Below is a list of ideas on how to meet people easily and make friends along the way during your travels. I am writing this list from my own personal experience (as with everything on this site!) and it is just meant to get you thinking creatively on how to enrich your own travel experience. Feel free to add your comments or suggestions on other ways that might help you to make friends while traveling!
Learn to play an instrument: Before I set off on this adventure, the only instrument I could play were turntables – and I sure was not going to be carrying those around with me in a backpack. So I decided to start learning to play other instruments. It all started with a friend’s Yukleile in New York. We were walking the streets and I asked him if I could play it. Once he handed it to me and I began to play, I was very surprised at how many people began to smile as I passed them strumming this 4 string baby guitar. So I decided to post up on a street corner and make up some songs to accompany the beautiful sound this instrument makes. It was not too long before people began to approach me and listen to the silly songs I was making up impromptu. So then I decided to start making up songs about my immediate surroundings which made it all more fun and interactive and inclusive. Now, you must know that I am not a great singer, nor do I know how to play the Yukleile. But I did not let these things stop me from having a great time and making new friends along the way!
Get a set of poi and play: Another great way to make friends is to get a set of poi and play wherever you find the space and energy to do so. I have visited many countries where the people there have never seen a set of poi in action and it draws a crowd quite quickly. Children especially love to watch and play with these wonderful toys. It was after at least 50 different children approached me in about 4 different countries that I thought it might be a good idea to get another set to share. Then I found myself in Douz Tunisia where a friend introduced me to a tailor who made me 15 sets of new poi to share with the children and to sell in the market. This was such a fun experience and social experiment as for those who do not know, Douz is not really the place for dancing in the streets especially for women but I did not let that stop me from sharing this super fun game with the local and visiting people. Also, I find that playing Poi is a great way to exercise and calm the mind as well which is an added bonus to making friends and playing with people. And you can find a set here!!
Sing in the streets: This one is tricky as sometimes I find that people will look at you in one of two ways. Either they will smile and applaud you for your efforts or they will look at you as if you are on some kind of mind altering chemicals or drunk. But for me, the simple act of singing (whether you are good at it or not) feels good and ultimately attracts others who are open to joining you or simply being entertained.
Smile: Smiling takes absolutely no talent, no skill, and no money to do and almost instantly can make most others smile as well. I have found that on many occasions simply smiling at someone breaks down the separation that can be felt when wandering in a new place and allows for a more basic and human connection to occur. With this said however, I must caution travelers (especially solo females) that in some countries (mostly Muslim countries from my experience) that smiling at men might be taken as more than just a friendly gesture and more of an invitation for something more… well, I think you know. So as always, trust your instinct and check your environment before deciding on how friendly you will choose to be with the locals.
Share something: This can include so many things. Some of my favorites include: a story, poem or travel tale, some tea, something you may have that is unique to the place you have arrived in (like the poi), knowledge that you have, or a helping hand to someone in need. There are so many ways to share what makes you unique on this planet with others so do look for opportunities to share this with the world!
Help someone: Helping others without expecting something in return is quite possibly one of the best ways to feel good inside and to help another feel good as well. For example, you could offer to assist that elderly person you see with the bags they are lugging around, or you could help a fellow traveler find their destination. I had an interesting experience in a train station in Munich Germany that has stayed with me since that time. I was wandering through the station looking for the platform for my train when I noticed a blind man standing in one spot searching the ground with his cane in a circle – around and around he turned slowly moving his cane across the ground. I watched for a couple of minutes as he was passed by at least 30 people before I decided to approach him and offer assistance. He gladly accepted and told me where he was going. I took him by the arm and led him to the platform for his train where we spent the next 40 minutes talking about his travel experiences. Meeting this man changed me forever as I realized how much trust and faith he had to have in others to help him get around- and boy did he get around! He had traveled to many places and inspired me plenty with his tales and life story. This was an experience that I will not soon forget and that has kept me inspired on my own journey.
Do some random acts of kindness: This one is just lovely and is one of my personal favorites. Some ideas include offering to buy tea for another, offering your assistance to someone in need, or giving something that you have to someone that could benefit from it’s use even more than you can. This last one reminds me of when I was in Izmir Turkey sitting outside of Ege Park Mall having a coffee with a new friend I had made. A young boy who was carrying supplies to do shoe polishing approached my friend speaking in Turkish. When I asked what the boy was saying, my friend explained that he was asking for money to buy a backpack for school. I thought about it for a moment and decided that I would give this boy the small backpack that I used for day trips. I asked the boy if this would be ok (with my friends help) and the smile on his face and in his eyes were a definite yes. After I gave him the backpack, I saw him three more times before I left Izmir and each time we saw each other his eyes and face lit up so brightly it melted my heart every time.
Give free hugs: One of the things I absolutely love to do when I travel to a new city is to find the center square and spend a few hours giving free hugs. I have done this in several cities with my sign (it has free hugs written in 12 languages on it) and it is absolutely amazing every time. Ok there was that one time in Taksim Square in Istanbul Turkey (see a video clip here) (the full article is here) where I was approached by the police several times and finally threatened with jail time if I did not stop offering free hugs which was sad because this was the second place (the first being in Germany) where the people started taking the sign and hugging others in the street as well. So yea, again, be careful where you decide to do this one.