Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Golden Trifecta: 3 Places I go in every city

TRIAL Supermarket in Hamada, Japan

There are many ways to experience a new country and new culture. For some people that means visiting museums and going on tours. For others that means just walking around and seeing what happens. Some read about the history and geography of the place before they go. Some travel with the guidebook at their side.

But my method is uniquely my own.

It was not purposefully chosen, rather, it was cultivated from years of exploration and genuine interest.

If I really want to learn about a place, I visit three locations: a grocery store, a library, and a cemetery.

Rose petals to adorn graves in Islamabad, Pakistan

None of these are typical tourist spots, with the exceptions of world-famous libraries (like the Library of Congress in Washington DC, or world-famous cemeteries (like the Hollywood cemetery in Los Angeles). But for the most part these three place are typically untouched and uninflected by the pulse of tourism in any given country. They are designed for locals to experience, and at some point in their lives, they will all experience these places.

Let me break it down:

The grocery store
This is a place for people to get food, and we all have to eat. A grocery story is very revealing about the culture of a particular country and the lifestyle of its residents. For example, there are entire aisles dedicated to hot sauce in Vietnam, and utensils are sometimes taped to the side ofpackaged foods as incentive for people to buy them. In the Netherlands, thereare machines that squeeze fresh juice into recyclable bottles and the stores charge customers for not bringing their own reusable bags.

Now, in some places there are not grocery stores so much as there are markets, typically outdoors. For the purpose of this list, those count too and they tell us just as much about the people who shop there.

Jumbo supermarket in Amsterdam, Netherlands

The library
Libraries are where people get information. Of course, in the age of technology most people are using the internet now, but libraries continue to grow around the world. It turns out, these are not just places where people get information, these are places where they use recourses (computers, scanners, etc), and where they study, and where they meet, and where they learn.

Xinbeitou Library in Taipei, Taiwa

If no library is available in the city (or in some countries, there are no public libraries at all), then I go to a book store. This is almost a good substitute because then I can closely inspect the reading material of the place. In Yangon, Myanmar, books are prevalent and often sold on the streets, where they are lined up along the sidewalks for people to browse as they commute to work.

Books for sale on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar

The cemetery
Sometimes difficult to get to, cemeteries are one of the most culturally loaded places you can experience. Not only are they facets of deep religious values, but they also often incorporate local superstition and aesthetic.  I became interested in cemeteries from a young age when I visited a Catholic cemetery in Galveston,Texas and was transfixed with the unique faces of each Virgin Mary. I became further intrigued when I visited a Catholic cemetery in Hong Kong, where the worship of the Virgin Mother is combined with the traditional Chinese shrine.

Cemtery in Reykjavik, Iceland

Now...just because I said I try to visit these three places in every country, doesn’t mean I succeed. As they are not designed to accommodate tourists, I sometimes have difficulty in getting to them. Libraries are often only open for limited hours. Cemeteries are typically far from the city center. Grocery stores can also be hard to find for a tourist. In only a few countries have I achieved the golden trifecta:

United States

Time to go back and keep trying for more! 

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