Don’t Be a Stranger: 5 Reasons to Chat Up the Person Next to You While Traveling

(Photo: iStock/Thinkstock)

Erica Bray, Jun 4, 2014

A simple “Hello” can lead to spectacular things — especially while traveling. It’s a travel currency as valuable as the money in your wallet.

“Hello” led me to perform headstands on park benches in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven park, alongside an elderly Chinese man doing the same.

“Hello” led me to hang with a BBC producer documenting a local festival in Cuzco, Peru, and receive expert context from him about what I was witnessing.

“Hello” is what prompted a doppelganger for the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” to split a bottle of red wine with me in Buenos Aires, Argentina, regaling me with heroic stories that may or may not have been true.

In short, you never know what amazing, unscripted adventure can happen as a result of being friendly with those around you. “Hello” (paired with a smile) is a universally understood greeting for “I’m open to learning about you.”

So often while traveling, I see people stick to themselves — solo travelers reading in solitude, couples that only have eyes for each other, friends laughing together in closed circles. I can only hope that they don’t spend their entire vacation that way.

Next time you find yourself in one of these scenarios, consider the amazing memories you could be making by engaging the humanity around you. Of course, first follow your intuition on whether it’s the type of person or people with whom you want to engage. Safety comes first. My advice: If curiosity and intuition suggest “Yes,” then invite the conversation.

Here’s how “Hello” helped me chart some amazing travel experiences and can also inspire the same for you. It’s as basic as this: Don’t be shy.

Unique cultural experiences

Some of the most authentic cultural experiences aren’t offered in pre-booked tours. It takes befriending locals and earning the invitation. While backpacking India, friends and I said “Hello” to a local sadhu, or holy man, who lived under a giant Shiva statue along the Ganges River. He smiled back at us and waved us into his humble home, where we learned how to make ceremonial offerings. This experience was not part of the scripted tour, but it became a major highlight.

Revealing hidden gems

Mainstream travel guides never tell the entire story about a destination. It takes talking to people in the destination to learn about the best eateries, unique shops, and unpublicized events. (Don’t simply ask your hotel concierge. But do say “Hello.”) While in Thailand, I said “Hello” to a fellow traveler who was journaling in a café. Through the course of our conversation, she told me, in a hushed voice, about a little-known garden across from a local terra-cotta museum. I visited this garden, an enclosed area of lush green vegetation sprinkled with broken terra-cotta Buddha and Ganesh statues, multiple times during my month-long stay in Chiang Mai, Thailand. My guidebook made no mention of this magical setting, one that ultimately became my favorite in the city.

A secret garden in Chiang Mai, Thailand (Photo: Erica Bray)

Making on-the-fly travel companions

When traveling solo, the “Hello” not only prevents loneliness — it also can lead to great friendships and temporary traveling companions. While in central Ecuador, I walked down to a popular hostel where I befriended several travelers with whom I would ultimately go mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and pub-crawling. No way would I have done these activities on my own.

Befriending local characters

Locals often become highlights of my journey, so I rarely pass up a chance to say “Hello” and befriend them. While in Belize, I heard about an entertaining man nicknamed “Coconut Leo” — a nicknamed earned because he could climb tall coconut trees and perform Olympic-caliber feats of strength and gymnastics atop them. While socializing with friends at a local beach bar, I spotted him — and immediately made an introduction. “Coconut Leo” wound up hanging with us, ending the night by performing his famous daredevil tricks atop a coconut tree. He remains a legend to this day.

Inspiring romance

Some people travel specifically for romance. Not me. But… that’s not to say that romance hasn’t found me after I initiate a casual “Hello.” While in Italy, I spent an afternoon wandering the Vatican with an opera singer, someone I met at a local restaurant, where we started off eating at separate tables as singles. The afternoon transformed into something out of an Audrey Hepburn movie: We toured the sites, shopped and parted ways with a sweet kiss. (Yes, I’m still kicking myself for keeping it PG.)

Erica Bray is an avid yogi and Chicago native, who took a self-imposed sabbatical from corporate life to travel the world and blog about the self-discovery on Deep Exhale. If you see her on the road, be sure to say “Hello.”

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