My post-hurricane Sandy life in Brooklyn, NY reminded me how disasters always bring people together and strengthen communities. With streets flooded, trees fallen, kids home from school and our mighty public transportation system halted, we needed to support each other more than ever. The week after Sandy, Brooklynites carpooled just to sit in hours of traffic, squeezed family from power-outed neighborhoods into homes with power, and now, weeks later they are still showing up to volunteer aid.
Something I’ve become aware of about myself in the past few years is how much my happiness depends on my feeling a sense of community. I am constantly striving to create a balance in my life of feeling inner peace and independence when I’m alone and surrounding myself with a close-knit community of supportive, creative people.
Building community seems inherently easier to do when settled down in your hometown, but as I reflect on my recent travels I find that ironically, it was easier for me on the road. I traveled through three countries and dozens of cities, and I felt like a family with all the different people I met along the way. Because many of them were travelers, too, I now have friends all over the world.
Here’s some ways that I enhanced my life with community while backpacking long-term, and you can too:
Stay at least a week in each place
If you’re traveling with an open-ended return date, I recommend committing to each location for at least one, maybe two weeks. In most cases, a few days is not enough to establish a sense of community, but if you’re extroverted and outgoing, a short week is. If you feel a really good connection with the people you meet after a week, considering staying longer.
Mix with the locals
If you decide to stay in one place for a few weeks or months, push yourself to make friends with locals. Travelers will come and go, but the locals live there, so they make great community members. Don’t let language barriers discourage you.
Talk is overrated. Try communicating through your heart instead of your mouth.
Hang out in hostel/guesthouse common spaces
You can make a lot of friends with other travelers in the common spaces of hostels or guest houses. Be friendly and talk to everyone. Go exploring with your new friends and if you connect well, consider traveling on from there with them.
Using work-exchange resources like Wwoof, HelpX, or WorkAway ensures that you’ll be surrounded by people. Just make sure you ask ahead of time that there are other volunteers there before you show up, depending on the size of community you’re seeking. In Australia I exchanged work for food and accommodation at an Aboriginal cultural center and campsite in the outback. Upon arrival I was surprised to find that it was their slow season and there was only one other volunteer than I. That worked out fine for me because I enjoyed connecting with the locals there, but from then on I considered asking ahead about the community size.
Stay true to your interests
I’m passionate about yoga, meditation, and permaculture, so as I traveled I constantly sought people and experiences that would connect me back to those things. I Couchsurfed with people who shared those interests (yes, Couchsurfing.com is safe and awesome), who then led me to more people who shared those interests. I kept my eyes open for relevant events and went to them. I chose my destinations based on where I would meet like-minded people. Whether you’re into rock climbing, diving, or LARPing, you can do the same!
Keep your arms, mind and heart wide open
Wherever you go and whatever you do, you can attract community into your life by practicing openness. Become aware of your body language. Are your arms crossed over your chest? I try to keep mine open because it’s more inviting. Do you walk quickly, with your head down? Try slowing down and making eye contact with everyone you pass. Be just as aware of your thoughts. When I was traveling, I would often consciously think and say aloud:
“I want to make some new friends today.”
I swear, on the days I said it, it manifested more often than the days I didn’t.
Soften your heart and open it to all types of people. See potential friends in everyone you meet and greet them with love and respect.
I believe that if people focused more on building community, we’d solve a lot of the problems in our personal lives and in the world.
What do you think? How do you build community when you’re traveling or when you’re at home?