How to meet people and learn about places when traveling.
MELAKA, Malaysia- The worst part of traveling is the travel. This statement is often spoken as a jest among long-term travelers, but deep down we know that it’s … kind of true.
The going between places, the finding of accommodation, the vetting of restaurants becomes a rote chore after a decade or so on the road. There is nothing glamorous about booking a bus ticket.
It’s my job to know about places. What this really means is that it’s my job to know about people.
At some point in your travels places become irrelevant — sites, attractions, and tours become a repetitive bore — and you just lose interest in any of that stuff outline in the “to-do” section of tourist guides and brochures. You realize that travel is about people, and wherever you are it doesn’t really matter.
I don’t know anyone who had done more than few years of travel without long stops. Most long-term travelers develop global circuits, where they visit the same places year after year. Understanding and experiencing eventually trumps country count and miles traveled. The real substance of travel isn’t found in physical motion but in the depth of stories — in relationships, in serendipity, in learning about a place and, for a brief moment in time, becoming a part of it.
When I enter a place for the first time I head straight to the bars. Like anybody, I enjoy a cold beer on a hot day, but other than that I don’t have much of a romance with alcohol. Drinking, for me, is a tool.
To separate what I do from the desk jockeys I need the voice of the laobaixing — the common people. So I hit the streets and head for the first dive bar I can find.
It’s my job to know about places. What this really means is that it’s my job to know about people. I write about economics and culture, development and transitions. On VJ, I write about travel and life, in general. I report from the ground — I visit the places I write about and present my takes from direct experience with the subject matter.
To do this I need to meet people. I need to develop dragnets of informants and connections who will feed me information and tell me what’s going on. I need acquaintances who are willing to let me follow them around for a while machine-gunning an endless amount of stupid questions.
But how do I get to know these people?
One way is the official route: cold calls and requests to meet up. (I have a strategy for this but it will be more suited for a new blog that I’m starting rather than VJ.)
But I need more than the official view of a place, topic, or issue. I could get this from a desk in NYC. To separate what I do from the desk jockeys I need the voice of the laobaixing — the common people.
So I hit the streets and head for the first dive bar I can find. I walk inside, shake hands with the bartender, introduce myself and lay my cards out on the table:
This is who I am, this is what I do, this is what I’m looking for.
“I’m Wade. I’m a writer and film maker. I contribute content to these publications.”
I then sit back, drink, and talk to everybody and anybody. The word spreads, I build rapport, and info and contacts often begin trickling through.
“I know a guy that you should talk to.”
“Have you ever been to [place name]?”
“You should do a story about …”
The idea is to find out about people, places, and stories that I would never know about otherwise.
How this works in practice: I rolled into Melaka. I don’t know anybody. I’ve never been there before. I go for a walk around town, sit at a river-side cafe bar, talk with the cook, order a beer, lean back, take out my phone, search for “dive bar / rock and roll bar, Melaka.”
Boom, there it is: Bernie’s.
I go to Bernie’s, the place is cool, I make friends with the bartender. I hang out in is bar night after night, meeting people and becoming a sort of transcendent regular. I ask questions about the city and what people think of this or that. They teach me. I stay until the bar closes at one or two am and then go for rides around the city with the bartender. He shows shows me things and introduces me to people. We have fun.
On one of those nights he drove me to Portuguese Settlement and told me the back story of the place and a little about one of his friends who owns a bar there.
It was exactly what I was looking for.
The next day I went back there, met his friend and he introduced me to the town and became the main character in one of the best stories I’ve done yet.
I will write more about my Melaka Gateway project soon. For now, I will just say that it was two weeks of intense filming and should produce a nice little documentary. However, this entire project wouldn’t have happened without staying out late night partying in a rock and roll bar.
However, this manner of content collection takes a toll. It’s night after night of drinking, talking, and random crazy shit. There is no regular sleep schedule — night and day blend into one — and it’s easy to lose sense of time and place. It’s that foggy vertigo where your grasp on reality is stretched and you become the character of your story. It’s the place that you need to get in to write … but, man, sometimes you wonder if your tether is still connected …
Some travelers lose that tether and where they end up is a place you don’t want to follow.