Interactive Travel: From Sightseeing to People-Meeting

01/13/2011 11:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

These days, the notion of "interactive travel" connotes using your iPhone overseas (at a hefty cost) and then tweeting or Facebooking your friends, or perhaps stalking your contacts via Foursquare.

But that's not really my idea of being present, interacting, and engaging in a locale. Sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards. And by that I mean, go back to good, old-fashioned, RL (real life) interaction.

What is your yardstick for a great travel experience? When I think back on some of the most memorable excursions I've ever had, they all seem to have one thing in common: people. To use tech-parlance, visiting a country and only viewing its sites without connecting to its locals is akin to reading a blog or website with no links or commenting capabilities: flat.

During my first trip to Prague with two friends from grad school, I felt myself closely in danger of becoming a member of the traveling flat Earth society. My culturally-curious pals took me sightseeing on guided (and self-navigated) tours around the city. It was stunning, but there was something missing.

One night, on our way back from dinner, they suggested a walk on the Charles Bridge. As gothically gorgeous as it was/is, I passed it up (sated by the monotony of daily sightseeing), and walked back to the hotel alone.

It was dark, it was somewhat late, and I heard heavy footsteps behind me. A toothless middle-aged man had been shadowing me for more than six blocks. I turned around and he stopped, disappearing into a shadowy street corner. I started walking again and his footsteps continued at a quicker tempo, towards me.

In a panic, I ducked into a little bistro where I told a kind waiter my dilemma. He said, "sit, have a glass of wine." So I did as he said. Later, when I had calmed down, he was kind enough to walk me out after his shift.

We ended up sitting in a late-night cafe for four hours questioning each other on our respective cultures. I was hungry for info on former-president/poet Václav Havel. He grilled me on Beverly Hills 90210 (cheesy Hollywood culture is ubiquitous, I discovered).

I thank God for that creepy Czech stalker. Were it not for his unsavory intrusiveness, I would never have had a unique personal connection to the city via my waiter friend. For that reason -- not the Mucha paintings or Art Nouveau architectural detailing -- I will never forget Prague.

On a recent trip to Cannes, I wanted to get away from the glitzy nouveau riche crowds, so my friend and I ducked into a local pub. What resulted was my French singing debut (if you could call it that) or more humbly "open mic night" on a couple of occasions. Thanks to my loungey renditions of "Hotel California" and "Brown Eyed Girl" we gained some new friends (and fans -- in my dreams... ).

On another occasion, I was in Lisbon alone for two days en-route to visit family outside the city. I researched a cool art gallery and discovered that they were having an opening that night. These are the best events for meeting locals as there's wine, art, and of course a discussion subject (art).

I ended up chatting with the gallery owner. Had I not struck up this conversation, he never would have invited me to a limited (myself and a handful of others) showing of a new edgy gallery space in an abandoned old building.

But, it's not just about meeting locals for the purpose of finding the cool, off-the-beaten-path spots. That's a pleasant side effect of such interactions, of course. The point is that if you let fear and insecurity keep you from talking to locals and you aren't lucky enough to have any friends in your sojourn locale, then your travel experience may not get to the heart of a culture: the people.

A town and its buildings aren't just the manifestations of architectural blueprints. They come from the minds and hearts of its locals. Naturally, art and architecture reflect back a component of a culture, but it's the people who live the culture. And in this breakneck world of devices and mobile lifestyle, that culture is rapidly changing on a daily basis.