Another topic I’ve frequently been asked about is the people I met along the way. There tends to be a big focus on the fact that I did this big trip alone, but I always respond the same way: “I wasn’t ever really alone.”
I’ve written multiple blog posts about the people I met and how much they all meant to me (Travel Buddies, The Why of Buenos Aires, Queenstown, Take 2, The People in Sydney, Fried Toofoo, 1,000 Miles…). I do still talk to many of them, some more than others, and even though communication has faded a bit now that we’ve all returned home I still believe that these people are my friends for life. That doesn’t mean we’ll know every detail about each other like we did in the time we traveled together, but it does mean that for years to come if any of them ever reaches out to me for a just a hi or a couch to crash on, I will happily be there for them, and I think I can say they feel the same way about me.
Sometimes people wonder how it’s possible to feel such a close connection with someone I knew for so little time. With some people I spent just one evening at a hostel, with others I spent every minute of every day for half a month, and the rest are somewhere in between. It began with a first impression, a snap judgement of whether or not this person and I could get along well. Travelers are masters at quick opinions; we meet so many people on the road that there’s no way not to learn the personality types we mesh well with. Luckily I could already relate to most people who were in the same places as me – we were all people who liked to explore the unknown in a low cost high adventure sort of way. So once we passed the first impression it was just a matter of time until the conversation deepened.
Whether together for two hours, two days, or two weeks, the nature of traveling accelerated my connections with people. We lived in the moment, knowing that all we had was right now, that there was no reason to hold back, and that without the preconceived notions that come with home we were free to be ourselves. We called it our “travel selves,” but after a few months I dropped the “travel” part and just became “myself.” Travel me felt more like me than US me ever did, and that person wanted to share myself with these new friends, and was delighted when my companions reciprocated with the same openness.
I love you guys.
A friend embarking on her own solo journey for the first time asked me how I met people. There were a variety of ways. The best was in hostels, my home away from home. In common areas and dorm rooms it was easy to strike up a conversation, sometimes starting more formal with “hi I’m so-and-so” or “where are you from?” and other times just jumping in when I had something relevant to say. Transportation was good too – a comment about the ride, the destination, or someone’s luggage could lead to a new friendship. Then there’s the activities. A tour like the Whitsundays or Fraser Island had built-in companions that could become friends beyond their end dates, free/hostel-organized walking tours were always a hit, or sometimes all it took was stopping to take a picture on a bike ride and saying something to the other person doing the same thing. It’s easier than people think to engage in conversation with a stranger. No matter what we already had something in common: we were both in that place at that time. The rest worked itself out from there.
Now the tough part for me is being back in a society where that extreme of friendliness is viewed as strange rather than normal. Having other travelers to talk to about the adjustment of being back home has been crucial. We all go through reverse culture shock in some way, and even just having a friend say “I get it” can be a huge help. Same with travel stories. Those people with who I experienced the highs and lows of travel – from incredible new places to torturing overnight buses – are the ones I can best talk to about the past year. We reminisce, we empathize, and we are totally okay with every anecdote including “when I was in…”
I hope to continue meeting people on my travels and extend my already fairly sizable network of international friends. I also hope I’ll have a chance to visit everyone one day. Moving to Europe is looking like a possibility again next year, so I might kick off that chapter with some friend couch hopping… if you’ll all have me.