Understand that friends come and go, but for the precious few who should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle because the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young.
Baz Luhrmann – The Sunscreen Song
You always meet the coolest people right before they leave…
That second quote probably wasn’t first uttered by my one time friend Dale, but I’ll always remember him and the way he so philosophically said that at the leaving town party my house-mate at the time and I held. At the time it was just a nice thing to hear from a guy I’d come to consider a good friend, but over the years and having seen plenty of friends come and go, it holds special resonance for me now. If you’ve ever traveled you’ll know that friends truly do come and go, and it’s a rare few that last more than six months on your Facebook friends list.
It’s the fickle nature of this passion we share. The people you meet out on the road are fellow travelers. In some cases they’re out on a once in a lifetime junket after which home beckons. In other cases, you’ve met at just one of their many stops, and any friendship you enjoy is going to be fleeting. You would think that, knowing this, their eventual departures would be all the easier to deal with – but this isn’t true. I’ve made friends on the road who lasted no more than a few weeks. Those friendships ended with the same sadness as what I feel when I wave goodbye to friends of several years. In a lot of cases, it’s sadder than wishing a fond friend farewell. The childhood friend is always going to be there when you get back, but that cool couple you met on the beach in Cairns may never cross your path again.
I don’t mean for this to be off-putting to would be travelers. Anybody who has ever step foot out their front door can attest to just how fantastic these short term friends on the road can be. Like any good travel companion, these people we meet can turn a mediocre excursion into something completely unforgettable. Would I have enjoyed Mudfest in 2008 as much if it hadn’t been for a newly made Aussie friend and a pair of extra friendly girls from Seoul? Would Fallon and I’s time on the overnight boat on the Barrier Reef have been quite as much fun without our motley crew of Germans, Dutch, and a random guy from Hong Kong on his first excursion out of the country? Almost certainly not. Those new made friends on the road were Godsends.
Ask anybody about their trip abroad and they’ll be able to warmly tell you about some random they met or some interesting person they shared a cramped bus ride with. It’s just one of the many charms of life outside of your comfort zone. Without that reliable old friend beside you to keep you in your little bubble, you’ll find yourself striking up conversation with a stranger even if you’re a shy person by nature.
This was never truer than when I first went to South Korea. A small part of my motivation in heading over there was because I had become unhappy with the niche I’d dug for myself and the way I had let my existing friendships define who I was. In a lot of ways, despite five years having passed since we’d left high school, I clung to a lot of negative things about myself because I was still spending time with the guys I’d befriended in school. And I don’t mean this as a slight against them or their friendship. It wasn’t them keeping me the way I was, it was me allowing myself to settle for what I had been in high school because they accepted me that way.
I wanted to force myself out of my comfort zone and figure out which parts of me were keepers and which could be left behind in the time BK (before Korea).
Touching down in a country I knew hardly anything about and without a friend within hours of driving, I had to start from scratch. As I met people I began to figure out who it was I was and who it was I wanted to be.
“You hug like a dead person” a chesty Canadian by the name of Liz once told me. I took that on board, and now I’m pleased to say I give excellent hug. Three years on, I was lucky enough to watch the delayed stream as Liz married the love of her life in Las Vegas. The night before I’d called her on her hen’s night and chatted with a half dozen fantastic people I met in South Korea.
Prior to Korea I hadn’t been the most outgoing of people, but having to make all of your friends on the road from scratch means it’s a necessary part of life. Nursing a drink at the bar I’d turn to a new face and I’d strike up conversation. And, since we’re all travelers and we’re all in the same boat, more often than not I’d get a friendly response. Sometimes the conversation was five minutes of awkward pleasantries before one of us made an excuse to leave, but I can’t begin to count how many good friends I made simply by taking a deep breath and just saying ‘hi’.
I couldn’t begin to rattle off all of the friends I made in my two years in South Korea and its surrounds. Some of them, like an American by the name of Cody who kept us company on a wild night in Busan, never made it beyond a single night of being a friend. Others, like Liz and the many others with whom I stay in regular contact, are likely to be friends for life. But these last kind are few and far between.
A wise friend of mine once said that people come into your lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. She was consoling me over a recent break-up, but I’ve found that the adage applies to all relationships.
Some of the people you meet in your travels are going to be there for a reason. They’ll be the drinking buddy in the seedy dive, the hiking companion in the steaming hot Vietnamese jungle, or the conversation on a lengthy trip by plane or train or bus.
Others are there for a season. They’re your best friends for a few months or even a year. They’re by your side for a break-up or two, they tag along for a swathe of random adventures, and you’ll think you’re going to be the best of friends forever. But then one of you gets a girlfriend or one of you leaves the country and suddenly that friendship you had proves to have been one of circumstance rather than connection. And that’s not a bad thing. Some of the best friendships I’ve had have been the kind had when our friendship was about proximity and a shared case of being single. Like a summer romance (only without the kissing) they’re intense and a hell of a lot of fun, but then they’re over.
And the others, the rare ones, are the kind you make for a lifetime. You might not have many of these while you’re backpacking around, but settle in one spot for a while and you’ll likely pick up one or two people who are going to be friends for the rest of your life. Unlike the above, they might not ever be your best friend or even a near constant companion. But it’s them who come out of the woodwork when you’re feeling down and it’s them who offer to put you up on their coach whenever you breeze into their corner of the world.
Travel can be mighty lonely, and it’s these random characters we meet on the road that make it such a fascinating experience. If you’ve never traveled and you’re worried about going it alone – don’t be. You’ll meet more people than you’ll likely remember, and your life will be the richer for having taken the step to travel without the security blanket that is a familiar face. And if you’ve traveled before or are already traveling – you already know what I’m saying, but thanks for reading.