When you think about travelling a country, you think about all the things you might see – beautiful scenery, history, culture – and all the things you might do – swim with turtles, skydive, watch a sunrise. But when you think about working in a country, you think about all the people you might meet. Often, working is seen as a necessary slog to save some money for travel. And this is partly true – the main focus is earning money. But when you stop viewing it as merely a means to an end, the time spent working can take on a much greater value.
It’s easy to speak only to other travellers when you are moving around from day to day: staying in hostels and following tourist tracks. But when you stop and become part of the function of a town, you form relationships with people who actually live in the country you have made your temporary home. You might have more in common with other travellers, comparing notes on places been and things done. But they can only share about the country what you can experience for yourself.
A new friend told me that tourists – particularly younger – often actively avoid local people in social settings. It’s as if their status as “local” brands them strange. Of course, you aren’t going to like everyone you meet, just as at home. But from a different country doesn’t mean to be kept at arm’s length. Take the chance to see how people live, what they prioritise in life, how they feel about their home; and take the opportunity to be showed the very best of where you’re living by someone who knows. If you’re lucky, it’s a relationship which never has the chance to turn sour: you’ll feel sad to know you won’t see the person again, but glad you had the chance to meet them.
At the Paroa hotel, a huge part of our job has been making conversation with people sitting at the bar. This has sometimes felt like the biggest challenge: when your questions are responded to unenthusiastically, it’s surprisingly hard not to take it too personally. But it has also been by far the easiest and best part: talking to familiar faces and friendly people passing through can turn a regular work shift into a truly enjoyable seven hours. When conversation is made into a duty of the job, it immediately becomes forced and effortful. But frame it as a chance to talk to someone new, and suddenly it becomes much easier. One thing that has become apparent over the last six weeks is that you can never have too many conversations: no matter how random they might seem at the time, to someone, or in some way, they’re significant.