I received a lovely email from an American backpacker in Mexico recently, requesting tips on finding pals while traveling. This article is a response. Keep those emails zinging my way, readers! I like them.
(Note: the photos in this article are street scenes from Chiang Mai, Thailand. What a livable, enjoyable place! Look at how pretty the disco ball temple walls look in the glow of night traffic!)
Before you leave on a long trip, you should play the 1972 song “Alone Again, Naturally”; you will have ample occasions to hum it over your months abroad. Great people will come into your life, then those great people will go back home, or they will go West while you go East… and you will be alone again, naturally.
It’s not a bad thing at all to be solo (in fact it is often great), but after that all-important lone regrouping time, you WILL inevitably develop that urge to merge with humanity again. So how do you do it?
Here are a bunch of effective ways to make new travel friends:
1. Stay in hostels with common areas.
Whether or not the place you stay has a communal lobby, roof-deck, or restaurant will make a world of difference in its effectiveness as a friend generator. One of many reasons why Lub-d Hostel in Bangkok is rated among the best places to stay in the world is that its lobby is actually a colossal living room/restaurant/workspace that is packed at all hours with fun, friendly people… and board games!
If you dig around in your guidebook or on online hostel ranking sites, or if you peek into the doors of hotels you pass, or if you listen to the tales of other travelers, it’s easy enough to figure out which hotels will help create a posse for you. As a corollary, staying in a hip, packed backpacker hostel is a poor choice if you just want some quality solo time.
This tactic is shockingly effective. As you eat, keep glancing over at the fun-looking group of folks at the next table, while you (choose any): braid strips of your napkins, take photos of your fruit shake from ten different angles, sigh loudly, push the crumbs on your table into faces, study the clouds intently, read the same page of your book for an hour, etc. Be gracious and lovely when you hear: “Hey, do you want to join us?”
Granted, sometimes this fails miserably, which hurts, but at least you’re left with some cool napkin braid bracelets and an artful close-up photo of banana foam.
I cannot recommend Couchsurfing.org enough. Even if you don’t use it to get the free, safe housing that locals offer on it, you can use the “see who’s in my area” search feature to find profiles of fun people traveling or living in the same random town as you are. Yesterday I got an email from a random fellow backpacker who is in Chiang Mai, too, and we had a great dinner, talk, and walk! Try it.
Further, make sure to broadcast your present and future locations to a wide range of social networking sites, from Facebook to Twitter, because you will ALWAYS get an email back saying something like: “Hey, my best friend from second grade is living there and would love to show you around the city!”
Sure enough, tonight I have a shopping rendezvous planned with the friend of a random gent from California who stumbled across my blog and sent us an email of introduction!
4. Take a class, find a job, do a language exchange, or volunteer.
Some of the truest, most long-lasting friends made while abroad are the ones created through work or study. You likely have similar interests, you will share common (sometimes hilarious, sometimes traumatic) experiences over the days, and you will have serious time to get to know each other. This is also a particularly effective way of bonding with local folks. Good stuff!
5. Sign up for transportation or tours that will throw you into arduous situations with a group.
It is a scientific fact that sharing difficult moments with others bonds you. For this reason, you will likely form a strong connection with the people on your 30-hour bus ride, or 2-day boat journey, or 3-day trek through hilltribe villages.
Again, having TIME together is the key, here. When you’re forced to talk with folks for hours on end out of sheer boredom, the boredom often melts away and you get pretty deep and fascinating into life stories pretty quickly.
If you have a good friend or ten hanging around, introduce them to any new friend you meet and encourage their friend love. Similarly, when you meet a good new person, try to connect also with their entire circle of buddies, as their current travel partner may become YOUR new travel partner as locations and plans shift.
Same for information: If you have been somewhere for a few days, offer to help out any nice-looking people you see who seem lost.
There will be many times when you’ll be walking down the street and will overhear an utterly erroneous statement (ex: “Well, I’m sure we can walk there from here”), so it’s friendly and friend-inducing to stop and help. Meanwhile, the next time you’re lost, look around for a wise help buddy!
So there you have it. You will be alone again, naturally, but when you grow tired of that, there are plenty of ways to find fast friends. Got any more strategies that I’m missing? Share!