They say that building relationships is an important part of life. It’s known to be crucial to our social, as well as spiritual well-being. Everyone, at some point, would have felt the importance of close friends and family in their lives. Some would have come across the necessity for strong relationships in business too – more so, the further up the ladder you climb.
Building relationships isn’t normally at the forefront of most long term travellers thoughts. Before I went travelling, I read “The Lonely Planet Story: Once While Travelling”, which is essentially the story of how Tony and Maureen Wheeler, the founders of the Lonely Planet, started their business many years ago. The takeaway I had from the book, was the number of people who they met on their first journey, from England to Australia, that re-emerged as significant friends/colleagues in their lives.
Through my travels, I’ve come to realise how building relationships can be just as important and make your journey on the road orders of magnitude deeper.
In this post, I’ll describe what I mean by relationships, why it’s important to do it as you travel and the how you would go about building them.
What do I mean by building relationships?
If we’re being formal, we’re talking about an association between yourself and one or more people who may range from brief to enduring, based on inference, love, solidarity, regular business interactions or some other type of social commitment. From a philosophical point of view, a personal relationship is a choice. The choice can be made if three conditions are met: you know who he/she is, what he/she expects from you and what you can expect from him/her.
In the case of everyday travel, it encompasses other travellers and locals. With other travellers, it’s the ones you meet in hostels and activities you take part in. For locals, it’s your hostel owners, drivers and villagers you pass along the way.
Why build relationships while you travel?
Locals are the key to seeing the most from a country. If you build a relationship with someone knowledgable and whom you trust, leaving yourself open to them filling an itinerary can reap massive rewards. In Cambodia, I had the fortune of meeting a fantastic local, called Marom, who was my driver for 4 days at Siem Reap. I got to know him better each day, being my driver to Angkor Wat. A full description of my experience with him as my driver deserves a blog post in itself.
Towards the end of my stay I asked him what he would advise as a day trip to one of the floating villages. After some shrewd advise about the closest monopolised floating village (Chong Khneas – look it up on TripAdvisor), he said he could organise a trip to Kompong Phlok instead. Because of the relationship built up over the last 3 days, I had complete trust for his pricing and itinerary without needing to know the details. I just knew it was going to be something special, and indeed it was. I really got to see what living in Kompong Phlok was like and I think the overwhelming reason for that, was Marom. On the day, he was a social masterclass. He took us through the village like a local, having a chat with everyone along the way from the kids playing marbles on the road, guys who charged car batteries for the village, the boat owner that was happy to let him drive us and a small fishing family who let him borrow another small boat to take me through the unforgettable mangrove forest. I trusted Marom and everyone who knew him did the same. That trust opened doors for everyone.
Understanding Locals Better
I’ve found the locals who overlap most with tourists can have very thick skins and can taint your impression. People naturally put up defensive fronts when they don’t know you well and more so if you visually fall into a bad stereotype. I saw a great example of this during my time on the island of Koh Phi Phi, Thailand. Me and four other travel buddies hired a long boat to take us to a “quiet beach”. The boat pulled up to Loh Moo Kee beach. Although the beach only had a handful of people, it wasn’t the cleanest of beaches I had seen. Plenty of left over food wrappers, bottles and general waste. A hut had a several deck chairs in front, advertising them for rent for 50 THB. One of the other travellers called over to what looked like the owner standing about 10m away and asked if the chairs could be rented. The response we got was a fairly abrupt “come closer if you want to talk”. It was clear this person wasn’t happy with us being there.
I went over to talk to her, to understand why she would be so cold and see if I could build up a relationship. After talking with her for about 10 mins, it was clear that the majority of people who come to this beach, make a mess and leave. Careless tour groups with no concern for the environment that is her home – she lived in that hut. Empathy is real relationship builder. I told her that I understood her concern, thought she lived in a beautiful place and that we’d like to share the beach for a couple of hours if that was ok with her. She said that was fine and gave me advice about a large tour group turning up later.
One of the group found some bin liners and we spent some time picking up the rubbish on the beach. We collected five bags full of rubbish. It was depressing for us, how much there was, let alone the locals. After a couple of hours, the lady came out of her hut and spotted the bags. She was pretty emotional and couldn’t believe how much that had been picked up. She thanked us for it and returned 5 minutes later with some cold drinks for us. Without us understanding more about her and visa versa, the relationship would have been left at a cold Thai lady and some disrespectful tourists. Instead, by building that relationship through empathy and demonstration of understanding both groups’ true caring characters came through.
During your travels, if you get to know likeminded people, you will undoubtably find they have similar travel plans. After spending a week with a group of 60 people at the Elephant Nature Park, it was quite an eye-opener to see everyone disperse in all directions over Thailand in new-formed friendships. Some, like myself, travelled immediately with other volunteers and others met up further down the line in their journeys. All that was thanks to spending a week together building up friendships through menial volunteer activities.
That group of people with similar plans evolved into a tailor made travel information stream. Through social media, the network of volunteers created trails across the country sharing photos, securing accommodation ahead of others meeting up and changing plans to meet up again. You’re more likely to follow a recent photo or recommendation of a good friend than a generically written guidebook.
Sharing with Other Travellers
Sharing intimate accommodation where dorms aren’t available is always useful when you’re with people you trust. I feel better sharing with multiple people who I don’t know (like a dorm), rather than just one person I don’t. When you share with people you trust, you can be relaxed about leaving your valuables out in your room, which for a short while, feels like a much needed break from dorms.
Sharing doesn’t stop at rooms though. There are often “tours” sold per person to individual travellers – boat trips are a great examples,. Normally priced too expensive to organise for one person, but less expensive if you have more than a couple of people. If you know travellers well enough, you can club together and do your own for a better experience.
Leaning on Each Other
Everyone knows, that travelling isn’t without it bumps on the road. When you hit those bumps, you’ll want people to lean on – physically, emotional or financially. Bank cards not working, bad news, dodgy situations and injuries are just a handful of examples where a helping hand from a trusted traveller is much needed. I don’t advise dropping the idea of solo travel in fear of these scenarios, but you’re much more likely to find your feet again with others help and people go further to help others they know well.
How do you go about building relationships?
The way to go about building relationships is the same principles for rapport building in everyday life, just applied to the travel scenario. Some may seem obvious to though social butterflies, others just minor tweaks to behaviours.
The longer you stay in a place, the more opportunity there is to build relationships with locals and other travellers. I think back to my favourite experiences – training at a Kung Fu school, volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and the Thai islands. Time was the enabler for meeting great people and learning great things.
Don’t be afraid of introducing yourself to other backpackers as you travel. In addition to the obvious social areas in hostels, prime places to do this are bus, train and plane journeys, because there’s a higher likelihood of overlap in next steps.
When you’re meeting other travellers, make a habit of going beyond asking the “usual” intro questions. As a rule, if your conversation can be replaced by both of you writing down a bio to swap, it’s not going to go very far. Use statements, probe a little deeper and don’t be afraid to be open. Travellers generally are, so you can build up a lot mutual trust learning more about people’s thoughts and feelings on the road. Tell travellers about your plans and without being conversationally greedy, learn about theirs. Go beyond the guidebook as much as you can. You’ll be surprised how often there are overlaps and nuggets of tips to be exchanged.
If you got some time and you’re in that scenario of a group of anonymous people coming together, play the question game. Take turns asking a truth question. The person asking doesn’t have to answer it and the same question can’t be asked by other people again. The rules help push the boundaries. What might start as simple questions, is bound to open up and its a good way to keep the conversation balanced if there are some strong characters to deal with. It will be the most productive 30 mins you can get conversationally.
Use Facebook. Yes, it may raise an eyebrow to some, but in my opinion, it’s a great tool for travellers. If you weren’t aware, pictures get more priority in making people’s news feeds than just text – use them as much as you can. Check-ins, photos and opinionated status updates give your social circle a lot of useful information. Didn’t know there was a friend in the area? Spotted a picture of a “must have” location you want to visit you hadn’t heard of? Didn’t get a mutual friends details before you left the hostel early morning? Facebook add values in all three of these and more.
Make a habit of learning locals’ names. Who owns or runs the hostel you’re staying in? Who was the driver who brought you from the port? Who’s serving your food today? For hostel owners, they see so many people come through their doors that by giving your name you’ll differentiate yourself that little bit more. Giving feedback to hostel owners goes a long way. They always want to know what they’re doing well and not so well. If you’ve taken good photos of the hostel or trips you’ve booked with them, they’ll really appreciate sending them over. When it comes to advice, it’s likely to be deeper and better.