I started out writing this series with a focus on, and I paraphrase myself: avoiding things getting “tangly” and keeping the “baddies” away.
In all honesty I’ve been tearing my hair out trying to give this post that same safety slant. I mean I’m writing about one of the most enjoyable natural phenomena in the world and as I’m writing I feel like I’m repeatedly tripping over that dastardly question – “So wait… what does this have to do with keeping safe?” WELL. Well. Well I don’t know damnit!
So I think what I want to look at here is how easy it is to make friends as someone travelling on their own, and what I’ve particularly enjoyed in the process.
A B C, it’s eea-sy as 1 2 3!
It is incredibly easy to make friends as a traveller. Everyone becomes interested in you. Locals are interested because you are something new to their world: those who don’t relate to what you’re doing are still going to be somewhat curious, and those who do will get a great deal of pleasure out of vicariously travelling through you. Other travellers are easy to get to know as well as you tend to be interested in each others stories; might have spent time in the same destinations; and are often be able to trade tips and advice on the next legs of your travel. I’ve found it to be generally true that people like to learn new things and at the same time they like to find similarity. Where this goes wrong sometimes is probably where the conditions for learning are not in place because one party believes that the other is trying to force teaching onto them. It’s my personal opinion that it’s better in general to take advantage of the fact that others have fewer expectations of you when they meet you as a traveller and leave the hard sell behind. Just enjoy the simple pleasure of conversation.
One thing that makes making friends especially easy is staying in hostels. Some people worry about staying in a hostel because they think that it might feel unnatural to share a room with strangers. Aside from the practical fact that for most of your travel you’re not going to need the space and privacy of a whole empty room to yourself, it takes very little to go from being strangers to being friendly acquaintances (at minimum). Opening lines such as “Where are you from?” and “How long have you been here?” are so standard and expected in the hostel setting that you can break the ice with ease, free from any fear of being intrusive or tryhard. You’ll be able to spot the unfriendly people in a nanosecond, just leave them alone as is their wish. If you are shy it might help to choose smaller dorms with 4, to a maximum of 6, beds. 8-12 bed rooms make it harder to get to know people, both because there’s a larger number of people in the mix and because people will feel less inclined to hang out in the room to relax.
I am introverted by nature so in many situations wait for others to engage me rather than make the first move myself. Combine this with the fact that I am now extremely well-versed in hostelling ways and I feel qualified to offer potential solo travellers this grand reassurance: most of the time when you make the first move in a hostel, you won’t be rejected. I haven’t always initiated good will and chat the instant I hit the dorm room because some days I’ve arrived somewhere and wished for nothing more than my most immediate physical reward: a bed to break my fall and the opportunity to be removed from the world outside for at least 5 hours. But whenever I have been motivated to extend a genuine greeting and some light chat to my dormmates (and this became more and more the case as I got further along in my travels), I’ve found them to be quite open to further exchange and to giving and receiving help. I think my success rate would be like hm…. proportion generating machine in operation…….. maybe 86%?
What’s really special is when everyone in the dorm room become friends. It’s like you’ve all contributed to putting together this makeshift new country based on goodwill, a common sense of humour, admiration of character traits you see in each other and secretly wish you had, and surprising information and insights that whiz out from any one person at a moment’s notice. It’s exciting because individually everyone is new, together the combination is new, and you like what is happening; but at the same time it is relaxing because when you return to your room after a day’s exploration, you know that what you open the door to is warmth and acceptance.
Don’t worry if you find yourself feeling what seem to be unnaturally soft, fuzzy feelings in such a situation, I’ve been in 4 dorms where this has been the case and each time everyone has openly remarked on what an all-round, thoroughly nice experience it is 🙂
I think I need to go hug something, excuse me a second.
Another cute occurrence in hostels – map-sharing (or “tourist resource-sharing”). I got a map of Barcelona from some kiwis in Granada, and in turn gave the Glasgow-Edinburgh train timetable left in my bag to an Australian in Cork. Who knew there could be virtue in not clearing out the crap in your bag in a timely fashion?
And let’s not forget woe-sharing! You have people you can commiserate with on the things that you had felt pathetic about… For example in Amsterdam I confessed to my hostelmates that I had been dying to hire a bicycle to see the city and beyond, but was afraid of doing it because… my god they’re focused cycling maniacs there! I had a hard enough time not running into bikes as a pedestrian (which translates as yes, collision occurred on 3 separate occasions and they were all the fault of me). To which they responded……. “Us too! We’ve been feeling the same thing!” We subsequently made a plan to do it as a group of three the next day but it fell apart because we ended up unexpectedly messing up our rendezvous. Anyway, the main moral of the story here is that it’s like what they say about how you should always ask your question in class because everyone else in the room probably has the same one and think just like you that they’d look stupid for asking. There are certain common doubts and insecurities that you will share with other travellers, about the destination you’re in or about how you’re travelling around in general. It’s nice to get reminders every now and then that despite your suspicions you’re actually not the biggest ‘fraidy cat in the history of ‘fraidy cats.
Plus you can have those great weird coincidences such as… the morning of the day later on in which I would be leaving for Brussels, I found out that the older American woman who I’d been talking to for the previous couple of days had lived in Brussels for several decades. Now perhaps this doesn’t sound so amazing to you but it was a godsend to me because I had been somewhat skeptical of Brussels, it being known as the land of international business and politics. I’d read stuff on the internet questioning whether it had any charm and began doubting my eminent stay there. This woman absolutely loved the city, her eyes danced and got sooo sparkly as she thought back to her time living there. “Oh, and _______ is a beautiful park, our kids used to love going on a boat on the lake there! And then at Christmas time the city would construct a wonderland in the building in the middle……” etc. etc. In short, she was a perfectly-timed antidote to my pessimism. I’d also never met anyone from Brussels before her.
I’ve had amazing conversations with friends I’ve made in hostels, the vast majority of whom I haven’t kept in touch with since meeting. The discussion with the American army guy about whether humans really have such a thing as “an inherent right to life” (me – no, him – yes). Or with the young French graduate student and his girlfriend about his guilt in being born bourgeois and how he was wrestling with the idea of going out to “live amongst the poor” so that he can stop being hypocritical to his Marxist values. Or with the Polish performing arts student who enlightened several of us about the ins and outs of being a statue. (You know… a type of street busker who moves or does something interesting when you drop them a coin.) Or with the effete Glaswegian law student who was astonished at how poorly treated and regarded Australian Aborigines are – and he knew more than most having studied some bit of law relating to Aboriginal land recognition rights.
If you are particularly interested in finding friends who will be able to give you practical help, your best best is to go local. They can help you out if you get sick and need to know where to go, or if you need to deal with the police or get in any sort of trouble with other locals. This is especially useful if you are in a country that’s main language is not your own. Even if you can speak it you might not understand the technical terms and miss important points. Also, their way of doing things might be different to what you’d expect. Your local friend knows how things work, how given social roles are played out. They are also more likely to feel a duty of care for you than a fellow tourist.
The thing is you will make a billion traveller friends, and in a very short space of time. Some might be super top people, but that takes a while to be able to confirm. Part of the travelling way of life is having fewer responsibilities and being independent. So, what I would say is there are a great many fellow travellers you will meet who you can trust (to be good, helpful, kind people), but there are very few who you will really be able to rely on. When you’re in a jam that’s what you’ll need the most: people who you can rely on, not simply people who you know you can make laugh and who are possibly interested in joining you on that tour tomorrow.
The bonds of reciprocity are much less taut between travelling acquaintances who though undoubtedly like each other, have also been driven into forming this relationship by opportunism and that novel commonality that you guys have of happening to turn up in the same place at the same time for just that briefest sliver of your lives. The fact is, they don’t owe it to you to be reliable. I don’t believe this to be true for a local either, but I think they are happier be on hand for you because they feel so much like they have the power to be of real help and use. With traveller friends there’s always the possibility that they are just as, or even more clueless, than you.
How does one make local contacts, friends? You can pre-arrange this by being part of things like couchsurfing, wwoofing, volunteer work. I’ve participated in all of these simply because they are concepts that have interested me, but also because they are forms of travel that allow me to get closer to normal life in the country and to have interactions with locals beyond thanking a shop assistant. The other benefit of these schemes is that they help bring people together where the motivation is removed from cynical interests. There are mutual gains on both sides that is more about sharing and learning, giving in a way that isn’t taxing, which therefore means receiving in a way that isn’t unfair or disadvantageous to the other. Well, that’s at least definitely true for the first two in that list 😉
Otherwise getting out and doing fun things that the locals enjoy too is obvious. Note that as a traveller it is easy to get caught up in hanging out and only partying with other travellers. My first stay in Biarritz in France I had planned on getting to know the area well, scope out the various surf beaches… and ended up spending the days playing ping pong and foosball; and the nights hanging out at the hostel bar and going out to clubs with fellow hostellers. This was quite near the start of my travel so I was possibly a bit lonely (come on… give me an “Awwwww”). Although I enjoyed myself, those days passed me by in a blur and I did feel that I’d missed part of my point in being there by sticking so closely to this big group of fellow foreigners the whole time. I cocooned myself. Sometimes you will need to do this, but if you can you will get more than you know from going out where the locals like to be. And isn’t that what travelling is about? Finding out that there’s more to living than what you’d ever believed or imagined yourself?
Amongst my favourite “going where the locals go” experiences was when I went to a fireshow and kind of theatrical, carnival-like performance in Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye, which was followed by live contemporary gaelic music and rock. No other tourists apart from British ones who had their own cars were there (or, as far as I could tell it was by vast majority locals). It was well worth it to go for the truly fantastic music, crazy fire-hula-hooping girl and to get to watch a live, downhome Strip the Willow take place on the street. What made it even better was meeting a woman who was a doctor for children on the isle, but whose first degree had been in English literature and whose specialist medical training was in genetics. Had an interesting talk with her about my own interests in mental health, and seeing her in the flesh reminded me that there really are open-minded, wise and multi-faceted doctors out there. It also reminded me that women can age really beautifully naturally. At the end of it she gave me her number and said that I could give her a call the next day if I wanted a tour of the Isle.
Friends that I have made on the road have surprised me time and time again with their unflinching kindness and generosity. A fair number of people have asked me how it is that I can travel alone… I think there is this perception that it is taxing and difficult and that… there’s a lot to navigate through. That the world might somehow be too big if they had to go through it on their own. The truth is the world has hardly ever seemed too big to me because I’ve known that as long as I can make friends – continue to learn from, share with and help out whoever comes my way – anywhere can become a home. A hostel room, a lit up old town square in the middle of the night, a train carriage rumbling on through Bavaria.
It’s cheesy but it’s totally true.