I’ve traveled pretty much every way you can think of: solo, with a partner, with friends and with my extended family. I have backpacked, crashed in dive hotels and indulged in high-priced accommodations.
As a former director of marketing for an educational travel company, I have read lots of “trip reports”— the post-trip evaluation forms that travelers fill out telling the operator what worked and what needed improvement, which experiences they enjoyed most and which ones they’d be just as happy to have skipped. Guess what stands out?
Connections with locals are, hands down, the most cherished experiences. They know the good stuff: where to find unusual reptiles (in a New Zealand nature park, at night, with a red lens on your flashlight), exactly what a “tubman” did (it was an athletic, high-mortality undertaking) and how to put the hot liquid inside the dough (the correct proportion of fat is essential).
I treasure these experiences because each one pulled me more deeply into what at first felt like a foreign culture, nudging me to broaden my perspective and circle of friends.
A Parisian gave me a tip that led to an unforgettable massage in a hammam; we’re still pals. A nun in County Cork, Ireland, explained the history of the ancient pagan fertility goddess Sheela na gig, and I wrote a story about her. In Southern Italy, I struck up a conversation with a boy who later invited my travel companion and me to his mother’s house for an expansive lunch; by the end of the afternoon, we felt like part of the family.
Sometimes the connections were nonverbal: toasting a young Bulgarian couple with homemade wine under a leafy arbor, for example, or learning the traditional way to pour yerba maté tea from an herbalist in Argentina. In Madagascar, I connected with a shy, little girl when we simply whistled a tune together. And I shared giggles with a Japanese waitress when I had to pantomime my order for chicken okonomiyaki, a pancake dish.
None of those interactions required my fluency in the local language, but they did require me — an introvert — to step out of my comfort zone. Each one started out a little awkwardly as I connected with a stranger — and each left me with lasting memories.
That may be the best reason for talking to strangers. In this era of division and outright hostility, it is still possible to contribute to peace. Connecting with people unlike ourselves is a fundamental first step.
Laurie McAndish King is a travel writer and author. Her most recent book is “An Elephant Ate My Arm: More True Stories from a Curious Traveler.”