Updated: 02/05/19 | February 5th, 2019
One of my favorite parts about traveling is the ability to meet a diverse range of people.
In hostels, on tours, on buses, sitting at cafés, or at bars, when you travel it’s easy to make new friends. So easy that sometimes you feel like you have friend overload.
There is always someone around.
You are never truly alone.
On the road, you also find very little pretense. No one has their guard up. No one questions your motives or wonders what you are after. There is just you — as you are in that moment. A simple hello and before you know it, you are traveling with people for months.
Travel creates opportunities to meet people you wouldn’t give a second thought to walking down the street. It strips away the artifice and lets you walk away with some of the best friends you’ll ever know—friends who will be there your whole life, ready to pick up right where you left off whenever you happen to meet up again.
Yet back home, in “the real world”, I often find the opposite. 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 and question motives. No one is as open as they are on the road.
Once I was home in Boston at a bar with my friends. One night, I was out with my friends and grappling with thoughts like these. Across the bar, I saw a guy wearing a red shirt with a golden star in the front. It’s the Vietnam flag shirt, and nearly every backpacker in Southeast Asia has it. It’s up there with the Laos beer singlet or the “same same but different” shirt. It’s worn as a badge of honor. A symbol that you’re a member of the travel tribe.
I decided to strike up a conversation.
“Hey man! Nice shirt. You backpacked Southeast Asia, right?”
“Yeah, how did you know?”
“I got that same shirt in Vietnam too. I just came back.”
“Where did you go?,” he said ecstatically.
“Everywhere! I was there for nearly a year.”
Like two soldiers who find each other amid a sea of “civilians” who will never understand what we’ve been through, we swapped war stories from the road, trying to see where our trips overlapped, what bars we remembered, and which places we each knew the other didn’t. We were playing that immortal game of “I’m a better traveler because….” We traded stories about “hidden gems” the other one missed, and off-the-beaten-path highlights. But though games like these might look competitive, they’re really affectionate, full of the mutual recognition of kindred spirits who share the same priorities in life. When I explained my feelings about being back home, he understood just what I was going through—he’d been through the same.
After about ten minutes of conversation, I wished him well and went back to my friends, happy to have met someone who shared my experience and understood how I was feeling.
“Who was that guy?” my friends asked.
No, I didn’t know him. We were simply talking about Vietnam. My friends, perplexed by this, replied with only a word: weird. I had broken some social rule simply by doing what travelers around the world do every day.
Among travelers, there is a certain camaraderie. We understand each other. We’re used to talking to strangers. That’s just what you do. So I stopped and talked to this guy about backpacking Asia. It’s not often you meet Americans who have been in the region. I think I can count on both hands the number of such Americans I’ve met. He was friendly and we hit it off. It was almost as if we had traveled together.
Talking to girls is even worse. Their first thought is always “What does this guy want? Is he trying to sleep with me?” I totally understand that. Most guys, especially guys at bars, are trying to hit on them and take them home. They are sketch balls. 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 to 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. 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. They made small talk but seemed in a rush to get this stranger out of their midsts. I got the hint.
Then I think maybe it’s me.
Maybe this is in my head and I’m just really socially awkward.
Maybe I smell.
But when I ask other travelers who are reintegrating into life back home, they say the same thing. They speak of the weird looks they get and the walls people put up. Readjusting after extended time away is already difficult, and this just makes it harder.
One of the greatest joys of traveling the world is that it makes you comfortable talking with strangers. It makes you more outgoing and more at ease. We get good at making new friends.
Coming home to the opposite way of thinking is 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.
But maybe it is situational.
When you are home, you have your friends. You have your group of allies and people. You don’t need to meet anyone knew. We’re so busy during our week we don’t have time to strike up random friendships that often.
On the road, we have a lot of time and few people. We’re alone out there.
And we’re looking for someone to pass the time with. To be best friends, even if just for a moment. In that sphere, of course we’re going to talk to everyone and everyone. We have to. We don’t have a choice.
While I understand the situational difference, I still wish it was easier to meet people back at home. I wish everyone had that traveler openness in them.
But they don’t.
They don’t need to.
Nothing is going to change that.
But, after seven weeks back in America, this way of thinking making me long for the road ever more.
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