On Conversation

I’m following both my mom and Theresa’s recommendations and am currently reading Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux. Its a great book, a relatively easy read filled with the adventure, difficulty, and aura of travel. What I keep getting from it though, is the myriad encounters he has with locals. How easily he meets people wherever he is, and manages over the course of a few drinks to pull out a captivating life story. He does this over and over. Now, naturally, a fair amount of this is because he is the storyteller and this is his narrative;  I’m sure there were many very boring stories and uninteresting people he has blessed us not to write about.

But when I think about how I want our trip to go, that is it—seemingly constantly falling into interesting scenarios, going out of our way to meet what turn out to be fascinating people, having a keen eye for who is trustworthy and worth our time. And while our one week in Egypt says all these things are bound to happen in spades, I can’t help but worry about it.

So let’s have a conversation about these conversations. Obviously the discussion depends drastically on who you are and where in the world you are, but tell us what you think. Do you find yourself easily talking to locals? Do they talk to you first/annoyingly barrage you? Where are the friendliest people? The coldest? Do you have to force yourself to make the effort to talk to new people? Are you as outgoing when you are already traveling with people you know? Is your personality different abroad versus at home? Share your thoughts.

8 thoughts on “On Conversation”

  1. Personally, I think this depends on the image you portray as you travel. My husband and I seem to meet great locals and make life-long friends wherever we travel — we eat where they eat, stay where they stay, etc. We try to emulate the level and form of life of the local population as much as possible.

    I know that other friends and family members who travel “in style”, staying at the Marriott or other resorts and eating at nice restaurants tend to have quite a different experience — in general we have found that these types of travelers garner resentment from the locals.

    As I said, I think it depends on how you travel — you can choose to immerse yourself in the life and culture of the places you go (that means going to the bathroom in a hole if that’s what the locals do!), or distance yourself from it by staying at a hotel because you just “have to have your own bathroom.” I promise you it will be very difficult to walk out of a 3 star hotel where you are enjoying a standard of living far beyond those around you and be able to “connect and make friends.”

    As for our experiences: we have found that Central and South Americans are about the most hospitable and generous people in the world. We have only been to Northern Africa (Morocco and Egypt) and found that in general we were over-taken by “friends” — and yes that can get annoying but at the end of the day these people are just trying to survive and if you have that attitude it makes it less “annoying.”

    But as I have stated before we have great friends whom we still stay in touch with from Turkey, Morocco, Romania, Spain, Mexico, Peru, etc. So yes, the experience you are looking for is possible.

  2. Q – I think you’re quite right about the image you portray. And definitely staying at the Marriott is a quick way to project an image of ugly tourist. Your second point may be really what I’m trying to get at with this post, the immersion into a culture. Because once you get comfortable in a culture, meeting people and finding interesting things to do becomes second nature. But its the feeling natural in the culture that can be hard to accomplish sometimes. You bring up a lot of good points though.

  3. All I can say is that good and bad locals exist everywhere.. (though there is never a bad aussie!!) you just need to go with your instinct and see if the situation feels weird.

    ps- read the alchemist

  4. I’m not really good at striking up conversation with strangers in my own home town, let alone in another country… too shy. Boris is much better at that kind of thing than I am which is just one of the reasons I love having him around!

  5. With a little effort, I think you can meet lots of locals and chat with them. Go where the locals go is a good start. You’ll get knocked back a bit but that only takes a few seconds but I find that most are happy to chat for a while and are probably a bit interested in you as well. I am still in contact with someone I met in 1989 that has lived his entire life above the Arctic Circle and learned to ski before he was two. By contrast, I didn’t see snow at all (not even in the distance) till I was 21 and his upbringing and what he had to worry about seemed completely foreign to me. He was amazed when I told him that all Australians learned to swim at school which seems so normal to me.

    Travelling alone can help as you are more likely to chat to others. If you think about it, you’ll be surprised how many stories that you’ll hear from people when you travel that you can probably relate back. I suspect writers like Theroux both are good at noting them down straight away and takes the time to discuss them further to learn little more (and probably embellishes a little as well).

  6. Hi Jeff, answering some of your questions… no, I don’t find myself easily talking to locals or to anyone, and being shy is something I hate about myself! I’d say it is the same travelling or at home.. I do have to force myself to talk to people I don’t know, but after the first barrier is broken, I just love to meet new people!
    And yes… I do think that people are different depending on the place/culture.. “colder” or “warmer”.. and this can also be different if it is a first contact or to become real friends. At some places is easy to talk to everyone, but is hard to keep this link.. and some other places it’s the opposite.
    I felt a huge difference between Brazil and New Zealand.. I’d say that even the “concept” of friendship is different here or there.

  7. I’m always a bit reserved with the locals when I find myself in a touristic area. My experience there is that a lot of people are trying to rip you off. As soon as you get away from your fellow travellers, though, it’s usually the locals who make the first step. You find a lot more people that are genuinely interested in you and not your money and conversation is really easy then.

    Martin, the guide I had here in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, for two days is one of those locals. He invited me into his home for a traditional meal. When he got ill and couldn’t work, he let me have his motorbike for free for three whole days and even invited me to come to the funeral ceremony of his wife’s grandmother (funerals are a big event here, where water buffaloes and pigs get sacrificed). It was probably one of the best experiences I had while travelling and I’ll definitely take him up on the offer to stay at his place the next time I come here…

  8. After a lot of trial and error … I think the easiest (and most obvious) way to meet people and talk with locals or other tourists is to lend a helping hand: move quickly to help someone get onto a bus, help somebody who drops something, offer a seat to an older man or lady, buy somebody less fortunate an ice cream … some sort of ‘random act of kindness’ shows your humanity. People then tend to believe you’re really not an axe murderer and usually start a conversation.

    Much like “Q Saborido” above, I have also spent a lot of time in South America and find the people there to be the warmest in the world.

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