Three Travel Secrets: Backpack Foodie Edition

There’s this meme going around where travel bloggers each spill three “secrets” they learned from traveling. The concept also involves tagging five other bloggers, but as you can imagine, at the bottom of the pyramid you run out of friends to enroll, so I’ll skip that part.

Gillian and Jason of One Giant Step kindly tagged me in their own Three Travel Secrets entry; and so, here are my own!

Local Food Is Safer than Tourist Food.

I’ve lived three years in Shanghai and ate mostly local food, the majority of which came from small, family-run places; yet the majority of times I fell sick was from eating imported food that appealed mostly to tourists and expats.

Heard about all those travelers who meticulously eat hotel food, drink only bottled water, and peel their fruits, yet fall sick because they drank one fruit juice? I’ll bet you a hundred on the dollar that the so-called safe food, not the juice, is what got them sick.

If you stick to a few simple rules – always eat in busy places, look for clean, well-lit places, eat what the locals eat, and trust your instincts – then you’ll find local, even street food, to be a perfectly safe and healthy diet choice. Plus, it’s a hell of a lot tastier than that rewarmed pizza with three week-old imported mozzarella, and it’ll save you tons of money. Finally, you’ll encourage local, often family-run businesses, instead of foreign-owned corporations.

To Find Great Places, Read a Guidebook.

Then go where they say not to go.

The mainstream guidebooks focus their energy on places that tourists will enjoy, which typically means tourist facilities, some local nightlife, and a minimum of sightseeing. If you visit a place with none of these, what you’ll discover is somewhere where the people will be genuinely curious to engage you in conversation, and where you’ll see very little of the typical harassment associated with tourist centers.

I’ve gone against the recommendations of Lonely Planet and Rough Guides a few times. Every time, I found a charming, unpretentious place where we were able to relate to the locals as human beings instead of peddlers, and where we could enjoy a slice of local life. Every time.

You Can Communicate Without a Common Language.

Don’t let the lack of a common language prevent you from engaging the people you meet! A smile and a nod go a long way. With a lot of patience and the ability to laugh at yourself, you can force your way through the language barrier.

That’s not to say it’s not a good idea to pick up a few words of the local language. As a matter of fact, knowing ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘this is delicious’ can go a long way towards endearing you to the people you meet. In a country where the local dialect differs from the official language (say, in Shanghai, where Mandarin is the official language but Shanghainese is the local dialect,) you’ll entice a few belly laughs and big grins by saying ‘thank you’ in the local lingo rather than the official language.

Seventy percent of communication is non-verbal, as the saying goes. You may not be able to hold deep philosophical conversations this way, but you can still connect with your fellow humans on a personal, fundamental level. Try it!

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."


  1. Fab tips thanks for sharing!

    Can you send me your email?



  2. I TOTALLY agree with the local food tip. Eating ‘western’ food and staying in ‘safe’ restaurants is no guarantee and is boring, boring, boring! We follow your tips, eating where busy, where we can see the food cooking etc and haven’t been sick yet. Great post and fantastic tips!!

  3. Love your secrets! I can especially relate to number 3. When we first moved to Brazil, I spent many days with the people helping with and working on our apartment who spoke no English and at that point I spoke about 10 words of Portuguese. We managed just fine. Laughter and smiles go a long way.

  4. Local and street food tastes better too.

  5. Katie, Gillian, Lori, thanks for the comments! And thanks to Gillian for tagging me as well. šŸ™‚

    Anil: Of course! Based on what I read on traveler forums, most people, even those who eat tourist food all the time, are fully aware that the local food tastes better… They just see it as a choice between ‘good taste’ and ‘safer’. For me, there’s no choice. You either eat bad food and most likely become sick, or you eat healthy, tasty, and in a way that supports small business owners and mitigates your impact on the environment.

    Hmm, I should write “In Praise of Street Food” or something like that. šŸ™‚

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