I write about venturing into the unknown often.
You might say it’s my favorite theme—in life and in art. You could say it’s my greatest fear—in love and in travel. You could say it is a subject so rich and fascinating it proves an inexhaustible source of meaning and poetry.
You could say any of those things, and you would be right.
Ah, the not-knowing…it is terrifying, exhilarating, life-affirming indeed. But maybe you want a bit more practicality and a bit less poetry; maybe you have concrete travel plans on the horizon (even tenuous possibilities or dreams), and poetic rambling philosophizing isn’t helping all that much. I get that.
I drop myself into cities and countries where I know no one on a regular basis. I enjoy the challenge and the freedom, but I also forget that this is a practice like any other, and may seem somewhat inaccessible at first. I want to demystify it.
The following suggestions stem from my years of solo traveling. I don’t necessarily follow them all for every trip, but one could in theory. I believe each one has a deep potential to cushion the fall into unknown territory.
1. Reach out to friends and acquaintances.
A simple “Do I know anyone in _____?” on Facebook can yield unexpected results. This method has found me friends (and often couches) in otherwise totally anonymous destinations from Prague and Montenegro to Berlin, Sicily and more.
2. Mine for connections.
Social media is a multifaceted beast, but it really comes in handy for certain kinds of travel. Asking my Facebook friends (and sometimes blog followers), “Does anyone have any connections in ___?” in the past has found me a house to rent in Cape Town, a Shabbat dinner in Paris, a yoga teaching gig in Zanzibar and so much more. The more I travel, the more this network grows—exponentially, it would seem. Couchsurfing is another amazing resource for making connections for friends and couches both.
3. Be bold—ask questions.
Every piece of information we could possibly need is available on the ground. No need to read travel forums, or even look up directions (although by all means do both if it sets your mind at ease). Depending on where I am in the world, there are metro maps, info centers, or throngs of aggressive taxi drivers at every possible port of arrival. Barring that, the local person sitting next to me on the bus/plane/train/ferry is usually an excellent resource.
4. Get Lost and Like It.
I have developed an impressive habit of always going the wrong way first. If it’s straight, I go left. If it’s left, I go right. I then employ method #3, ad infinitum, to take the longest route possible to my intended destination (thank you, legs). Getting lost is a common consequence of going in blind; even if we don’t like it, we can bring our sense of humor along for the walk.
5. Set up a work trade.
While it is 100% possible (and yes, fun and exciting) to just go explore a new place and find your way upon arrival, I have often found more depth and connection through work exchanges. Websites like wwoofing, workaway and helpx are just a few of many platforms for finding interesting, short-term placements abroad. Working or volunteering is, in my experience, one of the most effective ways to integrate into a community and create my place in the formerly unfamiliar. It is also an incredibly practical resource for information.
6. Set up an Airbnb.
If, like me, you need to work while you wander (or, also like me, you don’t want to commit to too much socializing), but still want an entree into local community, Airbnb is unparalleled. Set your price, browse your options, and choose a host who seems interesting. I’m still in contact with several of my Airbnb hosts, and owe unique memories (like tasting the best chocolate gelato in the whole world) to them.
7. Keep up with hobbies.
I always carry two extra pairs of shoes with me: dance and climbing. Dancing tango in Kenya, salsa-ing in Berlin and climbing in Cape Town, I’ve connected with people I never would have met otherwise. Same goes for surfing in Morocco and hiking in Spain. Those are my passions; follow yours, and you’ll find your people—anywhere.
8. Become a regular.
There is something uniquely grounding in being a regular customer (in a cafe, restaurant or even corner store)—in simply being recognized. When our default mode is anonymity, feeling seen, known, familiar offers a powerful sense of place. Especially when I have a few weeks or months somewhere, I find myself accumulating these “regular” spots. Though utterly departing from all known routine is a key—even necessary—element of travel for me, glimpses of familiarity within the unknown provide welcome—even necessary—moments of respite.
9. Let go of should’s.
I believe having a mile-long checklist of “must sees” and “must dos” limits potential for spontaneous discovery. I tend to get a decent amount of touristing in when I visit a new place, but I try not to force it. Excursions happen organically—often with new friends—when I genuinely want to do them, and not because I feel like I’ll be failing at travel if I don’t.
My experience of travel altered hugely when I started to prepare a lot of my own meals (just as I used to when I lived in one place). Not all, of course, since tasting local cuisines is hands down the best part of traveling, but many. Wandering local markets, I’ve honed new language skills, felt rooted in my home-of-the-moment, and saved serious money. Choosing an Airbnb with a kitchen facilitates this, as does staying with friends. Cooking a beautiful meal has long been my favorite way to thank my hosts for their hospitality.
11. Talk to strangers.
They’re not scary—usually. When they are creepy, it’s usually pretty clear to my intuition. Strangers are typically one of three things: treasure troves of insider information, friends you haven’t met yet, or an excellent story for later. Instructions for talking to strangers: eyes up, shoulders down, words out.
12. When all else fails, fail.
I have days—sometimes weeks—where my social self goes into hibernation, my patience drops to zero, and the challenge of the unknown shifts from exhilarating to tiresome. When that happens, I take time to write, read, call friends and family, and simply be. No one can be “on” all the time. This lifestyle of exploration and discovery has curves and cycles, just like any other. These moments of pause make the adventure all the richer.
May your journeys be—yours.