Getting to know the local people of the countries you're visiting is the best way to learn about their culture. I love talking to people and listening to their stories, and my favorite ways to approach locals are:
- in the market, ask for recipes. People love sharing their knowledge about food and cooking, so I often point at a vegetable or fruit I don't know, ask what it is and how to prepare or cook it. Usually this results in a lengthy conversation about cuisine - and life.
- pay compliments! Waiting in a line at a pharmacy today, I complimented a little old Peruvian lady behind me on her earrings. She giggled and said she liked my hair. We chatted a little about jewelry and long waiting lines.
- in South America, entering a restaurant always say "provecho" (bon appetit) to people already eating. More often than not, they'll start a conversation with you over lunch.
- ask for directions but also inquire about your destination. How far to X? Is it nice there? What are the people of town X like? Usually, the locals with tell you everything there is to know about X, and then proceed to explain how much better their own village or town is.
- if locals ask where you're from, always reply with a question about them. Recently, a Peruvian man in a small village coffee shop asked where we were from; I said Europe and asked him if he's ever been, and what did he do. It turned out the man had lived in Madrid for the last 20 years and his cousin was the Peruvian ambassador for Spain. We ended up having an hour-long conversation about Peru, its history, and economical struggles.
- talk about the weather. When do the rains start? Is it cold in the evenings? Have they had much snow recently? Inquiring about weather usually leads to conversations about the harvest and the animals if you're in rural area, or the cost of heating or air conditioning if in the city, or buying new shoes for kids because they keep jumping into puddles.
What are your favorite conversation starters abroad?