“Wow, look at all of these people. With so many people everywhere how could you ever make friends with anyone?” a young guy once asked me as we rode in a van through Manhattan on a warm summer day in ’04.
“Well, you would certainly have a lot of opportunities,” I replied.
A sickness of perpetual travel is that it is easy to realize how disposable and interchangeable the people in your life are and then treat them as such. You meet people, hang out with them for a while, and then move on. I’ve noticed that the temporariness of friendships on the road can easily lead to a lack of effort being put into driving relationships deeper than the surface, into sharing more of yourself with another, into creating true friendships.
In travel, you spend time with people when you are with them, and say a quick farewell when you go separate ways — if you meet up again, great, if not, it was fun while it lasted.
The simplicity and non-committal aspects of the travel friendship can almost beautiful in practice. There is never any reason to fight or argue or to show deep emotion, as all parties always know that they can just walk away at any time — travel frees the self from persona. There is little invested so what is there to fight over? Unless engaged in a project or some other over bearing commitment, the travel context allows people to choose who they recreationally socialize with virtually at all times. If you don’t like someone, you just walk away; if someone talks bullshit, you say “That’s bullshit;” if someone throws a punch, run. In travel, you rarely get close enough to any social scene to get sucked into conflict, you can float around somewhere on the top of the community pool, go between groups, a social free radical.
The closer you are to a person the more there is to fight about. Husbands and wives fight, boyfriends and girlfriends bicker, best friends throw punches; travelers don’t fight, they walk away. It is really that simple.
I enjoy the freedom that is inherent to keeping my acquaintances at arm’s length, of having free reign of social movement, of not being part of any group or clique. Even when I stay in places for three months at a time where I accumulate loads of acquaintances, I am careful to continuously cultivate my social autonomy. I don’t want anyone relying on me, I don’t want to rely on anyone, I don’t want people knocking on my door, I don’t want to schedule my days, wait for people, be called on the telephone, make plans, socially stand in line.
I’ll see you when I see you.
I have made being a curmudgeon into an art form.
But I know that I am missing out on something deep and essential in these relationships. I give little and I receive little. I have my social freedom but I lack the benefits of having social bonds, a community. I don’t deal with the bullshit of being a part of any group and I don’t reap the rewards. In retrospect, I find that I take very little — maybe some quotes, a touch of wisdom, and a story or two — from each person I meet. I rarely keep in touch with people.
And I lose because of it.
The traveler meets a kaleidoscope of people everyday, and seeing all the colors move by, perpetually changing, it becomes easy to just watch the show, and not press pause and appreciate any one pattern — any one person — more than any of the others. Friends come, friends go, maybe I will see them again, who knows?
In travel, you interact with people — with places — for the moment, not the future. Likewise, is becomes very easy to take for granted that which lies right before you.
Although there is a psychology of long term travel that finds regard in becoming solid in the self, emotionally self sufficient when on the road, this strong sense of self often needs the supporting rods of others to remain firmly rooted. Like so, friendships are perhaps the most vital holdings of any traveler, they should be our most sought after collections, our most prized souvenirs. This was a lesson that I learned once again as I sat in camp in Arnarstapi, Iceland with a true friend of the way.
Pierre, the French traveler that I have been meeting up with throughout my travels in Iceland, made big efforts to be my friend — he even backtracked 35 km by thumb just to meet up with me again. Each time we split up he would tell me where he was going, give me his email, and his phone number. He would even periodically leave notes to ensure that I knew where he was going to be. I recognized and appreciated these gestures, I found them novel, so much so that I eventually began adapting my travels to allow for us to continue meeting up.
Pierre, though only 20, was showing me some essential qualities of travel that I have allowed to slightly corrode. He put effort into cultivating our social bond, he was overtly courteous, active in conversation, thoughtful in his stories — he did all of the little things which build a friendship without regard that we would inevitably be parting ways in the near future.
The French tramp also put true effort into conversation. It shows that someone cares about the social bond you are creating if they put in the effort to think up and ask you questions. I would sit next to Pierre in camp and he would start conversation, I would respond in kind, he would listen thoroughly, bring up funny stories, laugh, and put true effort into our exchanges. I found this truly odd — odd as in unusual, not abnormal. There was nothing in Arnarstapi, Iceland, nothing but a good friend.
Friendship takes effort, it takes guts to let a person know that you enjoy their company and want more of it, it takes ingenuity to come up with activities to thicken social bonds, it takes thought to come up with good stories, it takes heart to smile and laugh, it takes insight to notice the people around you, it takes intuition to know when to elevate an acquaintanceship, and it takes time to build a relationship.
When I first began traveling I was all for trying to make these types of social bonds, and I created a few friendships that have lasted to this day. But in recent years I have become fatigued, passe, and no longer actively throwing myself into new friendship. Having a good wife and a child has lessened my need to seek social solace elsewhere, and I’ve lost many opportunities for establishing those lasting social bonds that can last a lifetime. Meeting Pierre woke me up a little, gave me a jolt that I needed: being socially reticent is not to my advantage, I am cheating others, cheating myself. It is easy to become passe towards developing true friendships after years of travel — you see so many people come and go it is like picking zebras from a herd — but it is even easier to change this pattern, isolate acquaintances, and turn them into friendships.
To return to the above dialogue that started this travelogue entry: although travel inherently creates a kaleidoscope of people flipping through your life nearly constantly it also presents many opportunities for friendship. This is one of the greatest benefits of world travel, make the most of it.
After 12 years traveling to places I’ve realized the irrelevancy of my action. Places are just brinks, tarmac, plank board — insignificant rubbish — the true essence of travel is the people you meet, the people you befriend.
- Value friendship. Look for it wherever you go, as this is one of the only things from your travels that will last.
- Be aware of the social signals of friendship and be open to them.
- Give more of yourself in conversation and in action. Do things for other people without expectation of reciprocation, make time for other people, tear down the walls.
- Keep in touch. Consult your friends’ geographic positions as you travel and try to meet up.
- Choose friends wisely. Avoid the social media sect, they will suck your life out.