I’ve earned my badge for traveling – spending a year abroad in high school as an exchange student; followed by 9 years as an expat in London, where I discovered my now wife from India; and now with her, traveled extensively throughout Europe and India.
Oddly though, I’m not a social traveler. Slightly introverted by nature, I don’t go up and start conversations naturally with strangers. My wife dreads small talk as much as I do, so we make a great company… for each other.
Last December, we flew into Belize City, and took a short 15 minute hopper flight down to Dangriga, followed by a boat ride into a small island resort. Small and cozy. We could tell on the boat ride in that we were different from the other passengers, as everyone else raised their hand at the prospect of a beer, whereas we, humbly declined.
Not drinking alcohol makes social interactions more challenging for us, especially that we are living in a world that heralds drinking as a cornerstone of social events.
Just imagine living in London — a city where people generally go to the pub after work for a quick pint with colleagues before heading home. The pub is synonymous for hanging out. I’ve seen my share of pubs, but was always slightly out of place because I rarely felt like drinking.
I’m convinced that I’m one of those weird cases, where I just don’t enjoy drinking, except for an occasional glass of wine (like a Pinot Noir, nothing too sweet or too strong), especially with a gourmet Italian meal. Occasional in this context means 2-4 times per year.
So, going to the pub generally meant drinking Diet Coke (back before I decided I had enough of that too). And since I never spent much time in pubs, I never mastered the art of small talk. Oddly, my years of volunteering with the Samaritans helped me become a fantastic listener, which usually carries me most of the way, but there is often an awkward pause or two.
I’m good with awkward, it doesn’t bother me. But I can tell when it makes others slightly agitated. I used to describe myself as introverted but not shy. I’m not incapable, but I get more energy being alone than I do being around others.
So, when my wife and I journeyed to Belize to visit our first ever resort — we thought we were lucky selecting a cozy location with just a dozen or so bungalows. It didn’t occur to us that small and cozy meant spending time with the other guests, talking and socializing.
Especially when you have communal dining — a long picnic table where everyone eats together.
I thought this would be a small talk nightmare, but it turned out quite the opposite… swapping stories of excursions, hearing people’s diverse backgrounds. Most were on their honeymoon, and had interesting stories to tell — especially the man irritated by fake pleasantries who had to survive working at Disney. The socializing added a nice touch of camaraderie.
This was a stark different from the surgical attack travels around Europe — flying into Barcelona on Friday night, exploring 2 cathedrals, 1 castle, 2 museums, 7 ancient ruins, 3 restaurants, 1 Olympic park and having coffee at as many local joints as possible before flying home Sunday evening. (A trip where you were so busy, you had no time to talk to ANYONE.) After awhile though, these trips began to feel the same. The trips I remember the most were those where I was able to connect with locals or other travelers, and share stories. It’s in the sharing that we develop new understanding and inspire new ideas.
In this case, I think fondly of our fellow guests on the island. We enjoyed their company, and we had the space to ourselves that we hoped for — even those working at the resort were friendly and helpful, but never intrusive. Sharing stories enriches us almost as deeply as experiencing them for ourselves. I believe the small size of the resort also made a huge difference — had it been a larger crowed, I believe I would have felt alienated. A dozen fellow travelers was just right.
Also published on Medium.