Regardless of the amount of time you’ve known one another, there are certain experiences which, when shared, form an irrevocable bond between two individuals—such as exchanging personal philosophies while wandering for hours down a two-lane highway, or hitchhiking through the heartland of a country whose language eludes you, or almost getting yourselves kidnapped by a dodgy if enterprising trucker in rural Mexico (although I humbly encourage readers to avoid the latter).
These are events that challenge your thoughts and test your spirit; that further sculpt your essential you-ness. Though exhilarating and enjoyable, travelling is incontestably a stressful undertaking in that you constantly face the unknown and navigate the unexpected. Backpackers discover as much about themselves as they do their surroundings, and as during any tenderly formative period (such as in grade or high school), you are open and sensitive to the company you keep. This prepares the foundation for deep, meaningful companionships.
Yet while many of my travel friendships came to fruition through a series of antics and misadventures—like sneaking into an ancient tomb in the Guatemalan jungle or starring in a Bollywood underwear commercial—some formulated after as innocuous an occasion as a two-hour chat in a hostel common room.
This is not a wholly unusual happenstance. Many travelers boast similar passions, values and approaches to life. While conversation may typically begin with the ubiquitous “where have you been/where are you going”-type questions, it frequently delves into a more substantial discussion—or else into an evening of drinks, laughter and absurdity fueled by the desire to make the most of your finite time on this incredible planet.
To those of you eager to set out into the world yet hesitant for fear that you won’t make any friends: this is the least of your worries. You should be far more concerned about having enough toilet paper with you at all times (I have admittedly mentioned the importance of accessible tissues in previous articles yet it is a notion that cannot be stressed enough).
First of all, travelers are often friendly folk, delighted to be out and about and eager to share with someone the excitement and wonder of exploration. Much as they are keen to fall in love with a place and/or culture, so too are they enthusiastic about making new friends with people from all over the world. Secondly, just as you—the lonesome voyager—yearn for the Clark to your Lewis or the Ted to your Bill, there are also many other solo backpackers seeking companions.
For this reason, you should not dither when it comes to striking up conversation, asking questions regarding local highlights or (especially) inviting other travelers to join you on your day’s quest. As every region is notorious for certain attractions, and as there are subsequently lesser-known spots which are intriguing precisely because they’re off the beaten path, chances are favorable your potential new buddies will be interested in seeing the same sights as you.
Hostels are by far the best place to make friends. If you encounter a group playing drinking games (as is not unusual in common rooms), don’t shy away from introducing yourself and politely inquiring if you may take part. Hostel sleepier than you expected? Try a backpacker bar. As most people travel with Lonely Planet guidebooks—the On a Shoestring editions seem to be the most popular—any pubs, clubs, restaurants or cafes cited within are likely to be bustling with indie nomads.
Transportation hubs such as bus or train stations are also prime opportunities to acquaint yourself with fellow wanderers. Most people are somewhat nervous when heading to a new destination and there is safety in numbers as well as more brains to discern maps, timetables and tickets. Additionally, cabs and tuk-tuks are cheaper when shared.
I have been fortunate to meet wonderful friends on the road with whom, thanks to Facebook, I have stayed in contact. One person I befriended in during an impromptu cake fight in Cambodia I then travelled with for six weeks in Central America; others I have later visited on their home turfs in Vancouver, Haifa and Nottinghamshire. (And on two separate occasions I have serendipitously bumped into people in Bangkok who I’d backpacked with months/years prior—which is perhaps less relevant but nevertheless really cool and also acting evidence that the world isn’t as big as it feels when you’re far from home.)
Any backpacker will attest that the people you meet can be as impactful as the places you go or the sights you see. To both novice and veteran backpackers: cherish your travel friends because the often infinitesimal amount of time you spent together is irrelevant to the worth of the moments you’ve shared.
To anybody reading who I have been lucky enough to meet abroad: thanks for an awesome time.