4 Ways to Beat Traveler’s Loneliness (and Truly Connect with Local Culture)

Possessions aren’t so hard to live without. Most people think they need a vast assortment of crap in order to be happy. But, when you give a man a backpack and a laptop and send him out into the world, he’ll usually find he misses his things least of all. We don’t get homesick pining for our Plasma HDTV, but rather for the people we used to watch that TV with.

Going out into the world means unplugging from your normal social life. It means leaving the tribe. Man is a social creature, and we fear nothing more than isolation. In the olden days, traveller’s were forced to ‘go native’ and adapt to the local culture in order to socialize and remain sane. Now, thanks to the Internet, it’s possible to travel around the globe without disconnecting from friends and family.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to chat with the folks back home, but there IS a dangerous temptation to overdue it. I’ve lost count of the kids I’ve seen in hostels, spending whole days staring at their laptops in isolated corners rather than socializing or exploring. The Internet makes it easier than ever to blot out the real world.

To gain the full value of the travelling experience, you must go out and be social. Here are a few tips for travellers looking for ways to connect with the local culture.

#1: A Crowded Bus Is Your Friend

See crowded buses and other forms of public transportation as a blessing, not a curse. Being crammed like sardines into a tiny seat may be uncomfortable, but it’s also an excuse to talk. Strike up a conversation with your neighbor. Some folks may be reticent at first. Don’t take offense, they’re probably just worried you’re a crazy street person or an axe murderer.

Television crime dramas and mystery novels have us trained to suspect our neighbors of all manner of horrific intentions. Part of becoming a world citizen is getting over the pervasive paranoia that divides us from our fellow man. Sure, some people are dangerous psychopaths, but they make up a small minority (and can usually be bludgeoned into unconsciousness with a laptop case or spare ball-peen hammer … I mean … if you have to).

If you make a habit of introducing yourself to all manner of people, a few of them are bound to rebuff your attempts at conversation. Don’t push the matter, but don’t let it sour you on future tries. I’ve met some fascinating people standing at bus stops or taking shelter under an overhang in the driving rain. If you can’t think of a good opening line the phrase, “I’m bored. What’s going on in this town?” works more often than you’d think.

Bus Stop by Night in Shenzen, China
Shenzen Night Scene, China © Robert Scoble

#2: Tours Force Travelers to Socialize (and Most Tours Are Dirt Cheap)

If the place you’re visiting happens to be a tourist hotspot with some real history behind it, you’ll be able to do one or two tours a day for weeks on end without running out of options. Cities like Dublin, Madrid, France and Rome have no shortage of sights to see and organized groups to see them with. Tour groups force you to interact with people from all around the world.

The best thing they do is take the worry of planning out of your hands. When I’m out exploring on my own, I’m limited by how far away from my base I think I can safely navigate. With a tour, you’ve got locals guiding you from place to place. That makes it safe for you to drink, socialize, and wander more than you might do otherwise.

#3: Make Some Friends Before You Visit

Thanks to the Internet, you can get to know people who live worlds away before you ever fly there. Before setting out on any overseas trip, do a Google search for forums of interesting local groups. Whether it’s re-enactment groups or artists communities or filthy pagan hippies, chances are you can find interesting locals talking on the Internet. Join up, tell them when you’ll be travelling and ask for advice.

If you don’t speak the local lingo, try searching for expatriate communities in the area. There are loads of great expat blog and forums, all of which are full of people you can contact and (maybe) even meet up with.

Check out:

  • Ex-Pat Blog.com. Great site filled with friendly, informative people.
  • Easy Expat.com. Filled with good info, requires a registration.
  • Expat Women. Good general info site for women looking to live overseas. Great links to local expat groups.
  • Inter-Expat. Links a lot of expatriate bloggers together.

Getting into contact with ex-pats gives you an experienced outsiders look at whatever country you’re visiting. Foreigners living in foreign countries tend to know the safe places to visit, how NOT to get ripped off, and easy, safe ways to connect with local color.

Bar Friends in Chicago, Illinois
Bar Friends in Chicago, Illinois © glennharper

#4: Don’t Underestimate The Value Of The Mundane

One of the best ways to get perspective on the world is to visit a foreign LAN center. Gaming is something people do all over the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Mexico, Canada, Denmark or China, you’ll find LAN centers filled with kids playing a lot of the same titles.

You’ll learn more about real life in Sydney listening to people bitch about their jobs in a bar than you will touring the Opera House.

If you’re visiting a country with widespread Internet access, you’ll probably find at least one gaming center. Go in, find a game you’re familiar with, and soak in a little bit of local color while you play. If gaming isn’t your thing, you can find much the same experience by chatting up folks at a local comic shop, going to the movies, or even doing your laundry at a laundromat. Watching foreigners go about their daily lives gives us insight into our own.

Visiting monuments and taking tours of parks and world heritage sites is all well and good, but it doesn’t always inundate you with the local culture. There’s something to be said for the simple joy of people watching. You’ll learn more about real life in Sydney listening to people bitch about their jobs in a bar than you will touring the Opera House. There’s a certain candid truth in the slurred words of a drunk that even the best tour guides can’t quite fake.

About The Author

Robert Evans makes his living writing about dick jokes and smartphones whilst traveling around the world. He spends most of his time sampling regional intoxicants and trying not to offend anyone dangerous. His hobbies include barefoot running, experimenting with fire poi, and home brewed beer.

22 Responses

  1. Lauren

    Wow – thanks for the idea of connecting with expats and the links for where to start. This is brilliant and not something I’ve done before.

    Um… I had to google “LAN center.” I’m not sure what that says about me. But I think I’ll pass!

    Other suggestions… if you’re trying to learn the local language, check out the local language school and take a class. You may be able to meet up with a student studying your language and have study sessions to teach each other. I did this while studying Spanish in Oaxaca and it was nice for us to both contribute to the other’s learning.

    I’m a big fan of homestays (SUCH a big fan, actually, that I started a hospitality network at http://www.casacasa.org). The best way to get a feel for a place is to experience it alongside people who live there. It’s nice to mix up homestays with hostel stays so you can connect with other travelers and have people to dine with and go out with, too.

    Reply
  2. Christine

    Thanks for the post! I travel (in the US) for a living and it does get lonely. I’ve met some really great people just by doing work on my laptop in the hotel bar. (And sometimes the bar is the mellow-est place in the airport.)

    I’ve been considering writing a book about the amazing (and bizarre) conversations I’ve had with cab drivers. You can learn quite a bit about other countries just by talking to those guys. I love to hear about what they grew up doing, their experiences of moving to the US and starting all over again. I really love it.

    Reply
  3. Joya

    Great article! I feel I’m a lot braver when traveling. I can initiate conversations with strangers a lot easier and this is coming from a very shy girl. I love the ex-pat links as well.

    Reply
  4. Dan

    Nice article but just want to point out that expats and other travelers aren’t locals. Connecting with local culture?

    Reply
  5. Sabina Lohr

    I found lots of great advice in this article about meeting locals. The bus stop thing is especially effective, I think. For some reason, while waiting on a bus, people will talk to you. Perhaps the whole I’m pretty much obviously not from around here thing intrigues people who are from around here.

    Reply
  6. Lauren

    @Dan, what I took from the expat suggestion is expat culture can be your direct line to experiencing local culture, like a bridge, particularly if you don’t speak the local language. I think it’s a fantastic suggestion.

    Reply
  7. jessiev

    LOVE this. you can also volunteer – at an art museum, food kitchen, park day, etc for even an hour or two and not only make a difference, but make friends that want to change the world, too.

    Reply
  8. Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    I’ll be sure to keep this in mind when loneliness sets in. Definitely agree with the tour tip. Great way to meet people and also relax for a few days. No planning!

    Reply
  9. 5 interesting travel blog posts : Packandexplore.com

    [...] 4 ways to beat traveler’s loneliness Vagabondish.com Going out into the world means unplugging from your normal social life. It means leaving the tribe. Man is a social creature, and we fear nothing more than isolation. In the olden days, traveller’s were forced to ‘go native’ and adapt to the local culture in order to socialize and remain sane. Now, thanks to the Internet, it’s possible to travel around the globe without disconnecting from friends and family. [...]

    Reply
  10. Sharon Hurley Hall

    Great tips! I have always used bus journeys not only to meet new people but to begin to explore places I might not otherwise see. Riding a bus to the end of the line and seeing what’s there has been a great way to get more from travel.

    Reply
  11. Josie

    All great tips – I’ve had some rubbish lonely travelling experiences, that’s one of the reasons I now helps to run a site called crashpadder. We offer lovely locals’ rooms as a budget friendly alternative to hotel rooms – that can often be soul-less and often overpriced.

    Staying with a local is also a great way to really get to know an area and lots of our hosts are sociable enough to show their guests around and even invite them out with friends etc.

    Defo worth a look if you fancy escaping lone-travellers blues (and save money while you’re at it).

    http://www.crashpadder.com

    Reply
  12. Rachael

    I like #4. When I was living in Cambodia, one of my favorite things to do was wander the market (the locals’ market – not the big tourist one). I loved the sights, sounds and smells of the everyday.

    (Tours are fun too!)

    Reply
  13. Jessica Skelton

    Great tips! I especially love the one about using public transportation. I feel like a lot of people tend to shy away from this option for many reasons, but I’ve met so many people this way!

    Reply
  14. Dave Douglas

    I’m a pretty shy dude, so I’m a bit nervous about meeting people on my upcoming 3-month trip. But #2 and #3 are definitely high on my list! :-)

    Still one month to go to organize some #3… anyone living in Peru, Hawaii, Japan, Sydney, Thailand, NZ, or Malaysia? :-P

    Reply
  15. Adventurous Kate

    Great piece, and I can relate wholly. Finding Couchsurfers made my Buenos Aires trip fantastic.

    I have to ask, though…

    What in God’s name is a ball-peen hammer? Is it exactly what it sounds like?!

    Reply
  16. Karin

    Really good advice, thanks for sharing. Although it can be scary to start with, you get used to talking to others in no time. Travelling is a really good confidence booster!

    Reply
  17. Jupiter Lily

    I loved this post! It’s something that never occurs to me until I’m in a foreign place that traveling can get lonely. But if you change your point of view, it can also be so liberating! Not knowing the people around you and the possibility of never seeing them again in your life can make it easier to go out of your shell and get friendly.

    Reply
  18. flying ferret

    May I add walking down a street then back again?
    I did that on my first morning in Montreal.
    Take photos of anything and everything, but stay on the street.
    This worked for me on my first morning in Montreal!

    Reply

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