I tried out a service that connects travelers with locals and provides the groundwork for grassroots businesses throughout Southeast Asia.
Getting behind closed doors is essential if your goal in travel is to learn about the people and culture of the countries you visit. You need to get into homes, get into the kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, and onto balconies and sofas. You need to interact with people on their own turf, in their own element. You need to look around and see what they have hanging on their walls, how they do their laundry, what food they eat, what they watch on television, how they interact with their kids, what their kids amuse themselves with, how they arrange their furniture . . . and all the particular ways they solve the same domestic problems that all humans have everywhere. Knowing how to do this is one of the arts of travel.
As I was on my way to Singapore I received an email asking if I’d like to try out an expedient way to meet people while traveling in Southeast Asia — a way to be invited in for dinner or be shown around a place by the people who live there. I was invited to try WithLocals.com, a website that matches curious travelers with people around the world who want to meet and offer them their specialized services.
“Find the ultimate experience,” is the mission statement that runs across the top of their homepage, and this is precisely what Withlocals.com sets out to do.
The layout of their site was admirably straight forward: there was a blank to fill in your destination and check boxes to select whether you want to eat, tour, or do another activity with a local. I entered “Singapore” into the blank and checked off “Eat with locals.” This was all I had to do. I was then taken to a page that had a list of people in the city who were offering meals to travelers, along with the prices they charged.
This last point is important to understand, and is what sets WithLocals apart from may other similar sites. WithLocals isn’t a system like Couchsurfing, where the guest gets something for free and the host gets nothing other than the pleasure of a traveler’s company and a potential boost of quantified karma for their own journey. Along with being a mechanism for travelers to obtain a deeper experience of the places they visit it is also a way for locals to earn some money by offering their expertise and sharing the things about their culture or city they enjoy. One of the site’s stated goals is that they want to “see 10,000 new “home restaurants” opened in Asia in the next three years,” and they provide a medium for the creation of such grassroots businesses.
After running through the list of offers for a dinner in Singapore I opted to have dinner with an Indonesian family. Booking was likewise easy. On the page that described the potential meal and shared a little about the people who were offering it was a calendar that had their dates of availability. All I had to do was click on the day I wanted to go over and pay up. A little while later I received a message from the host confirming my booking. The following evening I was following directions to their home.
Sally met me at the door, led me inside, and began introducing me to her family: a husband, two young boys, and an Indonesian nanny. We chatted for a while, they told me about their home country and why the emigrated to Singapore, as well as some integral anecdotes about daily life, culture, and history.
Then dinner was then served. It was a matrix of Singaporean and Indonesian food: pork belly, vegetables, and a massive bowl of well-flavored clams. I would never have tried the clams if out my own, and this is one of the most beneficial aspects to being a dinner guest abroad: you’re going to be given food that you probably wouldn’t choose to try otherwise, and you have to eat it. This scenario removes all semblance of culinary conservativeness and thrusts you into new experiences — one of the prime directives of travel.
There is a big difference between the formal foods that you can get in the restaurants and food stalls of a country and the “colloquial” foods that people eat in their homes. Sally gave me this odd mix of food that was prepared as people here really eat it, and it was rather different than anything I’d eaten when out on my own in Singapore.
I then asked Sally why she does WithLocals, and she replied, “We found that we were coming home every night after work and not really doing much of anything. We were just living the same day over and over. Then I saw a post about WithLocals on Facebook and decided to try it. Now we have visitors from all over the world coming into our home and we make a little money from it too.”
While it is always possible to put in the legwork and get invited into homes on your own, having a system in place speeds up the process and promises you a guaranteed engagement. It is also sometimes good to know the parameters of the social situations you get into when traveling abroad, and using a network such as WithLocals means you know what your role is, what is expected from you, and you leave feeling as if you’ve made an equal exchange rather than indebted.