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Getting a "feel" for a country.

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I am continuing a question that I started on filmwill's India thread. I have edited out a few comment relating to the original thread, but otherwise left the original question and replies intact:
lcuy on Jan 21, 15 at 9:57am

Would you argue that a European who comes to American and spends 3 weeks doing home stays in midwestern farm towns got a better feel for the country than someone who spent the same amount of time in nice hotels in NYC, Boston and Los Angeles?

IMO, it has less to do with how you travel, and is more likely a result of the personality of the traveler. There is no right or wrong way, not even a better way. There is the way you like.

Craig on Jan 21, 15 at 1:07pm

That is a very provocative question, Lucy. I would argue that one would get a better feel for the USA by spending time in the midwest, but I would also argue that staying at a B&B in one of the country's larger cities would provide more incite into the local culture than staying at an upscale hotel. But I take it that's not your point and that your point is that everyone has different travel needs. I agree with that and also agree that Bill is providing excellent info...
julies on Jan 21, 15 at 1:31pm

I guess I would have to argue your point. If someone is coming to the US with the express purpose of getting a feel for the essence of the US, then visiting only NYC, Boston and LA will leave an erroneous impression of what the US is all about. (This is just like people from other countries watching movies or tv shows produced in the US and coming away with the impression that everyone is rich and lives in fabulous housing or lives in a dangerous ghetto environment.) An itinerary needs balance if it is to be truly representative, and only a teeny percentage of people in the US live in metropolitan areas like these.

On the other hand, if the purpose of that European's visit is to learn more about those cities and to do sightseeing in those three cities, that is completely different. But, they are not representative of the US as a whole. On our European trips we have visited many small towns and rural areas, and this is completely different from limiting ourselves to Paris, London and Rome. Those cities are not representative of Europe as a whole either.

On five star hotel issue, I think that discussion has been had may times here at Fodors with certain factions believing that 5* is the only way to travel, and others saying that is unrealistic and unaffordable for most people. And, I guess I'd also argue that even in the US the vast majority of domestic travelers do not limit their stays to only 5* properties. A certain demographic does, but it is a very small percentage.

I agree Bill is giving some good pointers on many things, but choices we make when we travel impact our overall experience. Are we looking more for immersion or more for a little bit of exposure while not getting too far out of our comfort zone as far as lodging? On each of our India trips we have said several times that we know certain of our friends would not be good candidates for India, and not everyone is. I am not commenting on Bill; it is just a comment in general on personality and travel style. We have certain friends who are only willing to go the 5* route because they want that buffer zone.
Marija on Jan 21, 15 at 2:09pm

Every country and region has innumerable "feels" and we all touch and react differently, like the proverbial blind men and the elephant. I don't understand why the Midwest gives a better "feel" of the USA than the East Coast or why a city is inferior to the countryside or a hotel is less real than a B&B. They are all parts of the whole..

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    So to comment on my own question, would you really think that a midwestern farm stay would give a traveler a better "feel" for America than a visit to NYC, Boston and LA?

    It would give them a feel for midwestern farms in America, but (making assumptions here) I would guess if that is all you saw in our country you would think Americans are mostly white, live in single family homes on big plots of land, and like to drive tractors and pickup trucks.

    However, why would that be any better than seeing the diversity of citizens and lifestyles in some very classic and influential American cities? Or just different?

    I live in Hawaii. Going to NYC is always a wonderful cultural experience. Staying in rural Nebraska would, I think also be an interesting cultural experience. It certainly would be very different from the "America" I know.

    To me the bottom line is that even within one area, some travelers are able to connect with the locals and others are not. I'd guess the guy who produces Humans of New York, can get a great "feel" anywhere he travels, and staying in a B&B or 5 Star hotel is not really going to make any difference.

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    IMO -- and it is, of course JUST that -- the US is FAR too diverse to get a "feel" for it in ANY 3 week stay. WHATEVER one sees in 3 weeks is just that -- whatever one saw in those 3 weeks. Period.

    But then, I think that about most countries. IME, most countries are FAR too varied to permit "getting a feel" by visiting only a few select destinations.

    To be honest, I don't know what it is that someone thinks they have gotten when they think they have gotten "a feel" for a place. I've lived in quite a few cities in the U.S., and some much more rural areas, too. MY experiences in LIVING in those places, even for years, was sometimes quite different than the experiences of my neighbors. So if my experience is different than my neighbor's, even after years, how can anyone who visits for less than that really get "a feel" for it?

    And I don't think that being "able to connect with the locals" speaks to anything other than one's desire for interpersonal contact and success in so doing. The "locals" who have the time and inclination to "connect" with travelers may be quite different than the "locals" who have neither the time nor inclination. Too, "connecting" with locals may have much more to do with the specific individuals involved than with anything more general.

    Moreover, I'm not convinced that "getting a feel for a place" and "connecting with locals" are the same thing. "Getting a feel for a place" can simply mean identifying a common theme to one's personal reactions to a place over a visit of any length, e.g., "the vibrant markets and whimsical architecture and lively interactions among those at outdoor cafes and restaurants made me feel that this is a place that fosters lighthearted conviviality." One could make a statement like that (accurate or not) without interacting with ANY locals. Or one could disavow one's "feel" for a place, even without asserting an actual connection with locals, e.g., "Despite the norms against smiling in public and the stark and frankly ugly architecture, which gave me the feeling that this was a coldly unwelcoming place, I had the opportunity to meet some locals and was surprised and enchanted by their warmth and hospitality."

    I think it is quite reasonable for people to say that they liked / didn't like "the feel" of a place, even after just a short visit -- they are simply stating their subjective reactions and saying so doesn't necessarily mean that the "feeling" is accurate or that it can / should be generalized to anywhere else. But that isn't the same as saying they "got the feel of a place" (which seems, at least to me, a statement about the speaker's belief that he/she gained the information necessary to form an objective assessment of the place). Example: I remember walking through a section of Palermo one night that made me VERY uncomfortable -- something FELT decidedly WRONG! -- but I had been comfortable in that area during the daylight, felt comfortable every where else I went in Palermo, and would CERTAINLY not judge all of Italy on the basis of that half hour walk! i didn't like the feel of the place that night. I did NOT "get a feel for" that place.

    I'm sure there are people who have "connected with ... locals"-- I know people who established life-long relationships with people they met on trains or group-led day trips or whatever. But as suggested above, I question whether those with whom one can make such connections are necessarily representative of the "locals".

    Note that I make no reference to "better" or "worse" -- I have no criterion against which to judge better or worse in this context.


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    Heck, can anyone know the "feel" of the US, including any of us who live here? If we look at Congress, each would argue that they KNOW what the US is, no? And we all can agree, I'm sure, that this is not exactly accurate.

    So, the "feel" of a place, to extrapolate from kja's post -- one can only get a "feel" for a particular place, at a particular time, by a particular person with individual tastes -- that is, entirely subjective. Yet accurate for their own experience.

    I live in NYC and I know that I don't have the "feel" of the US, although there are times when I feel more "American" and other times when I feel like a NYer. Example -- after 9/11, people seemed to bond as a country. But most of the time, I think our identity is much more local.

    I would offer up a thought, not really deeply analyzed, but here it is -- traveling experience is based on expectations (both conscious and unconscious) of what a place will be like -- and our subjective experience" will be in reaction to that. I do believe that expectations color a lot of our reaction to any trip, though.

    And here I'll be contradictory - I do think you can get a "flavor" of a place in a large city or in a small town, but not necessarily the same taste. So perhaps there's something unique to the entire region or country, but not necessarily the same.

    Anyway, sharing thoughts that were stimulated by these provocative questions and responses.

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    The "feel" of a place is completely subjective. For instance, I do not care for Madrid but love Lisbon. Many people love Madrid, and some don't care for Lisbon. None of us are "right".

    If, rather than "feel" we are talking about getting some understanding of how people live then obviously variety is desirable. I would submit that life in Manhattan is rather different than life in, say Topeka, never mind somewhere more rural.

    I find the whole "connect with the locals" thing a bit self-centered. Most locals are too busy with their own lives to be interested. Those who are renting out rooms might be doing it because they are interested in meeting people, but often are more interested in the money, as I found out in Russia! And most people's daily lives are not very interesting. When I stay with my family in England I am obviously seeing "real life", but I don't think I would recommend it as a tourist sight to someone with only a few days to see England.

    Also, I think how you travel depends on what kind of traveler you are. If you have a measly two week vacation and need a rest, you are going to want a different kind of trip than someone who is retired. I'm retired, I get my relaxation at home, and I travel for several weeks or months at a time. My trips will be different from someone who just wants to recharge. While I would not want to (and did not) do India in the Oberoi and car and driver (never mind guide) bubble, if someone is nervous about India and only has two weeks, maybe that is the best trip for them. Perhaps it will give them confidence to step a little out of the bubble next time. (But if they knowingly sign up for the bubble, they shouldn't come back and complain about it...)

    I do think that staying in Western chain hotels (not necessarily 5 star hotels) is an odd thing to do, but again, if you're on a two week R&R trip maybe it removes a possible stressor. I love to stay in central, local places, but I do encounter a dud on occasion. On the other hand, there are some gems, like the beautiful B&B in Evora on my last trip.

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    I think there are two independent issues in your question, Lucy. One is the actual place you are visiting (i.e. rural midwest or coastal city in the US) and second is the type of accommodation. It seems to me that someone that spends their entire time in Delhi, India for example will have an entirely different impression of the country than someone that has spent time in Varanasi or rural India, no matter where they stay.

    So let's get to the crux of the matter - the lodging. We love 5-star hotels. We love more intimate places. Both can isolate you, if you let them. We stayed at a small resort on a lake in Guatemala last year with only 3 bungalows. While it was a fantastic experience, our hosts were transplants from the US and Canada, so there was really no local interaction. Last September, we stayed at the Intercontinental in Sydney - typical large 5 star hotel and perfect for us while we were there, but again no local interaction. But then we moved on to Katoomba, where we stayed in a small (3 room) B&B where we spent a considerable amount of time with the hostess and really got to know her. We finished up that trip in Bali at a small resort in Ubud where we had little personal contact with the locals (and lots with our Fodorite friends Bob, Karen, Peter and Linda).

    The homestay in Udaipur was another example of a place where we really got to know the hostess and her husband. She's a Facebook friend now. Her husband was in the tea business and they did not depend on lodging to survive. We had a wonderful opportunity to enjoy their company and their neighborhood as well as to use the internet cafe, and hire local transport to the area around City Palace. One morning, just by chance, we were invited off the street into a nearby school to enjoy a student talent show - an unanticipated highlight, for sure.

    We are one of those non-retired 2-week-at-a-time travelers. I think we do a pretty good job of combining recharging with getting a "feel" for places, whatever that really means.

    Just my 2 additional cents - happy not to be intruding on Filmwill's thread while offering it ;-) .

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    In the US, only 16% of Americans live in rural areas, only 30% live in rural areas or non-metropolitan towns. So I'm not sure about the contention that one would get a better feel for the US staying on a farm on Nebraska or Iowa.

    For me, the question is always what do I want to get a feel for? Personally, I'm a city person. So I would much rather spend time in a big city than on a farm somewhere. For someone else, they might be interested in the farm and have no interest in the city. Neither is right or wrong. Nor does either one give a "better" "more valid" feel for the country than the other. They are different experiences.

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    And a companion cartoon from years ago... you see all of the blind mean, each feeling a different thing: a rope, a tree trunk, a wall, etc and each is exclaiming "It's an elephant."

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    We rarely think in terms of countries. We visit places and then more places. If the next place happens to be across a border we don't care.

    It drives me somewhat around the bend when people ask if they can visit, say, Ireland and Scotland on the same trip and they are told they only have time for one. And they listen?!?!

    They are in an area. They should see anything they want within a reasonable distance. If they cross a border to see it who cares? But I gather most people don't think that way.

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    I have suggested that people to stick one country, but that was because they had a really limited amount of time and entering the second country required an expensive or difficult to obtain visa.

    It's kind of sad when they've already bought their air tickets and they find those two days in (country X) are going to require $180 in shipping and visa fees, struggling with a complicated application and having to hope their passport arrive back in time. Sadder still if they had no special desire to see the country, just that it was "so close".

    Ditto with people who are trying to cram in loads of stops in countries notorious for transportation delays.

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    It seems it would be better to seek and compare specific types of experiences without being confined by the lines on a map.

    For example, I like reading about descriptions or comparisons of cultural, foodie or wildlife themed trips across different regions, be they within the same country or on different sides of the globe.

    The feel of a travel destination is so heavily influenced by the landscape that I think it would be impossible or even unfair to expect that anyone could get the true feel of any country (or state or county for that matter) by only touching on urban or rural areas, only staying in high or low end accommodations, or going with or without a guide.

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