One perk of traveling the world with no guidebook is that it gives you a valid excuse to strike up conversations with other foreigners you might meet while you are traveling. I’ve been to some of the coolest places in my travels on the advice of local expats I met in random places. A two minute conversation can lead you Kipu Falls, the House Hotel in Sokcho, South Korea, a hidden restaurant on Istanbul’s Prince’s Islands, or a natural hot spring in the Sahara. It’s worth it to talk to the foreigners who live wherever in the world you might go.
As a small aside; I live in countries where I was not born, and honestly, there is little more annoying than someone coming up to me and saying “Hi, I’m a foreigner too. I’m a tourist here on vacation, where are you from?” This might be one reason I take the approach I do when I am introducing myself to expats, travelers, or people who look like they might be from other than where they are. Here is my approach, I suggest you either use it, develop your own, or expect to be snubbed by jerks like me who probably left their countries to avoid just the kind of person you might be (if you approach as above.)
Me: Excuse me. Do you live here?
(This is far better than asking “Are you a tourist?” since grumpy expats like me tend to think of most tourists as one step below pond scum. Even if they don’t live there, they will probably be a bit flattered that you thought they might)
Expat: (cautiously) Ughhh
(Don’t expect more than a grunt since they have no idea what you want and probably are hit up by art students who want to ‘practice their English’, merchants who always offer a ‘free’ cup of tea, and all manner of locals who see them as a cash machine of some sort. Also keep in mind that expats choose to live away from their countrymen so saying “Hi, I’m American and you look American too.” is usually the wrong approach.)
Me: Sorry to bother you, but I’m traveling without a guidebook and purely going on the recommendations of the people I meet. Since you look like you live here, I wonder if I could ask you a question.
Expat: (gruffly) What’s your question?
(All of this is assuming that they speak your language (which, if they don’t makes this all impossible) and that you’re not a hot young woman or George Clooney type (which probably makes things much easier but since I’m neither, I wouldn’t know.)
Me: Oh, nothing much. I just wondered if you could recommend a restaurant nearby that serves great food at a reasonable price. (The truth is, I want much more information than that, but everyone has a restaurant they like and most people aren’t scared to share that information)
Expat: (Warming up a bit) Oh, is that all? Sure, there’s a great little place over there called something or other.
Me: Sounds great. I’ll check it out. Thanks. Bye.
(Wait a minute, I want more info, right? Right! The key is that I now give them the chance to answer the questions they are thinking by prematurely ending the conversation and staring out the train window, sitting on a nearby bench, or sitting at a nearby table in Starbucks…)
Let a few minutes pass so the person really begins to wonder “Wow, that was it? I wonder where this person is from? Why are they traveling with no guidebook? What other tips have they gotten from the locals? Is that really it?”
The thing is, it takes someone to start a conversation and the first conversation is the hardest. By just keeping it simple, you open up the door and make it easier for the other person to approach you. You demonstrate that you are not a threat and you make yourself both interesting and approachable as a result.
At this point, one of three things will happen. 1) The person will be glad to be rid of you so easily and will leave 2) The person will take the bold move of striking up further conversation by asking something simple like “Where are you from?” “Why are you here?” “Why do you travel with no guidebook?” In this case, you can jump wholeheartedly into the conversation. or 3) They may need more reassurance or might need you to start the follow up conversation (for example : Excuse me, sorry to bother you again, but I want to take a short day trip from town, can you recommend anyplace?)
This might all sound crazy to you, but for me it works. In fact, this exact method led me to Sokcho, South Korea which I will be writing about in my next post.