Yes, knowing people in various places has been incredibly helpful! I actually planned my trip around where I knew people. When I started telling everybody that I would be traveling the world, everybody started giving me names and contact details for family, friends, and friends of friends in various countries. I now have a list of people in a dozen countries around the world!
Yes, I’ll look like a hippie when I get back — I can’t wait to see the reaction of those back home! 😀