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Alternative Title: Am I a Superficial Traveler?

When I posted the results of my reader survey, there were a few topics that were simply too complicated to address in a sentence or two. One of them was this. A few commenters were a tad critical of the level of cultural immersion I’ve managed in my travels — specific respondents pointed out (with varying degrees of accuracy) that I don’t delve very deep into the history of the places I write about, that I never talked about learning Thai despite spending so long in the country, and that all my friends are white.

Ouch.

Learning Thai

It’s true, I never learned Thai. I could rattle off some excuses — on Koh Tao, where I’ve spent the vast majority of my time, the only Thai language school is a front for selling long term visas, and Burmese is probably spoken at least as frequently on the island as Thai is. But those are excuses. The truth is that I was lazy, Thai was hard, and I’ve never been gifted with languages. I want that to change. When I return to Thailand later this year, I will seek out a (non-visa selling fraud of a) language school to learn some of the basics of Thai language structure. It’s a country I love and plan to return to over and over, I have no excuse for not making an attempt to learn more than ten phrases. That was constructive criticism, and I appreciate it.

I was a little hurt by the accusation that I don’t focus on history or culture, because I seek out both when I travel. However, that feedback helped me realize that I often shy away from writing about those topics because I am terrified of misinterpreting something, or of positioning myself as an authority on a society that is not my own. What if I write about the culture of whaling in Iceland tons of Icelandic people comment telling me I’m an ignorant buffoon? Ah yes, that already happened! But history and culture are two topics I love and this blog should reflect that. That too was constructive criticism I appreciate.

But let’s talk about this all-white-friends business, shall we?

Friends From Around the WorldFriends from Spain, South Africa, Finland, the US and the UK

I think there is a misconception about travel that you merely have to stroll down the street in some exotic land and locals will be at your side clamoring to invite you home to dinner with their families or to give you a personal tour of a secret hidden beach or to walk their daughter down the aisle at her wedding or whatever. They don’t. And honestly, as a woman often traveling alone, I’d have to be fairly suspicious of those invitations for my own safety.

I have been shown incredible kindness by strangers who invited me to join a conversation, to share a roadside snack, to hitch a ride, and to makes sure I was safely and hospitably welcomed to their country without expectation of anything in return. But those instances are rare, and the line is drawn at some point, as my friend Matt has written about as well. The Thai women who wordlessly shared their homemade sticky rice with me while we sat at the pier waiting for a ferry didn’t invite me home to learn how to make it, you know? And why would they? I’m just one of a million blondes bobbing through their homeland.

There are places that stand out to me as being exceptionally friendly. I think Scottish people are born with hospitality running through their veins, and Filipinos will probably make you cry with the warmth they will show you. But the world is getting smaller and there are fewer and fewer destinations where a visitor from another culture is regarded with excitement and fascination. Think how you regard an obvious tourist, map in hand, navigating their way around your hometown. Do you stop them on the street and offer to bring them home to meet your family? Or do you simply bump into them as you make your way to work?ย  It becomes even more difficult to make that connection when the economy of your destination is based on tourism. Once you are seen as a client or customer (or walking wallet, as some people would less-kindly put it), it’s hard to make that leap to friend.

I can think of three of my peers who have a natural knack for defying the odds and easily and naturally becoming true friends with local people wherever they live and travel. I admire them and think of them often in a “What Would ____ Do?” kind of way. And there are travelers who go out of their way to make that connection via Couchsurfing, and hosting groups, and other avenues. Hats off to those that make that effort in their home country as well.

I’m proud of the diversity of the friends I’ve made in my travels around the world. I’ve counted South African, British, Spanish, Finnish, Turkish, Belgian, Indian, and Colombian friends among my UN-like crew of travel buddies. But it is undeniably true that those were fellow travelers and ex-pats rather than locals in the countries I was currently visiting.

My time in Thailand is where this lack of local friends is most glaring, simply because I’ve spent so much time there. Yet after a year living on Koh Tao, I had no Thai friends. The island was once a penal colony, inhabited by just a few families eking out an existence on coconut farming when the tourism boom hit in the 1980’s. Hence, there is no strong community or economy outside tourism, and even today the only school on the island goes only to age 12. Young people are sent off-island by their families — thus the population of Thais in my age bracket on Koh Tao is practically non-existent. The one dive shop I knew of that had both Thai management and Thai instructors, a place where I knew every employee by name and was always welcomed with a smile? It’s currently closing. And it is a different culture. As a Thai-speaker pointed out to me in a bar in Bangkok, the sign on the wall technically forbid her from being there — “No Thai women allowed,” it read, insinuating that any Thai woman who would want to be in that bar was up to no good. This was a popular expat bar in the middle of the city. It is not socially acceptable for Thai women my own age — “good girls,” raised the way I was, to socialize in that way.

When I went to Indonesia one of the things that drew me to the dive shop I did my Divemaster Course with was the close relationship between the foreign and local staff. I was impressed with the level of interaction and camaraderie, which was more than I had ever seen in a dive center. But again, an invisible line was drawn. While the Indonesian staff sometimes joined the Western instructors for drinks at the bar, they never did come to dinner. When I asked to accompany one of the employees to mosque for Ramadan, that request was met with an uncomfortable brush-off.

Like most of us, I’m always striving to be a better human, a better traveler, and a better blogger. I wrote this post with two intentions. One was to respond to the criticism I received and ponder the question I asked in my somewhat snarky alternative title: Am I a superficial traveler? The other is as a reminder to myself that no, it isn’t easy to learn languages, to write about complex topics, or to have meaningful interactions with local people. At least not for me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t continue to challenge myself to do just those things in the future. Because I don’t want to skim the surface, or be a skin-deep traveler. I want to live and breathe the places I go, and maybe that takes a little bit more work on my part.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you make meaningful, true friendships with local people when you travel? Do you learn the local language? Writers, how do you handle complex topics like cultures that aren’t your own?

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103 Comments...
  • Ruann (Solo Travel Uncut)
    January 21 2014

    Hi Alex. I admire your ability to take criticism so positively. It’s strange how a hundred positive comments can seem nonexistent in the shadow of a single negative one.

    As to learning a local language like Thai, it’s easier said than done. When I lived in Mozambique I managed to communicate in Portuguese after just a few months, but in Korea I’m really struggling, and it’s almost a year.

    I have to admit, the relationships that had in Mozambique had so much depth and love in them that it’s hard to describe. In Korea I don’t have one single local friend, which is pretty sad.

    As to tackling these complex cultural topics, I’d say I try to see them from the viewpoint of a human being, and not a westerner. I recently wrote an article of a brutal African wedding, where the bride was literally abused and forced to do unimaginable things. I ended the article like this:

    “We all have different reasons for our traditions and beliefs. Sometimes itโ€™s just really hard to try to understand.
    What we think is sheer brutality, might just be beautiful somewhere else.
    Normality is just a volatile perception.
    Or is it not?”

    I think that, as writers, it’s also our job to say how we feel about it, without judging.

    Great article Alex!
    Ruann (Solo Travel Uncut) recently posted..A Brutal Wedding Story (Uncensored)

    • Alex
      January 21 2014

      I tend to be very open to criticism because I think that’s how we learn and grow, and I feel appreciative that someone has taken the time to share their thoughts with me, even if they are negative ones. Still, I was surprised to see this thread among a (admittedly small) number of survey respondents. Then I thought about the media obsession with the lack of diversity on the tv show Girls, and I felt a little less alone ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Ashley of Ashley Abroad
    January 21 2014

    Great post! I think this is a really interesting topic. I used to think of myself as a traveler who always got to know locals and learned the language- I did Couchsurfing, lived abroad long-term and usually lived with local families. But once I got to Asia I started to wonder if I was really that kind of traveler after all- out of everywhere I’ve been, Southeast Asia was the hardest place for me to connect with locals. I think the biggest problem was the language barrier- I know no Thai, Vietnamese or any other Asian languages and a lot of the locals I met could only speak very basic English.

    Additionally I think we just have such different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds that it can be hard to connect. But I’m sure if you learned Thai it would be 100% easier so that’s a great idea! ๐Ÿ™‚
    Ashley of Ashley Abroad recently posted..Practicing Gratitude Wherever You Go

    • Alex
      January 21 2014

      Yes, the cultural and socioeconomic background difference is huge. I met a girl who had taught diving on Koh Phi Phi and on Koh Tao for years and never dated Thai guys, and thought that just wasn’t her type. Then she moved to Bangkok and within weeks she had a Thai boyfriend who like her had gone to university, loved art, and was well-traveled. Meeting someone from a similar background, while a world apart, made all the difference. While part of what I love about travel is meeting people vastly different from myself, it can be hard to translate that into a meaningful relationship.

  • Camels & Chocolate
    January 21 2014

    I’ve made meaningful friendships with locals when I’ve lived someplace long enough–e.g. I was in Denmark for eight months in 2006 and met one of my best friends who I still see near-annually while there–but it’s harder when you’re not a “slow traveler.” I’m usually only in a place for a week, two tops, and while I try to meet as many people as I can, it’s hard to really get to know the owner of that hole-in-the-wall ramen joint when you’re only there briefly. Though I used to make a lot of long-term friends through staying in hostels–many whom I still see a decade or more later when passing through their towns (thanks to Facebook for that–and I would love to do more slow travel to delve deeper into a place and its people (eventually, that is…don’t foresee it happening anytime soon).
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..The World’s Coolest Shipwreck

    • Alex
      January 21 2014

      Yeah, I’ve always had a pretty easy time feeling fellow travelers and expats — and thanks to Facebook, staying in touch with them! Those are beautiful relationships that I really treasure, but it’s true that I’ve made very few friends that were non-travelers, just living their lives, while I was on the road. Even when I’ve been living somewhere a for over a year, like Thailand! I think that is just an entirely different ballgame, especially in a culture like the one in Thailand where the ways people interact are very different from the way they do in my own culture.

  • Camels & Chocolate
    January 21 2014

    P.S. I’ve never pegged you as superficial OR thought anything about the friends you post on here other than “wow, what an international bunch!”
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..The World’s Coolest Shipwreck

    • Alex
      January 21 2014

      And PS: Ha, yeah… my last three foreign boyfriends should count for SOMETHING, no? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Breanna
    January 21 2014

    This was a really good topic. I thought I was going to Brasil and was going to meet all kinds of locals and have a ton of friends. Turns out not so much. Now I’m lucky that I have a local Brasilian as a friend and the only friends I made down there were his family. And only those comfy enough to speak English with me.

    I wouldn’t say it’s all on the traveller to make local friends. The locals I have observed down there were interesting they all wanted to make me comfortable offer food and that kind of thing but that’s where it ended the language barrier being the biggest. They were uncomfortable plain and simple.

    • Alex
      January 21 2014

      The language barrier can be a huge factor, as can a natural suspicion/discomfort with outsiders. When I asked my Indonesian co-workers to take me to the mosque, they were visibly squirming! I don’t think any of them wanted to be the one to bring the white girl to Ramadan services ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Silvia
    January 21 2014

    You addressed this so well, Alex. Meeting locals is something I’ve struggled with in places as well, especially as I’m not the most outgoing person. For me it’s really coming down to one thing: whether or not I’m sticking to “the beaten track.”

    In more remote places that don’t see many tourists, like Central Asia or parts of Africa, I’ve never had a problem meeting locals. In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan especially, people were literally welcoming me with open arms (sometimes too friendly, ha).

    But that’s made it harder for me to travel in tourist-heavy areas like Southeast Asia, because it just doesn’t happen there. Like you said, I’m just another blonde bobbing through. The contrast can feel harsh.

    It seems like you’ve mostly stuck to fairly touristy routes (which is totally fine- I love your travels!) so that might be part of your difficulty? You’re right the world is getting smaller, but there are still lots of places where locals greet a foreigner with awe and excitement!

    Also, I speak a bunch of languages (super language nerd), lived in Thailand for a year, and barely speak five words of Thai. It’s so, so hard!!
    Silvia recently posted..Postcards from London

    • Alex
      January 21 2014

      I too can be very shy and wouldn’t label myself as outgoing. And I 100% agree that the “tourist meter” of a destination is a huge factor. While I do try to get off the beaten track, I do so within fairly touristy countries. I would love to challenge myself to somewhere truly exotic!

  • Jamie
    January 21 2014

    I think your writing style is fine how it is, but should you choose to interject some history in there that would be just fine. People will ALWAYS have an opinion and at best maybe it would open up the comment dialog to more information that was unknown about the area before. As far as making local friends. While it’s WONDERFUL in theory, “locals” aren’t on holiday. So even at home, I may have a drink on a Tuesday and chat up someone visiting town but unfortunately that doesn’t mean I’d have the time really hang out beyond the few hours that I’m there. No matter how friendly it may take people some time to want to welcome a stranger into their world, and by the time that happens the traveler could be ready to move on to the next town already. I think you’re doing just fine as you are.
    Jamie recently posted..Thailand here I come โ€“ The countdown is on for the battle between Tours and Solo Travel

    • Alex
      January 21 2014

      That’s a great point about “beers on a Tuesday”, and at the heart of what I think makes it very challenging as a traveler to befriend a local. Of course, when you’re an expat that reasoning doesn’t apply but there are a whole host of other challenges there as well. It’s a complicated issue!

  • Sarah
    January 21 2014

    Interesting post. I think it is easier said than done to connect with locals, but have found that I always make effort and it always pays off. I spent a year living in Thailand in a small town and teaching at a high school – so it was easier for me to make friends that way, and now I have quite the family in Thailand that I go back to see. I will say that places like Koh Tao, Phi Phi, etc. are harder to bond with the locals because they have completely different views on “farang” or foreigners than most Thai people – because they only interact with the people who are only there to party and don’t so much care about the history, learning about the King, the language, etc. I never took a language class while I was there but left with a pretty good handle on Thai because I pretty much only hung out with Thai people. When I went to Khao San Rd in BKK I went to the one bar on the street that is full of almost exclusively Thai people. I listened to Thai music. I went to Thai music festivals. Thai people are so kind, so welcoming, so happy – I hope you do have a chance to meet more of them the next time you are there! They love hanging out with farang and practicing English and you’ll learn so much about Thai culture – it’s win win!

    • Alex
      January 21 2014

      That sounds like an awesome experience you had, Sarah! I love Thai culture, history, and even music (still dying to see Job2Do in person!) and have read and learned a lot about it over my time in the country. And I had what I considered quite warm and friendly relationships with a lot of Thais on Koh Tao — the staff of the Thai dive center I mentioned, my Muay Thai trainers, a bartender at one of the bars I frequented. However I also had a few borderline traumatic incidents with some of those people that reminded me those relationships were based on commerce, not friendship, and that was a tough lesson to learn. And that wasn’t their fault — those people were at work, after all. Loved reading your comment, and I hope you’ll swing by again!

  • becky hutner
    January 21 2014

    another thought-provoking post from mademoiselle wanderland. how do you churn out such quality so fast?? (& how bout a blog post on the subject?)

    how & where we make friends is such a personal matter that it’s hard to provide any general rules of thumb. for eg. some people are saying it’s hard to connect with locals in southeast asia whereas i’ve had the most luck connecting with people in southeast asia. but when i think about this, i realize i’ve always gravitated towards asian people, that if there was one asian kid in my class, that person would be my best friend & that half my friends in LA are asian. so like i said, personal! on the flipside alex, you seem to pick up fellow traveler friends with great ease while i can’t think of one traveler i’ve ever kept in touch with. in fact, on my recent 7 wk trip to southeast asia, i had only ONE conversation with another traveler that was longer than a minute. now that’s pretty sad.

    there are so so many factors at play in the game of human connection. where you are (touristy? non touristy? city? country?), who you’re with (your boyfriend? yourself? a fellow hot blond?), what you’re doing, what kind of vibe you’re giving off that day, what potential friends are present @ your exact coordinates!

    personally i’ve had luck with more off-the-beaten track places, with towns & rural areas over major cities & with just kind of wandering. obviously having some kind of prearranged “in” is hugely helpful — ie) meeting my sponsored family in legazpi, philippines or a friend of a friend in saigon for dinner. even if the connection is tenuous, i will always try to make one before traveling b.c it makes me feel significantly more included.

    my parting words for this comment alex are — JUST WAIT FOR BURMA. the people i met there really were waiting to welcome my husband & i into their homes & were incredibly generous with their time. but there go those generalizations again…
    becky hutner recently posted..Fashion โ€˜Round the World: What people wore in 2013

    • Alex
      January 22 2014

      I definitely agree that having some kind of “in” is key, whether it’s a friend of friend or a Couchsurfing connection or whatever. When I was in Singapore for 24 hours I was shown around with a local who took me out to dinner — one of my travel buddies put me in touch with a girl she used to work with! I guarantee that wouldn’t have happened otherwise in the short time I was there.

      And those are very encouraging words about Burma! I’ll likely be traveling alone there as well which is always conducive to meeting people. Although, I guess this post was less about meeting people on a quick trip, and more about making long-term friendships as an expat/long term traveler. It’s a fine distinction but I think there’s a huge difference.

      • becky hutner
        January 22 2014

        no that is a major distinction & i am not a long term traveler so you can basically scratch everything i said lol. the longest i’ve been in one place was 1 month (& guess what i have no friends from this time).
        becky hutner recently posted..Fashion โ€˜Round the World: What people wore in 2013

        • becky hutner
          January 22 2014

          sorry, the longest i’ve traveled in one place.
          becky hutner recently posted..Fashion โ€˜Round the World: What people wore in 2013

          • Alex
            January 22 2014

            Ha, I definitely don’t think it invalidates everything you’ve said! But I think the distinction is that people probably wouldn’t be writing to me asking why I have no Thai friends had I not spent a cumulative YEAR living there. Had I just bounced through, it would be obvious why, you know? It’s hard to forge wedding-invite level friendships after a few days!

  • Caty
    January 21 2014

    I really liked this post, especially your perspective on how we treat tourist in our homecountries. I work as a Barista and sometimes strike up conversations with tourists but I would never think about showing them around town. But maybe I should start reconsidering it since I love getting to know other cultures when I’m abroad. Since I spent most of my time abroad as an au pair I was lucky to become part of a family and get more inside views into a culture than other travelers would. Surprisingly, it was the hardest making local friends in the US because all the kids my age were off to college so the town where I lived was full of au pairs from other countries but not many locals. Living with families also made it easier to connect because they either had cousins/brothers etc. my age that they would introduce me to or in South Africa we were four!!! au pairs for one family and one of the girls was from Pretoria so she took us out and introduced us to her friends. One of them even came to visit me in Germany and we traveled around Europe for three weeks. But the culture were I feel luckiest that I got such an inside view was of course Sri Lanka. I had so many great experience that I would otherwise never had. And for the language part I am also a language nerd (changed high schools in 9th grade to go to a billingual school with a focus on languages) so I always pick up phrases. I was lucky that my university offered a sinhalese course so I took that for three semesters. So now I’m able to read it and make basic conversations. It’s a difficult language but being able to talk to his nephews and the rest of the family was worth all the struggles. They were so excited that I finally understood them that they always insisted on playing “school” with me. They would write the sinhalese word and I had to copy it. I still have all my notes from these classes. =)
    But what I wanted to say is don’t beat yourself up about not interacting much with locals. It is not as easy as some make it out to be and I enjoy reading your blog no matter what.

    • Alex
      January 22 2014

      Definitely dating someone from a different culture is a special way to experience it. I doubt I would have fallen in love with Scotland the way I did had I not been shown around by a loving family who treated me as one of their own. And being an au pair, that is certainly a special way to make lasting relationships when you travel, wow!

  • Andi
    January 21 2014

    I can’t imagine that whoever left that comment really reads your blog, because there is noway a regular reader would ever in a million years think you were superficial!
    Andi recently posted..Germany With AirBerlin: Day 2 (Part 1)

    • Alex
      January 22 2014

      Well, just to be clear, no one accused me of being a superficial traveler ๐Ÿ™‚ I asked that question of myself after various survey respondents asked these “why don’t you learn the language,” “why don’t you talk about history and culture,” and “why are all your friends white” questions!

  • Ron
    January 21 2014

    Cultural differences aside, if you are a traveler you will always be an outsider. If you have relatives overseas that is a different matter, but as a tourist you will be treated differently. Even as a relation you will likely be treated differently as you are still the overseas relative.

    This can be true even when traveling in your home country, but not so much as we all have ties that bind us in the country we grew up in. We belong in a way that is just not possible in other places. We are natives here where ever here is.

    No matter how you act, what you learn, or how many languages you speak, you will be a outsider when visiting foreign countries. This is not a bad thing, rather a fact. The good news is you have a home where people love you.

    Learn what you can from the criticisms on this blog, but its your blog to do what you will. Always be true to yourself and your family/friends.

    • Alex
      January 22 2014

      This comment reminds me of that country song “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” and that line that says, “there’s only one place they call you one of their own.” ๐Ÿ™‚ I like to think of myself as a global citizen, but I can’t deny that there is always a place that feels undeniably like home.

  • Kally
    January 21 2014

    I love learning about the local culture but I usually do that through reading non-fiction books, museums, etc (we spent AGES in the Museum of Siam..happily!). I’ve noticed on travel blogs in my reader that when the writers get into history I subconsciously tune out and scroll faster! I love to see new adventures and hear great stories instead.

    And not that you aren’t or can’t be a history writer, but it seems to me like it is a different style that might not be captured as effectively when mixed in on a travel blog layout. You hit it dead on with wondering if you would misinterpret or not being a full authority on a subject. I appreciate the exhaustive process of addressing history so I hit the books for that.

    • Alex
      January 22 2014

      I definitely don’t think I’m in any danger of making Alex in Wanderland into a history blog ๐Ÿ™‚ But I do appreciate what you’re saying. I think I try to tie things in when they are interesting to me (for example my visit to the Chan Chan ruins that I recently covered) and I could do a bit more of that.

      PS: The Museum of Siam is so cool!

  • Laryssa
    January 21 2014

    The person who implied you’re a superficial traveler obviously hadn’t read your thought-provoking post about traveling through Vietnam!

    As Ashley said… Southeast Asia sounds like a tough beast.
    The cities I remember most fondly are those where I made connections (also using Couchsurfing meetups). I somehow didn’t like Buenos Aires or Melbourne at ALL because I failed at making any local friends — and I’ve never heard of anyone hating on those places.

    Clearly, I have some room for improvement!
    Laryssa recently posted..Traveler Threads: Living and Working in Antarctica at the South Pole

    • Alex
      January 22 2014

      You know, that’s an interesting point and I feel in some ways I was comfortable writing those things about Vietnamese history because I was reflecting on my guilt re: America’s involvement in it. I didn’t think about it, but that kind of reinforces what I wrote here!

  • Making friends, whether it’s in our home country or overseas, is usually forged when we have something to connect on. This doesn’t always happen when there is the “traveller” divide. I found I made the most amount of local friends during my recent jaunt through SE Asia in the Philippines, but again, similar backgrounds – educated, well travelled etc. Going up to someone on the street and saying “hey let’s be friends!” could be successful but creepy at the same time!

    As far as talking about other cultures goes, don’t be afraid to put your opinions and thoughts out there. People come back to your blog because of your personality that is behind it. If we wanted an impartial report there’s the rest of the internet. We want to hear what YOU think, what YOU feel, what YOUR observations were. You will never make everybody happy, but a healthy debate is never a bad thing, no?
    Michelle | Lights Camera Travel recently posted..How to Get More out of Travel

    • Alex
      January 22 2014

      Okay, and Filipinos are seriously the friendliest people on the planet. I walked into a nail salon to get a pedicure and walked out with two phone numbers of sweet ladies who begged me to let them give me a city tour on their day off later in the week. And I would have loved to had I not been leaving! For someone who really wants to have significant interactions with local people when traveling, that’s where I’d point them.

  • Rika | Cubicle Throwdown
    January 21 2014

    This is really insightful and well-written Alex. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – people will be eager to blame the traveler, but that doesn’t always mean the locals are clamoring to hang out and be bffs. For me, it’s taken two years to get the wedding invites and the family dinners and all that type of stuff with the local islanders here. The reality is, in an area where everyone is so transient and a million girls just like us come and go on the daily, there is no reason for the locals to put much effort out there for people who just disappear. Even approaching two years here, I’m starting to feel the same way. In the absolute worst way to say it (in my head it doesn’t sound as bad), I don’t want to ‘waste’ my time forging two-day friendships while neglecting my expat and local friends who are actually going to be here next week. I love chatting with travelers when I’m sitting at the bar, but I no longer sign up for partying nightly with them – just because I live at the beach doesn’t mean I’m on holiday too! This is my real life and I can’t go out every single night the way I did when I came here on holidays. Sometimes travelers have a hard time understanding that.

    So in short, that very long paragraph said don’t blame the traveler, blame the locals ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Alex
      January 22 2014

      You’re so right — it’s expats too! One of my close friends on Koh Tao was so slow to warm up to me at first, and when I left she burst into tears, saying, “I wasn’t supposed to like you!” After half a decade on the island she’s sick of having “best friends” that stay six months or a year and then move on. It’s too heartbreaking! And I really understand that side of things too. Interesting to be able to be on both sides of the equation.

  • Jimmy Dau
    January 21 2014

    Beautiful post. I love your attitude to criticism and how you explain the realities.

    I had the grand plan of meeting lots of locals on my last trip but it’s difficult to do so when you need to pack up and leave after 5 days. There are moments when you have a unique connection but those are few and far between.

    It’s a huge learning and as a result I’m only planning 5 countries in the next 12 months. I’m a firm believer that you need to strive to make a personal impact on other people to be able to really get to know somebody so that’s my ambition for travelling this year.
    Jimmy Dau recently posted..Patagonia Series: Biking in Bariloche

    • Alex
      January 22 2014

      That sounds like a great plan, Jimmy. I agree, you’re literally almost never going to forge close friendships when you’re on the move every few days. Slowing down at least increases your odds!

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    January 21 2014

    I think people who don’t do a ton of traveling but just read a lot of travel blogs maybe get a skewed perspective of the number of “local” experiences that come the way of long-term travelers. We tend to remember those special moments even if someone is only writing about them once every six months and so we assume that they happen a lot more frequently than they really do.

    I love meeting locals and have always found that the places where I am able to meet people living and working in that country tend to be my favorite, but it’s really not easy, and truthfully doesn’t happen all that often. We’ve learned to content ourselves with positive, but briefer interactions, like a short conversation with a vendor (not always easy with the language barrier) or even just a smile and a nod. I’m sure part of this is because I am naturally a bit shy and my tendencies are not to just approach people and start chatting, but part of it is because other people are busy and have their own friends and they don’t really care about the random white people swarming around them.

    I have found that a great way to meet locals is through CouchSurfing. It’s sort of a guaranteed way to find people who are interested in forming connections and meet new people, and even when we haven’t actually stayed with someone but have just met them for dinner or drinks, it’s been really interesting and fun. It’s a good way to take charge and be proactive rather than waiting for a stranger to sit next to you on the bus and strike up a conversation.
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Marvelous, Magnificent Mulu

    • Alex
      January 22 2014

      You are probably very right about how blogs can skew people’s ideas of the realities of travel. When I talked to one of my expat friends about this post while writing it, he said, “I guarantee that person has never lived in Asia as a non-Asian.”

      I too, think I have found a lot of joy in the small interactions, and learned to be content with them. A stranger helping me get off at the right train stop, and laughter-filled interaction with a street vendor — those can be very fulfilling, even if they don’t lead to life-long friendships.

  • Jessie
    January 22 2014

    I think for all the things you do on the road you do a great job of exploring the culture. As far as I can tell anyway haha. I can definitely relate on the learning thai issue. I had so badly wanted to learn the language, I love being able to communicate in a foreign language, but every time I tried they simply told me “speak English.” This was disheartening at first as I actually was trying!! It is hard, and even harder when there really aren’t many resources or schools that I saw teaching it! In Central America I am doing a Spanish course though for sure! So excited!! ๐Ÿ™‚ Peace and love
    Jessie recently posted..The Path More Balanced: 8 Ways to Stay Healthy on the Road

    • Alex
      January 22 2014

      Ha, I know that reaction! In the touristy areas I would sometimes very proudly order my food in Thai only to have it boredly spit back at me in English. In Central America I think you will have a MUCH easier time! There are tons of schools and tutors and while it is hit or miss, there are plenty of locals who are excited to try to help you struggle through a conversation.

  • Amanda @ Farsickness
    January 22 2014

    I’ve always had a difficult time making friends with locals because I tend to be pretty shy and won’t just strike up a conversation with my waiter, and like you said, as a female it is hard to just go to someone’s house for safety reasons. That being said, making local friends in Asia is so much harder than in Europe probably due to the language, cultural, and (I’ll probably be crucified for saying this) economic differences. Also, maybe I’m jaded, but if someone is like overly friendly to me I am usually suspicious of their motives.

    Also, I kind of respect that you don’t delve too deeply into history and culture aspects. I sometimes wonder how much an authority people can be after spending a few days or weeks in a place.
    Amanda @ Farsickness recently posted..La Dotta, La Grassa, e La Rossa: A Bologna Photoessay

    • Alex
      January 22 2014

      I feel the same way, Amanda. I always admire those friends I wrote about in this post who are so good at making connections with anyone, regardless of their differences. Two of those guys went to Cambodia recently, met a tuk tuk driver they liked, and paid him a salary for a few days to take them back to his village and around other rural areas. It was an unbelievable and unique adventure but you know what? I couldn’t do that as a woman traveling alone. Sometimes there are limits, fair or not!

  • Rachel of Hippie in Heels
    January 22 2014

    i feel ya girl… and it’s cool that you can write about the constructive criticism like that. I have been here in goa almost a year but this is FULL of foreigners. That’s how they thrive. they have no interest in me.. and beyond that and the socioeconomic standards , add in a caste system & some Men aren’t allowed to be friends with me.. luckily, i have lots of indian friends now but they are all westernized from boarding school and a couple don’t even speak hindi! You don’t need to worry about being “deeper” so they said, you’re doing you & obviously people like it!
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..Should You See a Ping Pong Show in Bangkok?

    • Alex
      January 22 2014

      The caste system and gender rules would definitely add another layer of difficulty to that, Rachel! I had a lot of conversations about this exact topic with one of my friends who lived in Goa for a year.

  • Sam
    January 22 2014

    This is a fascinating read, Alex, and something I could be accused of too. Sometimes I don’t want to delve into the history of a place I’m in because it’s dark and depressing and I was to enjoy it as it is now. Does that make me superficial? Maybe. But I can live with that sometimes. I used to couchsurf a lot more when I travelled alone than now that I travel (and work travelling) with my partner – it’s harder to find people willing to host two people to start with, and in some places, harder still to find hosts willing to host a same sex couple. However, I actually made some pretty good friends through Couchsurfing, some of who I still see when given the chance, and many of whom I have contact with. Certainly speaking other languages, or showing a willingness to learn helps. After our recent travels in South America, my partner and I have come back with more local friends than anywhere else I’ve travelled, and that is no doubt largely due to being able to speak Spanish.

    As for handling complex topics in cultures other than your own, I think the best way is to give your personal spin on it: how did you experience this aspect of the culture? Sometimes, the outsider’s point of view can be illuminating to those who live within that culture, giving a different perspective that wasn’t considered before.
    Sam recently posted..Expat Living in Ecuador: Iker and Endika in Cuenca

    • Alex
      January 22 2014

      Yeah, I can imagine that Couchsurfing gets harder when you’re working on the road — that’s kind of my excuse for avoiding it right now. Like, um, thanks for welcoming me into your home! Now what’s the wifi password and do you mind giving me ten to twelve hours alone with my laptop now please? I get enough strange looks in hostels! Ha!

  • LeAnn Beasley
    January 22 2014

    I absolutely loved this post. Ive felt this same way many times. I realized now that I should have tried to learn more dutch while living in bonaire fot two and a half years, but never tried because its hard and I didnt have to. Im making up for it now but rocking the spanish!

    • Alex
      January 23 2014

      Nice, LeAnn! My biggest regret of this trip is not starting it out by living somewhere for a month and taking lessons. Of course I’ve had plenty of practice along the way and have felt a natural improvement just my traveling in Latin America for 3.5 months!

  • Laura
    January 22 2014

    Definitely an interesting topic. In my experience really getting to know locals is easiest and sometimes only possible if you already have an in. I also agree that it’s difficult to find common ground or peers in many touristy places. Any many times as a female, being friendly with locals who we’re exposed to the most (like service industry folks) is just interpreted as an interest in hooking up… I do agree that there are certain cultures whose hospitality breaks down these barriers though! Good for you to try to learn and grow from this criticism.
    Laura recently posted..Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park

    • Alex
      January 23 2014

      Amazing point that I didn’t even think to bring up, Laura. While I didn’t find this to be true in Thailand, in some cultures you REALLY have to be careful who you are friendly to lest your intentions be misinterpreted! Western women have a very bad reputation in some parts of the world. Thanks, media!

  • Alana - Paper Planes
    January 23 2014

    Um…I’ve lived in Thailand for two years, worked in Thai schools and am (trying to) learn the language. And I have 0 Thai friends. Acquaintances, but no friends. I’ve never been invited to a home, or even out to coffee, and the few times I’ve extended an invitation I’ve been politely declined…so I think you’re doing just fine ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Alex
      January 23 2014

      I’m really glad you chimed in Alana, as I’m glad to hear I’m not alone (though sorry to hear your advances have been rebuffed, if politely). I think it’s a very hard thing to explain to someone who hasn’t walked in those shoes, though all the Thailand expats I’ve talked to about this are like, “Um, duh… does this even need a post?”

  • Shelley
    January 23 2014

    I think this is an unfair assessment. It isnโ€™t the lack of making local friends- itโ€™s the relative EASE of meeting other travelers on the road. At home, when is the last time you met someone (local or traveler) in a bar or restaurant that you kept in touch with beyond that initial meeting? That should be the measuring stick, not meeting other travelers. Itโ€™s not common to create long-lasting friendships during chance encounters, and I donโ€™t make a habit of inviting random people to my home (well, unless heโ€™s cute). So why should we expect that of locals abroad? Travelers, on the other hand, instantly have something in common, and can therefore strike up a conversation, compare notes, discuss upcoming itineraries, etc. No matter where you come from, youโ€™re both visiting [insert city name] and are probably going to similar places. So donโ€™t feel bad about not meeting locals. I challenge the critics to go out and make friends with random people in their hometown ๐Ÿ™‚
    Shelley recently posted..Beef and Beaches- Hello,Thailand

    • Alex
      January 23 2014

      Great angle to look at this from. While I actually have made a friend or two at a bar or random wedding at home, I think that’s only because I’ve become such a traveler I don’t know how to turn it off even when I’m stateside! But you’re right, making friends when you travel is insanely easy. Someone I went to college with pointed that out to me recently, noting that while the only new people she’s befriended since graduation are co-workers, I have about a billion new relationships. It’s one of the best things about travel! And I love your challenge to the critics!

  • Mindy & Ligeia
    January 23 2014

    Very poignantly written! I think it’s important to note that a language barrier between people often prevents a great friendship from developing. It’s usually to blame for the relationship never progressing from mere acquaintances to true friends.

    Even when I lived in Germany for almost 2 years, and I considered myself fluent in the language, I never became close friends with anyone there, because there was still so much I didn’t understand (e.g. culture, customs, etc.) Also, friendship is a two-way street. I may have been more than willing to develop deeper trust and meaning to a friendship, but if the other person doesn’t meet me half way, we get in to “stalker” mode, and that’s not healthy ๐Ÿ˜‰

    We’ve now been living in Chiang Mai, Thailand for almost 2 years. I work in an office where English is ALWAYS spoken to the westerners, and generally, any attempts to speak my minimal Thai in public, is immediately stopped by the fact that the person I’m trying to speak to, disregards my attempts and goes right into English. I recall my one dinner with a village family who only spoke Thai, and was blown away by how much I learned in 3 hours.

    Learning a language and culture goes beyond the classroom. Once that door is opened, I believe truer and more meaningful friendships are able to walk through.
    Mindy & Ligeia recently posted..Giva Restaurant โ€“ Raw Vegan in Chiang Mai

    • Alex
      January 23 2014

      I’m very jealous of that dinner — it sounds like a special experience! Agree that you can only push so far before you just have to let go and accept that you might prize the idea of having local friends more than every day people going about their lives prize having foreign friends. When I return to Thailand I hope to check out the WithLocals site I posted about last week — of course it’s pre-arranged, but I think it’s the closest I’ll get to that dinner with a village family!

  • Anders
    January 23 2014

    I had a good experience meeting locals in Vietnam when I did my divemaster course. Locals and westerners hang out together often, and we went to local places for dinner and birthdays. I am friends with a lot of them on facebook today ๐Ÿ˜‰

    In Indonesia however I found it much harder when I was working as a dive instructor. Here there was more of a cliff between locals and westerners and it was just not so normal to hang out in the evenings. But I went to one of the local staff weddings and that was very much appreciated!