Among the joys of travel, there is one aspect of our transitory lifestyle that has always been difficult: lack of community.
By virtue of being on the move, we usually don’t know anyone in the places we’re traveling. There is no calling up of old friends to relax over beer at the end of the day, and we don’t have the local know-how of the best hangouts in town. In short, there is no break from the fact that we are perpetual travelers.
In Los Angeles, I took it for granted that I had a cellphone chock full of contacts who I’d developed close relationships with. After finishing my work or chores or errands for the day, I could call any number of them and arrange to meet them at the hippest spots in LA. They were places only we knew, because we were true Angelinos.
On the road, Morgan and I don’t have that community. It’s our greatest sacrifice. We have to find new friends in every city, even if we’re going to leave them just a few days later. Building a circle of friends is one reason why we’re stopped in Kunming—our two weeks in this city is as much about finding community as covering stories as journalists. It’s about relief from the solitude of the road, and discovering China through Chinese friends.
Yet the task presents its own challenge: how do you scale a network of friends when you don’t know anyone and will only be in a city a short while?
Fortunately, Morgan and I have a strategy that we’ve honed in previous places like Bangalore and Phnom Penh. We call it ‘blind friend dating.’
The process begins much like regular online dating, except that we use couchsurfing.org instead of match.com. First, we pull up a list of couchsurfers in a city and start looking through online profiles for anything remotely interesting – for people who’ve written something beyond the usual “I like traveling and meeting people blah blah blah.” Who’s got some personality?
Bingo. On page two, I spot one. Female, 24. “I was born for art.” The Chinese girl writes. “I’m a true kidult with an old soul. My current mission: to be everyone, to be a genius, to originate the future.”
She definitely passes the ‘interesting’ test. So we send our message – hey we’re two cyclists who are in the city and you should meet with us….
Should she respond to these desperate sounding Americans, a meeting is set. And once we’ve moved away from the virtual world, it’s game time. The blind dates are what really matter, and the trick is to set up as many as possible.
“Alright Morgan, we’ve got meetings with couchsurfers set for lunch tomorrow, and dinner on Tuesday.”
“Right. I’ll see if I can commit that other surfer to lunch on Tuesday.”
So then you show up, looking around the restaurant or coffee shop for someone who remotely resembles the photo you saw online. Usually it’s the person who looks as lost as you do. You spot each other. “Chris? Morgan?”
“Yup that’s us.”
And the small talk begins.
The truth is that most of these meetings end up going nowhere. On blind friend dates, we either click with the person or we don’t. The secret is not to care about the meeting’s outcome. While repetition and small talk can be tedious, the practice’s strength lies in numbers. Eventually, between all the “what’s your favorite Chinese food?” conversations, you’re going to find someone who’s dynamic and awesome. Once you do, you’re set: awesome people usually hang out with other awesome people. With that first friend nailed down, you can suddenly find yourself introduced to a whole community. We accomplished it in Bangalore and Phnom Penh.
So has it happened in Kunming yet?
Nope. But we’re at 6 blind dates and counting. I can feel we’re getting close.