port of harlem magazine
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Solo Travel: Five Ways Traveling Alone Will Connect You with Places and People

Sep 21 – Oct 04, 2023

In dreaming about travel, many people hesitate to make dreams into plans because it’s not easy to find the right companion.  Timing and budget constraints, different tastes - all of these things can conspire to complicate the process of finding a travel partner.

But what if the perfect companion was - - you? In my 40+ years of traveling the world, I’ve found that often, traveling solo is one of the best ways not only to experience a new destination, but also, to discover a local culture and people from a variety of backgrounds, including other travelers.   Unfortunately, the mere idea of solo travel can feel scary, and many people wind up opting out of solo adventures and staying home instead.

But there’s no need to fear solo travel!  In fact, it can bring so many unexpected gifts that it would be a shame to rule it out.  Nor does traveling solo doesn't mean being alone. In my experience, it's an opportunity to connect deeply with locals and get their perspective and insights. And it’s a lot of fun. Here are some ways to help foster connections and get the most out of the solo travel experience.

TIP #1: Read a Book in Public

“You speak English?” the young man asked hopefully.
?\”Yes, I’m American,?” I responded.

That brief exchange, while I was sitting in a park reading a book, led to an hour’s conversation over coffee. That was followed by a tour of his favorite places in his hometown, Jogjakarta, Indonesia. I’ve repeated that same scene across the globe. One simple trick has led to invitations to dinner, lunch, and tours of places only locals frequent. The secret? Bring along a book with a bold title in English, not a kindle, and read it in a public place. University campuses, parks, and cafes all work well.

People, especially students, want to practice English with a native-born speaker. If you are with someone else or in a group, you aren’t seen as approachable.  But alone, sitting quietly, and looking around occasionally to demonstrate you aren’t absorbed in the book, makes you a prime prospect for a conversation. If you notice someone looking at you, smile at them. It’s an invitation for them to say hello. After that, with just a little encouragement from you, you might make a new friend.

TIP #2: Find Restaurants with a Communal Table

With a little online searching, you can often locate restaurants that have communal tables. Yelp even has a category of “communal tables.”

Once you’re seated, strike up a conversation with people sitting near you. It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic. Inquire about what they’re eating. Ask if they’re local. Then ask for suggestions of their favorite places to walk, shop, hear music or anything else you have an interest in to get the conversation started.

Look for body language when you choose someone to speak with. If they’re wolfing down their food, they’re probably in a hurry and won’t warm to a conversation. If they’re randomly scrolling through their phone, they might appreciate someone to speak with.

Many people worry they are being intrusive. Or they’ll be perceived as weird or creepy. At a communal table, it isn’t an issue. They could have asked to be seated at another table. Be bold. People usually appreciate it.

Talking with strangers gets easier with practice.  The payoff is information from a local and a chance to connect in an authentic way.

TIP #3: Take Public Transportation and Then Explore

I learned this trick when I was young from a group of Swedish students I met at a youth hostel (which is a terrific way to meet travelers from around the globe). They led me on a “mystery tour.”

“There’s a tram. Let’s catch it,” said one of my new Swedish friends.

“Where’s it headed?” I asked.

“No idea.”

“But don’t you want to know?” I was puzzled. Why would anyone board a tram randomly?

“That’s part of the fun?” Her blue eyes shone with delight. “It will be an adventure?” She explained that, when traveling, they made it a practice to visit the outer reaches of a city, never knowing what they might discover. It allowed them to see how ordinary people lived.

Since then, no matter where I travel, I ride a bus or tram not knowing where I’m headed. If I see something interesting, I hop off, explore the neighborhood and then, if I spot an inviting one, sit at a café. As with tip #1, I usually bring a paperback book. I’ve seen areas of cities that are way off the tourist routes.

TIP #4: Take a Class or Join a Meet-Up

After watching dancers on the streets of Buenos Aires do you long to learn how to tango? Or, having eaten a delicious meal, do you want to prepare it when you return home?  No matter what interests you, it’s possible to find other people who share your interest.

Being in a class provides a chance to bond with others who share your enthusiasm. Classes are surprisingly easy to find. Meetup, which has members in 193 countries and 10,000 cities, will help you connect with like-minded people, most of them locals.

They’re not the only path to finding classes and group activities. TimeOut, published in 59 countries and 333 cities, has extensive lists of things to do, events, classes, performances and more.

Or ask at a local tourist office. In Cartagena, Colombia, the tourism office found a cooking class that I hadn’t seen listed anywhere else. I knew it would be great when Enrique, our affable host, said, “We’re heading to the Mercado de Bazurto. It’s a totally different Cartagena than Old City or the beach areas. This is where Cartagenians shop for food, household goods, clothing, and, well, almost anything. You’re going to see the real Cartagena.” And I did. We then went to his home and prepared the food we had purchased at the market. It was one of the best days I spent in Cartagena, seeing the market, Enrique’s home, and family, and learning to cook an authentic meal.

TIP #5: Go to an Activity or Event you are Enthusiastic About

When I travel, locally or internationally, after I?ve visited the ?must see sights,? I buy tickets for a dance or music performance.  When I arrive at my seat, I try to engage people around me in conversation. That’s typically easy because we immediately have something in common to talk about.

If you love sports, buy a ticket to a local game, especially for a sport you know little about.  Then ask people around you to explain some of the finer points. Find a local hiking, running, or cycling group. If you’re in an English-speaking country, find an open mic or trivia night.

The possibilities are endless and not difficult to locate try TimeOut, a local newspaper, or just do an online search.

Most of all, be open to possibilities to connect with locals. On Java (Indonesia), another tourist invited me to go with him to a local karaoke night. We were the only foreigners and became the center of attention. When the locals learned where I was from, they persuaded me, after more than a couple of drinks, to sing New York, New York. Though I have a terrible voice, I was the hit of a truly memorable night.
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