One of the most frequent questions I receive in the T2T inbox is how I meet and befriend locals while traveling and living abroad.
The entire concept of this site focuses on that interaction and I base the success of each adventure on the friends I’ve made and authentic moments I’ve shared with locals.
I’m not saying you can’t have the same experiences following the backpacker trail or hanging out in tourist bars, but I do think that while traveling, everyone should make some effort to understand a place and culture through the people who define it.
The moments I cherish most while traveling and living abroad are those when taking photos seems inappropriate and an explanation of the scene always falls short of the feeling. They are the times when you feel comfortable being part of something completely foreign.
It’s for this reason I’ve gone into every South American adventure with a strategy and gang of tactics to help me get involved on a local level. To experience life as a local, ahem… as a “townie.”
These are my 8 Secrets Weapons to Townie Success a.k.a. how I connect with locals everywhere I go. The order is based on what have been the most effective for me.
Remember, these networking tools don’t just apply to those traveling abroad. I use some of the same tactics to meet new people at home as well. Isn’t it about time you meet some new people?
1. Find Connected Roommate(s)
This is probably the most important thing about moving somewhere new. No matter if it’s across the city or across the world, in large part, your roommates dictate your time and experiences. If you share a pad with people who know the ins and outs of the city you can adapt much faster. I would vote for roommates vs. living alone, especially if you were moving to a new country. I had 2 amazing Colombian roommates in Buenos Aires who had been living in Argentina for years and I lived with a great Colombian family when I moved to Medellin. They showed me around town, introduced to locals and helped me get established with zero known contacts going in.
2. Get a Local Job
This is the number 1 question I receive, “How do I get a job abroad?” Easier said then done, right? I agree, but I still always answer the same way. If you are searching for work, abroad or at home, you have to constantly be meeting people and putting yourself out there. It’s cliché but so true, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”
Once you have a job, it in itself will determine your relationships. For example, if you teach English you will build one type of community versus if you work in a local establishment. It really all depends on what you’re looking for and what your skill-set is. I tended bar in Buenos Aires for almost 8 months and while the money wasn’t great and the hours were ridiculous, I continued working there because of the people I met and the friendships I built. Those relationships made my experience in Argentina amazing.
If you have the opportunity to volunteer for an organization abroad, this is a great way for you to get involved on a local level and much easier than finding a job. Even if you do it part time, the connections you can make through volunteering could help you in many other aspects of your experience abroad.
The BiblioWorks organization that I’m working with here in Sucre has introduced me to some of my best friends, gave me the chance to interact with local families and even helped me find an apartment.
4. Get a Hobby
For me it is business, travel and basketball. For others it’s yoga, fishing and marijuana. Figure out what you like to do and then set out to do it with others.
Here in Sucre, I got wind of a basketball court where people played and just kept going everyday until people showed up. From there I was able to connect with a few college ballers and now I’m playing 3 nights a week. In Baños, Ecuador I played with the local tour guides, in Medellin I played 2 nights a week at a local university and in Buenos Aires I played every weekend with the US Embassy staff.
No matter where I am in the world, when I step onto a basketball court, I immediately feel comfortable and it makes it easy for me to connect, language or not. The same can be said for the things you enjoy doing.
Literally, if you move to a new place (and you’re single) you should hook-up with people who know the area. I’m not saying hump your way onto tour buses and into VIP lines, but I’m just saying if you find a local girl or guy who you like spending time with… it’s not a bad thing. Have them take you to all the hidden gems, introduce you around town and become friends with their friends.
Also, as I’ve mentioned before, having a local girlfriend or boyfriend is the absolute best way for you to learn a language. I know this sounds like a bad reason to date someone but I’m just saying if you have your choice… go local! I mean look at all the cultural lessons I learned.
6. Find a Solid Wing-Man (or Wing-Women)
When I’m living in a set location I don’t typically hang out with other travelers, I don’t go to expat bars and I don’t frequent touristy spots, simply because that’s not what I enjoy. However, I have nothing against those who follow the backpacker trail and seek comfort in other travelers. As long as people respect local culture, I’m cool with anyone traveling the way he or she enjoys.
With that being said, I do believe everyone needs at least one solid wingman from a connectable background. When you first arrive in a new location without any contacts, you can drive yourself crazy real quick. I’ve felt the effects of loneliness as a solo traveler and I’m telling you here’s another way to avoid it. When I first arrived in Argentina my Spanish was non-existent, so going out and avoiding backpacker bars was nearly impossible without looking like the weird wallflower at the end of the bar.
Enter my buddy Nate from Chicago, who I’d met while searching for apartments. He had just moved to Buenos Aires and was hell-bent on mixing it up with locals as well. So, we went out together and chatted up locals as a team while keeping each other sane.
But remember, Nate and I were a good team because we both did our own thing; you don’t want to get to a point where you’re using each other as a crutch instead of a mutual catapult.
7. Embrace Social Networks & Communities
Now we turn the corner from traditional socializing methods to the online game. If you use the powers for good, social networking can be a highly effective resource in connecting with like-minded locals (even before you arrive). Twitter is great because you connect with anyone, anytime while Facebook is more personal so regular non-creeping rules apply to strangers.
The most effective networks I’ve found thus far have been communities like Internations, A Small World and especially Couchsurfing that focus on meet-ups and events. While I’ve never used Couchsurfing to actually crash on somebody’s couch, I have met up with a ton of people for coffee and festivities. I stayed in Lima, Peru for almost a month because of all the incredible locals I met through the community.
On another note, many big cities have local or expat forums where you can ask questions and make great connections. For example, Buenos Aires has a site called baexpats.org that I used a lot when I first moved to Argentina.
8. Contact Blogs & Sites
Take the extra step during your planning process and make local connections via blogs and sites you’re interest in. Email with your plans and just ask if you could meet for coffee or a beer when you arrive. With these connections you immediately have on-the-ground contacts that are usually more than willing to help someone new.
That important thing is to not stretch your new relationship. Don’t ask them to go out of their way before they even know you. The goal is to just start a dialog. When I decided to move to Buenos Aires I contacted every local expat business owner (before I spoke Spanish) and asked to meet up for coffee or lunch when I arrived. I had 9 new contacts/friends within the first month of living in Argentina, all of whom I got to know and tried to help before I ever asked them for anything more than basic city advice (if at all).
BONUS: I guess a combination of 4,5, 6 and 7… never discount the effectiveness of dating sites abroad. I have met many men who swear by them and I can definitely understand why. While I’m not a user just yet, I am definitely a supporter of any tool that helps people travel deeper!
How do you meet new people?