6:30 pm. The hostel kitchen is teaming with 18-34 year olds in city print singlets and elephant pants. You’ve scored the only clean-ish chopping board in the place and are waiting patiently for a free hob ring whilst an overenthusiastic Berliner called Timo tells his new dorm mate off for attempting to put olive oil in their 5 person spaghetti pot. Your gas ring becomes available just as the quiet vegan girl in the corner drops her knife narrowly missing emo-dude’s pasty bare toes.
Half an hour later you emerge from what resembles the Titanic’s engine room with your one-pot dinner of spaghetti bolognese to try and find somewhere to sit on the cramped balcony at dinnertime. A minivan load of Swedes has taken over the back benches, saying the word ‘faaaaaahn’ a lot. Someone is arm wrestling a dude for his skateboard on the next table but at the far left there is what looks like a nice group who seem approachable and not likely to break out into a spontaneous food fight any time soon. “Hi guys, can I sit here?” are your first words. “Sure thing!” *munch munch munch*… *slightly awkward smiles*… “What’s your name?”… *(how do you spell that, I’m sorry I’ve already forgotten your name)*… “Where are you guys from?”…
DOOM. You have just entered the dreaded Groundhog-Day zone of backpacker small talk. Every day, every night, you meet countless new faces, some more, some less eager to meet new people but everyone open and interested in their surroundings and exploring new things. Yet, like some weird joke, even this most open-minded subculture can’t seem to get beyond the simplest of conversation topics. Where are you from, cause I’m no way gonna remember your name. I meet dozens of people every day, who often disappear just as fast as they came into my life, so names don’t mean much as they’re not descriptive and I don’t know how to pronounce half of them. I’ll just call you Denmark. Not much point asking what you do at home, cause you’re most likely a student or unemployed, or you’re on holiday and want to forget about your life at home for a bit. And finally, what’s your route, so I can ask you for tips and most importantly give you tips (whether you want them or not) and talk about myself and the places I’ve been (that will definitely have been way cooler when I went than when you’re planning to go.).
Hang on a second. Weren’t we so fed up with meeting people at social gatherings back home and only being able to talk about what we did for work and whether we have a mortgage yet and how it compares to renting, that we wanted to escape to the global adventure that is backpacking? Why do we find ourselves, on the other side of the planet, in a bastardized version of the same conversation? It is true that it’s hard to start up deep and meaningful relationships with people who we’ll only ever meet for a couple of hours in our lives. It’s also true that travelling is tiring, sharing space can be exhausting and sometimes we just can’t be bothered to make an effort to even keep quiet despite the awkwardness whilst sharing a table.
We’ve been doing this for such a long time though that we’re bored of it too, but more importantly have had some really surprising conversations with people that simply came out of twisting the starting topic ever so slightly. As these conversations were some of the most cherished travel moments we have, we brainstormed and want to share some inspiration with you, dear readers, so you can reach beyond standard travel talk and really find out about people and places. Next time you’re at a table, start some conversations based on these premises.
- Leapfrog expected answers. If someone asks you if you’ve been to Latin America, don’t say ‘yes, it was great’. Say ‘apparently, in Peru, they eat raw Llama. That is if Llamas aren’t just made up animals, like drop bears’.
- You’re setting up a new government for this revolution-torn place (especially good topic for politically unstable destinations like East Timor). What expertise can everyone at the table bring to your political party? What people studied is a good starting point, but other skills are desperately needed. Chief Llama wrangler is only one of the positions to be filled.
- You’re an undercover high-flying Hollywood director who’s shooting his new movie starring Johnny Depp and everyone at the table. What’s the story, what characters are they going to be cast as and if they’re camera shy, what roles on set are they responsible/irresponsible enough to fill. Who will be chief assistant to Mr Depp’s hair artist, who’s bulky enough to be promoted to key grip and who’s looking after all the friggin Llamas.
- Tell two truths and a lie about yourself. My name is Brunthilde, I have 5 cats and my grandmother flew around Europe in a Llama shaped hot air balloon. Have everyone guess which is the lie. Don’t cheat, don’t be boring. Take turns.
- The table is a Zoo. Which animal would everyone be and why? Who picks the Llama first.
- You’re in the Big Brother house. Identify all the different teams at the other tables, what their gameplan is and how you as a group are going to win anyway. The Swedes plan to kill everyone in their sleep so you need someone to take shifts staying up. Do so in the least suspicious way possible, the Llama at the corner table may already be on to you. Be provocative. Absurdity is underrated.
- It you’re lazy, get this page on your phone and follow the instructions. No Llamas needed for this one.
Congratulations, by now you’re probably the hero of the table by having turned the conversation round. And it doesn’t stop there. What is your new president going to do as his or her first action in office? Re-naming cities, joining Eurovision or have a big gold statue of themselves erected? Go crazy, you’re all in safe hands. And that’s how you really get to know people.