I happened upon a pickup game in Warsaw once, when I heard balls bouncing in a gymnasium I was passing. So I introduced myself to one of the guys, asked if I could get next, and hopped on. Language barriers didn't matter -- we got sweaty together and had a fun time. We went out for drinks after, and I got into a discussion with one of the men about the Polish word wolność, which means freedom.
"There is a phrase in our national anthem, 'Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła / Kiedy my żyjemy,'" he told me. "It means, 'As long as I am alive, Poland is still fighting.' Because wolność is a very important word to us."
The eagerness and sincerity in his eyes is something I'll never forget. Who knew I'd come to glimpse something so dear to him... because of basketball?
While you're doing that, you're not making eye contact with the real people around you. You're making yourself look less approachable. Your expression exudes less warmth, and more seriousness, distractedness and concentration. Read more >
You can update your friends - in person! - when you get back. You can call/email home before bed. But for now, be totally focused and engaged with the present.
Another wonderful thing about asking for directions is that the person you ask will often follow up with, "Oh, what are you doing tonight?" "Where are you staying?" And if you've kept yourself flexible, you might end up invited to a Children's Festival or a Half New Year's Celebration - or even just dinner in someone's home. (Again: knowing English opens a lot of doors. I've had people urge me to come with them to their homes, or join them for dinner at a nice restaurant, so I could practice English with their children.)
Want to have a real adventure? Ask a local!
"Where's the best place for dinner?"
"What do people here like to do on Saturdays?"
"Where is the best hiking trail?"
I did that once, and I ended up here:
5. Hitchhike. Only if you feel comfortable with it, obviously. And if you decide you feel comfortable with it, but then someone pulls over and you get a weird gut feeling, just tell the driver, "Thanks, but I changed my mind!" "Sorry - I thought you were someone else!"
Better to hurt someone's feelings a little than get murdered, right? (That's one of the top three pieces of advice I give women is, Don't be afraid to hurt someone's feelings or make a scene.)
But seriously. No one's going to murder you while you're hitchhiking. You're much more likely to be murdered by your sibling, best friend or significant other than by hitchhiking. You're much more likely to be raped by a friend or coworker or classmate than a stranger in a dark alley.
People who pick up hitchhikers tend to be either truckers who are super lonely, driving around alone all day, or cool people like yourself who like karma, travel and paying it forward. Either way, they'll have some awesome stories and recommendations for you. Read more >
6. Be willing to try anything. Enter a foot race. Surf. Jump in cold water. Swim in the dark. Get in a little trouble. Eat something that looks a little gross. Remember: Everything's Always Worth It.
Remember: the people you meet when you travel aren't the only ones with a unique background. You can learn just as much from them as they can from you - and you should both walk away from this with a fun fact or story to share.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there's a decent chance you'll keep running into the same travelers over and over. When I did the W-Trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, I had a small friend group by default: with the W-Trek, you can either go Glacier Grey to the Torres, or the Torres to Glacier Grey. So we'd all camp in the same places every night, whether or not we hiked together during the day.
When I was in Croatia, I ran into the same Australian gynecologist in three different cities. I ran into the same group of college guys on my first and last day of my trip. Long story short, it's a small world. Even if the language barrier keeps you from making friends with locals while you travel, you'll inevitably run into other travelers at hostels, campgrounds and other attractions. If you meet someone you like and it feels right, ask what their plans are. Maybe you're headed the same way, and it makes sense to spend the next day or three together.
(Honestly, I know more than a few married couples who met this way.)
Enjoy your trip - and if there's another awesome way to make friends while traveling that I forgot to mention, let me know in the comments!