"I did 10 countries in 20 days! Is it even worth it to visit Laos? We gotta do Phuket, then Koh Phi Phi and of course if you go to Cambodia you have to do Angkor Wat. Halong Bay is on my bucket list..."
These are the kinds of conversations I sometimes found myself in when I was hanging out with Western travelers during my most recent trip to Thailand, and I realized they were grating on me and I got curious as to why I felt so irritated by them. Eventually it hit me: there was so much emphasis on crossing locations off of lists, and conquering language such as "doing a country" (as opposed to visiting a location). While I enjoy going to new famous locations as well, I realized that what I really enjoyed from travel was the human connections I made, and the rewarding ones were harder to make when crossing off lists and tight schedules were involved.
This brought me to define what it was that I craved: connection based travel. So here is my made up definition:
Connection-based travel: making travel choices around connecting with people or oneself as opposed to bucket-list or border crossing based travel.
Strategies for Connection-Based Travel
1. Plan opportunities to connect with people outside your culture and comfort zone through online groups.
One of my favorites is the Couchsurfing website, which offers many opportunities to connect outside of hosting or being hosted by a stranger. Just to be clear: you don't need to host a stranger or sleep in a stranger's home to participate in the Couchsurfing community. While I wholeheartedly recommend hosting Couchsurfers as a way to bring companionship into your life and expand your comfort zone with connecting with people through platonic intimacy (or not so platonic intimacy aka crotchsurfing), there are many other ways to connect:
Most major cities have sporadic Couchsurfing events where expats, locals and travelers go to socialize. Occasionally travelers are hoping for a host, but it's common for attendees to be primarily focused on making multi-cultural connections. Some are more officially organized by a Couchsurfing ambassador, and some are created by users (like you) around activities they want to share with others.
pro-tip: Anyone can create a Couchsurfing event! You can make an event about getting some company for practicing Spanish over a coffee right now!
Once you have the Couchsurfing app on your phone you can poke around until you find the hangouts app. It's a location-based app that functions like the well-known dating app, Tinder, which is probably why some people treat it like Tinder. Although I pass no judgements on having casual sex (which I call, non linear relationship-oriented sex), I find this frustrating, because there are already apps for casual sex and Couchsurfing should be a place where you can connect through culture and travel, and then maybe see if there is a romantic spark, but I must caution you that some people do treat it like a pickup site.
pro-tip: Once you make a "hangout" it expires within three hours. If someone messages you, add them as a Couchsurfing friend or exchange contact info because otherwise the "hangout room" disappears and then it is hard to locate their profile later.
In some smaller, off the beaten path destinations, locals turn to Facebook groups for sharing important information and locating services that are hard to find in smaller communities. One Facebook group I joined was the Incline Village Nevada Facebook group. Incline Village is a small town on Lake Tahoe that is a popular ski and lakeside summer resort. My family has a home there, and I like to learn about labor issues involving the ski instructors, as well as techniques for how to safely drive in snow. In the Conscious Koh Phagnan Facebook group, I made a post requesting suggestions for accommodations in the remote cove, Haad Yuan and also invited people to say hi if they were reading Charles Eisenstein, because I knew the area has a large expat hippy community. This prompted a long term traveller to reach out to me to bond over our admiration of Eisenstein! With a little bit of intention Facebook groups can be both practical and personally rewarding avenues for connection in places you visit.
2. Create & Set Your Boundaries
Allowing myself to stay in the homes of my Thai friends was rewarding, and sometimes revealed uncomfortable situations. In truth, I thoroughly enjoyed almost all of it, but as in local relationships, getting close to people pushes you to see more of them. While my heart and soul are very open, I like my eyes and ears to be shut down while I am sleeping, and this can be challenging when you are open to adventurous housing. Since I know I am a sensitive sleeper, I do a few things to help me be a flexible guest:
Prep Your Packing List
- block noise with ear plugs and White Noise apps
- eye mask
- portable speakers (you never know when you'll want to make an outing more festive & share your music)
- photos of special people and places organized into folder on my phone (great for communicating when verbal language is strained)
- door jam to put under the inside of your closed door to prevent anyone from opening it from the outside (I've never actually felt compelled to do this, but having this strategy allow me to say yes to staying with friends of friends without worry)
Know Your Boundaries
This one continues to challenge me, and I've grown so much with it though travel. I was surprised that I got into a few situations with local friends in Thailand where people got so drunk that they lost control of themselves. I was taken by surprise in these situations, and the more I took a few moments before going out to connect to my intentions, the easier it was for me to stay grounded. The first incident I had was when my friend's group of friends got pretty drunk, and I ended up as a passenger in a car of someone who had been drinking and driving. We eventually came back to my friend's apartment and they continued to party, while I bowed out to catch some sleep on the couch with my make up and clothes still on. When I woke up groggy and uncomfortable the next day on the couch, I smiled and though Well this is Couchsurfing! I get to see the way people REALLY act with their friends, and I'm also waking up in my clothes and make up.
3. Now that you know your boundaries, expand them!
Getting unstuck from your daily routine at home can be a herculean task, which is why many of us don't do it until we are forced to by crisis. But it doesn't have to be this way. Connection-based travel is a beautiful way for you to disrupt your habits and challenge yourself to expand your comfort zone.
On an extremely practical note, traveling can be an easy gateway to habit interruption, as detailed by Charles Duhigg in his popular book, The Power of Habit. Maybe your habits are assuming people you find attractive won't want to talk to you or passing up opportunities because you don't have companions to attend them with you. Consciously interrupting these patterns in a new environment is not only easier, but it might make more sense. So many of our social anxieties are tied to fear of rejection by people we might encounter in the future, and travel provides us an environment in which we are free of people already connected to our home lives. So pick a bad habit, and get ready to drop it while you are away!
Lean Into Conversations About Uncomfortable Topics
When I first moved to Sisaket, Thailand in 2013, I had a feminist, anti-colonial worldview that did not include the possibility that older White men and younger Asian women could have enriching, loving, genuine relationships. To be honest, I encountered quite a few such couples, particularly in the Issan region of Thailand, where you would see these couples sitting awkwardly at tables barely communicating in their strained English. Yet, as I built more rapport with Thai women in such relationships, they shared more about their relationships, and I felt comfortable enough to ask more questions.
One Thai friend introduced me to her American boyfriend 40 years her senior, who was what I can only describe as a magnanimous, caring, adventurous perverted older man. At first I was shocked that her boyfriend was so much older, but as I got to know him and heard him encouraging her to negotiate for a better position at work, and care for her daughter from a previous marriage, I came to see that he really loved and respected her.
Another Thai friend updated me about how her wealthy middle eastern boyfriend/part-time lover from four years ago, was the one who financially backed a business she had earlier. He paid for her dad's operation, visited her in Thailand a few times a year, was now married and still wanted to give her money to open another local store, but she was unsure about whether or not to accept the money.
These were ambitious, smart, women who saw opportunities for their professional, cultural, and sometimes financial growth through dating foreign men. Building enough trust with them to better understand their relationships challenged some of the egalitarian partnership ideals many Americans cherish.
I've known more than a few awkward, lonely American men who have repeatedly failed at the dating game and lack the larger family infrastructure to provide opportunities for romantic introductions or even ongoing companionship. The exchange of being a romantic companion with the expectation or hope that you will enjoy a financial benefit that is otherwise inaccessible seems like a beneficial exchange for both parties.
In reflecting on my recent trips, I know I could have travelled to more new places if I hadn't centered them around having strong connections with people, but those connections moved my mind to new places I could have never found by myself.