Newsflash: when you’re on the road for long enough it’s likely that you may start to feel a little disconnected.
Never, I hear you exclaim. What on Earth are you on about?
Picture the scene: you’re far from home and you may even be by yourself. You find yourself wandering through cities, markets, villages and countryside that give you snapshots into other people’s lives. The views are beautiful, the smiles genuine, the daily routines and way of life so different to your own that they leave you humbled, speechless, inspired.
This is all great and probably why you wanted to start travelling in the first place, but after a while it can also begin to feel really, really lonely. And that can suck.
Because you stand on the periphery looking in at whatever it is you seek to discover on your travels: be it the culture, food, history, family, architecture, love.
And after a while, your position of observer starts to feel a little isolated out there on your foreigner limb. Sometimes you tire of your frogmarch through all of these far-flung countries and of being stared at by locals on the bus, in the market, at dinner.
You’re the alien who just wants to blend in for a while.
Here are nine ways that you could try connecting with community whilst on the road.
Perhaps the first thing I want to say if you’re beginning to feel a little cross-eyed at your on-the-go style of travel is to try slowing down the pace for a while. Living out of your eternally packed bag, hopping on and off buses, planes, boats and trains for only one or two nights in each place can be exhausting.
Fun, but ohmygoodness do you burn out after a few weeks.
If you’ve only got a short time in which to fit in a lot of travel then unfortunately this may not suit you, but still consider focusing your time in fewer places for longer than stretching yourself thinly over many different destinations. Staying in one place for a week or two (or longer, of course!) allows you to appreciate the rhythms, the routines, the sounds and the smells. And relax.
I am sure you will have loads of ideas and itineraries for each place that you visit.
So ask yourself, what do the locals do? Do they go a particular market on a Saturday morning? Is there a specific sports team or game that’s synonymous with your current location? Where do they go to eat, drink, pray, relax?
I would recommend visiting the tourist information centre or asking at your accommodation if they know of any festivals, shows or events that may be happening right now. Who knows, there may be a comedy festival or a traditional dance show right around the corner.
If you want to visit a place and do more than simply wield your camera at a few landmarks then there are lots of organisations that can arrange volunteer placements for you. Volunteering not only helps you to experience the local community and wildlife it also connects you with the issues they face. You will gain a greater respect and understanding of these issues, whilst providing you with heaps of great memories and skills to add to your CV.
If there is time in your travels to factor it in and your visa allows it then working as you go will help you to feel connected to your current community. Whatever you do for work you will end up meeting local people and the daily routine – which a lot of backpackers may actually sense that they miss – will help you connect with the place.
Keep It Small (Town)
If you are struggling in the hectic hustle of the big city then take a step back and reflect on that for a moment. Whilst there’s lots of opportunity to get involved and meet locals in a large city, for some people this environment will only heighten a sense of isolation.
Escaping the city and getting into the country will guarantee people will know your name within days of your arrival.
Resting Your Head
Large, almost corporately run chain backpacker hostels will start to feel a little soulless after a while. Opt for smaller, independently owned backpacker hostels for a more homely, genuine feel. Not only will they be a more intimate environment than a 250 bed mega-hostel, the people at reception are more likely to be locals who will love to share their hints and tips about their environment.
Another option to consider is a homestay with a local family, which would be the ultimate way of immersing yourself in the culture of the country you’re visiting, and a surefire way to leave you feeling a lot more connected to the people around you.
Read about my funny hostel experiences here.
Reading your guidebook is great but sometimes you can’t help but feel like you want more. There’s an easy solution to this lack of information and one which culture buffs will have down pat. These travellers will seek out the museums and galleries in any place that they visit, even down to the tiny local museum in that random town they stopped in for gas. More often than not these places are entry by donation meaning that you can enjoy them for as little as your lose change.
I totally get it if museums are not your thing. Some people need a greater interaction with their surroundings to feel a part of it rather than browsing through a gallery. But here is where social media steps in. Search for Facebook groups in your local area and keep up to date on events, meetups, stuff for sale or just general chit chat. There may even be backpacker specific groups you can join.
Instagram is also a great way to get inspiration on things to do locally by searching locations, businesses, points of interest and hashtags relevant to your area.
Join In On A Whim
If you see something like an organised street party or carnival then linger awhile and enjoy. Immersing yourself in the music, the flavours and colours of the locals is a great way to instantly feel engaged with your surroundings. Not to mention there’s usually some awesome live music and some delicious locally produced food to be found!
I’v9e stumbled in on many a street fair or community festival and spent time listening to buskers or performers in the street. They all add to the general feel of the place and are a lot of fun.
Have you ever felt like you were trapped on the outside looking in whilst you were travelling? How do you seek to engage with the places you visit and people you meet on your journey? Share your ideas!