By Rishika Sharma, on January 18, 2023

Travel like a local: Tips from a slow traveler who swapped Appalachia for Albania

When you think of taking a vacation, what comes to mind? Relaxing by a pool in Mexico? Sipping cocktails on a sun lounger in St Barts? Or do you live by the philosophy, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”?

We often hear the phrase “travel like a local”, but it can be laced with a snobbish undertone. And let’s be realistic. Are you going to visit Paris for the first time and forgo the Eiffel Tower just because it’s touristy? Or skip Rome’s Colosseum just because it’s not part of the everyday Roman experience? Probably not. And the reality is that there’s nothing wrong with resorts. R&R is an important element to factor into a vacation. Nor is there anything wrong with visiting the places recommended in guidebooks, or that show up in everyone else’s photos (tourism hotspots can be a great starting point if you’re building an itinerary from scratch). However, at the heart of it, travel itself is all about adventure, and that includes the warts-and-all of getting lost, struggling with street signs, and braving foreign foods. And when you do give yourself the opportunity to actively engage with local people, experience another culture, and immerse yourself in a different type of everyday life, you’re likely to reap so much more from your trip than if you were just another tourist.

So, how do you actually immerse yourself in a place while you’re traveling? That’s what we’re chatting about with slow travel advocate Maria Perrett on this episode of Out Travel The System. Maria is a travel blogger who has been documenting her travels and experiences on the road less traveled. Originally from a rural Pennsylvanian community on the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, her first taste of non-conventional travel came with her first trip outside of the US – a humanitarian trip to Cairo, Egypt, helping medics who were treating Sudanese refugees. She’s been hooked on hyper-local experiences ever since, so much so that nowadays you’ll find her slowly traveling through Albania, far from Europe’s usual tourist crowds. Want to get off the beaten track in 2023? Here are Maria’s top slow-travel tips:

Follow your intrigue

Everyone’s always wondered why I went from Scotland and Ireland to Albania, and the truth is I was just scrolling on Facebook (back when people still used Facebook) and saw videos about the Balkans, specifically Albania. They were about the coffee culture, the unique history, the amazing food, the incredible nature, and how kind of chaotic and adventurous it is – but I didn’t know many people who were visiting, so it intrigued me. And whenever I would tell people that I wanted to visit, I felt they would judge, so that made me want to go even more, because it seemed like the kind of place that would be less-discovered and have more fun stories. So I went and visited for two-and-a-half weeks and just fell in love.

You don’t have to jump in the deep end

You can start with small things, like choosing to eat at a local restaurant rather than eating at a chain restaurant, or taking public transport. When you don’t speak a language but can get to your destination on time usual local services, it feels so good. However, I can understand that could be overwhelming for people new to traveling, so there’s shame in taking a taxi if that’s what’s going to make you feel safe or comfortable. You can always arrange a locally guided tour or some form of immersive tourism experience to get an idea of what cooking is like in that destination, or how the locals make their specific type of olive oil. There are loads of ways of getting a local, immersive experience without compromising your comfort and safety. 

Be humble

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that though our passport privilege allows us to easily visit a number of countries where the nationals of those places cannot always do the same, it doesn’t make us better or mean that the way we do things is right. The food, customs, and culture might be different from what we’re used to, so we should be mindful of how locals are doing things and try to follow suit. We need to be open, conscious, and considerate before acting so as not to offend, because we have the privilege of visiting their country. 

Focus on food and where to stay

My two top recommendations for travelers looking to immerse themselves in somewhere new are to think about food and where to stay.

For food, I like to usually ask waiters and waitresses for their best recommendations. In my experience, they’re the ones who usually have a lot of ideas and can point you to a coffee shop where they and their friends like to go, rather than the tourists, or they might have an uncle who owns a restaurant in a local neighborhood, which can get you further from the more touristy suggestions.

Regarding accommodation, I would suggest looking for an apartment, as they tend to be in more local neighborhoods, and they give you certain opportunities that are usually missing when you stay at a hotel. For example, heading to the bakery on the corner for fresh coffee and breakfast in the morning. And if you can’t necessarily avoid a hotel, there are boutique, family-run establishments you can look into, rather than the big hotel chains. Staying in a place like that is also going to put money back into the pocket of the locals, which is another plus. 


Do you have any interesting travel stories from when you were overseas? If so, we definitely want to hear them. Share your experience with us on Twitter or Instagram! 

Want to learn more?

Listen to the podcast now, check out the complete transcript below, or catch the full conversation on Spotify or Apple.

Nisreene Atassi, Expedia Global Head of Social Media, and host: I’m Nisreene Atassi and this is Out Travel The System. This week we’re talking all about travel immersion and how you can fully immerse yourself in the local culture of the destination you’re visiting.
We’ll talk trends…

Christie Hudson, head of Expedia PR for North America (sound bite): You’ll be navigating something new, probably trying to decipher signs in a foreign language. You may even be lucky enough to get a little lost.

Nisreene: ..hear from digital nomad Maria Perrett..

Maria Perrett, digital nomad and slow travel expert (sound bite): So I show up at their house at 10am. I have a shot of raki and an espresso. Coffee and alcohol together.

Nisreene: ..and really get down to business.

Maria: So, 100%. I will always say yes to someone who will show me how to make their local food. And that has happened a few times here.

Nisreene: So here we go!

 ** cont here, 1.22**

[Musical interlude]

Nisreene: Your travel experience isn’t just about the destination. It’s about the entire journey and all of the minor victories, and even setbacks, along the way. Sometimes that means taking the scenic long route a post, as opposed to maybe an immediate taxi or Uber ride from the airport. But sometimes it also means getting lost. Sometimes it means finding that absolutely delicious restaurant that is off the beaten path. Or maybe it means taking a different turn and finding the most beautiful shops you’ve ever seen. Whichever it is, we all try to live like a local – or, at least, when we’re traveling to that destination, we want to travel as the locals do. Do what they do, eat what they eat, see what they see. To me, that’s how I like to really immerse myself into a destination. Today is going to be the absolute perfect episode where we talk just about that and all of the tips for how you can fully immerse yourself into the vibrant local culture of wherever you’re visiting.

All right, Christie, so what does the research talk about in terms of immersion into another culture? What are some of the effects?

Christie: So maybe the first thing we can do here is unpack what immersive travel is. Immersive travel is described as experiencing a destination by actively and meaningfully engaging with its history, people, culture, food, and environment. And for many travelers, this has the potential to be transformative. But I think the question we run into is how do we have this kind of transformative experience when the average trip length for Americans is just three to seven days? It can feel like not enough time to become immersed. But the good news is it is actually enough time. I thought what I could do today is share with you some tips, based on my own experiences, those of travel experts, and from some of my Expedia colleagues who are frequent travelers, that anyone can use to make their trip more immersive regardless of how long you’ll be there.

Number one, take public transit. This is my favorite tip, because it’s so simple and so inexpensive. But taking public transportation – whether it’s a bus, a subway, an aboveground train – instead of grabbing a taxi or hiring a car service is a great way to make sure you feel like you’ve immediately been immersed in the city you’re visiting. You’ll be surrounded by locals, many of whom will probably be very impatient with you. You’ll be navigating something new, probably trying to decipher signs in a foreign language. You may even be lucky enough to get a little lost. So take the Métro in Paris, or the underground in London, or hail a tuk tuk in Bangkok, and it may end up being one of the most memorable parts of your trip.

Two, learn a few phrases in the local language. I love to use Duolingo or a similar app before a trip. It’s a great way to learn a couple key words like ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, “Where’s the bathroom?” or “How much does that cost?” And it’s amazing how knowing just a little bit of the local language can allow you to connect more with people and navigate a new place in a deeper way quickly.

Okay, number three. And my good friend gave me this one. She’s a great traveler. Go to a local corner store or the bodega. Browse all the unique snacks and food items that you may never see at home. And then ask the people working there for recommendations on where to eat and what to do in the neighborhood.

Number four, sit at the bar and strike up a conversation. Some of my absolute favorite memories from my travels have been the result of talking to strangers. Whether it’s the bartender or the person next to you, sitting at the bar counter can make it easier to meet people. You can learn about the culture and you can get tips on things to do and what touristy stuff to skip.

The last one – number five. In order to become fully immersed, you got to leave the resort. You might even need to leave the hard-trodden tourist areas entirely. Do your research, of course. Make sure you’re making smart, safe decisions. But the best way to feel immersed is to eat where the locals eat and go where the locals go. And most of the time, that is not going to be the heavily touristed areas. So, your homework for your next trip? Go out there, try one of these tips. Get immersed and come back transformed.

Nisreene: Oh, cool. All right. Thanks, Christie.

Today I’m joined by young, fearless global traveler and self-described digital nomad Maria Perrette. Maria grew up in a rural Pennsylvania community just on the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. And while almost all of the people around her, from her peers to her family, stuck around their hometown, she was determined to get out and find a new experience. She eventually found herself living in Europe and, now, Shkodër, Albania. I found her fearlessness and tenacity to experience new cultures so inspiring, and I hope you will too.

Hi, Maria. Welcome to Out Travel The System. So good to have you on the show today.

Maria: Thanks for having me.

Nisreene: Maria, so, tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, and how you got to where you are today.

Maria: So I grew up in a very small area of, like, 500 people in the middle of nowhere in the Appalachian Mountains. It’s very, like, heavily based on oil. And it’s… I actually grew up a few miles from where the first oil well in North America was drilled. And my father actually worked in the local oil field as well. So I am very much, like, versed into that. But unfortunately, since, like, the early 1900s, the oil industry has just gone down. I mean, as most fossil fuels in all of America have, they’ve been running out. And so that just put a really big damper on where I grew up. And it just is a very big reminder of how much our area was struggling, because this thing that gave us all jobs is now desolate. So it’s pretty depressing. But… I don’t know, like, when you grow up in that type of environment, you feel like you don’t have any options because no-one ever leaves. And the only way I ever saw people leave was through academic scholarships or sports scholarships. So even though I didn’t think I could get out – none of my friends have really left – but I ended up going to my undergrad in Kansas, and that’s kind of what launched my experience to start traveling, because I had those opportunities once I got out of that area.

Nisreene: Did you experience any sort of a culture shock? Because the place where you grew up, you kind of describe it as this really small, almost like sheltered place.

Maria: Yes. And that’s kind of the crazy thing, is that it just kept happening in small steps. I don’t think I would have been able to handle such a crazy culture shock, moving to Albania, ten years ago, you know? But moving from an environment in America to a different environment – they’re so vastly different. No-one kind of understands – unless, you grew up there, you don’t understand the depression, and the suicide, and the drug abuse, and all of the really, really terrible things that come along with those small Appalachian towns. They don’t really understand that unless you’re from there. But yeah, going from that to Kansas, it was vastly different. I still moved to a small town, but the economy was a lot better. People had jobs from the university, and I know there is a lot more hope and optimism that I experienced.

Nisreene: So were any of those small steps, like, travel experiences? Like, when was the first time that you actually traveled?

Maria: I ended up going on this trip to Egypt. It was like a medical trip in a way – and not that I know that much about medical things, but we were going… we had a contact there, a doctor in Cairo that needed some help. He was treating a lot of Syrian and Sudanese refugees – and this was in 2015. So there was still a lot of unrest going on. But we did go and it was life-changing. And it was really my first time outside of North America. And it’s quite a shock, to be honest, you know, to be completely surrounded by Arabic and different food. And just being in Cairo, if you know anything about Cairo, it’s just a city that’s kind of crazy. It’s hard to describe, but this need to be abroad and to be helping people in some way definitely changed my life.

Nisreene: It’s funny because you kind of, like, go straight to the extreme travel experience. Everybody else would do, like, a guided tour in Egypt, because it’s such an intense place. But you’re like, “No, I’m going to go… I’m going to, like, go on a mission trip, help these refugees out, really just throw myself into it.” I think that really says something about your personality and your goal to have the ultimate experience. I love that.

Maria: Yeah. Those experiences, like, really made me grow. Those big steps, even though it was very hard and I almost didn’t do them, for sure.

Nisreene: Most people, when they talk about their first travel experiences, they’re talking about, like, a trip to Mexico or, like, you know, somewhere in Europe. These are, like, major and very thoughtful experiences. So what got you to eventually move abroad?

Maria: Before that, I had no idea what Europe was like. I’d never been to Europe. I’d never been to Scotland or to the university, of course. So I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It was just a huge leap of faith for me. So, yeah, I moved there and spent about a year-and-a-half living in Edinburgh and it’s so beautiful and historic there. Yeah, it’s just incredible. Scotland is gorgeous and I was like, “I cannot leave this place. I need to stay in Europe somehow, some way – I’ll find a way.” So I applied to a lot of jobs. I wasn’t getting anywhere. This was when Brexit was happening as well, so people didn’t really want to be hiring foreigners as well. But I found a working holiday visa in Ireland that Americans can do. It’s the only place in Europe that Americans get a working holiday for. So I jumped at that. I applied. I went there and I worked there for a year. So I got to travel around Ireland more and also go to a lot of places in mainland Europe and experience more of that. And those short trips really made me catch the travel bug and I just thought, “It’s kind of fate. I need to pursue this.” And that’s how I ultimately started my own website, was when I was in Ireland.

Nisreene: Amazing. And so you are living in Albania now? How did you get to Albania?

Maria: Yes. Everyone’s always wondering, “How from Ireland to Albania?” I was in Ireland and working at some tech companies, so I got to kind of experience, like, the nine-to-five in these big corporations. And while I was doing that, of course, I’d be, like, scrolling on Facebook, back when you still used Facebook, and saw these videos about Albania and just, in general, the Balkans. But specifically Albania, talking about the coffee culture, the unique history, like, the amazing food, the incredible nature, and how kind of chaotic and adventurous it is. And no-one was going there. And whenever I would tell people, they would judge me so much. So I knew that was a place that I wanted to go. If you tell someone, “I want to go to this place” and they say, like, “Are you sure? You’re going to get kidnaped?” that’s when I’m usually interested, because those are the places that are kind of undiscovered and usually have the most fun stories. So I went there and visited for two-and-a-half weeks – just fell in love. So that was kind of my next goal, was to figure out, “What can I do to have that life that I just experienced there?”

Nisreene: So you became a travel blogger, then?

Maria: Yes. And I get a little bit of a cringy feeling when someone says that, because there’s this certain idea around travel blogging. And they use that phrase of, like, you “did” this country or you “did” this city, and now you can check it off and you’ve accomplished this place – it’s an accomplishment. And so that’s kind of what I wanted for my travel blog, as you can call it, because I just never saw any articles on how to, you know, like immerse myself in the culture. Of course, there’s more blogs about that stuff now, but back then, in 2018, 2019, I wasn’t really finding them. And that’s kind of what made me want to start, was no-one was doing it.

Nisreene: Yeah. And that’s a great segue into this episode. Because, you know, people talk a lot about, “Oh, I really want to travel like a local. I want to do what the locals do.” And all of that is really just sort of getting to a more immersive travel experience, right? Because it does – it does change how you view a destination, right? So how do you really describe an immersive travel experience?

Maria: Yeah, that’s a good question, honestly. And I think you can answer in two ways. As, personally, like, I have my own answer that I’ve found what works for me, what I enjoy. You know, there are just small things, like choosing to eat at a local restaurant rather than eating at a chain restaurant when you’re in a place. Even though it might not seem like a big deal, it does, ultimately, help the local economy, and that’s going to put money back into locals’ hands And that’s just something that maybe you don’t think of when you’re on vacation or holiday. So, for me, I kind of always have that in the back of my mind – putting that back into the local economy. And I’ve seen that so much living in Albania, too, because it is growing exponentially and the tourism sector is really taking off now that they’ve left communism behind not that long ago. So you’re seeing this surge. But, yeah, it’s just, I think, small steps. There’s no need to put too much pressure on yourself and say, “I didn’t do everything perfectly.” You know, it’s the small things.

Nisreene: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think, sort of, the lifestyle that you described, I think has become really, really appealing to the younger generation, right? This idea of being a digital nomad, I think it really, really peaked, obviously, during the pandemic. And we saw a lot of people who were like, “Well, I did my job fully remote for a year. I don’t see why I can’t sort of continue to do so.” And I think it’s because people think, “If I’m going to really immerse myself in a location, I do have to go for a long time.”

So what are some of the things that you think people think make for a really localized, immersive experience, but in actuality are okay to just almost take, like, the easy way out, so to speak?

Maria: Yeah, I need to be cautious – especially as a woman too, you know this, traveling. I think yes, of course, you want to have this local, immersive experience. And I love taking public transport. And I feel like, even if you’re not fluent in the language and you somehow manage to get to your destination on time, it feels so good. And I want people to have that experience. Also, if they’re new to traveling and if they don’t feel safe, I think those things come as a priority, for sure. I would never want someone to be risky with, you know, their personal well-being, because, “Oh, they need to have this immersive experience.” So, at the end of the day, that probably is more important and it is hard to kind of gauge whether you feel safe.

Nisreene: Yeah, no, that makes total sense. Obviously, like, your comfort and safety should come first, because forcing yourself into an experience that you’re going to feel unsafe or uncomfortable is not going to yield a great travel experience in the end. So doing what makes you feel comfortable and that kind of stuff is super, super important.

Maria: Yes. And if it is someone’s, like, first time doing something like that, I would not shame them for taking a taxi. And, then, later on they can arrange, like, a local guide to do a really immersive tourism experience, you know – like whether that’s cooking in a local’s home or, you know, finding out how you make olive oil in this certain way, you make wine in this certain way, and you’re supporting the locals. You’re getting a local, immersive experience, but you’re not necessarily compromising your safety or comfort. There are other ways around that. If you don’t feel safe stepping out of the airport, that can be pretty daunting.

Nisreene: How often do you solicit advice from locals on the ground when you’re traveling and, like, how do you go about doing that? Like, how do you know who to ask? And, you know, are there typical people? Like, is it always the tour guides or your hotel concierge? Have you found that, like, there’s a certain person in a certain industry that always gives you the best kind of advice when you’re traveling and you’re talking to the locals? Like, I feel like some people might say, like, “Oh, the taxi drivers always have the best advice in terms of, like, where to go eat”, or people really swear by their concierges at the hotel, or some people might swear by the, you know, the walking tour guide that they use. Do you have, like, a go-to person that you usually ask?

Maria: I do. And it’s kind of funny that you mentioned the taxi drivers, because in my opinion, I probably wouldn’t take the taxi drivers’ recommendations. I just feel like in many countries, they can be a little bit shifty, you know? But for me, personally, I would usually ask waiters. I always get the best recommendations, like, because they have so many friends, you know, in that same level. “Oh, yeah, this coffee shop is the best, has the best croissants.” Or, you know, “My uncle, he owns this restaurant. You have to go there, it’s really good.” You can tell how much they care, because usually it’s the people in their family, or their friends in their local neighborhood, and they’re trying to promote them.

Nisreene: So you mentioned that you’ve, you know, met friends and, you know, just sort of speaking to the locals and things like that. Have you ever had somebody, like, invite you over to their house for dinner? I feel like those, sometimes, are, like, really immersive opportunities that people always strive to have.

Maria: Yes, I feel the exact same way. That’s always my goal. It is really hard to have those when you go to a place for a short time. But, yeah, when you when those fall into your lap, it’s bliss. And that’s kind of one of the reasons why I like living in a place for a longer period of time, because you can have those experiences, whereas it’s very hard to have that if you just go somewhere for a weekend. So some of the times that I’ve had that in Albania, my first one was in the first place that I lived in the beach town in the South. I went to my friend’s house. I asked her, “Can your mom teach me how to make this thing?” that I kept hearing about from other Albanians called ‘petulla’, which is, like, Albanian fried dough that you have in the morning at breakfast – kind of like a donut – and you can have it with savory or sweet. So I got there around 10am. I hitchhiked there, because I wanted to try it. Hitchhiking is very safe in Albania, and so if I’m going to try it anywhere, I’m going to try it here, where I know it’s safe. And so I got there and, of course, they have their homemade – what we would think of as moonshine, but it’s called ‘rakija’ or ‘raki’ and it’s made from grapes. It can be used… it can be made from many other fruits, but the main one is grape. And almost all the families make their own raki, their own wine, their own olives, their own olive oil, stuff like this. And, so, when I get there, she offers me some of her family’s raki, ’cause they’re very proud of what they make at home. And, of course, I’m not going to say no, even though it’s 10am. So I had a shot of espresso and a shot of raki, in traditional Albanian fashion. And then her mom taught me how to make these, like, Albanian donuts and stuffed peppers as well. And then we also learned about traditional dance. Her mom loves the traditional dance called ‘valle’. They’re probably – I’m probably saying it wrong, but… So I was very bad at that. But it was a cool experience to try to learn the dance.

And, then, another time that happened was – I make videos about Albania on TikTok, because it’s beautiful and I want people to know about how amazing it is. And one of them went viral and a journalist from the top, like, Albania TV network contacted me to be on the show. So I did that. And then she let me know afterwards, like, “If you’re ever in the capital, Tirana, make sure to let me know and we can meet up.” And so I thought she would just want me to come for a coffee or something like this. And in true Albanian fashion – it’s, like, when you have Albanian friends, you just learn to say yes. Like, you just show up and they have this whole plan. They’re like, “I’m going to take you to this local place. I’m going to take you to my favorite swimming spot.” So it’s best to just not even ask what you’re doing. So she takes me to this, like, raki bar and we try these different rakis. And then she tells me, you know, “If it’s okay with you, you can come home with me.” And I was a little bit taken back, because it’s, like, 10pm at night by this point. And most Albanians live with their families, because it is kind of hard to live on your own. You don’t make enough money to do that. So… and it’s a very family-oriented culture. And she’s like, “My mom and dad, they’ve prepared all this food and they’ve been, like, preparing for this all day for you. We’ve never had a foreigner in our home, so you’ll kind of be the first foreigner. And you’re also – I’ve never had a foreign friend. You’re my first foreign friend.” And she tells me this, and I just am so shocked, because it’s… I don’t know, it’s feels like you’re really… not changing someone’s life, but when someone tells you something like that, it’s, like, it’s kind of a big deal. You feel like there’s a little bit of pressure, because you’re the first foreigner that they’ve ever really met. And, of course, I say yes. So we go to her house and I walk in and her parents greet me and they give you, like, little slippers to wear. Like, take off your shoes, put on the slippers. Kind of like probably what you have in Asia as well. And I walk around the corner, I see this whole table of food – like, so much food. And a lot of it is, you know what, they make themselves – their own honey, their own olives, and everything. And I’m like, “Your mom didn’t need to go to all this trouble.” And she’s like, “Oh, this is the bare minimum in Albania. This is nothing.” And I was like, “Really? This is the bare minimum?” But it was just, like – I left there a changed woman. After all of that happened, I was like, “What just happened? I don’t know who I am anymore. That was amazing.”

Nisreene: I feel like when people talk about, like, living or traveling like a local, it’s that experience that you just described that everybody sort of wishes to have. But you do have to kind of use your best judgment with those, right? Don’t go home with everybody, people. Make sure that – you know, try and do a little bit of vetting beforehand, right? Like…

Maria: Safety first.

Nisreene: Exactly. Safety first. Obviously, you were in Albania, you, like, live there. You know, you met this person on on TikTok or whatever. What about when you’ve, like, just traveled, like, for vacation to a different destination? Do you do stuff like that or it’s never really happened to you to that extent?

Maria: It is a lot harder to do that when you’re just in a place for a short time. The main thing was, yeah, I was living there for a longer period. I knew this was so common to invite people over. It’s not weird. I’m not going to get kidnaped. So I felt completely safe. I even actually hitchhiked it the way there, because she lived outside of town. So that was my first experience hiking…

Nisreene: What?!

Maria: ..which is, like, completely safe to do that. In Albania, everyone’s super friendly and they love helping out people – and seeing a foreigner hitchhike! Everyone was very confused, because it was the off-season as well. But, yeah, I had the full experience with that. I hitchhiked there and… But I think, yeah, when you go to a place for a short time, unless it falls into your lap, it’s very hard to make those organic experiences.

Nisreene: Yeah. I – the one time where I feel like that happened to me… So I was in Spain with my friend. I was younger, so we were staying in hostels and stuff like that. And hopefully my parents don’t get upset when they hear this story. But we were staying in a hostel and we were in Granada, Spain, and we just started talking to the people who were working the front desk at our hostel. We were asking them where we should go and that kind of stuff. And they said, “Well, we get off in, you know, an hour. Just come with us, we’ll take you out for like a…” You know, it was a Friday night. They’re like, “We’ll just take you and show you what we do when we’re here.” And so we went with them. We, you know, we went to, you know, a bar, we had some sangria. And then they were like, “Well, we’re going to take you to, like, the real Granada.” And my friend and I were like, “What is that going to be?” You know, these guys spoke English. It was broken English, but, you know, they they spoke it. And so they start, like, sort of leading us down… It was like 100%, like, a dark alley – just absolutely one of those scenes. And I was like, you know, I… Luckily the movie Taken hadn’t come out, because I think, had I seen that movie, I probably wouldn’t have done this. But… you know, and so we finally get to our destination. It was this place called the Boogaclub. And I was just like, “Okay, this was not in any of the guidebooks.” Yeah, that’s right. We used guidebooks, because that’s how long ago this was. So we went into the Boogaclub and it was an absolutely bizarre place, but we had, like, a great time. And, you know, we’re walking back to our hostel by ourselves at night and it was a little bit sketchy, but it ended up being okay. But, you know, I think you have to be in the right mindset for those situations. And so we were, you know, kind of going with the flow, wanted to have a local experience, but we did still have our wits about us. I try not to think about what possibly could have happened if, you know, it went in the other direction. But it ended up being a really, really great night out. You know, we grabbed food and stuff like that. So it was a lasting memory and we still sort of talk about it. So I think there’s an element of risk when you’re doing these sort of immersive experiences. But, you know, they definitely pay off, pay off in the end, that’s for sure.

Maria: Yes. And I think one thing you could probably do is to just try to take as many precautions. So that way you feel good enough to go and do those types of things, you know? Make sure someone knows where you are and just to be aware of your surroundings. You know, maybe don’t have too much alcohol if you don’t feel like that’s safe, and that way you can say yes.

Nisreene: Yeah. I love that. Great tip. Let’s talk a little bit about how do you choose where you’re going to stay when you’re traveling? Because I think a lot of people feel like if they really want to have an immersive experience, that they need to stay in, like, a vacation rental or a hostel or something like that versus a hotel. Do you personally feel like that alters your experience at all, wherever you’re staying?

Maria: To be honest, I think it does alter it. I think the two biggest things that you can have for immersive experiences is food and where you stay. So that’s usually what I try to emphasize to people. You know, if you can’t necessarily avoid a hotel, then just focus on the food and having some local food experiences, you know? It just depends on what someone is comfortable with. But I do think that staying at an apartment might give you a better feel, because a lot of the time those apartments would be more in a local area. So you can go to the bakery on the corner and get stuff in the morning fresh. And that’s something, as Americans, we don’t really have that idea of bakeries being everywhere and going to the cafe in the morning. So having that experience – the same that the other locals would have… Or, like, say if you stay in a hotel, a lot of times the hotels are in an area that’s very touristy. So you kind of have to walk a further distance or take a taxi or something to be able to be in that environment. So the things around you would maybe be a McDonald’s or, you know, any other chains or something like this because it’s the city center or, you know, in a resort area. And so I think that, just location-wise, you’re going to have more of a local experience, because that is where the locals live usually.

Nisreene: Yeah, that’s pretty true. I will say, even as I travel, like, domestically in the US, I still… You know, and I, personally, I like staying in hotels, but when I do stay at hotels, I make a point to not eat or hang out in the hotel very much. So I try to find, you know, what’s the best taco place nearby or the best breakfast spot or the best coffee shop and things like that. So I think, you know, when you’re in a hotel, obviously you have, to a certain extent, the comforts of normality, I guess, for a Westerner. But, you know, you’re right. When you’re in these different areas, you can maybe get a chance to see things that are a little bit different or, you know, experience the food and the culture and those types of things.

Maria: Yeah. And, see, you’re very intentional about the food. And, also, just because someone wants to stay in a hotel, you can still find locally owned hotels. It just takes a little bit more research. Or, you know, those cute little boutique hotels owned by a little family. So you can still have that experience that you’re wanting. It’s just maybe don’t gravitate towards immediately booking a Hilton if you’re in a new place. You know, in the US, it’s a little bit hard to find boutique things sometimes. But if you’re in a foreign country, it could be pretty easy to avoid going with the big chains and still getting a hotel, if you want.

Nisreene: Yeah, for sure. Do you still find yourself doing the big touristy attractions as well? Like, when you go to France, do you still do those things when you go to a new destination?

Maria: That is such a good question. I think I did most of that stuff before COVID, and that is kind of what sparked me to want to have different experiences. So, in a way, I can’t ever say to someone, “You shouldn’t go to the Colosseum” because I went and it was really cool. But my trip to Rome was mainly full of those types of things and I didn’t have any local experiences. So even though it was life changing – it was something I’d always dreamed of going and seeing – it still didn’t fulfill me, in a way. Like, you can have an exciting trip, but it didn’t fulfill me. So with COVID happening, I kind of thought it would be better to live in a place. Like, if things were to get sticky again with COVID, I love that I’m in Albania because it has the way of life that I enjoy, it’s still very affordable for me, and I can go see, like, nature and not, I don’t know, like, be… I’m in a good place, if that makes sense. So for me, I’ve tried to focus on local travel since then, and I haven’t really thought about going to see something super touristy. But yeah, honestly, I think I’m just, like, a 60-year-old at heart, because crowds annoy me, so I just try to avoid them. And I know going to those big places, there are going to be crowds.

Nisreene: Yeah. I mean, you’re not alone on that one. Before we wrap up, Maria, I just – are there any other sort of last tips or advice that you can give everybody in terms of how to really immerse yourself in a culture while traveling?

Maria: Yeah. I think one thing that is very, very important is to just kind of be humble in the way of… to realize that we don’t know everything. I think I’m speaking more to, like, the Western listeners with this, whereas I feel like we’re always told that we’re the most important. We have all this passport privilege. We can go to so many places without visas, and then I see a lot of people show up to countries – ’cause I’m living in a foreign country, and I see other Westerners come here, and oftentimes they can be very arrogant because I think we are kind of told this narrative that we’re better. So it’s good to just be mindful and to realize, as travelers, we don’t know everything, and just take a beat and listen to what the locals have to say rather than acting very rashly.

Nisreene: Yeah, that’s a great tip, you know, whether you’re trying to have a really immersive experience or not. It’s a great philosophy to have, right, is just to be respectful for the local culture and customs and things like that.

Maria: Yes, definitely.

Nisreene: Maria, what a great conversation. I mean, I’m not your parent, but I have to say, I’m really proud of you. Like, you really… you started off the conversation by talking about how you’re from a place where nobody ever gets out, and you felt like that was it, you’re never going to get out. And look at you now! You’ve name-dropped, like, some of the most obscure destinations that, like, really seasoned travelers have never even been to. So I applaud you. You really did it. You nailed it, girlfriend.

Maria: Thank you. You’re so sweet. And I think that is why I enjoy these places, is because I’m also from a place that no-one wants to go visit. And I can kind of relate to how people feel when you’re in a place that you don’t feel like you have a lot of options. And I just want people to come and enjoy the beauty of Albania and to enjoy other countries like this, but to be super respectful because there’s so much that’s happened that we don’t really understand as foreigners.

Nisreene: All right. Well, if people want to follow your journey or maybe ask you a few questions, where can they learn more about you or contact you, I guess, if they want?

Maria: So my main thing that I do is I run a website, It’s my initials – M-A-P – and ‘trekking’ because I like hiking, so

Nisreene: Oh, that works. Yeah.

Maria: Yeah. You can read all of my new articles there. It’s all about slow travel and how to have immersive experiences. And if they want to send me a quick message, you can go to my Instagram, which is the same, M-A-PTrekking, as well.

Nisreene: Maria, thanks for coming on the show today. It’s been a pleasure.

Maria: Thank you for having me. It’s been great.

[Musical interlude]

Nisreene: What an amazing and inspiring episode. Not only has Maria really taken the initiative to go and get what she wanted out of life, but she had just such great tips about how to immerse yourself and get the most out of your travel experience. And that can happen no matter where you’re traveling to and in any destination. So I hope all of you really try and find some meaningful ways to enhance your experiences. And, honestly, I kind of want to go to Albania now. And I don’t know if I’m going to try some of that moonshine, but maybe I will. Maybe if I’m in someone’s house and they offer it to me, you know, I don’t want to be rude, so we’ll give it a go.

Do you have any bizarre travel experiences that have happened to you while living or visiting abroad? If so, go ahead and share your story with us on social media. And don’t forget to tag Expedia.

For more info on episodes, guests, and to find travel inspiration, be sure to visit Out Travel The System’s blog at 

I want to thank Maria Perrett for joining me today. If you have any questions, comments, thoughts, or, of course, travel suggestions, be sure to DM us. We are @Expedia on Instagram. Oh, and don’t forget to give the show a follow and subscribe on your favorite podcast player so that you don’t miss an episode.

Out Travel The System is brought to you by Expedia, with special thanks to PRX and Sonic Union. I’m the Executive Producer and your host, Nisreene Atassi. Special thanks to the following:

Additional writing by Kimu Elolia.
Producer Rishika Sharma.
Associate Producers Syma Mohammed and Nathanael Taylor.
Production Assistant is Alex Thiel and Carolina Garrigo.
Theme music and original composition by Kevin J Simon.
Music edit, sound design, and mix by Rob Ballingall, and music supervision by Justin Morris.
Executive Producer and Writer Halle Petro.
PRX Executive Producer Jocelyn Gonzalez.

Out Travel The System is recorded with Sonic Union in New York City

Be sure to tune in next week for our Season 4 wrap-up. I can’t believe we are at the end of the year. We have come a long way, but the next episode is going to be a good one.

Till next time, this is your host, Nisreene Atassi, for Out Travel The System. Find us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. Happy travels!