I once met a waiter in Paris named Joseph. It was my first trip out of the country, and he worked at the first French bistro I stumbled upon. I was initially just interested in having an authentic French Onion soup. But Joseph taught me there was more to Paris than soup.

Looking up from my Lonely Planet guide at him, it hit me — I didn’t need a guide. Everything I wanted to know about this place I could learn from the people. Each day, my friends and I would stop by for breakfast and dinner. Joseph would pull up a chair, share some bread and cheese with us, and we’d also share perspectives and life stories. A single dad, he was studying to get his degree and working as a waiter at the bistro so he could pay his bills and support his daughter.

Three years later, I was flipping through a GQ Magazine at my brother’s apartment when I saw Joseph’s face on an advertisement for Mastercard. It was about a waiter in Paris who finally hung up his apron for the last time, and pursued his career dreams.

I smiled, knowing Joseph taught me something very valuable about human connection. He shaped how I would travel for the rest of my life.

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Joseph in the magazine ad (left), and when I met him on my first Paris trip (right).

Americans are notoriously bad at traveling. Whenever I’ve gone on trips with other families or groups, its usually been a mess. I think it partly comes from a constant need we have to do something. It’s how we are culturally wired. Going to Rome? Well then you better pack in as many museums, sightseeing, shows, restaurants, tours, and shopping as possible! In this way, travel becomes an entrapment of timetables and pressure, instead of a release. It becomes tiresome, instead of transformative.

Transformative travel requires human connection. Joseph taught me to prioritize experiences where I would interact with locals, and ask about their life stories. By doing this, I’ve learned everything one can find in a travel guide — food, traditions, art, music, agriculture, economics, politics, sports — except through the lens of real life.

There is no right way to travel, and no one could argue there isn’t value in things like museums and sightseeing. However, I do wonder if something is lost — be it micro or macro — when we prioritize what we see instead of who we meet.

After all, if we’re in short supply of anything in modern times, it’s human connection.

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Want to try the local food? Go to a local market with a local chef! (Bali, Indonesia)
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Oktoberfest is more fun when you make friends with the locals, young & old. (Munich, Germany)
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To learn about the environment & ecology, try adventuring out with a local expert. (Big Island, Hawaii)
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To learn about agriculture, consider a tour to meet the local farmers. (Oaxaca, Mexico)
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To learn about economics, visit family-run businesses. (Bordeaux, France)
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To learn about many subjects, hang with experts who are trying to save endangered species. (Aceh, Indonesia)
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Want to learn about art? Do a street tour with a local artist. (Mexico City, Mexico)
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To learn about food traditions, take a cooking class by a local home cook. (Istanbul, Turkey)
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To learn about women’s progress, visit a local company owned by women entrepreneurs. (Jakarta, Indonesia)
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To learn about traditions, visit a small town and meet someone who is carrying on their family craft. (Teotitlan Del Valle, Mexico.

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I write about serious tech stuff for work. But here, I tell true tales from my wacky, wonderful life. (read more: www.christenobrien.com)

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