I like to group people into two camps: those who have stayed in a hostel and those who have not. For me, it’s as revealing as knowing where you grew up or what your favorite movie is, because it reveals a lot about your character.
There you are. You enter your hostel or guesthouse, strike up a conversation with another traveler, and just like that you’re best friends. You hang out, eat, drink and sightsee together for days.
For that time and place, you two (or three or four) do everything together and joke as if you had been friends forever. You’re besties.
There is no past or future. Nothing about who you were back home, how old you are, what you do for work, your last relationship, or where you’re from matters. You accept each other for who you are right there because that’s all you have.
But then, as quickly as it started, it’s over. You go one way and they go another.
Vague promises of meeting up and staying in touch fade away as you get further and further from the moments you spent together. Emails and messages begin to slow to a trickle. There’s no ill will, no fight that splits you up—just the sobering truth that in a specific time and place, you made a connection, but now that time and place are gone and so are they. You were strangers in a strange land and, with necessity being the mother of all invention, you gravitated toward each like celestial objects caught in each other’s orbit for no other reason than that you both existed.
As a backpacker, you get good at saying good-bye.
Prague was the first place where I had one-city friends. I met five amazing people there and, when it was all over, they were gone. Off to various parts of the world on their own adventures.
During my next stop in Florence, I struck up a conversation with a Canadian named Peter at our hostel. He was WWOOF-ing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) around Europe, working in exchange for free room and board, in hopes of learning about food so he could be a cook. Tall, with long hair past his shoulders, glasses, and a goofy expression welded to his face, he, too, was traveling solo.
We spent five solid days sightseeing, taking day trips through the surrounding area, and partying our nights away. He was my best friend in Florence. Nay, for that time and place, he was my only best friend.
But, when it was time to move on, he too was gone. “See ya later!” we said.
At the time, I thought we really would. I was new to the road.
You don’t make connections like this every day! We were besties now. Of course, we would see each other again.
But life got in the way as it always does. People move on, settle down, get jobs, find new friends, get married, and have kids.
It’s a cycle that repeats itself a thousand times on the road with everyone you meet.
From the folks in Prague to the couple I met in Panama to the people on my tour around New Zealand, to the CouchSurfing hosts in Europe, to Dutch guys I camped with in Australia, to those really freaking awesome folks I road-tripped in the United States with, the two guys I backpacked Thailand with, my friends from Ios, Bulgaria, and to the thousands of other people I’ve shared magical moments with over the decade, life simply got in the way.
For a time, we were each other’s best of friends, partners in crime, and sometime lovers.
Yet, as we all wander further along life’s path, they begin to fade in our memories. Their names get buried deep down the text message queue on our phones. Every once in a while they will pop to the forefront of our mind, usually because of something we just encountered reminds us of them, and we wonder with a sense of longing:
What are they doing? Do they still travel? Did they make it all the way around the world like they hoped? Are they happy? Married? Do they like their jobs? Are they healthy? Are they even alive?
There’s no bad blood or animosity. Just the truth that they were in your life for that moment and then their part in the play of your life was over and it was time for new characters to appear.
It was a truth I learned to deal with. Our paths may not intersect again but my friends’ effect on my life will remain with me forever. They taught me to let go, laugh, love, be more adventurous, push myself, and so much more.
This all sounds incredibly romantic and tragic, I know, and probably also fantastical to someone who has never had the privilege of these intense experiences. But this happens all the time to people whose interactions are compressed by time and space. The same thing happens at summer camps, for instance. You come from an entirely different world than the kids assigned by chance to your cabin, and barely a week later you’re brothers from another mother, sisters from another mister.
Travel compresses relationships.
In its fiery forge, travel strips away the outside world and, with nothing but the now, amplifies the intensity of all your experiences. With no past or future, you get to know people as they are in that moment. We may ask basic, vague questions about the past when we meet each other initially, but it’s really just a different way to talk about the weather. It’s a placeholder until we figure out what else to say, to get us closer to what we really want to know: do you want to go sightsee, get a drink, or head to the beach? With the unspoken understanding that you have limited time together, you focus on the here and now.
But, sometimes, you meet people who will be more than just a temporary friend for a day. Sometimes, when travel filters out the noise, you form deep and powerful bonds with people that no time or distance can pull apart.
Excerpted from Ten Years a Nomad: A Traveler's Journey Home by Matthew Kepnes. Copyright © 2019 by St. Martin's Press