Tips for Independent Travelers
Tip #7: Go to Nonpublic Centers
You’ll learn a lot by bargaining for papayas in a Thai market, chanting with worshippers in a famous Hindu temple, and swinging to salsa in a Mexican disco. But, you’ll discover the essential aspects of local culture away from such public places.
One afternoon, after rolling past lush meadows and hilly dairy farms in the Swiss countryside, my train pulled into the Zurich railway station precisely on time. Rolf, a Swiss friend who had taken advantage of his Europe train discounts to explore the continent for years, invited me back to his workplace, the Railway Traffic Control Room. He opened a heavy door marked “For Private Use Only,” behind which 20 professionals sat in ordered rows. Their eyes moved back and forth between individual computer monitors and the gigantic electric circuit on the front wall, a complex map of lines and dots.
Rolf pointed to a blue dot on Track 3 and announced, “That is our train. In two minutes a locomotive (white dot) will come and pull it forward to Track 5.” Rolf explained how most of the controllers were managing engine cars to shuttle passenger cars between active and idle tracks. Exactly 120 seconds later, the dots moved as he predicted.
After observing this nerve center of Swiss transport efficiency, I began to wonder how anything in the country got even slightly off schedule. The answer came later that night, when I walked past a community radio station. Hearing some captivating dance music inside, I poked my head into the broadcasting studio. A young guy stepped over piles of papers and compact discs to greet me. Upon learning I was from the homeland of bluegrass, his favorite type of music, he welcomed me to tour the station. Half-eaten cheese sandwiches, ski equipment, and piles of winter clothing gave the place a sloppy, busy atmosphere. Posters peeled off the walls. This was the first mess I’d seen in this orderly country, but it made sense. The railway employees got the radio staff to work on time, and the latter entertained the former with unpredictable rock.
Travel necessities will often lead you to shops, hotels, banks, and transportation hubs—all classic places to culture watch. You’ll still have time to join festival parades and stroll through parks. However, non-tourist sights reveal a more complete picture of daily life.