Many of my best travel experiences have been shared with local people who have invited me into their lives.
- Singing Russian drinking songs with my cabin-mates in Siberia.
- Playing cards until dawn on an overnight train across China.
- Relaxing on an isolated beach with a fisherman in Panama.
These moments, when you actually step off the tourist trail and enter into the reality of the place you are visiting, are the much talked about, yet ever elusive goals of many travelers.
At times, when you are alone in a new place, nothing seems more impenetrable then the strange culture that surrounds you. If you are feeling lonely, there is always the opportunity to make friends with your fellow travelers.
However, when you are feeling adventurous and willing to delve deeper into the world around you, there are six things to have in your bag that can help break the ice and make an introduction.
1. A Ticket On The Slow Bus
The faster, air conditioned, express bus is always tempting on a hot day, but it will not help you meet the locals.
The easiest way to meet local people when traveling is to surround yourself with them. There is no better way to do this than taking the absolute cheapest transportation option available.
When you board the overstuffed train or bus, likely you will be seated next to dozens of people eager to have a conversation. Squat down on a bag of rice, stack of rope, or anywhere you can lean, and keep a smile about the whole ordeal.
The people around you will be watching to see how you react to the situation. Staying relaxed and smiling will go a long way towards warming up your new travel companions.
2. Cassette Tapes
Bringing your own music in an MP3 player or portable CD player is a great way to block out the screeching noise of foreign cities, smooth the ride on trying bus or jeep journeys, or pass the time during long transit periods. On the other hand, there is nothing more isolating than a pair of headphones.
Instead, try traveling with one or two classic cassette mix-tapes. When you tire of the cab’s selection of “the coolest American music,” or a jeep driver’s library of Mongolian throat singing tapes, offer the driver one of your own.
You’re not the only one who may be interested in hearing something new.
3. A Deck Of Playing Cards
Every country in the world seems to have at least one game that uses playing cards. Once you claim your spot on the train or in the bus station, instead of hiding behind a book, start to lazily play a game of solitaire. Before you know it there will be a crowd of people eager to join you.
4. Pictures Of Home, Your Friends And Family
Besides being a great reminder of your friends and family when you are feeling homesick, a few pictures of home are a great way to build a connection with people you meet on the road.
When choosing pictures try to focus on images that capture the relationship you have with the people in the photograph.
Pictures of houses, apartments, cars, and other possessions can appear opulent and ostentatious in other parts of the world, regardless of their status in your hometown or city.
5. A Reservation Through The Hospitality Club.
These resources are a great way to escape the typical traveler’s circuit and spend an evening, a few days, or even a few weeks with a local, hanging out, sharing an apartment, or even working.
Remember that, in addition to rooms for lodging, the Hospitality Club and CouchSurfing have listings of local people who just want to grab a beer, do some sightseeing, or share their favorite restaurant.
6. A Phrasebook
The most useful tool for building relationships abroad is language – and if you sincerely hope to make friends the few pages at the end of your guidebook will not be enough.
A dedicated phrasebook, with two-way dictionaries and liberal use of native script, can be passed back and forth and be surprisingly useful for conveying meaning.
As a fun challenge, leave the guidebook in the hostel and spend a day navigating with only your phrasebook, or for the dedicated, try to learn a new language in only a few weeks.
Having these six things with you will not magically open a world of friendships, but they are small and light and can make a huge difference when you are trying to break into a foreign social group.
What are your favourite items to pack to share with locals? Share in the comments!