With shaking hands, I carefully poked a loose Jenga block free from the tower that was now at eye level with me. Out came a sigh of relief, and as a triumphant smile made its way across my face, I motioned my hostel roommate to make his next move. With few options remaining, he studied the tower, concentrating on his next plan of attack, as I sat back to relish in my momentary victory.
As children, we’re taught not to talk to strangers. As we get older, however, we learn that strangers are just friends we haven’t made yet.
Whether establishing new relationships with hostel roommates, chatting with locals on the street, or rekindling old friendships, there are three different settings I’ve found that foster conversations, education through storytelling, and connections much deeper than the occasional Facebook message.
Late Night Chats
Quite possibly, the best stories and memories surface in the wee hours of the morning. Conversation becomes more honest at 4:00 a.m. because the sights and sounds of the daily hustle are no longer a distraction.
The workday is behind us, and the personas we present to the world on a daily basis get put away in the closet at night with our suits, dresses, and uniforms.
In Nagasaki, Japan, over a homemade curry dinner and alongside a small group of well-mannered, Japanese gentlemen, I found myself engrossed in the tales of one young man’s adventure biking around the entire circumference of Kyushu (Japan’s southernmost island).
As the clock approached 3:00 a.m., the group’s overall demeanor was exhausted by this man’s impressive achievement. Some stories, like his, were uplifting and inspiring such as stories of first travel experiences abroad and reminiscing over home-cooked meals with family during the holidays.
Others were a bit disheartening like stories about being overworked and longing to start a family but unable to divide time and attention between commitments.
Nevertheless, the evening provided more insight to Japanese culture and aspirations than I could’ve hoped for. The curry was delightfully tasty as well.
Sharing a Meal
Whether it’s over a curry dinner in Nagasaki or a long lunch on the outskirts of Moscow’s city center, sharing a meal with new friends is a double win. Not only do taste buds get acquainted with new, local cuisines, but meals make for a great setting to absorb and learn about people’s background, culture, and aspirations.
Sure, there’s casual chit-chat to ease us into conversation (e.g. world news, weather). Let it simmer long enough though, and the stories and opinions acquire a more personal flavor.
One particularly hot afternoon in Moscow found me at lunch with a young woman and fellow traveler, introduced to me through a mutual friend. Trying to stay cool in the shade of the nearby skyscrapers while simultaneously being ignored by wait staff, she spoke of how hard it is for single women in Russia to travel outside the country, how drained she felt every day from her job, and her fear of being fired which she admitted she wouldn’t mind. I admired her courage to open up to a stranger turned new friend, and I felt honored that she could trust me with such intimate information. She is now one of my closest confidantes through which I can share anything with ease and know that my stories are safe with her.
Above all, the best way to get to know someone and discover common interests is to explore together. Try on different adventures that are new to everyone in the group like rock climbing, salsa dancing, crocheting, fishing, etc. Doing so is not only a great method for meeting new people but for finding your tribe, narrowing down the kind of company you’d rather not keep, and maybe even picking up a new hobby in the process.
It was in a windowless hostel dorm so tiny only two people could comfortably move around at a time where I met three of my greatest travel companions. One girl from South Carolina who, like me, divides her time between America and Asia, a girl from New Zealand but working and studying in Brisbane, and another working as a lawyer in China. We became a close knit family during our time together in Penang, Malaysia.
During the day, sometimes we would go separate ways to explore, but we always regrouped in the evenings to recall the day’s events and our individual experiences. Other times, we meandered the alleyways together in search of street food, we went to the beach, and we even tried parasailing for the first time. The four of us are all still in touch and visit each other whenever we find ourselves traveling through one another’s corner of the world.
All of these experiences allowed me to get to know people better than if I had simply said hello in passing on the street.
So when you find yourself yearning for company over dinner or new life-long friendships, reach for a deck of cards or a Jenga tower to break the ice. When the tower finally collapses, the blocks crashing on the table will be muted by the uproar of laughter that will ensue, blossoming into a beautiful, new camaraderie.