I wrote this chapter in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, where I spent January of 2016 brushing up on my Spanish, visiting a good friend who lives there, and trading the harsh North American winter for Central America’s sunny, 70-degree days.
Another reason I went was to make new friends. Quetzaltenango is a small city with a big reputation for attracting expats, long-term travelers, non-profit workers, and serious Spanish students: the kind of people with whom I feel at ease striking up a conversation.
Lo and behold, after only a week I found myself greeting new friends on the street, joining parties where I already knew half the crowd, and going out for meals and drinks with interesting people who only a short while ago were total strangers.
At this point in my nomadism, I’d figured out some of the secrets to making new friends. But in the beginning of my time on the move, I found myself wondering: Are these new people really “friends”? Am I deluding myself? Am I creating a life of paper-thin relationships that dissolve immediately with time and distance? And most dramatically: Are nomads like me ultimately destined to become friendless loners?
While the challenge of making and keeping friends is real, living nowhere comes with friendship benefits, too. Here’s how I look at the situation.
Accept that building lasting friendships is always hard. It’s important not to compare the nomadic lifestyle to the kind of idealized social life we see in TV shows like Friends. Most people we meet—no matter who we are—remain acquaintances or drift away after a short time. It’s simply hard to find people who share our core values, interests, hobbies, and lifestyle. For those who live in one place year-round, many so-called friendships are geographical conveniences that quickly dissipate when one person moves to a new neighborhood or changes jobs. Those who live nowhere and those who live somewhere share an equal amount of challenge.
Meet lots of new people in order to make a few really good friends. Much like dating, making new friends is largely a numbers game; you need to meet a lot of people in order to find the ones who really stick. Luckily, the nomadic life lends itself to this approach. By roaming between different locations for a few months at a time, we meet lots of new people along the way (who probably chose those locations for like-minded reasons), giving ourselves a better statistical chance of meeting the rare individuals with whom we deeply connect.
Because time is limited, focus on high-quality experiences and no-bullshit conversations. If you’re only around new friends for a few months or weeks, then you have no time to waste. The best way to figure out whether someone is friend material is to minimize (or altogether cut) the small talk. Avoid fractured conversations in noisy bars in favor of deeper, small group or one-on-one connections. Go on mini-adventures, jump straight into the big topics (e.g., relationships, career trajectory, spirituality), and otherwise create lasting memories that might serve as inspiration for a later reunion.
Become Facebook friends with everyone you meet. Sometimes we don’t have time to invest in someone we just met, or we prematurely put someone into the “acquaintance” category when they actually have friend potential. This is why it’s smart to become Facebook friends with pretty much every interesting person you meet. Facebook gives you a glimpse into people’s lives (both past and present) that helps you make a better choice about expending the energy to reconnect with them.
Don’t stress about staying in touch with most people. It’s an impossible task. Embrace your new friendships in the here and now—and then let them go. Most new people you meet will remain acquaintances, and that’s okay. You don’t have time for dozens of new friends in your life, anyways. You can stay in touch casually with most of the people you meet by searching Facebook whenever you go somewhere new and then reaching out to reconnect face-to-face.
Actively stay in touch with the “keepers.” If you’re doing it right, the big payoff from nomadic living will come in the form of a handful of close, high-quality friends whom you should actively communicate with until you meet again. These are the people who left such an impression on you that you’d travel to another country just to get the chance to hang out with them again. Keep those friendships alive by actively initiating contact via email, Skype calls, or social media. These are the people who may become your future housemates and partners in business, travel, or romance.
Non-Awkward Ways to Meet People While Traveling Solo
Now, onto the challenge of how to actually meet people as a nomad.
When you travel solo, some well-meaning people will suggest that you should just “be friendly” and “say hi” to new people that you meet. I don’t like that advice. Why? Because introducing yourself to a total stranger in a café, bar, or bus can be really awkward, bordering on creepy.
Yes, striking up conversations with total strangers does work sometimes, and it’s a valuable skill to develop. But if you’re like me, you usually want some context before breaking the ice. You want to know something about the person, have a common subject of conversation, or, ideally, have already corresponded (through a website or email) before meeting. With such a context established, you feel more prepared, confident, and relaxed when meeting someone new.
Here are the best non-awkward ways I’ve discovered to meet new people while traveling solo, whether internationally or in your own country.
Couchsurfing. The first time I Couchsurfed I had just landed in New Zealand, for a few weeks of solo travel. (Note that Couchsurfing with a capital C indicates the use of the official Couchsurfing.com network, which is different from just temporarily crashing at a series of other people’s homes.) My two hosts picked me up from the airport, drove me to their apartment, put me up in their guest room, fed me dinner, suggested a few places to check out the next day, and gave me my own set of house keys. Obviously, I was sold. Since then I’ve stayed with hosts in Peru, the Netherlands, and the U.S., and I’ve hosted a handful of travelers myself. (Find me here: https://www.couchsurfing.com/people/blakebo)
Couchsurfing hosts are some of the coolest and most generous people on earth. The best ones are also in high demand, and so it’s important that you have an honest, compelling, and verified Couchsurfing profile and write a courteous and detailed request to “surf” with a host.
But Couchsurfing isn’t limited to hosting. The most powerful way I’ve found to tap the network is to directly message other Couchsurfing members in your area. Use the “Find Hosts” tool—making sure to check the “Wants to Meet Up” box to include locals who aren’t hosts—and write direct messages to anyone you’re interested in meeting. For best effect, include a specific request: “I see that you love frisbee. I do too! Want to toss a disc around a park?”
Once, when I was living in northern California, a Couchsurfing member from a nearby city messaged me out of the blue. He noted our many common interests and invited me join a free live music event in the area. We struck up a long conversation and hung out many more times. It felt really good to get an unsolicited message from someone interesting who just wanted to hang out with me!
Finally, Couchsurfing is a forum for meet-ups, parties, and other events (use the “Find Events” tool). In my experience, these gatherings are hit-or-miss. I once attended a meet-up in Amsterdam with about 40 incredibly friendly travelers from all over Europe; another meet-up in Madrid felt less friendly and more like a glorified pub crawl.
Facebook. For better or worse, Facebook is the dominant social network in the world, and that makes it incredibly useful for finding people to meet abroad. Start by searching for “my friends who live in [destination city or country]” to see who you’re already connected to in the area.
Next, do a search for “friends of my friends who live in [destination]” to find interesting people to whom your friends might introduce you.
Before going somewhere new, write a simple Facebook post with your travel plans and dates (e.g. “I’ll be in Barcelona for the first half of May — know anyone I should meet?”). You might be surprised by the incredible people (or organizations, or destinations) to whom your preexisting social network might connect you.
Partner dancing. Blues, salsa, swing, and Argentine tango: the world of partner dancing is robust, inclusive of beginners, and a shockingly easy way to meet new people in almost any large city. In my own life, I’ve met interesting people of all ages through Argentine tango classes in Oregon, California, and Buenos Aires (of course).
Group classes are the most accessible way to get started as a beginning dancer. Googling your location and a dance keyword will reveal most opportunities. Not all dance styles will be available in any given city, so be willing to immerse yourself in whatever the local favorite may be.
Although it isn’t “partner” dancing per se, I know people who make new friends wherever they go through 5Rhythms, Open Floor, Ecstatic Dance, and drum circle events—public, improvised group dances that are usually followed by socializing.
Meetups. On Meetup.com you can find free group activities organized by local people. It’s best used in large cities, and like Couchsurfing events, Meetups are very hit-or-miss.
Pickup sports. Connecting with people who share your love for a sport is a no-brainer. Soccer, ultimate frisbee, running, rock climbing, and other sports that can easily include new members of various ability levels (without much equipment required) are the best bets.
A quick Google search for your preferred sport plus your location name will typically reveal what’s available. Pickup sports groups also tend to appear as Couchsurfing events, Meetup events, and Facebook groups.
Online dating. The key thing to know about online dating websites and apps like OkCupid and Tinder is: you don’t have to use them for dating! If you write an honest profile that explains that you just want to explore the area and meet locals, you can use these tools to genuinely connect with neat-looking people who share your interests without other expectations.
Of course, dating is also a good way to meet new people; go on a few dates with a local and you’ll soon be connected to their world of friends and activities. But of course, don’t lead someone on just for their social network.
Language classes. Group language classes are great for meeting fellow travelers, but more crucially, they enable you to better communicate with the actual locals. You can either pay for an official course or look for free language exchange meet-ups (most often advertised at hostels, on Couchsurfing or Meetup, or via location-specific Facebook groups).
Volunteering. There are countless ways to get involved as a volunteer wherever you travel in the world—and consequently meet local hosts and other volunteers — but my favorite is Help Exchange (helpx.net), through which I’ve found high-quality volunteering gigs for solo travelers, couples, and groups. Workaway (workaway.info) is another highly regarded option.
Coworking spaces are hubs for entrepreneurs, freelancers, digital nomads, small business-people, and anyone else who wants to rent a little chunk of office space with reliable Wi-Fi and bathrooms so they don’t have to camp out in coffee shops anymore. Coworking spaces are great for doing focused work while traveling, but they’re also helpful for meeting like-minded travelers and locals. Most spaces have community social activities that you can discover via online event calendars or email newsletters.
Conferences, gatherings, and festivals. If you have a niche interest—like electronic dance music, ultramarathons, yoga, or Python programming—do a quick search to see if any big events are scheduled in the area where you’re traveling.
AirBnB. If you use AirBnB in your travels, considering staying in a private room in a shared house. Like Couchsurfing, AirBnB tends to attract some of the coolest hosts on the planet, and many of them actively want to hang out with you.
Hostels. Travelers go to hostels because they want to meet other travelers, which makes them one of the least awkward places to strike up a random conversation. Do this by hanging out in the common rooms and kitchen, offering to help cook a group meal, joining a social event set up by the hostel, or just sitting in the lobby reading an interesting-looking book.
Homestays are wonderful because 1) you’re instantly connected to a group of locals, and 2) those locals typically want to introduce you to their friends. Research a potential homestay beforehand to make sure that it includes people around your own age, who share some of your interests, and who will actually hang out with you. (In other words, make sure it’s not an elderly couple who’s just renting a room to make money and won’t talk to you outside of meal time.)