So you finally did it: You quit your job, sold your home and bought a one way ticket somwhere south of the U.S/Mexico border. Fast forward a couple months and you’re living the so-called dream life somewhere near the Equator but it’s not exactly the glamorous new existence you’d been anticipating. Sure, your apartment is nice and you love X country, but…you don’t have much in the way of friends or a social life and you really don’t know where to get started.
If you’re shy like me, meeting people in a foreign country can be a slow and daungting process, but it’s not impossible. The odds are, if you could make friends back home, there’s no reason you can’t make friends in your new home. I’ve moved abroad twice: Once to Panama City and then to Bogota, so I know how it feels to be alone and lonely in a foreign country. You tell everyone things are fantastic and you’re absolutely sure of your decision, but inside, you can’t help having those nagging doubts that maybe you were wrong; maybe you just can’t make it work in X country. So what do you do when you’re alone in a foreign country and don’t know anyone?
(1) Look into expat resources. I know that most of us move abroad because we want to assimilate in the local culture and make Panamanian/Costa Rican/Mexican friends, but I’ve found that expat groups are a really great way to meet people going through some of the same things. Everyone who joins these forums or groups is looking to meet people and socialize, and many of these groups are also open to non-expats who are interested in language/culture exchange. If you’re in the under 40 demographic, Coachsurfing.org is a fantastic resource; aside from hosting meet-ups at local bars or parks, most Latin American countries also have sub categories meaning that if you want to learn French, go hiking or get involved with the local gay community, there’s likely a group for you. Aside from Coachsurfing, most Latin American countries will have at least one social group catering to expats, and the Internet is your best resource for finding out more about these.
(2) Join something. For months after moving to Colombia, I complained to anyone who would listen (in the U.S. because I didn’t actually have anyone who would listen in Colombia) that I wasn’t meeting anyone. It then dawned on me that meeting people takes effort and it wasn’t going to happen if I sat around my apartment all day working in front of my computer and didn’t join any clubs or grups. So I moved my home office to a local cafe, joined a gym and am considering buying a bike and joining a weekend biking club. Soccer is huge in Latin America, so if you’re interested in “futbol” joining a local soccer league is a great way to meet people with similar interests. Many countries also have ultimate Frisbee and baseball/softball leagues, as well as birdwatching, hiking, reading, poker groups and more. Join something that interests you.
(3) Live with people. Even if you’ve lived on your own for 10 years and the thought of having roommates fills you with dread, living with other people is one of the best way to feel connected to your new country and build a social network. Latin Americans are notoriously friendly and outgoing, and will usually make an effort to include you in activities. Plus, roommates will introduce you to friends who will introduce you to other friends.
(4) Resist the urge to say no when people ask you to come out. As I mentioned, I’m a very shy person so the thought of going to a party with just one person I know (they might go talk to someone else and leave me standing awkwardly alone in a corner!) is terrifying. But I always push myself to say yes and I nearly always have a good time. Yes, maybe I’m standing awkwardly on my own for a few minutes, but it never takes long before I’m talking to someone new. Even if you don’t make lasting friendships at bars or parties, these activities provide a social outlet and an opportunity to learn more about the culture and customs in your new country.
(5) Take a group Spanish or Portuguese class. If you’re already fluent in the local language, pick up another language. Group language classes will give you the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. If you’re under 30, sign up for a class at a university, where you’re bound to meet other young people interested in getting to know you and learn more about your culture. If you’re a little older, language institutes and academies often hold night classes for professionals that cater to a 30 plus crowd and even language classes aimed at retired folks.
For more on my travel experiences, check out my blog. For additional travel information, take a look at my pros and cons of visiting Latin America. Or, check out Adriana Harvey’s story about her experience studying abroad in Cuba.