The desire to make a connection with a local is what sets a traveller apart from a tourist. Travellers strive to really get to know their destination of choice and getting to know a city or country through the eyes of a local is the best way to achieve this. Unless you’re on a quick, week long vacation to a holiday hotspot, it’s important not to breeze through town thinking scraping only the top of the tourist barrel. Get down deep, dig around and you’ll be greatly rewarded.
The Art of Connecting with Locals
How do I do make a connection? What about language barriers? Cultural differences?
Put yourself out there and just talk to people! Show an interest in what they’re talking about with one another, what they’re eating, reading or playing with. Do it anywhere and everywhere. The lady you’re buying fruit off in the market, the tuk tuk driver that bugs you on a daily basis and the girl slumped over a book while working nights on reception at your guesthouse. Put yourself in their shoes. Chat to them about their life, work and family.
Kids are a great ice breaker. The open doors, sometimes literally, wherever you go. Most cultures have a love of children and will go out of their way to help you and your child. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with someone who’s helped you lift your stroller up onto a bus. They’ll tell you about their grandkids or ask you about what it’s like travelling with a child. Be open yourself – share to encourage sharing.
Make connections with other global travellers for connections in future countries. One of the great thing about travelling is everyone doing it comes from somewhere different. Through years of backpacking I now have friends in France, Sweden, Italy, Malaysia, Canada and many other spots around the world. I always factor these into my travels. A little local knowledge goes a long way. Use connections you already have – a friend of a friend’s sister that lives in Mexico could be your new best friend.
Live somewhere big and multicultural. There’s always lots of people in big cities like London and New York who come from abroad to live and work. They’re new to the city too so are looking to connect with others. While living in London I had friends from England, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Poland, Pakistan, Ghana, Uganda, South Africa and the USA. Some of them are still in London and some of them have returned home. Another great resource for getting a local insight into a new country.
Be the local that tourists connect with at home. It’s a two-way street. Host families, couchsurfers, do a house swap or rent a room with AirBnb. Hosting travellers gives you credit on these kinds of sites and makes you a more desirable candidate when it comes to asking for a couch to surf in the future.
My Experiences with Connecting with Locals
I’ve had some very meaningful interactions with locals during my travels. Some were brief moments of kindness and some are friendships that developed over time and circumstances.
Mao in Cambodia
I had a very sweet, if a little sad, interaction with a young girl selling books in Siem Reap, Cambodia. She went out of her way to find another bookseller who had the book I was after. She got very upset that I didn’t want any of her books so I offered a finders fee of $5 – the same cost as the book. The next day she came and found me and gave me a postcard she’d written for me. I’d love to have spent more time with her to understand her situation but I was off to Laos the next morning. She begged me to take her with me. I could have easily adopted her there and then, if I wasn’t only ten years older than her! She was around 13 at the time in 2006 so she’d be 19 now. I often wonder what she made of herself. I hope it was something good.
Ashin in Burma
I met Ashin during my trip to Burma in 2009. We met in a way which could only be described as incredibly romantic… if it weren’t for the fact that he was a Buddhist monk!! I was caught in a rainstorm on the streets of Yangon. He approached me, offering to share his umbrella until we reached a cafe in which to wait out the storm. We spent the afternoon chatting over tea before I attempted to navigate my way back to my guesthouse in the flooded streets. We met up again a few days later when I returned to Yangon and I visited his monastery. He currently lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka. We still chat regularly on Gmail.
Mi in Vietnam
Miss Mi is a young woman I met in Saigon, Vietnam in 2008. I connected with her via my friend who had met her on a previous trip. I’d just gone through a bad break up in London and needed an escape. She told me to come to Vietnam to solve my problems. Her kindness and friendship got me through a really tough stage in my life. We had a fun week zipping around Saigon on her scooter, eating ice creams and chatting about interesting topics (like whether lady boys were lesbians) over long walks. We’re still friends and stay in touch on Facebook.
Some of my travelling friends have also written on the topic of how to meet locals while travelling.
- Pick Up Lines for Travelers | Keryn at Walkingon Travels
- Perpetually Barefoot: Becoming A Local | Gabi at The Nomadic Family
- When in Rome | Erin at The Gypseekers
- Make New Travel Friends with Tripping | Jessie at Wandering Educators
- How To Travel Like A Local | Bret at Green Global Travel
- How to be a Traveler… Not a Tourist | Laurel at Capturing La Vita
- Becoming Local in 24 hrs | Paz at International Cravings
Let me know how you connect with locals on your travels. Who have you met? What did you talk about? Are you still in touch?
Beautiful stories of real connections! Loved it!
Thank you for including us in your post. I have never tried couchsurfing yet, but have heard many wonderful stories from other families who have. I hope to couchsurf with our family soon. Great post!!
I love how you set up this post! Practical tips follow by your own personal local encounters. Give all of us a little hope that we can connect with people in our travels too 🙂