The living room was dimly lit, the furniture was from a forgotten era, and the room smelled of age. Sitting on the bygone era sofas were six travelers, from different countries. Their presence, youthful excitements, and lively chatters injected life to a room that had seen its glory days.
One of the travelers, a plump bubbly Hungarian girl, was sitting facing me. She was telling us where she had been and what she had seen that day.
Her voice trembling with excitement and awe: “I met god today.”
The Italian guy, who was sharing a room with me, sat up with interest at the mention of ‘god’. The American guy shifted uneasily in his chair.
The Hungarian girl continued “and his name is Gaudi.”
We all laughed.
Surrounded by fixtures that had guarded stories for decades, we, the six strangers (a Hungarian, an Italian, an American, two Finnish, and a Malaysian) met for the first time, but chatted and laughed as if we had been friends for life.
As I lay in bed that night, in a small room in a family-run guesthouse in the Bario Gotic in the centre of Barcelona, I heaved a sigh of contentment and fell asleep with a very happy heart.
It was just as I had imagined.
I had read about this spontaneous friendships before I started traveling. I had longed to experience them. Strangers that otherwise would never meet, much less become friends, in normal circumstances could become instant friends when they meet while traveling.
These friendships are usually short-lived. Like fireworks, they are bright and exciting, but ephemeral:
The turquoise water looked very inviting. It didn’t take long before Dan, an American guy I met in our hostel in Antalya, Turkey, and I plunged into the inviting water. We swam out to a rock about 1km from the beach. As we got near, we saw many kids jumping from its flat top to the water 10 meters below.
While they were surrounding Dan to dare him to jump, I walked undetected to the edge and looked down. My legs became jelly, but before the fear could travel up to my head, I leaped. The fall seemed to last forever then with a big splash I was in the embrace of the turquoise water. A few seconds later, I heard another splash not far to my right. When I surfaced I saw the smiling face of Dan.
The adrenaline and childlike joy was contagious. We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and sunbathing. We chatted like old friends about our plans, etc. And cooked a meal together in the hostel that night.
The next day we exchanged emails as we went our separate way. But we never got in touch. I was glad to have Dan with me that afternoon, for without him I doubted I would have had as much fun. But our friendship didn’t survive beyond that.
But some would last, and evolve:
The pilgrims were filling up the pews as the voice of the nuns filled the chapel as they sang and chanted the Angelus.
Sitting next to me was an American. He introduced himself as Stephen. We chatted over dinner, and for the next two days as we walked the medieval pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago. But we had to say goodbye as he had to speed up and I slowed down.
Little did I know at that time that meeting would spawn a decade-long friendship. And even traveled through many countries (Syria, Colombia, Taiwan, etc.) together.
And from a friendship that was bonded by travel, it has evolved to include running a business together.
Why is it so easy to make friends when you are traveling?
One thing traveling does is that it removes your inhibitions. The knowledge that you might never see these people – travelers or locals – again allows you to let your guard down; there are no baggage to hide and misplaced expectations that weigh each others down. You are free to be who you are, there and then.
This freedom also allows you, if you choose to, to relate on a deeper level with the people you meet. Travel creates a space that allows two people to bond without discrimination or judgment.
I have played pong-beer with teenagers on gap year, drank tea with octogenarian, puffed some magic dragons with hippies, shared meals with the homeless, chatted with militant fighters, etc.
I have kept in touch with some of the people I’ve met on the road. Initially with emails and later with Facebook and other social media apps.
But that doesn’t mean that I would want to meet all of them again. Sometimes it is better to remember them for who they were, the moment and place we met. The bond we created was for there and then. Bringing it to the present might tarnish and alter what we had.
Travel has taught me a lot about friendship. It taught me how to make friends with stranger, how to treasure the shared moments.
But it has also taught me to let it go.
The 3-storey boat was cruising slowly up the mighty Amazon River. The day was hot and the air was still. I was swinging in my hammock when I heard the Argentinian guy next to meet chatting with the Colombian guy.
I decided to join in the conversation and started asking Alejandro, the Colombian, a lot of questions about his country. As I was on my way there.
Alejandro and I connected really well and spent a lot of time chatting. We had plenty of time on our hands. We were stuck on a boat for seven days as we journeyed towards the source of the river.
The bond we had on that boat helped our friendship to blossom. In the one and a half years I lived in Colombia Alejandro would come and visit me when he came to Medellin, and invited me to his family home in Pereira. We became really close friends.
But after I left Colombia, the distance seemed to have affected our friendship. Our emails became less frequent and the sentences became shorter. I think we both tried to hold on to it but we were fighting a losing battle.
I really appreciate the friendship with Alejandro in Colombia. But it was time to let it go.
In my decade-long travel I have met many people, and made many meaningful friendships; they have enriched my life. Some last but the short moments on the road, others longer. The experiences we shared will forever bind us together. At least in that space, at that moment we were bonded by a thing called friendship.