When I travel, I sometimes feel remiss if I’m not able to (respectfully) connect with locals and get their perspectives on their city. These trips feel very “surface-level,” and like I’m missing out on something. What are your tips for meeting people while traveling to a place you don’t already have any connections in?
I think it takes a while to achieve this kind of a rapor with locals , in some cultures it takes longer than others. In places where you dont already have connections its just a matter of applying yourself to making connections and putting yourself out there and out of your comfort zone. Sometimes it will work , sometimes it wont , depending on the culture and will of the traveller.
There are ways of getting around cultural barriers such as reading up on the culture and history and of course speaking or learning to speak the language but personally I think it is pretty much dependent on how long you spend within a country and the longer is always the better.
I know this will probably sound impractical but I think it takes living in a country for months or even years ( and decades is even better ) to intimately know it and its people , to “Go native” as the anthropologists term it , integrate into the culture , even marry into it if possible.
The other alternative I think is to visit a country or region of a country successively over a long term period which although it might sound a bit repetitive can be very rewarding as there is always something new to learn or see or experience .
We have had great experiences using Couchsurfing.com to stay with locals, and host travelers in our home. It has totally changed the way we travel. We have been members for over 6 years, so we have many references on the site, and it is easy to find hosts in other countries. The sooner you can start building a good reputation, the better.
When traveling I find a local MacDonalds and have coffee there in the morning. There is always a group of older men who are friendly and happy to make a traveler feel welcome. They have time to share stories and give plenty of local information. If you dont want to initiate a conversation just show up clutching a map and they’ll offer help!
This is hard. From forums like this one, I often ‘know’ someone I trust in an area I’m going to, whom I plan to meet or visit, or I’ll have planned to go to a conference or other event where I will meet locals in attendance. It helps to have some shared experience or interest. If you can connect with one person, then you will likely make further connections with ease and less insecurity.
If you have no existing connection or event plan, the bare minimum you can do is chat with your hotel or hostel staff or taxi driver to get help identifying where they hang out, away from the tourist traps, and then go there and dive in as best you can.
Some ways I’ve made unanticipated connections:
- Eating in cafeteria-like settings
- Going to local bars
- Riding public transit
- Using laundromats
- Visiting libraries
- Visiting special-interest establishments, e.g. a comic book store
- Attending local festivals
- Arranging one-on-one customized tours with local guides
Finally, if you see locals have lined up for ice cream or something, go get in that line!
Be curious and ask questions. I’m an introvert by nature, but I also love history, art and archaeology. When I visit a place, I often see something I want to know more about: who built that? why? who is being represented in that sculpture, mural, building? When those questions pop up in my head, I look around for someone to ask. If everyone looks busy or not particularly interested in engaging with a stranger, I make a note on my phone or on the back pages of my guidebook; when I find someone who might be able to answer my questions, like a docent in a museum or a chatty cab driver, I ask them. I also like asking waitstaff and bartenders what they recommend, which sometimes can lead to pleasant conversations since they often want to know where you’re from and why you’re there. (Don’t be an ass and pester someone who’s obviously busy at their job or is in conversation with a friend or family. Remember, you’re a stranger there and not everyone wants to talk to you.) Be open and be sure to listen: you’re there to learn about the other person’s country, not to lecture about your own theories and ideas.
I learned this from working with students most of my life. They love asking questions and learning new things, unlike many people my age. They also seem to have fewer problems engaging with new friends. Anyway, it’s surprising how quickly people will open up to you when they realize you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say.
Do your laundry!
I’ve met wonderful people everywhere I’ve been all over the world.
My all-time-best-ever travel experience was one afternoon I did laundry in Paris.
In 1991, I was visiting Paris for the first time. I was staying in the 6th arrondissement. All my clothes were dirty, so I hit the pause button on all the must-see places.
It was just me and these two local women in that laundromat. I didn’t know more than a few words of French, but one of them knew some English. Our conversation started with them explaining how to use the machines.
There we were – just three ordinary people doing the most ordinary of things – with an hour to connect.
Thank you, all! These have been amazing musings and suggestions.
@Monsieur_Mictlan You sound like you have an educational background in cultural anthropology! That was my major in undergrad
Hahaha , well spotted , true , I do have a bit of a background in cultural anthropology as I have studied quite a lot of modules that are anthropology based for my degree in conservation biology.
But the strange thing is , even before I had an idea of cultural anthropology. When I began to study that field at University I became aware that I had been unconciously engaging in behaviours when I spent long parts of my life living abroad, like participant observation and “going native” before I had any academic concept that these things existed. It was quite a pleasant suprise to know that , but also kind of surreal.
Right?? I remember having the same thoughts when I started seriously studying anthropological theory. It just must mean that you’re a born observer!
Yeah , could be , its actually surprising though how much of anthropology is just common sense , still its a fascinating field for sure