One of the questions I was constantly asked before I studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa was about how I would meet people during my travels. I’d spent so much energy actually preparing and fundraising to get to my destination, that I didn’t even consider what I wanted to do in South Africa besides the cheesy tourist activities. I would be in a new place for three months, and I knew climbing Table Mountain and Long Street wouldn’t satisfy my insatiable desire for adventure. I wanted to get to know more people, and through trial and error, here’s how I did it.
1. Talk to people.
This sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how hard this is for some people. So many times students travel abroad and remain with American cohorts, and they ultimately have an American tourist experience in their host country.
Just about anywhere you go, you will find people willing to hold a conversation. Even if they don’t, it’s okay, you can just continue engaging in conversations with others. Locals are more aware of the happenings in their area and they can always give you the “insider” scoop on where to go and where not to go. They can also give you pointers on hidden gems that may not be on the larger public’s radar. From simply talking with people, I found myself in all types of environments and venues that I would’ve never heard of. From exclusive beach parties to rinky-dink shebeens, I had a very diverse experience in Cape Town that was only facilitated by conversations with others.
2. Go to local a café around Universities.
My study abroad program was not based at a university, so I was forced to find friends in other places. My host family was a great resource and I found it helpful to go to local cafes, bars and hangouts around the major universities and spark conversations with students. More than not, the conversation ended quite well and I made a new friend. This was also done in an open and public space, which prevented potentially dangerous encounters.
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3. Talk to the wait staff.
Wait staff at local businesses have interactions with people all day. They are well informed about what’s happening in the area and can be of great assistance.
I found volunteering while away to be extremely helpful when I wanted to meet people. I was able to give back to a community, even if it wasn’t my own, and that alone can be very rewarding. I would advise you to do your research on an organization and make sure that your work will have an impact. Volunteering also allowed me to view the country past the glistening tourist presentation. I was able to gain a first-hand understanding of the South African education experience by volunteering as a tutor in a township outside of Cape Town. By actually working in the field, I was able to put the things that I read about into real context. I was also able to meet other volunteers and form friendships with them.
5. Conduct an independent research project.
I was able to learn a lot about South Africa and about myself by conducting a research project. If your program offers this option, please take advantage of gaining the skill set to conduct original research, and one of the latent effects is that it is also a great way to meet people who have similar interests as yourself. However, take the proper precautions to hold an ethical research project and understand that if you don’t have good support for this project, you can do more harm than good.
6. Join an organization.
Simple enough. Find an organization in your community by speaking with community members. This can be a great tool to help you build your community and meet people that care about the same things as you!
7. Use sites like meetup.com and the Travel Noire network to connect with others in the area.
Use these sites to tap into networks that you didn’t even know existed and learn about fellow travelers like yourself.
8. Search Instagram hashtags.
This is probably the most random tip of them all but it can be quite helpful. Before going to an event or venue, type in the name of the place or the event in the hashtag section to “feel out” the crowd and venue. I’ve been able to obtain some pretty pertinent information including the crowd, the popularity of the event and the attire.
9. Check events at hostels.
Ask the receptionist what’s going on in the area for the week and where you can locate some good places to go.
10. Keep in touch with the friends that you make.
If someone gives you their number, then don’t be afraid to use it. Text/ call/send a messenger pigeon or whatever. You should remain in contact with them, but don’t blow up their phone with texts or calls.
11. Ask them to bring along their friends when you go out.
Once you’ve made plans to go out, ask them to bring their friends. You want to build your network. You may want to do this on the second or third time that you hang out with this individual. It is always great to meet new people and expand your burgeoning network. Also, if you don’t feel comfortable going to an event or venue by yourself, bring a friend that you trust.
12. Avoid scammers.
As you gain new friends and meet people, be aware that there are professional scammers and people who may want to take advantage of a young, foreign student. Approach each situation with a particular caution, and be mindful, especially if you’ve met your new friends randomly. I found it useful to look at social media accounts to check if we had any mutual friends, to make sure that they were giving me their real identity, and to make sure that their photos and statuses didn’t raise any red flags.
13. Have Fun!
Studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so make the most of it. If you can’t find someone to hang out with during parts of your trip, then just enjoy the time you have to yourself. I enjoyed when I was able to just self-reflect and I learned to just enjoy the person who I’ve become and who I am becoming.