Curious how to meet locals while traveling? Some introvert travel advice from a fellow introvert.
I’ve been quite torn about talking about travel (with snippets of sustainability, veganism and personal battles of course) while we’re in a global crisis. But this week, 84% of you voted in my Instagram Stories that I should, atleast occasionally. I’m a bit relieved, because dreaming of travel allows me to momentarily escape these bizarre times too.
“Social distancing” is the need of the hour. We must keep our distance from people and stay away from social gatherings to (hopefully) contain the on-going crisis. For social butterflies, this is a trying exercise. But for introverts like me, it’s no big deal.
Over the past few days, I’ve hardly stepped out of my gate except for the occasional grocery run. I’ve been writing, catching up with my folks, watching pointless movies and reminiscing about my travels over the years. And that got me thinking.
As an introvert, I don’t enjoy hostels, seldom go partying, avoid social gatherings and can rarely strike up a conversation in a group. Yet I’ve built beautiful friendships in several corners of the world based on shared interests and meaningful interactions. I’m constantly asked how. How to meet locals while traveling? What’s some practical introvert travel advice for meaningful encounters on the road?
Here are some tools that have enabled me to connect with people while I travel:
How to meet locals while traveling based on your interests: Airbnb Experiences
You’ve probably used or heard of Airbnb as a platform where people around the world can host travellers in their homes. I’ve been using it for years, staying at experiential accommodations like remote fincas in Central America, hip hideouts in Europe and even an off-the-grid treehouse in Sri Lanka.
But a while ago, Airbnb launched something even more epic – “Airbnb Experiences“. A collection of unique, curated travel experiences (hikes, day trips, classes, workshops etc) offered by locals in their town or city. It’s the perfect answer to how to meet locals while traveling. A game-changer for introvert travel. A chance to experience places from a local’s lens. It democratizes livelihood opportunities through tourism. But most of all, it’s a rare opportunity to meet locals who share similar interests.
Over three months in Cape Town in 2019, we connected with some beautiful souls through Airbnb Experiences. Hikers, social workers, vegan chefs and marine biologists. Some went on to become good friends, some hiking buddies. And some definitely moulded our perception of life in South Africa.
Not on Airbnb yet? Sign up with my referral link to get upto 40$ off Airbnb Stays / Airbnb Experiences.
How to meet vegans on the road: HappyCow
I remember my first evening in Matsumoto (Japan) quite vividly. I was on assignment with a group of fellow writers / photographers, and had a long day out. By early evening, I was famished, ready to have an enormous meal, but devastated to discover that on offer was a meat-laden buffet with only slim salad pickings for my vegan self. I decided I needed to eat better, and walked away.
Outside, the weather was cold and rainy. I walked on the deserted, dark street, with no shops or restaurants in sight. I had no local SIM card and no idea where to look for food. Luckily, I had turned on international roaming on my Airtel SIM and cellular data worked fast. I quickly opened the HappyCow app and was delighted to see a vegan-friendly izakaya listed a kilometer away. I had no idea it was going to change my entire experience of being vegan in Japan!
Through the noren (a traditional Japanese fabric used as a door), I walked into a charming old wooden tavern, to be greeted by a sweet elderly woman. In basic Japanese I’d been practicing, I tried to ask for vegan food. She pulled out a stack of handwritten cards, each explaining traditional dishes that could be made vegan! In broken Japanese and English, she went on to explain how traditional Japanese food was essentially plant-based until the Meiji era. Over warm sake, we talked about food and life in Japan, her beloved city of Matsumoto and my excitement to explore more of Japan. While parting, she gave me a hug and a gorgeous collection of her origami!
Since I turned vegan in 2015, I owe it to HappyCow – an app which maps vegan / vegetarian food wherever you are – for leading me to incredible vegan food and soulful encounters around the world <3
Introvert travel on a budget: Meetup.com
I’m hardly one to sign up for social meetups. I’d probably be found in a corner, unwilling to make small talk, cursing myself for showing up! But interest-based meetups are different. You meet a bunch of strangers yes, but there’s already a common thread to skip most of that dreaded small talk.
Meetup.com has been around forever, but I’ve started using it only recently. In South Africa, I joined a meetup group of female writers – right up my alley. The platform also led us to local hiking groups, especially for trails rarely traversed or incredibly expensive to do independently.
Especially as a digital nomad, spending a month or two in a spot, interest-based meetups are a great way to connect with like-minded people. And there’s nothing quite as beautiful as a friendship formed halfway across the world, especially one that lets an introvert come out of her shell.
Also read: Four Years of Travelling Without a Home
How to meet locals while traveling to bond over food: EatWith
As much as it’s fun to explore new restaurants and cafes in a new place, I love the idea of a homemade meal in a local home – and that’s exactly what EatWith is about. A platforms where chefs open their dining rooms to travellers.
My first brush with EatWith happened years ago in New York City. Together with a friend, I landed up in the home of a Jewish family for a traditional Sabbath dinner. As much a cultural experience – complete with Hebrew prayers to bless the wine and challah (braided Jewish bread) – as a culinary one.
Virtual connections before real ones for introvert travel: Instagram
Instagram has changed travel in many ways. Personally, it’s become a channel to connect with like-minded locals and discover responsible travel experiences around the world.
In Bhutan, Instagram enabled me to connect with amazing women in the country. Some working tirelessly to promote compassion towards animals, one revolutionizing the digital space in Bhutan and even the country’s first solo female traveller!
In Iran, an Instagram hashtag led me to an underground vegan movement! One that spans food, travel, music and spirituality. I’m constantly in touch with the friends I made, often exchanging poetry, articles worth reading and life updates.
In Myanmar, Instagram led me to someone who has been exploring unmapped villages in the country’s tribal belts. And my own motorbike adventure, of which I must write about soon.
As I often write, like all social media, Instagram is merely a tool. It’s totally up to us how we use it.
How to meet locals while traveling as a digital nomad: Facebook groups
While writing this post, I began thinking of my most memorable (planned) encounters around the world, and traced so many of them back to Facebook.
Location and interest based Facebook groups have led me to a Mayan Spanish teacher-turned-friend in Guatemala. To a bunch of committed animal rights activists in Thailand. To a tribe of inspiring zero waste practitioners in South Africa. To a Syrian refugee and his awe-inspiring life story in the Netherlands. And to many local events, talks and spots that have helped me immerse myself in a place beyond typical tourism.
Also read: How to Earn Money While Travelling
On my wishlist
In remote, offbeat places, I love to leave my encounters up to chance. But in cities and tourism-oriented spots, I’ve started relying more on technology to lead me to meaningful experiences. I’m currently eyeing the following platforms:
Veganary Mini-Tours: As a passionate vegan, I’m always looking to connect with local vegans wherever I go, learn about the evolution of cuisines and of course, try local vegan food. I think Veganary Mini-Tours is going to add more magic to my vegan travel life – with short meetups with local vegans around the world! They’ve launched in 20 destinations so far, and as more people support their crowdfunding campaign, I hope they’ll be everywhere soon.
WithLocals: A platform that connects travellers with local hosts to explore a city from a local lens, spanning hiking, cooking, music and other experiences. WithLocals sounds like an easy way to beat the introvert travel blues, while building meaningful connections.
How do you meet locals while traveling? Have you tried any of the above platforms?
*Note: I wrote this post in collaboration with Airtel. Opinions on this blog, as you know, are always mine.