How to Connect with Locals Abroad

The fabric of life comes in every colour, shape, and size. A roadside in Peru.

In a New Philosopher article entitled “The Lost Art of Travel“, Antonia Case laments the new face of travel in the Western world: “we are a spectator, and nothing more, peering out from our picture windows at the natives, insulated from the noise, the smells, the people”.

I personally don’t share such a bleak outlook. This is because our “gap year generation” has produced many intrepid, inquisitive travellers who are willing to engage fully with local people. Take for instance one of our writers, Joe Baylis, who has sought out home-stays in the Mexican jungle. People like him recognise that casting aside stereotypes and making the effort to connect with local people can present one of the most rewarding aspects of travel. After all, it’s the only way to gain an understanding of how others live, a gift more precious than any souvenir.

Yet I must admit that it requires a certain gumption to meet locals these days. This is no thanks to the “quick-fix” approach to travel of the 21st Century. Due to the trappings of consumerism driven by ubiquitous technology, the travel experience of today is all too often characterised by a desire for faster and faster results. Consider how frequently you hear dismissive comments such as “Oh I’ve done Paris”, when the speaker probably didn’t even hold a meaningful conversation with a single Parisian during their three day package holiday. They’ve snapped a profile picture posing with the Eiffel Tower/Arc de Triomphe/Pont des Arts/[insert monument] in the background, and can happily move on to the next conquest. This status symbol is logged forever in their online history and, really, What else matters?

With the above in mind, I’ve compiled a list of tried and tested techniques to help you connect with local people on your travels. Set yourself these small and achievable goals and see what a difference it can make in enriching your trips abroad…

– First, Choose your destination wisely. According to travel-blogger Marie-Laure, “Less-travelled roads will rekindle your sense of exploration as much as the curiosity of those unexpectedly finding a foreigner hiking on their doorstep”. So go somewhere on the map precisely because it isn’t listed in the guidebook. And if ever you find yourself overwhelmed by throngs of tourists, simply turn another corner.

– The same goes for your accommodation. Favour homestays for that authentic experience of local life. Often on sites such as Airbnb homeowners offer to show guests around their neighbourhood. In the past this has landed me with an informal tour of Montmartre; it was revelationary to see this tourist hotspot through the eyes of someone who calls it Home all year round.

Travel independently (or if you do travel as part of a pair or group, make sure to find time to explore on your own). “Dive wild and free”, encourages Marie, “Make the first step and interact with your immediate environment, ask for directions or advice, eat at this unlikely little joint that offers no menu, no English, and no recognizable dishes, engage in conversations and share bits of your own life”.

STAY OFF that phone/laptop/tablet. Live in the present moment and observe what is going on around you. Then you’re far more likely to notice that person you can offer your spare seat to in the café…

Learn languages. Even a simple greeting can be an excellent ice-breaker and people will appreciate that you’ve gone the extra mile. By picking up some of the local lingo, you’ll immediately stand out from the majority of English-speaking travellers in any case.

Learn local customs. Being sensitive to another’s culture is vital to: (a) not offending them, and (b) establishing the mutual trust, respect, and understanding necessary to cultivate a bond. Of course, we are all bound to make mistakes in this department. Time and again, my English reservedness on first meeting someone has been misconstrued for rudeness – or worse coldness. But remember that smiles and laughter are often universal fix-all solutions to these misunderstandings.

Find common ground. Friend and tour guide Zane Supulniece puts it simply, “what makes us ‘connect’ with someone is actually what we find in common”. For instance, we all have families and loved ones, so they often make great conversation topics. Indeed, travel writer Rolf Potts recommends bringing photos of your family to show others – “they can humanise you to people who might otherwise consider you somewhat of a curiosity” (Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, 2002).

Play games. When Zane wants to get her tour groups to bond she initiates a game to help people open up and share information about themselves. You can replicate this with the people you meet on the road, inviting them to play at portable game sets like cards or Uno, or to just throw a ball around. Games based on culture-specific references, such as Cards against Humanity, should be deployed with discretion!

Check out local arts and entertainments listings. Follow your passions and curiosities and you may find an affinity with fellow rockers at a concert or end up conversing calmly with your good-natured neighbour at a pottery workshop. You’ll probably be surprised by how many others go solo to these things.

Ask passers-by in the street for recommendations. Ask people you cross paths with where you can hear live music or eat local food. Most people will be delighted to showcase their culture at its best.

Use networking websites. Many websites are designed to help you link up with locals who may be offering cooking classes, walking tours, you name it. A list of such online networks can be found here. A friend of mine – who shall remain anonymous – even goes on Tinder dates with local “matches”. In any case, remember not to stay online for too long and leave room in your day for spontaneous interactions.

Repetition. While it’s tempting to try lots of different places, going back to the same restaurant everyday will make you a familiar face to other regular customers and staff. This in turn could lead to friendships. Make sure to strike up conversation with the people serving you; they may not have much time to socialise at work, but it’ll make you seem more approachable to others.

Volunteer. Most charitable schemes depend upon working closely with members of the local community towards a common goal. Opt for a grass-roots organisation so these interactions with local people retain intimacy.

Travel tithing. And finally, even when you’re not actually volunteering, you can still give back. Set aside a dedicated pouch of money, say, 10% of what you are prepared to spend on the entire trip, for giving to worthy causes you come across. Small and random acts of kindness will not only touch others, but will help you to feel more at peace with yourself on the road.

With thanks to Marie-Laure Parsy Szikola and Zane Supulpiece for sharing their expertise.

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