5 Essential Locals to Befriend on Your Travels

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I’m as guilty as the next traveler of snapping candid photos of local kids in exchange for little more than a smile. Or blindly pushing through an over-enthusiastic crowd of souvenir vendors.

Whilst this is occasionally unavoidable, I can’t help feeling a tad hypocritical when I later rave about wanting to ”˜meet the locals’. After all, these locals that I am ”˜dying to meet’ are exactly those who I am (sometimes literally) pushing to one side as I escape back to my comfort zone.

On my last trip to southeast Asia I made a point of speaking to everyone I came across and soon learnt the most interesting and insightful companions were often right under my nose.

These five people are some of the most important locals you’ll meet on your travels and chances are you’ve exchanged less than a few words with them.

#1: The Tuk Tuk Driver

A Tuk Tuk driver can be a useful person to know – these guys are in the transport trade so the one thing they know is places to go. Borrow their expertise to guide you to the lesser-visited sights, to pick the quietest time to descend on the tourist-riddled attractions, or to find the best lookout points from which to watch a sunset or photograph a landmark.

The trick is to ask a lot of questions and not to be put off when they initially tell you only what they think you want to hear — eventually they’ll realize that you want more than the standard tourist repartee. Quiz them on the most popular places for locals to hang out, the best parks to relax in on the weekend, the yummiest restaurants to eat at.

As an added bonus, befriending your Tuk Tuk driver considerably decreases the risk of being heavily overcharged or winding up bribing your way out of a carpet stall hours later.

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Dry Fruit Vendor in Peshawar, Pakistan © Umair Mohsin

#2: The Street Vendor

In many countries street stalls are the go-to fast food outlets for locals and serve a range of snacks, drinks and meals that should tick all the boxes on your ”˜foods-to-try’ checklist. But they’re not only the best places to eat, they’re also one of the best places to learn about local cuisine and expand your culinary skills.

Visit the same stall on a few nights, sit at the counter and strike up a conversation with the vendor. Chefs from all corners of the world are suckers for a compliment so learn the words for ”˜delicious’, ”˜spicy’, and ”˜the best’ in the local language and inquire about their expertise. Before long you’ll find yourself scribbling down recipes as they talk you through each dish. Be warned though — there are some ”˜delicacies’ that you’re better off not knowing about!

Enthusiastic regulars may be lucky enough to score a few free tasters — an excellent way to sample the different tastes on offer without committing to finishing the whole dish.

If you’re lucky you’ll get some tips on how to eat it too. I once suffered a hilarious and humbling lesson from a gaggle of women at a street warung in Indonesia after they’d laughed at my attempts to eat rice and curry with my hands.

#3: The Student

No city is complete without a lively crowd of students doing everything they can to escape from their study sessions. Students make great tour guides. Mainly because they have a lot of free time (especially in the summer months) and because they are often so keen to meet – and party with – foreigners. They are generally a friendly and easily entertained bunch, who are more than happy to exchange some insider tips over a couple of beers.

Students are generally a friendly and easily entertained bunch, who are more than happy to exchange insider tips over a couple of beers.

Hang out in the local student bars and you’ll soon find yourself juggling party invites and learning the cheapest places to find a midnight snack. Or search online for like-minded individuals on network sites like Couchsurfing, Hospitality club or even Facebook. Many of these sites advertise student events and provide an easy way to discover what’s going on in your destination. CouchSurfing groups in major cities often organize weekly get-togethers of locals and travelers and are an excellent way to search out the student crowd.

#4: The Guesthouse Owner

Make real friends with your host and they’ll make sure you get to your bus/plane on time, help heave your rucksack up the stairs and ply you with free tea and coffee as you regale them with tales of your travels. They’ll keep track of your whereabouts, safe-keep your valuables and (hopefully) inform the police if you aren’t home within 48 hours. Not only that but they can answer endless questions about your new destination. It’s a win-win situation.

Opt to stay in a small, family-run hostel or guesthouse and you’ll soon find yourself taken under their wing. I’ve had guesthouse owners borrow a television so I could watch England play in the World Cup and been loaned all number of luxuries from hairdryers, extra blankets, and medical supplies by their ever-helpful staff. One Peruvian landlady insisted that I eat dinner with her family after witnessing me chomping down a pot-noodle. Another was so concerned about me finding a safe taxi home in the evening that he gave me his number and came to collect me himself.

Sure, they might not be the life and soul of the party, but for that ”˜home away from home’ feeling, nothing beats a good host.


Happy Children Playing in Quito, Ecuador © epSos .de

#5: The Local Kids

Local kids are often fascinated by Westerners. Although your first instinct might be to hand over a pen or some candy to win them over, try spending some quality time with them instead. It’ll take a bit of practice but once you figure out how to establish a rapport with the under-13’s you’ll open the gateway to a whole world of interesting information about your destination.

Learn a few phrases in the local language – young children are perfect for practicing pronunciation on, as long as you can take the chorus of giggles each time you make a mistake. Once you’ve broken the ice, try playing some games, teaching them a few new English words or sketching out a hopscotch court for them. Be creative, make them laugh and you’ll soon have them eating out of your hands.

Take advantage of this opportunity to find out more about the local culture. Ask them about their schools, their families, whether they get presents for their birthday, what job they want to do when they grow up, their favorite local foods – the options are endless and the answers never cease to amaze. Of course, shy away from anything too probing or personal, but you’d be surprised how much information can be gleaned from a few well-thought out questions. You never know if you don’t ask.

12 Responses

  1. Sharon

    This post appears to be misnamed. Befriending in the sense of actually forming a friendship requires bulding trust through openness and mutual sharing. The examples given in the post do not show that and I do not see any examples of real friendships forged. Have you ever been able to befriend a local on your travels? If so, how did that happen?

    Reply
  2. Travel Mom

    Great suggestions! Some of my best experiences traveling Europe were experiences with the locals – most of them students. Engaging people is the best way to learn about the local culture.

    Reply
  3. Adi Arifin

    We need to clearly differentiate between making friendly encounter, have a chat and laughter, and making a real bonding friendship. Of all those you mentioned, I think we rarely see them again after our first encounter, no matter how friendly it was. Maybe except the motel owner. In Kuta, a popular beach in Bali, there are many guys known as beach boys, locals who spend almost all their awaken time on the beach. Many of them make a little money by renting surf boards, but also willing to give you surfing lesson for free. As they spend most of their time on the beach, you will likely seeing him if you return the next day, then another next day, and another next day.

    Reply
  4. Tim Redman

    From my personal experience, I think talking to and “befriending” local artisans is also a good idea. You get learn about their crafts and they really appreciate you taking the time to find out more about them. They often go on to tell you about other things that you must see while you are in their country, like things to see in nearby towns.

    Reply
  5. Marta

    This is a good list. People don’t often think to befriend locals while on vacation, but it can make your vacation experience that much better. When I first visited Portugal, befriending our guesthouse owner was the best thing I did, and I got a real inside look in Lisbon that I otherwise would not have known about. Great advice for travelers!

    Reply
  6. Global Nomad couple

    There is one solution that allows us to get all benefits without befriending any of those people you suggest: hospitality exchange. You get a local friend and can stay in their home, and probably even use their kitchen. For moving around we prefer walking: no haggling over prices, cheating, unnecessary free sightseeing to pay for, etc.

    Reply
  7. The Local Traveler

    What a fantastic article! And I agree with Tim about adding local artisans. I am from Nova Scotia and some of our artisans can tell you the very best places – hidden beaches, best places to see the sunset, nature, great food, unique experiences and more!

    Thanks for the great tips!

    Reply
  8. Your Escape Blueprint

    Great article! Expand the Tuk, tuk driver to the taxi or horse and buggy driver and you are in business.
    The one addition I would add is your neighbour. We frequently housesit (For more information on housesitting-free accommodation -visit our blog for a free report) and our neighbours and hosts are the best resource possible.
    One more thing….. ignore Mom’s advice and talk to as many strangers as you can.

    Reply

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