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Traveling Chronicler’s Toolkit: The Bar

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.

Filed under: Drink Drank Drunk, Journalism, Perpetual Travel, Travel Writing

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3527 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support Wade Shepard’s writing on this blog (please help):

Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

10 comments… add one

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  • julie May 7, 2019, 7:50 am

    It takes a special kind of human to do what you’re doing. You have a window of opportunity physically for this. I think you will know when to pull back on the reins. Your family will call you back as well and I’m sure you’ll listen. But, you love diving all the way in and its why your stuff is so good. You get a view most will never see and you have the ability to communicate it back out. Grateful for all I’ve learned from your blog and vids.

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    • Wade Shepard May 7, 2019, 11:17 am

      Hello Julie,

      That’s a really nice thing to say. Very much appreciated. Thank you for reading and contributing engaging questions and sharing your experiences — this really makes the site that much better!

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  • James May 7, 2019, 10:20 am

    The very word travel derives from travail, which can be defined as “painful or laborious effort”. Back in the day when travelling wasn’t a leisure activity it was an arduous endeavour. I like to remind myself that when I’m in the midst of a long trip with multiple forms of transport.

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    • Wade Shepard May 7, 2019, 11:29 am

      Yes, you said it here. While I do appreciate the ease of travel today — it saves tons of time and I can dig in to what I really want to do faster — it also makes it kind of boring. Sure, watching passing scenery is nice and you can always talk to people anywhere. But travel is becoming kind of a couch potato activity. You book everything on your phone, 85% of the time everything works. I don’t want to go as far as to say that I miss the days when travel required real skill but it was sometimes kind of fun not knowing where on the map you were or where you’re actually going. Then again, as I’m sure you’ve experience, once you travel long enough you get kind of good at it and are able to simplify everything to the point that your basic methodology is the same in Japan as it is in Kazakhstan. I think we kind of always made travel more difficult that what it really is. If you want to go east, stand on that side of the road; if you want to go west, stand on the other side. That said, I believe guidebooks actually made things more complicated, as we were trying to essentially replicate someone else’s travels … and they were very often outdated and incorrect, which threw a certain amount of entropy into the process.

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  • Rob May 7, 2019, 11:03 am

    We’re all different, sometimes I forget that when I see someone struggling with something that seems obvious to me.

    I could never do what you do. For me, making friends like that is hard, it’s never ‘that natural’ and I grew up moving.
    I went to 3 different schools for one grade and I once spent 3 years at a single school.

    It’s neat to see you do it on paper!

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    • Wade Shepard May 7, 2019, 11:37 am

      That’s interesting. It seems as if traveling kids kind of have a tendency to abscond into themselves a little — or at least to get comfortable / confident relying on themselves for intellectual stimulation rather than on others. It’s a different way of adapting to the world. I’ve seen it with Petra. Rivka is growing up a little differently. I wish I could compare and contrast them but I can’t, as they are fundamentally very, very different from each other.

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  • Trav May 9, 2019, 9:09 am

    That’s why the bar exists in the first place. They’re not places to drink they’re places to meet people and talk.

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    • Wade Shepard May 9, 2019, 9:09 am

      That’s true.

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  • Georgiy Romanov May 15, 2019, 11:57 pm

    Speaking with people is what I lost in my journey through the Crimea. For two weeks the one thing I did was pedaled on a bicycle. I was tired. Tired of the road, bike, travel. However, to appreciate the value of meeting people you need get another experience. All my cool stories was from the bars anyway.

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    • Wade Shepard May 16, 2019, 10:38 am

      I agree completely. I used to travel by bicycle often, expecting it to be a good way to meet people off the grid. However, it was the absolute worst form of transportation that I’ve found for this. It is extremely difficult to meet people when traveling by bike — the very nature of it removes you from the normal stream of society and puts you far on the outside. It also makes you sweaty and dirty, which further inhibits your ability to easily enter into social situations. On top of that is that, even though it’s difficult and dangerous, bicycle travelers no longer get any travel cred because everybody is doing it — it’s normal. There are no “extreme” stories there anymore. So it’s not even like you’re doing something that people find interesting.

      When you travel by public transport you are in the belly of the society — riding with the people, being put in situations where you can talk to people, make connections, and find yourself in odd situations. Even if you do this with a bike, you still have this hunk of metal to haul around with you everywhere, which puts a damper on potential serendipitous experiences.

      Bicycle travel is only good if you want to be by yourself. Go to the bar instead!

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