Why travel the world if you’re not going to talk to anyone? Open up to the world and learn. Here’s how.
I walked onto a bumboat in Singapore and was followed by a couple of young white European tourists. I sat down, they sat across from me, groups of Singaporeans and a couple mainland Chinese sat around us. Nothing was out of the ordinary.
I watched the Europeans. They were in their 20s, decked out in khakis, and sat right across from me, directly in my view. They were not looking back at me. In fact, they seemed to be intentionally diverting any semblance of eye contact. It wasn’t just me, they didn’t make eye contact with anyone. They didn’t say hello to anyone, didn’t nod, didn’t acknowledge the presence of a single other person. They sat there as though enclosed in a bubble, as though they were cerebral taking a private tour of Southeast Asia.
I watched the Europeans sit in front of me like little mice, with their little paws up by their little mouths, talking just to each other in hushed tones, nibbling on little crumbs. Their unfriendliness didn’t come off as rude, just insecure — as though they had no confidence in their conversational ability or were afraid that someone was going to inflict bodily harm upon them if they made a peep.
Still, nothing was out of the ordinary, and this is precisely what stuck in my craw. This is how young tourists travel all over the world. They tend to acknowledge nobody, they don’t talk to “strangers,” they ogle over old chunks of brick and mortar, animals, and trees, but have little interest in people. This doesn’t bother me at all — why should it? — but it is incomprehensible to me why anyone would want to travel like this.
Who would want to travel so cloistered? Who would want to travel to the other side of the globe just to ignore people? How could they sit in a boat packed full of people from the country they came to visit and have absolutely no inclination to speak with them?
I am not naturally a very social person. I’m actually pretty reclusive, my inclination is to ride in silence, daydreaming, not enduring the initial discomfort of talking to strangers. But my curiosity is far stronger, and it makes me open my mouth and say, “What’s up?” Travel is the occupation of the curious, it is the practice of people who will always go one step too far. Going to the other side of the planet for no other reason than to see what’s there is a pretty extreme act, but why make this effort if you’re not going to access the single most interesting attraction the world has to offer: other people.
Somewhere along the line most long term travelers tend to discover this, and many will also realize that there is really nothing stopping them from talking to anyone — ever. This is one of the few universally granted rights that humans enjoy on this planet. If you see someone doing, wearing, or saying something interesting, you can ask them about it. The only barriers to interacting with someone are those you create yourself. Once you understand this the wall falls and the world opens up wide.
Loquaciousness is a skill that some people are just born with, but for most it’s a learned trait — and learning it well takes practice, effort, and some very big balls. As far as travel goes, practicing this skill isn’t really a choice: if you want to access this world any deeper than the outer crust of tourism you need to talk to people, ask questions, and get taken in to the inside — down into the depths where the learning is.