One of my favorite parts of traveling is meeting so many people. Meeting them in hostels, on tours, on buses, sitting at cafes, or at bars. On the road, it’s easy to make new friends. So easy that sometimes you feel like you have friend overload. On the road, you find very little pretense. No one has their guard up. No one questions your motives or wonders what you are after. Saying hello is all you need. In the world of travel, everyone is open to meeting new people. A simple hello and before you know it, you are traveling with people for months.
Yet back home, I’m finding it’s not like that. Out at the bars or on the street, saying hello or engaging strangers in conversation is usually met with a stare. “Why is this person talking to me? What do they want?” People put up barriers. No one is as open as they are on the road and there’s always a supposed motive. Once, I was home in Boston and my friends and I had gone to a bar. While there I spotted a guy wearing the quintessential Vietnam backpacker shirt – a red shirt with a yellow star on the chest. Anyone who has ever been to Vietnam has one and you’ll spy hundreds on any trip around Southeast Asia.
Among travelers, there is a certain comradery. We understand each other. We’re used to talking to strangers and think nothing of doing so. So I stopped and struck up a conversation about backpacking Asia. It’s not often you meet Americans who have done it. I think I can count on both hands the number of Americans I’ve met. While we talked, I glanced over at his friends and could see the confusion on their face. Why was I talking to their friend? Did I know him? Was I hitting on him? When our conversation ended and I returned to my friends, they asked the questions out loud. No, I didn’t know him. We were simply talking about Vietnam. My friends, perplexed by this, replied with a word: weird. I had broken some social rule simply by doing what travelers around the world do every day.
Talking to girls is even worse- the first thought is always “what does this guy want? Is he trying to sleep with me?” An innocent conversation at a bar is never innocent even when it is. Yet on the travel trail, I have and see tons of innocent conversations between the sexes that revolve anything and everything. Striking up a conversation with a girl isn’t about a hidden agenda, it’s simply about making new friends.
Coming back home into this mindset has been difficult. You’re used to the openness of travelers and the conversations with perfect strangers. It’s a friendly environment. But back home these situations aren’t easily replicated and people always think there is a hidden agenda. Every Sunday, I go to a bar in New York City‘s East Village to watch HBO’s True Blood. Once after the show was over, I tried talking to some of the people about it. They seemed in a rush to leave. I got the hint.
Then I think maybe it’s me. Maybe this is in my head or I’m just really socially awkward. Maybe I smell. But when I ask other travelers who are reintegrating, they speak of the same thing. They speak of the weird looks they also get and the walls people put up. They speak of it with a heavy heart. Readjusting is already difficult. This just makes it harder.
One of the greatest things about traveling the world is that it makes you comfortable speaking with strangers. It makes you more outgoing. It’s either talk or be lonely. It’s do or die. There’s a very jovial spirit about travelers. We leave to meet new friends and put ourselves into new situations. People interest us.
Coming back home to the opposite line of thought has been quite an adjustment. One I don’t really like. It’s off putting. You have to work to break down barriers. People always think the worst. Few people seem interested in just having a conversation for the sake of having a conversation. Being on the road, this is never an issue. And after seven weeks back in America, it’s making me long to get back on the road.