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Perpetual Travel and Friendship

“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 [...]

“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.

Wade with a Turkish soldier near Iraq border. I would not necessarily call us friends.

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.

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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.

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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.

Pierre Laurent

The takeaways

  • 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.
Filed under: Europe, Friends, Iceland, Other Travelers, Travel Philosophy, Western Europe

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3413 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

6 comments… add one

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  • Jasmine August 4, 2011, 7:36 pm

    Wow I related to this post a lot. Long-term friendships is something that I’ve been wanting to write about for awhile, but haven’t really been able to express. Maybe because I have no more long-term friends, at least not anyone with whom I speak regularly, and I’m not exactly sure why. I’m able to connect with people quickly and deeply, but I am truly inept at maintenance.

    I really understand where you’re coming from when you talk about being “free” in a social sense. I too hate waiting, hate feeling obliged to do something, or be somewhere at a certain time, and everything that’s associated with a normal social life.

    When I examine my relationships, I’m always reminded of the Isabelle Eberhardt quote:

    “… to be a useful cog in the social machine, all these things seem necessary, even indispensable, to the vast majority of men, including intellectuals, and including even those who think of themselves as wholly liberated. And yet such things are only a different form of the slavery that comes of contact with others.”

    Thanks for articulating this phenomenon that probably happens often with long-term travelers. It’s a side effect that most people couldn’t foresee.

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    • Wade Shepard August 5, 2011, 10:35 am

      Hello Jasmine,

      I think you are way too happy, emotionally balanced, confident, and self-assured for your own good! haha.

      Yes, there is a good amount of dualism inherent to this situation: one of the deepest benefits of living the traveling life is that you can be nearly completely free from social obligation, but utilizing this freedom too much means, ultimately, being without true friends. What is better? What is worse? I have no idea. The Eberhardt quote you reference above shows one side of this dichotomy well. It is easy to not delve deeper into friendship and maintain contact when you are so confident and emotionally self-sufficient that you there is not much of a need for this. I’ve found that I am perfectly happy in my day if I have just a few brash conversations and a lot of alone time to ponder and do whatever I want. Even before my wife (and even when I travel without her) I am a pretty emotionally balanced person — I need very little social interaction to keep going. In the tumultuous days of my early twenties I needed the feeling of being in a group more — I needed deeper friendships to build my self concept and to remain happy — and I made way more lasting friendships. Now, I fear, I am a very solid person — almost too solid. I think you are too. I think this gets in the way of us making lasting friendships. When you are confident in yourself, emotionally self-sufficient, and you do not crave any sort of group affiliation the driving impetus to make the investments into friendship are, perhaps, lessened.

      But I think there may be something we miss out on because of this. I think that if I did not have the friends that I made in my youth and in my early twenties, I would not be nearly as happy as I am now. I suppose I need to remember this, and realize that the little investments into building friendships are worth it (even if it seems that I don’t NEED it). I guess it just boils down to being a little lazy and lax when it comes to friendship.

      The last thing that I want is to be tangled up in complex social webs — even temporarily — but I also cherish the fact that I have a network of friends that I’ve known through the years who will always be there for me. I guess the saddest thing in the world could be looking back on your life and finding it strewn with surface level interactions

      Man, we are in this unique position to collect friendships all over the world and make something of them haha. It would be great to have some sort of huge traveler’s in-person meetup somewhere, though the likelihood of this happening is next to none haha.

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  • Bob L August 4, 2011, 8:55 pm

    “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. ”

    Very well put. As we get older, having “new” old close friends seems to become more effort than it is worth sometimes. Men in particular, tend to have numerous shallow friend relationships and only a very limited number of close friends. However, once a friend, always a friend, even if you don’t see or talk to each other for 20 years.

    It is a great loss that we, men especially, often stop putting the effort into making close friends. A few articles on how this new found “hobby” works for you would be interesting.

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    • Wade Shepard August 5, 2011, 10:47 am

      Bob,

      Have you ever heard of Dunbar’s number? It is basically the bio-anthropological theory which states that the human mind is only suited for maintaining a certain amount of social relationships at any time. It makes sense with what you say here about not making friends as much as you get older. But I would like to take this theory one step further and instead of just having it to do with social relationships to say all engagements — whether they be family, work, or hobby oriented. When the bin is already full it is difficult to stuff much more into it. Also, when the bin is already full the drive to acquire more engagements also lessens. It also just feels plain awkward to invite a new male acquaintance out to do something once you are beyond the days of youth.

      But you are right in stating that it is a great loss when you lessen the amount of deeper social engagements that you make. There is something deeply valuable about sharing some sort of common history with other people that borders on self-delineation. Ultimately, I like it that there are people in the world who KNOW me — or at least a conception of me — and sort of act as boundary points for keeping me in my place, so to speak. It is easy to lose these bearings in travel. I have a wife and kid, try to meet old friends on the road as often as possible, and I try to make yearly visits back to family, so I’m set in this regard — but being set also diminishes my need to make new social engagements, and the cycle continues haha.

      But I will keep posting on this new “hobby.”

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  • mike August 5, 2011, 3:00 am

    Do they have any cell service up there? Pierre could have sent you a text instead of spending the whole day backtracking?

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    • Wade Shepard August 5, 2011, 9:06 am

      Yes, they have cell phone coverage that spans, virtually, the entire island (or at least this is my impression). But I don’t have a phone.

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