Why do people travel? There could be any number of reasons. For some it’s a way to satiate their curiosity about the world, to explore and experience new cultures. For others it’s about relaxing, rejuvenating or breaking out of the ‘work bubble’. Adrenaline junkies might be in pursuit of their next big thrill while foodies may be searching for novel flavors to tantalize their taste buds.
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Everyone has their own impetus to travel. However, I believe that one of the most powerful, underlying forces is the desire to connect with humanity. By meeting new people around the world we are better able to understand our differences, to appreciate and accept them. But we also begin to realize just how small the world is, and how we all want the same basic things out of life—love, health and happiness.
Veteran travelers consistently recount chance encounters with locals, telling stories of being invited to a stranger’s home for dinner or spending hours discussing politics and religion with a local on the train. Admittedly I have many similar stories. I’m certain my friends have long grown tired of hearing about my being stranded in rural Vietnam, thankfully having a kind family take me in for the night before an impending monsoon.
But we tell these stories over and over again, because despite the attractions that we visit and the bucket-list items we cross off, these interactions with strangers are often the most memorable travel souvenirs.
Although we have this desire to connect with locals, it can be surprisingly difficult to do so. Pegi Vail (director of the new documentary Gringo Trails) recently did a study that showed on average, backpackers spend 85% of their time with other travelers. That’s a lot! While I don’t discount the knowledge that can be acquired from being with travelers of all nationalities, it’s not the same as gaining insight on your host country from the locals who call it home.
Unfortunately many travelers find themselves disappointed when locals don’t appear from nowhere to sweep them into their lives. We have romanticized the idea that no matter where we go, there will be people anxiously waiting for us, ready and willing to invite us into their private spheres. That’s just not the case.
But while it can be difficult, it’s not impossible to have meaningful connections with locals. Here are 8 easy ways to get started:
#1: Know a Bit of the Local Language
The more you can communicate with the locals, the easier it will be to have deep, meaningful exchanges. You don’t have to become fluent; a few basic words and phrases will take you far. Knowing a bit of the local language is a sign of respect, and shows that you care enough about the culture to immerse yourself in it.
Native English speakers often take this for granted; we expect everyone to know English—and sometimes we get angry when they don’t! However, as the guest in a foreign country, it is our responsibility to at least try to communicate in the host language. Even if your gibberish is not understood, locals will be more willing to make an effort to converse with you if they know you are trying. You might even find that people ‘suddenly’ become fluent in English after they have heard your attempts to speak their language!
It may sound cliché, but it’s true: smiles are a universal language, cross-cultural and understood by all. People will be more inclined to spend time with you if you appear approachable. This is especially important if your knowledge of the local language is limited. Plus, a big, genuine smile shared between two people is a powerful connection on its own.
#3: Utilize ‘Meet-Up’ Websites
A big, genuine smile shared between two people is a powerful connection on its own.
Find websites that connect travelers with locals who want to meet you. One of the most popular sites is Couchsurfing. Even if you’re not keen on having a slumber party with a stranger, Couchsurfing is a fantastic medium to meet new people, if only for a city tour.
There are numerous other, if lesser known, websites that facilitate meet-ups. Eat With a Local is a great way to share an authentic meal and make a new friend, while the unique mmMule lets locals post items they would like delivered to them from abroad. Other popular sites to consider are Meetup and trip4real.
#4: Travel Solo
This one is particularly difficult for me as I spend nearly every moment of my travels with my husband. But even if you can’t commit to an entire trip by yourself, take time in the day to explore solo.
When you’re alone, locals are more inclined to approach you. It could be because they’re more comfortable with one person instead of your entire social network. It could be because some opportunities are simply not available to a group of people, like a tour around town on a motorcycle. It could be that locals are curious to know why you are traveling alone. Regardless, you’ll likely find traveling solo opens you up to your surroundings, making you more aware of potential connections.
Volunteering can be a great, multifaceted way to connect with locals. Not only do you bond with the communities that you are serving, you can also make lifelong friendships with the people you volunteer alongside. For this reason, I always recommend looking for a volunteer opportunity where locals volunteer too.
For example, one of my most memorable travel experiences was volunteering in Quito, Ecuador at a non-profit law firm. I was part of a worldwide team of volunteers helping Colombian refugees to gain permanent residency status in Ecuador. I had many emotional interactions with Colombians, but I also formed meaningful relationships with the Ecuadorians I worked beside. These friendships—and the correlating insights into Ecuadorian culture—would not have been possible otherwise.
#6: Travel Slowly
Not everyone can quit his or her job to indefinitely travel the world. But whenever possible, travel slowly. The longer you spend in one area, the more time you’ll have to cultivate relationships there.
Even if you’re on a two-week vacation, take time to slow down. Observe your surroundings. People watch. Leave gaps in your itinerary that make you available for conversations.
#7: Go Where the Locals Go
Tourist attractions exist for a reason: they are certainly worth visiting. However, that’s not where you’re going to find most of the locals hanging out. Plus, the locals who are there will likely be tired of seeing a constant stream of foreigners coming and going with the high seasons.
Instead, find restaurants that are packed with locals; choose to stay in small, locally owned hotels outside of the central hubs; or go to a community space, like a park or beach. Don’t wait for locals to come to you. Take initiative and go to them.
#8: Make Yourself Available
Often we close ourselves out. We’re skeptical about why people want to get to know us. Or we make excuses, like ‘I’m too busy’. Trust your intuition and evaluate the safety of a situation, but if it feels right, then say ‘Yes!’
One of my biggest travel regrets was again in Vietnam. We had found a local cookout spot where we spent a wonderful afternoon swimming, eating and taking copious amounts of photographs with the locals. At the conclusion of the afternoon, the group invited us back to one person’s home. His mother was making dinner for a huge gathering of people. They could drive us home later or we were welcome to spend the night. Rather than diving in and saying yes, we decided to turn down the offer. I was worried about how late the dinner would run and I was feeling tired and a bit cranky. I ended up spending the evening in my hotel room on my computer rather than making lasting memories with my new friends. Life is too short to turn down once in a lifetime opportunities.
It’s not always easy to truly connect with locals on your travels. But when you do, it’s almost always worth it. On your next trip, don’t wait for someone to come befriend you; instead, take action to meet locals and see what happens! You might find it’s easier than you think.
These are just eight ways to have meaningful connections with locals on your travels, but there are certainly many more! What tips would you add?