Friends for a season

The bittersweetness of hostel hellos and goodbyes

April 21, 2020

“I hate goodbyes!” I exclaim through tears as I embrace Kim and Maria in a farewell hug on my last night in Kotor, Montenegro. Despite meeting only three days prior at our hostel in Mostar, there is a fast and deepened sense of familiarity and kinship with these girls, as if I had known them for years. Travelling alone and staying in hostels cultivates these relationships. At this point I’ve said as many goodbyes as hellos.

I love travelling alone. I appreciate the freedom to choose my itinerary, length of stays and most importantly, new friendships. Over the past five years of on-and-off solo travel, I’ve formed unique, meaningful bonds with people from all over the world.

 As a more seasoned traveller, I know now that it’s fairly easy to form connections when you’re alone. I’ve already seen an increase in the amount of other solo travellers I meet. It’s less associated with an intimidating connotation, but rather with the built-up excitement to get out of your comfort zone and meet people you may not have otherwise met if you were travelling with people you already knew. Really, one of the biggest reasons that more young people are travelling and staying in hostels is to meet people and make new friends. And it’s one of the most enriching aspects of solo travel.

 I vividly remember my first day travelling solo, in Salzburg, Austria. Even as a social, extroverted person, I was anxious and uncertain at the prospect of meeting people. Up until then, I had only travelled in groups—and I wasn’t familiar with this new sensation. Do I just say ‘hello’? Will people think I’m weird? Will I be eating dinner alone? But there were lots of young people staying at the same hostel and I was keen to introduce myself and make new friends.

Friends Season Salzburg

I had booked a Sound of Music tour and was eager to see if anybody from my hostel was going as well. As I was waiting for the tour bus, a girl from my hostel came to wait with me and as soon as I blurted out my name, so did she. Rachael and I quickly realized we were both Canadian and got to chatting about what brought us to Austria. For her, it was a much needed vacation from her job in Germany and for me, it was a break from my study abroad term in Ireland. Before I knew it, we were sitting on the tour bus together, laughing throughout the tour and quickly going from strangers to fast friends. Later that day, we finished the tour in the Mirabell Gardens where they filmed the “Do-Re-Mi” sequence in the film. We met Jon, another backpacker from our hostel also travelling alone and the three of us planned to explore the city of Salzburg the next day. Roaming the old-town streets, giggling and bonding, I couldn’t believe that we had come as three solo travellers the day before, yet it felt like we were old friends. This is the coolest thing ever, I thought. Forming new and beautiful connections is the point of travelling alone. It was pretty awesome.

While riding this warm and euphoric high of connecting with people, it hadn’t yet hit me that there comes a point where you have to part ways—the inevitable, looming farewell. Saying goodbye is just as much a part of travelling alone as trying to meet new people is. It’s hard to let go of a new friend, not knowing when you might reunite, while also wondering if you’ll come across another travel pal just as awesome. It then starts to hit that while the new friendships you make are deep and meaningful, they are also quite transient. Actually, most of the travel friends I have made are just that: friends for a season. I haven’t maintained much contact with Rachael or Jon since that day five years ago. But while we were friends for just a brief moment in time, our time together remains locked in my memory. Our connection is still meaningful.

Friends Season Lake

Since I started travelling the world full-time as a digital nomad over a year ago, I am constantly meeting new people and making friends. Literally, within a week at a hostel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I made around 10 to 15 new friends. Between staying in a dorm room, joining tours and lounging in the common rooms, there were ample opportunities to cultivate new connections. I bonded with several other women travelling solo from around the world, and we planned to all get dinner together one evening. Sitting around a table, sharing food and reflections from our travels, I was inspired by these independent, soul-searching women from around the world. We each came from different countries: Canada, Australia, Japan, Switzerland and Vietnam. Everyone opened up and shared a common determination to travel solo in spite of partners, family, jobs and questions from folks back home. I was struck by each woman’s powerful confidence and independence. A couple days later, I was meeting more people, sharing deep conversations  about relationships, fears and the meaning of “home” within a minute of meeting.

Even at the time, my inner voice told me to appreciate how special these moments were. But it’s like knowing I’d never be able to replicate them made these experiences so much more extraordinary. Once you are in the thick of travelling alone, you become entangled in a beautiful web of a worldwide community. For these moments, your lives intersect for a moment, an hour, a day, a few weeks—all because you both decided to go out into the world to explore at the same time. Sure, inevitably you’ll part ways, but for that moment you were there with those people, and there’s something a little bit carpe diem about that.

For these moments, your lives intersect for a moment, an hour, a day, a few weeks—all because you both decided to go out into the world to explore at the same time.

Back home, you don’t often stumble across these connections that are borne out of happenstance. You seek out people with shared interests and become friends that way. Or you decide who you want to date (and not date) based on a mish-mash of pre-established criteria, shared interests, shared goals, gut feelings and attraction. On the road, much of that flies out the window and you connect with people, sometimes deeply, simply because you’re there and they’re there and someone broke the ice and said hello. And even if that comes at the cost of sad goodbyes and abbreviated friendships, the fact that it happened at all stirs something inside of us that stays forever.

Nowadays, you can easily swap Instagram handles and stay in touch, but just with the sheer number of connections you’re making, it’s very challenging to keep this up with everyone you meet. In my digital nomad lifestyle so far, I’ve made over 100 connections. It’s hard enough to find time to make a Skype call between two time zones. Facebook Messenger conversations can only go so far for so long. But, after years of travelling, I’ve seen first-hand that saying goodbye sometimes actually means see ya later.

Friends Season Sunset Picnic

While in Siem Reap, I instantly connected with a couple of Japanese travellers. I met Hiro in my dorm room and Yuka in the common room. Within seconds of meeting them I felt a strong bond--as if I had already known them. From strangers to friends in under 24 hours: an accurate summary of travel friends. Meeting them inspired me to adjust my itinerary and I subsequently found myself in Japan a few months later. Yuka and her family quickly welcomed me into her home outside of Tokyo, where I stayed for over a week. Surrounded by delicious Japanese food, a soulful friend and a newfound family on the other side of the world, immense gratitude swept over me. I had the gift of immersing myself in Japan through their friendship and love. And to think, this gracious hospitality and experience all came about because we happened to stay in the same hostel in Cambodia on the same day three months before. And it definitely would have not happened had I not kept my heart open to it.

After years of travelling, I’ve seen first-hand that saying goodbye sometimes actually means see ya later.

For all the incoming and outgoing waves of new friends, it’s easy to feel reluctant to always be social and make new introductions. Besides, how could anyone or anything compare to these awesome people and the memories I made in Cambodia? Why should I keep trying to meet people whenI know we’ll have to eventually part ways all over again? I wish that I could just transport all of the friendships I’ve made throughout my travels into one location.

Ignorance can be bliss in these instances. The impending goodbyes are always going to linger on the horizon. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to go out, explore the world and meet inspiring, unique people from all over the world. I’ve found such a common thread of humanity and love beyond borders, ages, religion, ethnicity and gender – and that’s the substantial purpose I’ve discovered in travelling.

 These connections may be transient but they are meaningful and worthwhile. Each relationship is inherently special in its own way – and though the fate of seeing each other again is unknown, you can rest assured that you will have memories that last. Even more, it’s still very possible that you can reunite and meet somewhere else in the world. But while staying close to incredible people may not be guaranteed, I always strive to remain open to new connections.

Meeting people really is the most extraordinary aspect of travelling alone. Inviting friendships, whether for a lifetime or a season, is always worth the emotional ride of goodbyes and hellos. My life is so much fuller having known these incredible people than to not have known them at all.

This article is part of the
Issue 5

Long Reads

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