Living away from home is hard but living in a strange land where hardly anyone around you speaks English and you can barely read the words on the street is a pretty difficult adventure to embark on. How do you make friends? How do you ask for that essential item you desperately need and how do you even say hello to the person on the street? So, you ask, then why do it? Why venture forth into an unknown part of the world where everything is unfamiliar? Perhaps it is to see mysterious unheard of places. Perhaps it is to escape the monotony of our everyday lives or perhaps we do it to be reminded that humanity still exists in the world we live in.
Getting acquainted in a new city can be a challenging experience. The feeling of disorientation, insecurity and anxiety is all too common after a few weeks of settling in everything around you is different and strange. Everywhere you look, people’s behavior and social customs seem foreign. It’s enough to send any traveler packing back to the familiarity of home. So when exploring an off the beaten track destination, how do you get acquainted with locals in a foreign land? Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Before arriving in a new city, it’s a good idea to do some research about the local customs and cultures you’re going to encounter. Find out what certain colors symbolize, how do people great each other and what the table manners should look like. Finding out about the customs and cultures of the people in a place you’re headed too will not only help you blend in more but also ensure that you come across as both respectful and knowledgeable when interacting with locals. This will in turn make them more receptive and willing to talk with you.
LEARN THE LOCAL LANGUAGE
Knowing a few local phrases can help a lot because not only will it make it easier for you to say hello and initiate a conversation with locals but it will also show them you are know something – even if only a little bit – about their culture. Knowing a few local phrases will increase your chances of communicating and meeting local people while also helping you to integrate with the community.
It’s important to stay informed about the local politics, social statuses, sporting events, upcoming festivals and international events in the city you’re visiting. The best sources of information are local newspapers. There are always English copies available; you just have to locate them. I usually start reading local newspapers on the flight heading towards the destination. When boarding the plane there are always newspaper stands offering English copies of local newspapers. Major coffee houses like Starbucks for example, tend to keep a stand with local English newspapers and current magazines. Look for them when you step in for a morning coffee. If you can’t find those, then using online resources will help. I often go to popular news sites like BBC and CNN to check the region specific news. This way, you’re more informed about current events.
VISIT TOURIST CENTERS
Visiting a local tourist office means you can ask any pending questions you may have, regroup yourself and also find out if there are any programs for travelers to interact with locals. Ask for dance groups, bar streets and language exchanges meet-ups.
HAVE A HOBBY
Having a hobby is one of the best ways to meet new people who have something in common with you. Whether it is photography, playing a sport, reading books, diving or even hiking, joining a local group is one of the best ways to meet people.
SHOP IN LOCAL STORES
If you want to meet more people then try shopping in local stores instead of always heading back to your favorite big branded international stores. Visit the neighborhood grocery or even popular street markets. It’s the perfect opportunity to meet and start a conversation with locals about something you’re interested in buying. Ask questions about the product, which type or brands are the best and if they would recommend it.
CONNECT WITH PEOPLE
It’s easy to retreat and not want to socialize with locals, especially if they don’t speak English and you know nothing about their local language. The language barrier is often one of the greatest hurdles that travelers face but it’s easily overcome. Just because you don’t know the words doesn’t mean you can’t interact. Using gestures (and sometimes pictures) are one of the quickest ways to get your message across. More often than not, you’ll find a local who is willing to try understanding you with a smile on their face. Make eye contact, smile and use your actions!
HAVE A KIND APPROACH
They often say first impressions are lasting ones and I’m afraid they’re right. If you approach a local with humility and a broad smile on your face, they’re more likely to give up their time to help you. Nod often when you understand and let them finish speaking first even if their English is difficult to understand. Be humble and patient. This is one of the first steps in effective communication with locals.
ASK FOR INFORMATION
One of the easiest ways to meet new people is to ask for directions or information about a site you’re planning to visit. A simple rule of thumb that I use is to excuse myself and ask for the directions or information first. If the person seems friendly enough, then I ask a question or two more about the area I’m headed too. This usually prompts the person to ask me more about myself and so a conversation begins. Of course, be receptive to the person you’re interacting with. If they seem uneasy or in a rush then don’t persist and let them be on their way. If you feel unsafe, then thank them for their time and leave immediately.
One of the best ways to get acquainted with locals is through experience. Every time you interact with someone, you’re building up on that experience, learning a few more words, gestures and a little more about the culture of the people you’re among. Over time this will help you to communicate more effectively and also build more positive connections during your stay.
DISCOVER AND EXPLORE
Walking around the city means you’re going to see new areas that you’ve never seen before. Go to the local parks or visit the local history museum. Go beyond the major tourist spots and try to explore off the beaten track places. Wander into residential neighborhoods, walk through small villages and interact with the rural communities. This way, you’ll get a true feel of local living and also have a greater chance of talking with locals and learning about their everyday life.