I stood on a sidewalk in Antigua, Guatemala on my first solo trip in 2012, and I pretended to look at something in a store window while I argued with myself about whether I would be brave.
I so very much wanted to walk back to the man I had just passed—crouched on the sidewalk, quietly and patiently painting beautiful scenes from all over Guatemala. I wanted to ask him whether I could take his portrait.
But I kept walking.
It’s not like I hadn’t walked up to strangers while traveling before.
I had arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica in August of 2004 after a somewhat panicky few weeks, worrying that I would be the only student in our study abroad program who wasn’t totally 100% fluent in Spanish. (It was that trip to Sam’s Club that did me in—staring at warehouse shelves full of laundry detergent and cereal and realizing that soon all this would be in Spanish and what if I couldn’t wash my clothes or figure out how to buy food?!)
When I started hearing about our assignments for the semester—to approach people on the streets and ask them about current events, race relations, immigration, and other lighthearted topics—I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
Clearly they had mistaken me for a more capable Spanish speaker.
It was terrifying for this introvert to get out there and approach strangers. But these questions sparked meaningful conversations and forced me to dig below the surface of my assumptions.
I sat outside in the sweltering heat during my week in Nicaragua, asking my host family what things were like during the Sandinista-Contra conflict in the 80s.
I faced the uncomfortable question of how much money I make in the United States, as I raked coffee beans with Aniseto in the Guatemalan sun.
I danced salsa on a rooftop in Cuba during a church get together in my host community, and I talked with Pastor David about all the good and bad of his government (and ours).
I saw that the ugliness of racism wasn’t confined to the United States.
And while I did a lot of reading about all of these topics, it was through people that I felt their impact. One by one, these conversations transformed the way I travel.
I came to believe that experiencing another culture isn’t just about seeing new landscapes or tasting exotic foods–culture itself lives in the people who shape it and are continually shaped by it.
And by making ourselves a bit uncomfortable, by putting ourselves out there to get to know people different from ourselves, we have the chance to peel back some of those layers of culture. We get to peer into what it means to be from Costa Rica, or to call yourself a Mainer, or to waive a Cuban flag.
Back on that cobblestone street in Antigua, I finally convinced myself to turn around and walk towards this stranger.
I stopped and perused his artwork and chatted with him for a minute or two. Miguel Angel, he said his name was. We chatted for a few minutes. He told me he lived nearby and a little about his family, and I told him about the project I was working on. I purchased some note cards, and then I finally worked up the courage to tell him I was a photographer…and…would it be okay if I took his photograph?
He obliged, and I nervously snapped a few frames, rushing myself so as not to take up too much of his time. He smiled shyly, probably wondering why this crazy girl wanted to take his photo, but he was kind enough to say yes.
Throughout my week’s stay in Antigua, I ran into Miguel Angel several other times, and we chatted each time for a few minutes. I asked him how business was going, and he asked me about how my project was going. I looked for him when I returned the following year–I had photographs to give him–but I didn’t find him. But I know I’ll be back, and I’ll walk down the street with the arch and look for my friend once again.
Friend, I hope you see that having meaningful conversations with people as you travel (and while at home) is totally worth pushing past the fear. I’m right here with you, totally in process myself and doing my best to share inspiration to get out there and engage.
Make sure you grab the 10 Conversations Starters download below to help you connect with locals in a meaningful way!
Can you relate to these fears? Have you ever missed an opportunity to connect, or had an amazing opportunity because you chose to engage? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!