Some of you might remember that one of my very first posts on this blog was about my perceived struggles connecting with others. I specifically wrote that I hoped to work on my interpersonal skills, on this trip and beyond. This is because over the course of college and beyond, I have found myself in a great deal of unchartered territory when it comes to friendship. You see, in high school, I had tons of friends. I was always the floater, the guy who was friends with everyone. People often told me I was the most outgoing and friendly person they knew. I was even known for having friends all over. Every time I went anywhere, whether it was to Coral Ridge Mall, the discount theatre in Cedar Rapids, the state thespian festival in DSM or whatever, I had a friend I could meet up with. Ironically, I didn’t really put too much effort into any of these friendships, they just existed and somehow perpetuated for years.
Freshman and sophomore year of college were similar. I was super involved and I always got to know my classmates. Naturally, I had tons of Facebook friends and by the end of sophomore year, I saw someone I knew every time I stepped foot anywhere on campus or downtown. Then, junior year came and I realized just how meaningless so many of those acquaintances were. I went through a really hard realization that many of my “good” friends were just assholes that didn’t belong in my life. On top of that, for multiple reasons, I was seeing people that I still cared about less and less, and most of my remaining friends were studying abroad or moving. So, junior year was really hard in many ways. Thankfully, I had a great boyfriend who made me feel loved and accepted, so I was able to survive, but I had never before felt as though I didn’t have friends. I didn’t know what had gone wrong – I always had friends. Lots of them – I was good at it…yet almost every single one of them was gone.
The next couple of years were much better. With new roommates, some new jobs, and getting to know Jay’s friends and family, I was able to socialize and forge some new relationships. Furthermore, I managed to keep in touch with some that I had previously written off as a lost cause. That said, I acquired a very different philosophy about friendship. I went from being someone who kind of unconditionally accepted everyone as a potential best friend to doubting every new acquaintance’s motives. In other words, I went from having no standards to the highest standards ever. Some people dropped in and out of my life here and there, but I only allowed a few to stick, and thankfully, I’m still close with them.
Though I’ve realized that I’m far from a perfect friend myself, it’s been hard to shake this pessimistic mindset. I struggle constantly with the best way to navigate relationships. I always wonder how much I should expect of people and how to determine if I really trust someone. So, rather than always seeking out friendships like I used to, I spent the last year in this routine where I’m content with just going to work, hitting the gym and then spending my evening with my Netflix or my wonderful roommate. I occasionally see other friends on the weekends, and everyone else just annoys me.
This is fine about 90% of them time, but there’s always that last 10% of the time, maybe once a month or so, when I can’t help but I want more. I often feel that I need more than the occasional dinner with friends every couple of weeks – sometimes I really do miss being a social butterfly. But how do I get back to that point, if I kind of hate everyone? I can’t establish meaningful relationships if I’ve decided everyone is a flake and that they’re not worth my time. I don’t really know where to go from there, but I’ve come closer and closer to the conclusion that I’m the problem (“and I’m also the solution” – Bridemaids!)
Anyway, even though this trip wasn’t meant to be an Eat Pray Love type of experience in which I sought the meaning of life or inner happiness, I still wanted to take this opportunity to sort out what shit that I could. I mean, when you travel, you can literally meet new people from every walk of life every single day. A 5 week trip is kind of like 35 Tabula Rasas, right? Well, from Courtney (the girl from Omaha that I met on the bus to Chicago) to Marcus (Geography major from London), I definitely feel that I have forged some connections on this trip. However, I’ve come to the realization that things are different when you’re traveling. Meeting people is a whole new ball game, with much bigger returns on your investment. I really don’t think I can say that I’ve made any progress on this dilemma until I’m back in the real world. That said, I have become completely intrigued by the nature of friendships that you acquire when traveling.
For instance, when I went to India, I could not believe how fond I grew of the friends I made there. After three weeks of hanging out with this group, I literally felt as though I had known these people my entire life (and still do).What’s more, I care about them much more than many people I really have known my whole life. I sincerely hope they are lifelong friends from here on out, and I have no doubt in my mind that I will see them all again someday, perhaps in a more permanent situation. This was obviously a surprising development, but it was quite organic, so I’ve never really doubted any of it – and I’ve been able to keep in touch with pretty much all of them in the two years since. If any of them ever needed anything, I would be there for them in an instant.
This is crazy though, right? For someone so private and guarded, this is kind of intense. At first, I chalked it up to needing companionship to deal with India, but it’s gotta be something more than that, because I feel the exact same way about the Danes I met in Bosnia only a month before. Though I was lonely when I met them, I was nowhere near being totally fucked up, which was my state of mind upon making friends in India. Maybe it’s just that the people I met were crazy cool, so why wouldn’t I want to be great friends with them? I mean, they are crazy cool, but am I so sure that if I had met these crazy cool people in Iowa, we would have hit it off as well? I don’t really know. After all, I was a completely different person in India than I ever have been at any other point in my life. Travel changes you, both temporarily and permanently, so who knows?
As you might guess, this has been on my mind the past few days because of my interactions with the likes of Sexton, whom we met in Brasov, and the Brits, whom we met in Belgrade. I mean, my level of comfort with Sex somehow went from 0-100 in about 2 hours. 12 hours after making his acquaintance, the three of us had developed a familiar rapport and within 24 hours, we had numerous inside jokes. By the time we boarded an overnight train to Budapest, a nice German kid we met named Yenil could not believe that we had just met Sex a couple days earlier. He was convinced we were all related (and Jess thought Yenil said that WE were HIS family…which led to a hilariously awkward conversation later).
This in itself is perplexing because it’s NOT typical behavior for me. I don’t just meet people and instantly strike up friendships and establish inside jokes in a couple hours. In the past year, I think I met a handful of new people, only 2 of whom I still consider to be friends. The rest are nice people, but I’m not crying over the likelihood that we’ll probably drift apart. Most people (and most gay guys) that I meet become fodder that I mock the next day, and I don’t even consider keeping in touch. I have pretty much gotten to the point where I accept that most people are nothing special, so how come I’m making all these exceptions when I’m abroad?
Perhaps this is all just emblematic of just what travel does to you in general. I mean, if there’s anything I’ve learned about travel, it’s that it’s life to the extreme. Every day is full of new experiences and new people, and that does something to you, for better or worse. Like I mentioned before, Jess and I have had our good days together and our bad. When things are going well, it’s not hard for them to become amazing. When things start to go bad, it’s a very slippery slope to miserable. And as you might guess, conditions can oscillate between these two extremes in a heartbeat, many times a day. A few days ago, I started crying as I walked through a shopping mall in Vienna. Why? I have no idea. It was everything, really. Missing Jason, being tired, anticipating going home, thinking about moving to Boston, saying goodbye to a new friend, all of it.
The bottom line is that I’ve realized that my emotions when traveling are almost completely the opposite of what I’m used to. I’m normally a….well, emotionless person. I don’t often cry, and if I’m gonna, it won’t be at a mall. It takes a LOT to phase me, either way (like it’s also a rare feat for me to feel extremely happy or satisfied with life, which is a big reason I yearn to travel so deeply). However, when travelling, I am all over the place. I go from ecstatic to pissed to excited to scared to sad, all in an hour. In India, I was a total fucking asshole. I would yell at strangers for getting too close, demand that cabbies charge me less, and I dressed like an old man. Conversely, I embraced every fellow traveler I met with open arms. As soon as I returned, I just turned all those aspects of myself off. It was a piece of cake to do so. So perhaps it’s possible to keep this new, warm, accepting side of myself on? I mean, I was legitimately sad to say goodbye to Sexton last week, and I had only known him a few days. What if I could be that receptive to friendship and, well, emotion, all the time?
Regardless, I’m at a loss to what it is that sparks this surge of connection on the road. Do I just need companionship to deal with the emotional roller coaster that is travel, so I grab onto whoever I meet along the way? Or is it that I am so exposed when traveling that I’m more open to meeting people than ever? Are ALL my emotions so extreme, that even being friendly is unmatched? Is it just that travel engenders extremely auspicious conditions for striking up friendships that can’t really be matched in day to day life?
I HAVE NO IDEA but I’m very intrigued by the psychology of travel. I mean, just take a second to think about what weeks (or months) of TRAVEL would do to your psyche…anywhere in the world! Whether it’s in the US, Europe or Africa….it’s just a total mindfuck. I mean, how can one even prepare for it? We spend virtually 99% of our lives doing the exact opposite of travel – doing the same thing every single day. In my life, it’s work, gym, home, work gym, home, work, gym, home. But right now I haven’t worked out in a month. I have no home. I’m wearing clothes I wouldn’t wear anywhere but my bed, and I’m eating shitty processed food all day long that I wouldn’t normally even touch. Still, I can’t help but wonder if this hobo, unhealthy version of me is the real me. Am I just practicing, preparing and pretending when I’m at home, regularly shaving and avoiding pop?
That said, I’m excited to get back to the day to day pleasures of my regular life, but I’m also very sad to be leaving. The weird, bad and downright gross parts of travel can suck at times, but together, they’re amazing. They make me feel alive, and every time I return to the US, I worry that my normal life won’t compare. Perhaps I won’t be able to keep the best parts of my travel-self turned on when I return. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. I don’t necessarily envy those who unconditionally love everyone – it sometimes seems really naïve. Am I ready to go through so much disappointment again?
On any note, all of this really gives me a new appreciation for what travel provides though, right? I mean, I think most people travel so that they can experience new cultures and/or relax, and I get that, but this kind of travel (meaning 3 weeks or more across multiple countries, I guess) is different. More than a cultural experience, it’s like a mental marathon – but you can’t really train for it. I mean, you kind of get to the point where you zone it all out. New, exotic food becomes gross food. Beautiful old towns become routine. You appreciate different things as time goes on, and if you’re like us, you may even decide that destinations you’ve wanted to visit for years are nothing special anymore. Furthermore, nothing about it is relaxing. I’m hardly ever relaxed – and at times, I don’t even know if I’m having fun. That’s not to say that I’m stressing every minute of the day, but traveling across Europe is NOT the same as lounging on a beach all day in the Caribbean. You’re always on the go and you’re always alert. You have to be – you can’t miss your bus, there’s always another hostel to book, a taxi to secure. So really, this trip has been awesome, but it hasn’t been a piece of cake. It HAS been freeing and made me stronger though.
This is all significant because it kind of makes befriending others while travel counterintuitive, right? I mean, I’m out of my comfort zone – I’ve gained almost 10 pounds since leaving (seriously – I CANNOT WAIT to get back to the gym). I’m constantly sweaty and/or smelly due to a lack of adequate laundry facilities, and I’m actually kind of in one kind of bad mood or another a good deal of the time. Do people normally make friends when they’re stressed, uncomfortable, stressed & on high alert? These are hardly the best conditions for striking up a relationship…or are they?
It’s also likely worthwhile to point out that I really don’t think it’s just me. My companions have also been surprised at the spontaneous connections we have forged. On our last night in Belgrade, the Brits took a separate cab to the train station than Jess and I. Upon arrival, Max asked “So did you guys talk to each other on the way here?” Jess and I thought about it, and realized that the answer was no, not really. It had been relatively quiet. Obviously, we asked why he wanted to know, and he replied that the three of them hadn’t said much either. He said that their cab ride was pretty much the quietest five minutes they had experienced since meeting us the day before, and he was kind of taken aback at it, because it’s not that all of a sudden he and his friends had nothing in common, but just that our absence was duly noted.
Now, don’t me wrong, Jess and I are pretty mother fucking cool, but we’re not SO GOD DAMN AWESOME that when we leave the room, the party comes with us. We had barely known each other 24 hours! So, it’s gotta be something else. There’s something about travel that just brings people together, and I shall continue to try to figure it out. Whatever it is, thank god for it. If it weren’t for the experiences I have had traveling, I don’t know who I’d be. I have a whole cadre of friends around the world now, from the UK to Denmark to Australia that I deeply care about and want to see again someday, and I doubt that I could ever have acquired such a diverse network of friends just by staying within the confines of the states.
Furthermore, I must point out that I’ve realized how lucky I am that I can travel by choice, for pleasure. So many people out there must leave their home for personal safety or economic opportunity, and imagine what must happen to their psyche. What a mindfuck. If anyone knows of any literature concerning the psychology or anthropology of travel (voluntary or not), I would totally be all in, so please recommend.
God, life is amazing.
Yours in travel,