Six ways to meet people when you are traveling, with examples from Mexico
-- by Rosana Hart
Guidebooks don't discuss the single biggest thing that will make your trip a memorable success… meeting people! The joy of connecting, even when it is brief, can make all the difference in how you feel.
1. Express appreciation
It has to be genuine, but that usually isn't hard - even a happy comment on the weather will get you started.
The first time I noticed the power of appreciation on a recent Mexican trip was when I went up to the entry desk at El Tajín, the great ruins in the state of Veracruz. It was our second day there, and two men were working at the desk. One of them recognized me from the day before. I told them, in my far-from-perfect Spanish, that I had never seen museum employees who were so interested in their work. That got their attention, as people who go the extra mile get taken for granted all too often. They told me that they were Totonacs, descendants of the people who had created the magnificent ruins. They were so deeply connected with the history that my whole visit there took on a deeper meaning. We talked quite a while longer, and it was one of the most satisfying conversations of the whole trip.
After that, I made a point of finding times to express appreciation. (Actually, looking for things to appreciate is a longtime habit of mine, especially when I am a bit down and want to raise my spirits, but expressing it is a different matter.) One time, my husband Kelly and I stopped in a bakery in Xalapa to get some fresh bread and pastries. The bright-eyed elderly man running the place seemed interesting, so I said simply, "We like your city." He grinned and, tongue in cheek, announced himself the founder of Xalapa. We had a nice, brief conversation.
One last example: when we were at a waterfall near the small town of Xico, I was just watching people while Kelly had gone off someplace. For about five minutes, I watched a man playing with a young dog. It made me miss my dogs. After the fellow sat down, I went over and told him how much I enjoyed watching him and the dog. Again, this led to one of the most delightful encounters of the trip.
2. Ask questions
People generally love it when you are interested in something that they can tell you about. When we arrived in Bernal, having only read a brief, disparaging remark about energies there in our guidebook, I wanted to find out more about them. When I noticed a rock shop, I knew that would be the place to ask - leading to a friendship with Ana and Juvenal the owners of the shop. I continued to ask around town, and once received quite a long lecture on ecology from a shopkeeper!
Asking for help is a variation on this theme. When we were looking for a hotel in Xalapa that had space for our motorhome, we went from one hotel to another. Usually, the people were very kind in suggesting other places we could try. And eventually, much later that day, asking led us to a delightful spot in the small town of Xico nearby.
Often, if you ask for directions in Mexico, people will take you part way, or even all the way. One thing to know about asking directions is that the Mexican desire to be of assistance sometimes means they will give you inaccurate directions. When we were in Ciudad Victoria, our friend John drove Kelly across the city to find a dentist whose address they had written down. When they returned hours later, they were shaking their heads at how many helpful people had mis-directed them!
These two methods - expressing appreciation and asking questions - are probably the main ones. Do them alone and you'll have a lot of good connections!
Mexicans make more eye contact with strangers than we do. Sometimes just a passing smile with someone is a very satisfying encounter. I remember: a smile I exchanged with a woman in a grocery store as I removed a large stuffed animal that a child had placed in my cart... a baby who kept watching me and grinning... the deeper sense of connection that I shared through a smile with a woman who was pushing an old man in a wheelchair at El Chorrito, a pilgrimage center.
4. Help someone
I learned this one from Carl Franz in the marvelous book The People's Guide to Mexico. He would take on farm work or other activities, thereby learning new skills and making new friends.
My attempts were more modest. When we stopped for gas one day, there were the usual teenage boys who cleaned our windshield with their rags for a small tip. One of them asked how to count in English. He already knew a little, so we went over the numbers from one to twenty while the gas pumped. When it was time to go, his buddy asked how to say adios in English so I told him and we drove away with a cheerful chorus of "Goo-buy!" ringing in our ears. I especially enjoyed this encounter because the kids looked like tough guys when we drove in.
5. Buy something
This makes a natural opening for asking a question or expressing appreciation. As we bought a kilo of peanuts from a market vendor, I asked how things were in Mexico now. He had strong opinions on the subject, and it was interesting to hear his views on how the politicians are stealing from the people.
6. Learn something of the language and customs
The more of a language you know, the more you can converse - that's a no-brainer. But I think people often don't realize that when you know nothing of a language to start with, every word you learn can make a big difference. If you know the numbers, the greetings, and some basic questions, you are in much better shape than if you don't. Also, a number of times, Mexicans who spoke English, whether a little or a lot, enjoyed using their English with us.
Rosana Hart has traveled to Mexico many times. Her website, www.mexico-with-heart.com, contains the full text of a book she wrote about traveling in Mexico, as well as information and travel tips on a variety of Mexican cities popular with tourists.