them off. A trip to an art museum or conservatory would bore them. Going to see Matt and Kim or Gogol Bordello would be way too weird. And checking out a soccer game? No way.

Even if we're talking about other midwestern, college-educated, liberal, middle-class white people, with whom I have a high likelihood of sharing preferences, I still don't have the same tastes. A good friend once told me a local breakfast joint was "epic," but I thought it was astonishingly mediocre.

I recommend discovering things for yourself.

Let's give locals a rest. They may very well not want to talk to you, and if they do, you might not like what they have to say. It happened to me a few times when I researched Backseat Cities.

Instead, I recommend discovering things for yourself. Go out and see what you can find. Yes, consult Tripadvisor reviews, the travel industry's foray into the Law of large numbers. Those suggestions might still be wrong - I don't always share the wisdom of crowds - but you're improving your odds of finding a place that suits you.

In the end, though, do what looks good to you.

 Two Shelves, One Book The Bourdain Paradox 

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