The friends we made on our trek tour into the hills surrounding Chiang Mai. Photo courtesy of Sarah Poekert.
Introverts tend to prefer a small, intense social circle. This is one stereotype I can identify with — at times, to a fault. For better and worse, I neither enter into nor leave a friendship lightly. This can be an amazing attribute, but, sometimes, I miss the opportunity to become friends with an amazing person because I think I already have enough people in my life. Other times, I hold onto someone who was once important to me long after the relationship has turned sour. I could never become a person who spends her time with many people on a daily basis (nor would I want to; that’s not what makes me happy), but travel has helped to teach me the value of the ephemeral friendship.
Finding Value in the Fleeting Friendship
Backpacking especially encourages short-term friendship and casual acquaintance. How could it not when everyone is moving in different directions? When the only constant is change in a much more tangible way than the life you experience back home? Of course, there is the rare friendship that extends beyond the limits of a backpacking adventure, but most connections are brief. This does not make them any less valuable. It makes them one of the wonders of the travel life, all the more beautiful for being fleeting.
Alex from Israel. Yolanda from China. Emily and Rodney from the United Kingdom. These are only some of the people I met while backpacking through Southeast Asia. Many of the names of the people my travel companion and I spent hours or days with I have already forgotten. I might be able to remember if I really tried, but, to be honest, names are not one of the things I hope to remember about these stranger-friends. Poet, activist, and all-around badass Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This is how I feel about the people I meet while I travel. Long after I have forgotten their names, their faces, or even their words, I will remember how they made me feel — like I had a family, a support system while living this chaotic backpacking lifestyle, like we bravely shared pieces of ourselves. And that is more than enough.
The “Warm Squishies”
It is amazing how quickly a face and spirit can become familiar when on the road. On two occasions my travel companion and I ran into friends we had made earlier on our trip at a later destination. Once, in the bathroom at the Halong Bay port, the aforementioned Yolanda — whom we had gotten to know a few weeks prior during an organized trek into the hills around Chiang Mai — was one of the hundreds of tourists waiting to board their boats to take them out into the water. It was like running into a friend from home — probably because it was running into a friend from the backpacking lifestyle that had become our home in some sense of the word. We only had time for a quick catch-up before heading to our respective boats, but it was enough to give me the warm, squishy feeling of re-acquaintance that can be so rare on a long trip in a foreign place. It happened again on the bus ride from Vietnam to Cambodia. At a random stop along the way, I looked out my bus window and into the bus parked beside ours to see two Kiwi men we had become friends with on our overnight boat trip on Halong Bay. A group of us had stayed up well into the night, lounging on chairs on the boat deck and talking about our respective cultures, sharing travel stories, and dreaming about what we wanted to do with our lives. At that random, side-of-the-road bus stop, we quickly exited our respective buses to catch up. Again, the warm, squishy feeling took hold.
Most of the friends I made while traveling, I only knew for a few days. But, in the travel life, days can last lifetimes. Like Narnia, the backpacking world moves at a different pace than the world that encompasses it. My stranger-friends and I played cards for hours, shared stories we may have never shared with anyone else, swapped bites of our dinner and jokes. There’s a sort of magic that surrounds travel friendship, an understanding that your relationship is forever bound by an intersection of time and place, and that’s okay. In fact, it gives it a power, a concentration it might not otherwise have — as if an entire lifetime of friendship and generosity and laughter is packed into those few hours or days. This, more than anything else, has taught me the importance of letting people in and sharing myself with them, even if I don’t see the long-term purpose. It has taught me the value of the ephemeral. After all, the ephemeral can have weight, especially when traveling.