One of my biggest fears about traveling solo for the first time was people. The people they meet is often cited as one the biggest reasons many continue to travel. Whenever I would hear this I would always think well that’s definitely not going to be the main reason for me.
As an introvert I was actually pretty worried about constantly having to interact with and rely on strangers. I was anxious about the idea of not always being able to be alone when I needed to be. And although I have very deep friendships in my life they tend to develop slowly. So I was scared I would have a hard time connecting deeply with people who were only in my life for days or weeks. I was nervous that being so far away from close friends and family would result in me feeling disconnected and alone.
I shouldn’t have been. It turned out that people were in fact one of the major highlights of my travels last year. I lived with locals, relied on strangers and made intimate bonds with many a fellow traveler. Here’s a few things I learned in 2016 from traveling solo, but never alone.
1. Distance brought me closer with my family.
I am very fortunate to have a family who has been unflinchingly on my side and has supported me unconditionally on my travels. Over the last year I feel even closer with my immediate family and most of my extended family and I have learned how to rely on them when I need to. Travel has taught me in new ways how precious family is. My family deserves much of the credit for this but it also continues to be a very conscious effort on my part to stay connected: I call them regularly. I take the time to send detailed monthly updates. I write postcards and send gifts when I can. The result has been that I feel like I’m traveling with an entire entourage.
2. I’ve noticed that most my friends back home fall into one of three categories.
Constant Friendships – These are usually (but not always) my closest friends. We’ve shared enough experiences together at some point in our lives that the bonds remain strong with little or no maintenance and although I’m sad at times that I can’t be more involved in their life not much changes when we speak or see each other again. Earlier this year I returned home for a wedding to see some close friends for the first time in a year. We fell into the same debauchery we always did and I couldn’t have appreciated it more. I also find that when I do see these friends now I value our friendship even more and I find myself wanting to do whatever I can to help them or just spend time with them.
Developing Friendships – There’s a handful of friends who I feel I’ve become closer with despite the distance. These are usually people who value what I’m doing and are doing (or hope to do) similar things. By taking such definitive action in 2016 to follow my dream to travel a side effect has been that I’ve broadcast my values and what I’m willing to make sacrifices for and I’ve been surprised to find a small but strong well of support spring up from this —often from unexpected places. Also as I start to focus more on my writing I have a developed small group of writer friends that have become invaluable. They deserve a lot of the credit for any progress I’ve made in the past year as a writer.
Fading Friendships – Travel has served as a filter for friendships of convenience. I imagine making such a radical decision to travel also alienates me from a certain group who are uncomfortable with the decision I made because not rejecting it out of hand would force them to examine their own choices they are making in life more than they’d like to. These friendships have faded and I don’t miss them.
3. Making new friends has been easy but deep friendships are not consistent.
As a traveler I instantly have a common bond with other travelers: we’ve both made the decision to leave home and explore a place we don’t know. There’s a lot of common emotional ground and shared experience in making that kind of decision and it can can be easily tapped for establishing rapport quickly. Where we came from and where we are going might be different but this moment is the same for both of us: we are out of our comfort zone in a new and strange land. This tends to lower people’s walls, mine included.
Traveling is also a filter for likeminded people. I meet more like-minded people while traveling than I did at home. We may be wildly different on the surface but usually I find people have chosen to travel for many of the same reasons that I did. Because of this I find I actually have to be more selective with who I befriend while traveling.
With so much immediately in common it’s easy to befriend people that I wouldn’t normally spend time with. This is not always bad —I learn a lot about myself from these experiences but it can be risky. I usually don’t plan my travels more than a few days ahead (and often not even that) but it’s very important that I know what I want from travel. Convenience and comfort can be alluring on the road and if you don’t know why you are traveling it can be easy to fall in with someone else’s reasons for traveling. While this can open one up to new experiences and at times be a lot of fun it can also be a tragic waste of a profound opportunity if you are not constantly monitoring and evaluating how you are traveling.
Travel is a privilege and knowing and sticking to my priorities is paramount. It’s really no different than any other stage in the journey of life but travel provides a strong and constant reminder that if I’m not doing what I want be doing I’m wasting my time. I suggest writing out your reasons for traveling before you leave and constantly checking in with them.
This all being said making deep friendships remains hard and it doesn’t always happen. I sometimes go long stretches on my own. This is what can be challenging with traveling because at home my close friends are usually accessible and our friendship more consistent. The demanding immediacy and blinding novelty of the road means that relationships can only really last as long as you are going in the same direction. Sure you can become facebook friends and maybe you might stay in touch but it is hard to maintain a fulfilling friendship beyond your current shared experience. The other side of this though is it’s part of why deep friendships can arise so suddenly and unexpectedly on the road: you both know its got an expiration date stamped on it from the moment you meet.
4. Saying goodbye doesn’t get easier.
Saying goodbye sucks and I suck at saying it. Sharing intense experiences that travel so commonly dishes up and such intimate things as our hopes and fears only to have to say goodbye days or weeks later is hard and it hasn’t gotten any easier. But as long as travel remains my priority I must accept and embrace this. The goodbyes give birth to new hellos. I see no way around that.
5. Most people want to help.
In Krakow, Poland I had gotten on a trolley only to realize I didn’t have enough change to buy a ticket. I was going to get off but an old, poor Polish woman walked up to me and gave me the money for the ticket. It stunned me.
The next day I was walking down the street to the local grocery store and I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sudden realization that every day I rely on total strangers in almost area of my life: shelter, food, transportation…in a word: survival. I’ve realized since then that thinking it had ever been any different had been a total delusion. It’s been that way my entire life. It just hadn’t ever been quite so obvious. Yes, you need to make good judgments, but defaulting to trusting others has been a huge lesson for me.
6. Necessity is the mother of connection.
If I need something in a different country and don’t know how to get it I am forced to ask people for help. This has led to some very unexpected and incredibly amazing experiences. Hitchhiking in Romania led to being taught by a Romanian what it means to be welcomed selflessly into someone else’s country. Getting lost in the mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh resulted in being invited in as a guest of honor to an all-night family birthday celebration in a small and very poor backwater village. Buying a bottle of wine for some new friends I camped next to when I was feeling lonely turned into a week long road trip across Romania that I will never forget.
So many experiences like these three have become my most treasured memories from my travels in 2016 and in fact, my life.
7. I learned the most from locals.
I have been welcomed into the homes of locals in almost every country I’ve visited. Often times in small and very poor villages. Staying with locals is one of my favorite things to do and I take every opportunity I can to do so. Language barriers, cultural differences and varying levels of comfort can make the experience challenging but I find it always to be overwhelmingly positive. I always come out realizing that we have so much more in common than we do different. The differences are really only on the surface.
One of the reasons I left to travel was because I felt a need deep to see the world with a fresh set of eyes. The locals I live with have time and time again given me new eyes to see the world with and I’m incredibly grateful for that. I’ve learned so much from them it’d be impossible to list in just a couple paragraphs, but foremost on the list have been lessons in hospitality, generosity and gratitude. I’ll be warming my heart next to the glowing embers of these memories for the rest of my life.
8. Solitude is nothing to be scared of.
I’ve spent a lot of time in solitude as I travel. There is no avoiding copious time alone but it doesn’t have to be lonely.
What I didn’t realize was how nourishing and delicious it would be. I feel more and more connected to the wildlife I encounter, the mountains I climb and the trees and stars I sleep under. I love my time alone and actively seek it out now. I often choose places outside of the normal traveler hubs and I have embarked on many multi-day treks alone. I chose to spend the last 10 days of 2016 in complete silence at a Vipassana meditation retreat in Nepal.
I’ve found solitude stokes my creativity and lights me up with inspiration. It gives me time to reflect and dream and when I return to the world I’m overflowing with fresh energy to give to it. It’s made me realize how starved for solitude my soul had been in recent years. In the future solitude will remain an integral part of my life wherever I go.
As I write this it’s the beginning of the new year and I am staying for a week with an incredibly kind Nepalese family in Kathmandu. Aayam, the son, picked me up from my hotel on his motorcycle and then gave me his room for “as long as I would like it.” Dina and Hera, his mother and father respectively, have warmly welcomed me into their home. Nina cooks incredible meals for me three times a day and refuses to allow me to do anything but “have a rest.” She’s showed me how to navigate the incredibly chaotic public transportation system where we weave through oncoming traffic on dusty roads and jump into still-moving vans with people clutching a handful of rupees in one hand while sliding open a rolling door with the other and constantly shouting out destinations to passers by. I’ve learned how to eat and wash my clothes “Nepali style” (both on the floor with our hands) and Aayam is schooling me on the history of Nepal in the evenings when he gets home from work.
Again I find myself a student being given the most wonderful and sacred gift I know: the opportunity to see the world in a brand new way. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the new year.
So to all the people that played a role in my life in 2016 and taught me so much: thank you from the bottom of my heart. You have so generously given me something truly priceless: a sliver of your time.