On my early morning walks in Buenos Aires, I loved watching the rising sun crawl over buildings. While working in Melbourne, I watched for ever-changing graffiti. Every day in Spain, I looked forward to my mid-morning snack of café con leche and chorizo sandwich.
These are pieces of my life abroad I wish I could still experience. But beyond missing my new routines, what I miss the most are the human connections I made in those places. There’s nothing like a good laugh over a cup of coffee, or learning about a country’s troubled past through a local’s explanation of a mural that give simple things – like a latte or street art – more meaning.
From chatting with local classmates to making friends through shared interests, meeting locals during your Greenheart Travel program can help you learn the language, culture and history of the country. (Plus, making friends is a lot of fun.)
If it weren’t for locals, I wouldn’t have learned what Australians mean when they say esky, why Argentines walk around sipping tea from a gourd (mate!) or the reason why people say molt be instead of muy bien in some parts of Spain.
So, how do you make connections when you’re in a new country and speaking a new language? At first, putting yourself out there might seem challenging. But, taking the initiative to make local connections has the potential to make any program – whether it’s a few weeks or a few months – more memorable.
Language exchanges are a great way to meet locals while improving your skills and helping them hone theirs! A language exchange is an event where language learners typically spend half the allotted time in one language and the other in another. Sounds perfect, right?
Check social media sites like Facebook or ask your host family if they know of one near you. Linda Correll, a teach in Colombia alum, says she went twice a week to an exchange in her area called “Let’s Talk Pereira”. This event had an informal, conversational atmosphere and “ended up being a large part of my social life during my two years there,” she says.
Even if you can’t find a language exchange in your area, try asking a coworker or neighbor for language help. For example, Kirt Smith, a teach in Thailand alum, says after he learned basic Thai he asked co-teachers for help reading and writing. “It’s a great ice-breaker and I gained a lot of Thai friends doing this,” he continues, “I found out that taking the time to learn more about the language is a fast-track method to earning a lot of respect among Thai people.”
Besides traditional social media outlets like Facebook and Instagram, there are many networking sites to help meet locals. For example, while living in Melbourne, I attended an event through the Welcome Dinner Project, an organization that connects establish Australians with newcomers. I met people of all social backgrounds and tried homemade dishes from each part of the world represented at the dinner.
If you’re not in Australia, check for similar organizations in your destination and try the following websites:
Couchsurfing is best known for connecting travelers with free places to stay around the world, but many people don’t realize it’s also a great social tool. Just as some use the site to find locals to stay with, you can reach out to locals that you have common interests with. Many “hosts” (locals) often plan social events for locals and travelers to meet. I connected with a Japanese man in Tokyo, and we spent an afternoon exploring the Akihabara area.
Meetup.com is a site that connects people based on shared interests. Around the world, people host “meet ups” to practice capoeira, learn to cook, discuss literature with a book club – or anything else you could think of! This is a great way to continue a hobby while you’re abroad, or even start a new one.
For foodies, there are two sites – Eatwith.com and Bonappetour.com – that give you the opportunity to have chefs cook for you – right from their home! Because other people join the events, you’ll meet lots of folks as interested in trying new cuisines as you.
No matter where you are in the world, sports are an important part of life. They may differ – though soccer seems to have a stronghold throughout the globe – but people love to be active. Marissa Ruxin, a teach in Colombia alum, joined ultimate Frisbee teams in both places she taught in Colombia. She had a blast, and made friends!
Besides practicing his Thai, Smith also learned the game of takraw (ตะกร้อ) by asking local men in the park to teach him. “The men were extremely welcoming and thought it was cool having a foreigner want to learn how to play. It quickly became a regular activity and we would often end up eating dinner together at the night market afterwards,” he says.
One of the best ways to meet people is through your established networks. With Greenheart Travel programs, you’ll be with host families (and in some cases also have networks at schools) to ask for recommendations.
They will have a much more in-depth knowledge of the city and its surroundings, so whatever activity you might be interested in doing use them as a resource.
While I was studying in Buenos Aires, I asked my classmates if they knew anything about a conference I had heard about – the Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres, an annual women’s rights conference. As it turned out, one of my classmate’s sisters was going, and he connected me with her. Two weeks later I was on a 30-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to Posadas, Misiones with 40 other woman. As I’m sure you can guess, I learned a lot of new Spanish and made many lasting friendships.
It never hurts to ask for connections – you never know where it might lead.
Speaking with locals can be intimidating. You might be nervous about your shaky French or suddenly blank on the Japanese word for restaurant when you’re asking a classmate for a recommendation. Maybe you’d rather sleep in on a Saturday than go on a rigorous morning hike, or perhaps you’re not in the mood to try the local delicacy in your town in Myanmar with your co-teacher.
Remember that starting a conversation or going to a new place for the first time might seem like a lot of effort, but the payoff of great experiences and good friends makes it worth it. I’ve had some of biggest laughs and greatest memories at events I almost didn’t attend.