travel, challenge, new, friends
Adventure, Travel Advice

12 Ways to Move/Travel to a New City/Country Where you Don’t Know Anyone—and Totally Rock It

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.

10. Cook.
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.

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Vagabonding vs Bonding: On Staying in Touch

Reunited in Cape Town: Hiking Table Mountain
Is it hard to form deep, enduring friendships when you’re always moving around?
I get that question a lot.
The answer, as you could probably guess, is no and yes.
My close friends and family span the globe, but I know I could call any one of them today—or, better yet, show up at their doorstep—and they would offer me all the love and support I could need. Of course, it goes both ways… minus the doorstep, which I don’t always have.
And then, I typically find it easy to connect with the people around me, wherever I find myself.
My neighbor? New friend and dance buddy.
My housemate? New friend and hiking buddy.
Strangers on a train? You get the idea.
Answer one: Depth is easy. So no, it’s not difficult to connect deeply—be it for an hour, a week or a month. The more layers of artifice I burn, the more easily, and more deeply, I find connection—everywhere.
But then there’s that other, more elusive quality: endurance. 
Does it last? How? And if it doesn’t, how meaningful is a friendship formed in Thailand and set to rest in Laos? How deep does connection really run if it can’t follow me across borders and years?
Answer two is longer…
Recently, a close friend from university paid me an impromptu visit in Cape Town. Keeping the spontaneity flowing, we rented a car, picked it up the next day, and drove nearly 1,000 kilometers east, toward the Garden Route (a popular region for tourists) and a particularly beautiful place called Nature’s Valley (though we didn’t know yet that we were going there).
As we drove on the wrong side of the road through endless stretches of caramel-colored hillsides, we caught up on the milestones of the last year of our lives. As we hiked through fynbos (vegetation unique to the Western Cape) and down to wild, windswept beaches, we discussed philosophy and travel, mistakes and purpose. As we pitched our tiny camping tent amidst rows of elaborate palatial campsites in a dilapidated caravan park, we laughed like no time at all had passed.
Time had passed. Clear from the very new lines around my eyes and the shifting sands of love, death and discovery that shaped the contours of the interim months—or was it years?—of our lives.
And yet, connection had endured.

Roadside picnic on the Garden Route, and a very rare selfie.
I could list a dozen more examples off the top of my head. Old friends joining me for segments of my travels; new friends opening their homes to me when I arrive in their city; strangers offering me a place to sleep, and becoming friends through that inimitable alchemy of giving and gratitude.
And then there are the other friendships, the ones that take root in the rich soil of new experiences shared, yet wither when transplanted to the barren realms of social media and virtual communication—or perhaps they refuse to leave in the first place.
Still, these, too, endure in their own way.
A note out of the blue from a passing acquaintance met several years prior.
A supportive comment on an article from a familiar face whose name I had forgotten.
An unexpected coffee with a high school friend with whom correspondence had been sporadic and stunted.
Silence doesn’t always mean disinterest.
I should know, since I rarely hear from many I consider my closest friends.
Distance doesn’t mean detachment.
I should know, since I repeatedly choose to be continents, miles and time zones away from my loved ones.
Staying in touch is remarkably difficult for an era of unprecedented “connectedness.” I have nothing to brag about—those who know me will be sure to tell you—but I am constantly working to do better.
I’ll repeat: distance doesn’t mean detachment. 
Connection is there. Depth is there. Consistency? We’re all working on it. 

Forced to choose between travel and connection (that is, vagabonding and bonding), I’ll choose “C” every time. No and yes. Both. I think it’s possible.

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Europe, Nomadism


“Revisiting” Sicily

I have rarely been one to visit the same place twice.

I always used to squirm uncomfortably when new friends, by way of goodbye, would ask when I was coming back, because I knew I didn’t know. I didn’t know if I would, indeed, be coming back.
Lately, however, I meet those new friends’ eyes and say with confidence, “I’ll see you next time,” because I’ve since learned that the universe likes nothing more than to send us what, where and whom we least expect. (It seems to particularly delight in setting me down on the same path twice.)
I can never say when or where or how this next meeting will occur, but it no longer seems so far-fetched to expect that it will.
You see, though I was never one to visit the same place twice—the pull of the uncertain new always stronger than that of the friendly and inviting known—I can no longer claim this to be so. In the last two and a half months, I have revisited: Rome, Sicily, London and Amsterdam. I have seen friends made in Serbia, Kenya, Germany, India and Vermont.
As I write this, I am en route to Helsinki for visit number 2.
Lonely shoe, Helsinki.
For a serial seeker of new places, it is an odd thing to go back to—to revisit—a place.
And then, as most strange things are, it is also wonderful.
I find, in revisiting, that such an act does not in fact exist; it is impossible to visit the same place twice. Friends cut their hair, or grow it; beloved restaurants close, and new ones open; memories, friendships and connections are planted, and new experiences grow from those seeds.
More important than anything, my perspective—ever evolving, never exactly the same—makes of each “known” something entirely new, and so, in going back, I find I am always going forward, after all.
The repercussions of this fact are almost terrifying in their magnitude. For each step that I take, there are infinite possibilities, not only ahead of me, but behind me as well. The tree that I see in summer might present itself entirely anew stripped bare in winter; the rose in bud another matter altogether in flower; the city of my 17-year-old travels lent a thousand shades of nuance by seven years’ distance.
And so?
And so.
Sunset on the plane…
Always moving onward, but am I?
Maybe I am no longer “not one to visit the same place twice.” Maybe only now does it truly sink in that “everything” or “everywhere” is a receding mirage, the pursuit of which can carry us in endless circles.
And still, I pursue it—encouraged, not dissuaded by the ever-expanding nature of the illusion—I willingly, obligingly circle back, and forward, and back again.
Moving forward, or backward, exploring the new, or revisiting the old, I find the unknown in everything everyone everyplace, and I am inspired, in-spiralled, enthralled…
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” — Lewis Caroll
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Europe, Travel Advice

Strangers on a Train

“We’re on our way to bible study,” says my friend. (He likes to make up stories, but let’s get real, who doesn’t?)

It’s 10:00 pm, and we’re on the Circle Line, retracing our steps into Central London after hopping the wrong train. Across from us sits a young couple—friendly, talkative, and maybe a touch too willing to believe his absurd stories. They are sipping from a water bottle of vodka and fanta, on their way to a night out “raving.”
Thus begins my Saturday night this past weekend. My friend alights at King’s Cross Station to head home, and I follow these strangers (soon to be friends) to Fabric, one of London’s most famous House clubs.
We will meet another stranger on our way out of the Tube, and together walk to the venue. We will spend the next four or five hours dancing to some of the best House music I’ve heard in a year, adding new strangers (new friends) to our group as we went, and they will become, over the course of the night, no longer strangers.
And all because we had all looked up across the aisle of a Circle Line train and said hello.
A week prior, I went to meet my coworker in Oxford for the first time. On the trip home, the train was rush-hour packed—standing room only. Series of unexpected events, I found myself squished next to a fellow American; as foreigners are wont to do, we struck up a conversation, found it fascinating, and continued it over a particularly delicious dinner in Notting Hill.

And all because I had asked (in my unmistakably American accent), “Is this the train to London?”
When did we grow afraid of strangers? When did the popular wisdom for travelers shift from, trust the road and the good Samaritans who walk it, to, trust no one? When did two strangers—or four strangers—talking on the train become the exception, rather than the rule?
I have an advantage, in that nothing about my thin five foot five frame and wide smile inspires fear or mistrust. There are fewer barriers for me to cross to arrive at the human beings inside their protective circles.
Some of my most entertaining nights out, fascinating conversations and closest connections have occurred simply because I looked up and said hello. Though I occasionally forget and succumb to the comfortable bubble of my own world, I try to make a rule of talking to strangers—I have yet to regret it.
And then, when you think about it, aren’t we all just strangers on a train?
Busy watching for our station, looking out the window, or within, or anywhere but around us, we don’t realize that the train is it. There are no stations, no stops, and for all we know no destination.
Our fellow passengers? We’re stuck with them—better hope they don’t smell—and we can make of that a party or a burden. The Buddhists will tell you the train is an illusion; the Jews will tell you it’s the only thing that’s real. One thing I know for certain: It’s what we make of the ride that counts.
So we can either look up and say hello, and make the journey worthwhile, or we can keep staring at our shoes, waiting for the conductor to call our stop.

Try saying hello to a stranger today and see what happens. Maybe they’ll tell you their life story. Maybe they won’t respond. Maybe that stranger will change your life—or your day, or your next ten minutes. But no matter what, isn’t it more interesting than your toes?

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Asia, Culture

Existential Apple Juice

A section from my soon-to-be-turned-in research paper. A little slice of life in Kagbeni and some more thoughts on authenticity.  Next post will be on a new theme, I promise.

            In academic discourse on tourism and authenticity, we often mistakenly assume that either tourists or local peoples can authoritatively define what is authentic.  In reality, authenticity, of experience as much as objects, is a transient and ever-changing concept, different for everyone.  True authenticity depends on one’s state of mind and openness to experience.  It can be contained in a single apple, a single moment, or a single-minded willingness to engage authentically.
            Less than a week into my stay at the Red House Lodge, I already had a Nepali name (Kalpana), a host of familiar faces in town, and essentially a Nepali family.  One morning, upon returning “home” from a walk, Tenzin’s daughter and employees called to me from the picnic table on the flat roof where they were shredding apples to make juice.  Kalpana! Bosnus, Kalpana.” They made space for me and I sat down on the edge of the table, trying to avoid the sticky bits of apple scattered about.  I insisted on helping, as by then they must have expected, picking up a hand-held metal grater (the kind I had only used to grate cheese), and joined my effort to theirs. 
For more than an hour we worked in semi-silence, speaking to ask for more apples (apple, dinnus) or pass a bowl of browning mush to Ammis, who would squeeze it in handfuls to separate liquid from solid.  The only other sounds came from the rasping of small, green apples against metal, the occasional cry of hawks circling the crumbling medieval fort across the alley, and the drip drip drip of fresh-squeezed apple juice trickling into a plastic bucket.  It being an unusually still morning, the prayer flags adorning nearly every rooftop remained quiet and the strong Mustangi sun heated the air.  I changed into a T-shirt, the first and last time that my arms would see the sun in Mustang.  We paused sometimes to sample from the abundance of produce spilling from the deep wicker basket next to us, punctuating the music of shredding apples with the crunch of teeth on fruit.
Apples of every variety grow well in the region around Kagbeni.  Marpha (elevation 2670 meters), a four hour walk south of Kagbeni, boasts the moniker “apple capital of Mustang,” but I preferred the tart crispness of the apples heaped around the picnic table that morning, harvested from Tenzin’s orchard in Pangling, just across the Kali Gandaki River less than an hour from the Red House Lodge.  Though the climate and altitude of Lower Mustang are ideal for the cultivation of apples, it is only in the last few decades that an apple economy has developed there.  Landowners have converted much of their farmland or unused property into orchards, and nearly every restaurant and guest house carries out its own small-scale apple juice-, cider-, and brandy-making operations.  Small bags of dried apples and bottles of apple brandy satisfy the demand of Nepali and foreign tourists alike for edible souvenirs.
My skin warm and my hands coated with sticky brown apple remains, I smiled contentedly at the easy companionship of that moment, which transcended linguistic and cultural barriers.  Shoulder-to-shoulder with my Nepali didi (sister), I grated apple after apple, as quickly and as diligently as the rest, working towards the simple common goal of juice.  Moments like these cannot be manufactured, I remember thinking.  In their beauty, simplicity and spontaneity, such instances of connection and, yes, authenticity, are precious in their inimitability.  Isn’t that the conundrum of the tourism industry, which makes its millions by selling “real” experiences. 
Some research on tourism today is employing the Heideggerian concept of existential authenticity to solve that riddle.  According to Heidegger’s philosophy, inherent meaning and connection exist, and it is these qualities that make experience possible.  In terms of tourism, when one approaches the world with “existential authenticity […], a state of Being in which one is true to oneself,” a unique experience of the world, understood from an individual perspective, becomes possible, and the tourist may experience that inherent meaning.  In these terms, authenticity is not a fixed, objective quality, but rather a state of mind, rendering it nearly impossible to package and market.  Taking the Maori’s staged cultural demonstrations as an example (which emerged as a response to non-Maoris producing cultural shows for tourists), “staging pseudo-events for tourists can, in fact, be expressions of host authenticity in deciding how to present themselves to others.”[1]  Whether a tourist witnessing this show finds it authentic is not the question here; the tourist who is attuned to his or her “existential self” will experience it authentically regardless.
At six o’clock, the night before apple juice-making day, I ate dinner with the group of Ukranian trekkers in the rooftop dining room.  Candlelight cast faces and food into a dynamic interplay of shadow and warm glow, and we lingered over glasses of Tenzin’s mother’s homemade cider.  My dinner companions struck me at first as naïve and impressionable— every monastery, every person they met, and every interaction with local people awed or inspired them, it seemed.  They attempted to quiz their Nepali guide about himself through several layers of translation (from Russian to English to Nepali and back), saying, “we have been in Nepal trekking two weeks, but we don’t know any real Nepalis.”  Predictably, the attempt at conversation faltered, yet the more I reflect on this group of trekkers, the more I appreciate their unusual and sustained efforts at making connections.  Revisiting that evening through a Heideggerian lens, I wonder if their willingness to engage with everyone and everything they encountered and the sincerity of their desire to experience Nepal, uninformed and naïve though it may have been, might not have resulted in a truly authentic experience.
The philosophy behind existential authenticity may appear hopelessly complex, but its implications for tourism study and marketing are straightforward yet rich in possibility.  If we admit that there is no objective authentic culture, that neither outsiders nor locals can make such a judgment, and we focus instead on individual authentic experience, existing mainstays of tourism marketing may prove misguided.  The shopkeeper who insists that, “this bracelet is really Tibetan. Really” might realize that her neighbor who converses and connects with customers does more business.  The tour guide offering to show his group the “real Mustang,” and its most meaningful cultural treasures, might lose out to the one who allows visitors to determine for themselves what is meaningful and seek for themselves authentic engagement with a foreign culture.
Apple juice perhaps can be bottled, mass-marketed, and sold at a profit (though I believe it tastes best in small batches), but the existential authenticity contained in a moment of shredding apples at a warm picnic table cannot.  Experiences like those are invaluable, fleeting and individual; at best, a guide or tour might provide support for those tourists who wish to attain them.

[1]Steiner, Carol J. and Reisinger, Yvette. “Understanding Existential Authenticity.” Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 33, No. 2. Pp. 299-318.
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