How to Meet Locals When Traveling

“Where are you from?” he called out.

We’ve been dodging “touts” all week in Colombo, Sri Lanka, so I ignored him. But this time, my husband responded, “Australia.”

Instead of a pushy sales pitch on an overpriced tour, he and my husband began debating the strengths and weaknesses of both countries’ cricket teams. Because, of course.

After the cricket talk died down, we talked with him about so many other things. He pointed out the new construction around town and told us it was mainly luxury hotels for foreign tourists. He warned us to watch out for touts and scammers who target tourists.

We asked about the nearby Hindu temple. He spoke to the workers inside the temple and translated that they were setting up for a ceremony for married women who have thus far been unable to have children. We snapped a few pictures of the setup with lotus flowers, while he talked about other temples nearby. There are four main religions in Sri Lanka, and they work hard to coexist, even on the same block sometimes.

And finally he told us about the 2004 tsunami. Just over a decade ago, this disaster killed over 30,000 Sri Lankans, or 0.15% of their population. It’s a staggering number. He described the sound the tsunami made before it hit. The sound was everywhere, and those in the city couldn’t tell what direction it was coming from. Those by the shoreline saw just dry land where the ocean used to be. Then suddenly, a wall of water higher than the Hindu temple crashed down on them.

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Eventually, we had to part ways with our new Sri Lankan friend, but he left a lasting impression. Making a human connection is a powerful part of travel. I’m half way around the world, but talking with him makes it feel like I’m just a neighborhood away.

Sometimes it’s difficult to find locals to talk with as you travel, but here are a few ways we’re trying to make it happen:

  • Venture Away from Tourist Areas: The pushy salesmen and scammers set up near train stations and tourist areas, so we are trying to explore parts of town that feel local. Where do locals shop or eat or work? The reason my husband responded to our new friend in Colombo was because we were in a local neighborhood, far away from touristy touts.
  • Try Homestays: Instead of staying in a hostel or hotel, we’re staying in a family’s home in Kandy, Sri Lanka. We have our own private space, but we’re also able to talk with the husband and wife who live here (and their 12-year-old son!).
  • Chat Up Your Tuk Tuk or Taxi Driver: This has been hit-or-miss, because sometimes they will push overpriced tours. But your driver is a local too. Ask about things in town. Or if you’re like my husband, ask about their cricket team.

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