Chef and host of “Mexican Made Easy” Marcela Valladolid shares her tips for ways the entire family can enjoy a cultural experience abroad.
What are some of your favorite destinations to travel to? Do you try to make cultural and emotional connections to all the places you visit?
Mexico will always be my number-one response. I would have to travel for 100 years to truly experience every region and see every beautiful sight. Oaxaca and Guanajuato are my favorites. This year, I am headed to San Miguel to spend Thanksgiving with my family.
I absolutely try to make cultural connections. My fiancé Phillip spent time in Italy while growing up. He tells stories of how his mother would drop him off at parks where children were playing and pick him up at sunset. He became an incredible soccer player, picked up the language and culture and gained a love of travel and experience. Now I want that for our children. I was very fortunate to travel in my youth and teenage years, but I focused more on tourist destinations. I did learn a lot, but now it’s more about renting an apartment or home versus a hotel, getting inside scoops from locals on where to eat and drink and seeking the experiences that will truly allow me and my family to gain insight into a new culture.
What are some lessons you have learned along the way in your travels?
The only way to grow and learn is to make an effort to make connections with people. I am in my 40s, and I am just now beginning to be more open and less shy about engaging in conversations with complete strangers. I find myself asking people about their children, their motivation, their life story, their dreams and their food. If asked, I’ll happily share mine. I’ve realized that the people who inspire me the most also happen to be those who are well-traveled. It is impossible to experience the world and make connections and then come back with a grim and nationalist view of life. Hate is just fear of the unknown — and travel is the best remedy for that.
What are some ways you try to truly immerse yourself in a different culture? What advice do you have for those looking to do the same?
I ask questions. I talk to people. I try the food. I think the best tip is to be willing to put yourself in the position of a student again. The less I know about an experience going into it, the better. Sometimes we spend too much time and energy trying to become experts. Forget that. Wring your brain of all knowledge and allow yourself to be taught and guided. We’re so afraid to ask questions sometimes, and that truly blocks us from learning. Most people will happily and proudly tell you about their culture, food and traditions.
When traveling with your family, how do you make sure everyone is getting a taste of a new cultural experience? What advice do you have for those traveling with young children?
In that case, we will do a little bit of research — otherwise you might end up at an American fast-food chain for dinner. It helps to eat dinners earlier so we don’t get into that crazy time in the evening where the kids get tired and cranky. We look for restaurants that have outdoor space for the kids to run around, and check the menus in advance to make sure they will have something the kids will eat.
We certainly do try to ask the locals for activities far away from the tourist traps that will give the kids a cultural experience. A lot of it has to do with what we know our kids will be interested in. My son David is really in to guitars right now, so asking about a local concert or troubadour would be incredible. Anna likes museums and stories about the artifacts there. Fau loves outdoor sports and recreation, so we might look for a sight-seeing hike. We try to look for activities that the whole family can enjoy, and that truly teach us about the place we are visiting!