When I first started travelling, I made a mistake.
I only booked single rooms.
Why? Because I thought I needed my space.
And yes, as a blogger, writer, cartoonist and all around creative genius (humble much?) I do need time to myself to get things done. Things that pay the rent.
I also need time apart for my own well-being. I’m an introvert. I have social phobias. I get tired in crowds. And I’m afraid of introducing myself.
When slow travelling. you can meet a lot of people. And in most cases, they move on quite fast. Especially fellow travellers. They are trying to see as much as they can before they have to return home.
Because it was already hard for me to meet people, it didn’t make much sense to give these kinds of people time. After all, I thought, they were just going to move on.
I approached making new friends like an investment transaction.
What do I get out of it? Where’s the return?
It was a cold, calculating approach. And the result was that I only made the barest of connections.
I was hella lonely.
Waiters smiled as they took my coffee order. My hosts were happy to get me an extra towel. That was about it.
For a month, the longest conversation I had with a graffiti artist. Who offered me what looked like crystal meth, then told me about his favourite soup kitchen.
Not a bad guy all round. Not what I was looking for. Not enough to put me off.
I still needed people.
It took me a good while to work this out.
Humans are social animals. We need contact with others to stay healthy – and being alone can actually hurt us.
And it takes more than casual passing contact. Coffee orders and jokes with bartenders aren’t enough. You need to establish a connection, a rapport. A personal connection.
We also need physical contact. I’m not talking about sexy-times – that’s another post. I’m talking about sympathetic contact. AKA skin-hunger – the need we have to share physical space. And not just on the subway.
Without these, I was coming apart. I found myself losing contact with appropriate behaviour. What to say, when to say it. And I found myself waking up stiff and sore every morning. Why? Because I would cram my sleeping body in the foetal position. And stay there. All night. Unmoving. Hugging myself.
No sir, being alone for extended periods was not doing me any good.
How I changed my mind about people
Temples and beaches and glaciers and whatever, they’re great. Awe-inspiring. Instagram-worthy. People travel for days and cover thousands of miles to see these exotic locales. And take pics of them for their dating profiles.
I love travelling to new places and seeing the sights. And taking pictures of them. Not that I date a lot.
But these fixtures are more or less permanent. Sure, mountains wear down over millennia. Buildings can collapse after decades of neglect.
But generallyspeaking, what’s here today is probably gonna be there tomorrow. If you miss it this one time – and if you absolutely must see that one thing – you can come back and see that one thing. Chances are it will be there.
Your time spent with people is different. Moments come and go rapidly. Conversations can turn into connection in a matter of minutes – especially when travelling.
There’s something about being away from the familiar that makes some people more open. It’s like they are less opposed to taking chances. More willing to embrace honest behaviour.
It’s like they are expressing their true self – the self they hide away when at the office or down the pub.
Thing is, I didn’t realise it. I believed that the world would talk to me. And that all I had to do was show up.
With hindsight, that was a presumptuous. And the world doesn’t work like that.
It is up to me to reach out to people.
There are some amazing people out there. And it’s not their responsibility to meet me. It’s mine.
Here’s a list of some of the ways I motivate myself to get out there. You know, engage with my fellow humans.
Stay with people – When I go to a new location I don’t cloister myself away in a room. I deliberately select a place that’s known for being social. Even if I end up in an apartment, I make sure that there’s a bar or cafe nearby that supports small talk.
Make the first move and talk to people – If I want to talk to someone, I make it happen. How are they supposed to know I want to talk? Are they psychic? Probably not.
Ask questions – After introducing myself, we usually do the whole travellers exchange. You know, where-are-you-from, what-do-you-do, where-have-you-visited. After during that exchange, I practice active listening. Make eye contact. Ask interesting questions. One of my favourites is “So what’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen in the last week?”
Share meals – Breaking bread is common practice across a hue range of cultures. The act of sharing food brings people closer. By sharing a meal, we make decisions together. Talk about food preferences, places we’ve been, places we want to visit…
Organise trips to places – Once you’ve established a rapport, I like to explore future travel options. They don’t have to be big activities. But why not just go places together? A driving tour, a picnic in the park, a trip to see a local village. As group, these things are cheaper. We all get to see more, learn more. And enjoy the company of our fellow travellers, while getting away from the dorms.
Uh.. drinking? – An obvious way forward that breaks down barriers. The social lubricant helps me by lowering my inhibitions and enhancing the good vibes. Of course, it pays to keep it sensible with alcohol. I don’t wanna go making a massive ass of myself in front of new friends!
Be a better you – If you’re like me, sometimes you might find it hard to go out, because you’re hard on yourself. So I work to improve myself ins a number of small ways. Exercise, good food, dressing nice. I brush my teeth daily, and shower regularly. Small things like this help build my confidence. Which makes it easier to converse without distractions.
The landmarks and places will always be there.
Cities, monuments, temples. Mountains, beaches, canyons. They endure. Well, barring natural disasters.
It’s the people and the events you have with them that pass quickly. So give them the time.
Above all, keep in mind that you don’t have to be friends with everyone.
You are unique. So are they.
You are all an acquired taste to someone, and a potential best friend to others.
You’ll meet each other by chance – then it’s up to you to do the rest.
It’s up to you to figure out which is which. And you never know unless you put in the time to find out.
It’s worth it.