Years ago I watched a movie called the Beach with Leo di Caprio. In my opinion, the movie itself is not bad: but it’s not anything special either. But one quote has been stuck in my head ever since I saw it all those years ago. It comes from the very beginning of the movie when Leo, aka Richard, is trying to convince himself (and the audience too): never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay your welcome. Just keep an mind open and take in the experience.
During my years of travelling to many amazing places around the world, the last words of that quote resonated in my head. Yes, if I keep an open mind, the best things will come to me. But having visited so many interesting places, something became clear to me: you don’t live a real experience, if you don’t interact with local people.
And I wondered why visitors to my beloved country do not feel the same?
As everybody knows, the Czech Republic is very popular tourist destination. First, you have beautiful Prague with all its great sights, castles, churches, bridges and squares. But wandering around the city center, you may soon get the feeling that you are in a kind of Disneyland. Yes, the architecture is great and the statues are beautiful, but there are also many strange things around that even a person from the other side of the planet will quickly understand that they don’t belong here. Like that guy with the Vietnamese sombrero on his head at Old Town Square. Or the Mexican restaurant serving burritos just next to a thousand-year-old tower. And why-oh-why are they selling the Russian furry military caps and Russian wooden toys called Matrioshka alongside the Charles Bridge?
The crucial question here is: do tourists and visitors actually care? Or are they happy being fooled? Since I have many friends visiting me each year in the Czech Republic, I dare say YES! Still, there are many travelers who do care and who want to experience something more Czech: something authentic and real. They don’t want to spend their time travelling in a bubble.
They don’t want to be like other tourists who wander through the streets of the city center reading generic guide books (that are often written not by locals, but by foreigners), eating crap food that someone told them is traditional (in overpriced touristic restaurants) and meeting only with other tourists in the places where local people would never go.
You may wonder who wants to spend their holidays this way? Well believe me, Prague as well as Paris, Berlin or Budapest is overcrowded by these less-enlightened tourists.
But let’s get back to the question of how travelers can see and do things that are real! Let’s talk about how someone can have an authentic experience in this country. In my opinion, based on almost two decades of nomadic life as a traveler, it is simple. Go and meet local people. Only they can tell you about local customs, habits and traditions. Local people can show you the places you would not be able to find by yourself. Have you ever heard about places like Telč, Třeboň, Mikulov or Velké Bílovice? I imagine you haven’t, but trust me: they are amazing. Did you know that there are world-class vineyards in the Czech Republic? Or have you heard about our beautiful hiking paradises with sandstone rock formations that the climbers from all over the world have given five-star ratings!! They are just an hour and a half drive from Prague!!
Years ago, I was hiking in Pakistan’s fascinating Swat valley. This place is known for its beauty as well as for its being dangerous. Moreover, there are no marked hiking trails for tourists. So, my friend Jakub and I decided to look for a good local guide to show us around. And that is how we found Nasir: a guy with a big heart (and a gun hanging on his belt). We spent two days walking up and down the hills. That trip was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. He took us to the villages of mountain tribes who then saw a foreigner for the first time in their lives. Those people were super welcoming, and they offered us their food. I will not lie here and say that the food tasted great. Actually, quite the opposite. But it was real and it was authentic.
And this is my second point. To get an authentic experience, you have to be brave enough to try something new. Here, I’m not talking about skydiving without a parachute or anything like that. I am talking about exploring and discovering what lies under the surface.
Tourists often demand that the things and services they know from home be available at their holiday destination. I always ask myself, why the heck do they fly thousands of kilometers away from home to eat a dinner at McDonald’s or KFC, when they can try something different?
When I travel, I always try something local: ideally what local people show and recommend to me. When it comes to food, it can, of course, sometimes get very spicy. Sometimes it tastes strange. But it’s always an experience.
I simply just try to have an open mind and take in the experiences that the country I’m visiting has to offer me. So believe me: the Czech Republic is not just Prague or beer, pork and dumplings! That’s just what those oversimplified guide books will tell you. There is much more to see and do. So, why not find out?
Have a great, safe trip!