Long-term travel can be lonely.
It took me 6 months to start feeling homesick on my most recent (and longest) travel stint. But when it hit me, it hit me HARD.
Despite my gratitude for all of the incredible experiences, I sometimes struggled with the feeling that something was missing.
The homesickness started when I accepted a summer job facilitating service and cultural immersion trips for high schoolers. The work was fulfilling and I enjoyed my co-leaders and students. Still, falling asleep at night, I missed the feeling of being around people that know me intimately and “get” me.
I soon recognized that my greatest challenge as a traveler wouldn’t be braving the roads. Nor would it be learning how to order vegetarian food in 9 languages. It wouldn’t even be the logistics of planning, the meticulous budgeting, or the simplicity of living in a tent.
My greatest challenge as a traveler would be satisfying my need to belong and contribute to something. As a white girl wandering around Asia, I stuck out like a sore thumb. The fact that I didn’t belong was glaringly apparent by the stares that seemed to follow me everywhere.
So, I went out in search of not just friends, but communities of people with whom I could relate.
The following are my Tayler-tested methods for creating community while traveling:
Meeting people is great but, inevitably, travelers will leave for their next destination within a few days. As a result, I found myself having the same conversations over and over again with new people each time. That can be exhausting.
When I remained in one place for weeks or months at a time, I could take the time to discover and contribute to the communities in those places.
At Green Climber’s Home in Thakek, Laos, we long-termers were able to get to know and support each other in climbing and life, and even went on to meet up in other parts of the world. Although we’re now scattered around the globe, I will always consider these friends to be a part of my Green Climber’s Home community because of the time, space, and interests we shared.
My yoga teacher training in India was a one-month intensive program. When you spend 12 hours a day for a month with the same people, it’s hard NOT to feel like a community as you bond over struggling and growing together.
Spending more time in a place allows us to more deeply connect with people and foster that sense of community.
Travel with purpose
Traveling with a purpose or goal can open doors to new communities. The times that I spent learning, creating, or serving are some of my most rich and fulfilling travel experiences.
I originally visited Conscious Impact NGO in Nepal to serve Takure, one of the villages most devastated by the 2015 earthquakes. Yet, I found the volunteer community so fulfilling it keeps me coming back.
Here’s the thing: At Conscious Impact, volunteers come and go, yet I have found community each time I’ve visited. Although the people are always changing, the sense of community thrives because, as long as there is something that connects people to each other, communities can be dynamic.
No matter who is there, the overarching goals remain: to serve fellow volunteers through shared chores and meal rotations, plus serve the community of Takure through service projects. This sense of shared purpose keeps the feeling of community alive even as members are ever-changing.
The more I attended local events, especially when I played a role in making them happen, the more I felt connected to the people and space.
In Yangshuo, China, I shared an apartment with other expat climbers. My partner Chris and I were so excited to have a kitchen that we immediately invited everyone we knew over for food and a climbing movie. Okay, maybe we only knew 6 people including our 3 roommates, but when each of those people invited friends it turned out to be a nice gathering. After this, we continued to create opportunities to have people over or otherwise attend events with local climbers and tap into Yangshuo’s climbing community.
Of course, most of the time, I didn’t have access to my own apartment. The lack of space can make hosting events a creative challenge for the traveler. An event could be hosted at a hostel, beach, or even a local bar. While traveling in Nepal, my friend Dillon resourcefully created opportunities to DJ, from playing at a city hostel party to setting up his equipment at our rural volunteer camp, inviting all the volunteers to come out and dance. What better way to bring people together than by sharing music?
At Green Climber’s Home, motivated staff and guests would work together to host events to strengthen our community, from offering workout and yoga classes, to planning epic parties, to holding our own “Olympic games” including extreme sports such as beer crate stacking. From these experiences, I found that the most surefire way to bring people together is to become the person that takes charge and makes things happen.
Get off the phone
I noticed that places with the deepest sense of community and human connection were also the places without internet. Since nobody could retreat to their phones, we all had to talk to each other. Imagine that.
Sometimes, I turned to social media to see what’s going on back home when I felt lonely. Removing myself from the present moment and closing off into the black hole of internetland was a detriment to connecting with people immediately around me.
When I sat with a screen in front of my face, I repelled interactions by seeming busy and uninterested. My inner shy girl was comfortable with this lack of initiative, but my higher self knew that the result of those actions was just more isolation.
Chris, on the other hand, was excited to meet every new person possible and has always been a great conversator. His willingness to engage and be present encouraged me to do more of that, too, and it’s how we met some of the most influential people on our travels. Watching him make friends reminded me why it’s important to go out of my comfort zone.
Out of everyone to start a conversation with, travelers are some of the most approachable and open to meeting new people. This makes traveling a prime opportunity for people like me to get off the phone, take chances and build those conversation starter skills.
I used to identify my best friends and family as my community. The people that have been there for me through my best and worst times.
Although they’re still my most close-knit community, I’ve come to learn that friends and family is only one kind of community. These people weren’t around for most of my travels, so I had to expand my concept of communities. I came to discover that I can find them anywhere.
A community can be the people immediately around me—those staying at the same hostel or city as me. Or it can be anyone that I am working towards a goal with—delivering bricks to rebuild homes, or yoga teacher training. It can even be people with whom I share a common characteristic or interest. No matter where I am in the globe, I can recognize these people as part of my communities—such as expats, travelers, adventurers, yogis, climbers, etc.
When I returned to Portland 2 months ago, I found that the community I’d missed so much had been going through growth and changes of its own. Just as the communities I’d made abroad were ever-changing, my own community of friends had expanded and didn’t take the same shape it had before. My friends had grown in their own ways since I’d been away and, at first, I found myself wondering how I still fit in.
But if there’s anything that travel taught me, it’s that change is the only constant, and that I am capable of adapting. I’m feeling more open than ever to the possibilities of finding my own ways to fit into communities here in Portland, from reacquainting myself with my old communities, to expanding to new ones.
Finally, I understand that community is a mindset. If I value bringing people together who share a common interest, location, characteristic, or goal, I can go out of my way to build or take part in fostering that dynamic wherever I am, home or abroad.
5 thoughts on “Cultivating Connections While Traveling: My Quest for Community Abroad”
I can so relate to these feelings! There is something so special about meeting people abroad and forming instant lifelong connections with new friends, but it can also be hard to be away from the people who have known you for years and just “get” you.
I think “traveling slow” is one of my favourite ways to combat this – to stay in one place for a while, to work in a new city, and to form actual communities with people you will see for more than a few days!
I’m so proud of you for taking this risk and putting yourself out there – you’ve found some really creative ways to build community and combat the feelings of homesickness!
Thanks, love! Yes, I truly think slow travel is a completely different experience from what most people picture when they think of travel, and I feel privileged to have been able to do that in so many places (and that we got to do both together). Another thing I didn’t add in this article is staying in touch with communities back home! I felt so connected to you even when we were far away thanks to our emails. 🙂
Tayler! I love reading about this. I myself have been traveling (working through workaway) for 3 months (about to go home), but I totally relate to this. Also I am glad you started a blog- you have interesting thoughts I am glad to read about !
Thank you Annie! I’m so proud of you and all that you do. You are an amazing, ambitious person and I feel honored to have you as part of my Rustic fam. I see you have a blog for your travels too – looking forward to checking it out!
Taylor, you are a talented writer. I think you have some good perspectives on this blog. You should keep honing your craft, maybe you should set a personal goal of one article a month? This will help to grow engagement here. Regardless, congratulations with this. You are a very interesting person it’s been so amazing to Know you and see the person you have become. In giving kudos here, I don’t really want to distract from what you’ve accomplished. So know there are probably lots of folks like me who you inspire and who are so proud of you who may be just in your periphery. I wish I had people like that. Looking forward to your next adventure!