My dad is the kind of person who will start a conversation with anyone. He is socially fearless. He doesn’t initiate conversation for a particularly reason or means. He genuinely loves conversation and meeting people. Every person he sits next to on an airplane is a friend come landing. If Dad disappears on a family outing it’s probably because he’s deep in dialogue with someone he found along the way.
I wasn’t born this way. Not even remotely so. When we’d travel as a family, my dad would point out all the kids I could play with. I’d usually give him a look like I’d just smelled old fish and go back to reading my book. I liked to be by myself or with people I knew well. Shooting the breeze with a stranger was on par with going to the dentist or deep cleaning the bathroom.
Engaging with travelers while backpacking is a standard practice. So many travelers are either alone or with a partner they’re a little sick of and are dying for a fun couple days with new buddies. When I first started hosteling I was a little taken aback by the number of people who invited me on a tour or to dinner. I loved this! I didn’t have to navigate the awkward channels of starting the conversation. Eventually, I even worked my way up to being the inviter.
I didn’t truly believe strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet, until I met Alex. We met on an overnight bus from Krabi to Bangkok, in Thailand. We sat next to each other during the ride and from overhearing him talk to the attendant I’d gathered that he spoke English. I fully intended to ignore him for the 12-or-so hour ride, but the traveler in me kept poking at me and telling me to say “Hi.”
I made one comment about boarding the wrong bus. This turned into hours and hours of conversation. Not the forced, generic conversation I hated, but conversation about our travels, families and interests. Mostly, we laughed at each other’s awkward mishaps on the road. I felt like I was on a bus ride with a good friend – way more fun than 12 hours with my own thoughts.
After the bus ride and a day in Bangkok, Alex and I went our separate ways and have kept in sporadic touch since then. The moment I realized this stranger was a friend changed my perspective on meeting new people completely. I no longer interact with new people out of obligation. I strike up a conversation with a new face because my new friends await.