The importance of making local friends on the road
On the subject of making local friends on the road; I think it’s absolutely essential that you go out of your way to make it happen.
When traveling long-term, the easy thing to do is look for other travelers, and stick with them. You speak the same language and share a common bond of being alone in unfamiliar territory; you may make some of your best friends like this.
However, it kind of goes against the purpose of traveling and exploring the world.
When I lived in Valencia last year for 6-months, I went extreme and refused to hang out with English-speakers. I was quite unpopular in my Spanish class full of British and Americans; I think they all thought I was uptight, anti-social and just plain boring. Truth was that I was trying to merge myself as much as possible with non-English speaking Valencianos.
Now this was hard. I was lost and quite lonely for the first month or so; it takes time and a lot of effort to comfortably mingle and nurture friendships with people who don’t speak your language. I made it a point to live with non-English speaking Spaniards; I couldn’t even ask for milk in my own home — it was tough in the beginning.
But I didn’t give up. I spent my time in local cafes and with my new flatmates, swallowed my inhibitions of looking like an idiot trying to communicate, and voila, 2 months later I had a super busy social calendar and hardly anyone spoke English.
My classmates left Spain with a lot of Sangria in their system, but no language skills and no local friends. I haven’t left Spain yet!
Similarly, when I moved to Australia a few years ago, it was my first time away from home. The Indian community was large and roaring. They hung out, cooked Indian food, celebrated Indian festivals and watched Bollywood movies. I refused to be part of the group, even though I was homesick many times and it was the easy thing to do. I didn’t go to Australia from India to be with Indians.
This, of course, was misunderstood and it didn’t take long for them to hate me too. Although it was hard in the beginning, I eventually made many Ozzie friends. We spoke the same language but were so different! So as my Indian acquaintances went home to India for Christmas, I spent Christmas in the Snowy Mountains with an Australian family.
So mingle with the locals as much as possible when you visit a new place. This takes a lot of effort and can be frustrating at times, but it’s truly worth it. Don’t worry about others misunderstanding your motives.