What if one of the best things about solo travel was something that outlives the experience itself? Not material, the very opposite, in fact. Something as fundamental as friendship.
I’m talking about true friendships, not the ‘visited-a-temple-together and added-to-Facebook kind’. Some people we meet travelling may be in our lives for just an hour, perhaps a day, or, if we’re lucky, years.
Over the last five years of travelling more-or-less full-time, I’ve pondered what it is about solo travel that can turn strangers into lifelong friends.
Perhaps, when we are stripped of our routines, work woes and creature comforts, our true selves flourish, attracting our real soul mates.
With no ties to yesterday, fellow solo travellers tend to appreciate each other in the ‘present self’ more than friends back home are inclined to.
With no pre-conceived ideas of your personality, background or peers, it’s a special sort of bond, sans judgment.
By and large, these friendships evolve in places where at least one of you is new or unfamiliar. And that’s a good thing. You bond instantly over shared interests and experiencing once-in-a-lifetime moments together.
They are there for those wonderful first-time experiences, from salsa to skydiving, often outside of (both) your comfort zones. That mutual understanding of each other’s solo travel needs – independence, adventure and freedom – make for the foundations of a solid friendship.
I’m lucky enough to have made a circle of close friends who hail from all corners of the globe. In doing so, I’ve realised that these ‘international friendships’ teach you so much about other cultures, and even your own.
As cheesy as it sounds, some of my most memorable moments from travelling are defined by the people I shared them with, versus the place.
From travel buddies to lifelong friendship
The friends you make it through the other side with (as in, after the holiday has ended) know your best and worse self. They’ve seen you homesick, bedridden with food poisoning and sleep-deprived after one overnight bus too many.
They’re the person who comes back from the supermarket with a supersize tub of yogurt to cool your sunburn, and share their last packet of digestives when you realise the only restaurant in your remote Bolivian village is cerrado!
They are the good listener and the voice of reason, talking you out of booking that one-way ticket home when you’re craving a hug from your mum, and the motivating force you need to get through that last kilometre to reach the mountain summit.
To quote Dale Carnegie, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
Travelling does exactly that, by feeding our curiosity in meeting new people, as well as learning about different cultures. There is something about travel that nurtures close relationships; suddenly a stranger becomes a good friend.
You’ve never met their dad, dog, best friend or shared a pint in their local, and yet somehow you feel like you’ve known each other a lifetime. And it’s never too late to get out there.
Going the distance
A very special friendship forged from my nomadic life is the one I have with Keshia (above), a Dutch interior architect from Amsterdam.
We met in the Bolivian city of Sucre on King’s Day amongst a sea of orange at a hostel party, and went on to travel for six weeks together in Peru and Ecuador.
It’s fair to say we had our ups and downs. From falling out about eating cuy (guinea pig) in Cusco to climbing 4,500 metres in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, getting stuck in a cable car in Quito, and surfing for the first time in Mancora, our travel friendship has seen it all.
We’ve shared the same problems, and relied on each other for the solutions.
She was the last person to wave me off from the airport in Ecuador after 11 months of travelling, and since then we’ve met up in Paris, Dublin and Munich.
And I now know the Dam like a local since becoming a regular on her couch!
Friendships without borders
There’s nothing like a dodgy tummy to cement a friendship!
I met Michelle, a fashion merchandiser from California, in a Balinese hostel about 18 months ago. I was nursing a stomach bug and she made a late night run to the pharmacy for me, cracking jokes to lift my spirits!
We may have only hung out for two weeks, yet despite living 5,000-miles apart, we will be backpacking our way around Colombia for two weeks in December.
As friends move around, the benefits of social media mean we can continue to be part of each other’s lives, despite the miles between us.
There’s something about the intensity of travel, and your reliance and trust in strangers, that fast tracks friendships. Through experiencing good times together, your travel companions quickly become lifelong friends.
Those strangers-turned-best-buddies also have the ability to really open up your mind to everything from politics to new perspectives.
Like Bruno, my Brazilian buddy (above right) who I met on a boat navigating the Maluku islands in Indonesia. He was a professional photographer and filmmaker who gave first aid to my camera in its hour of need.
We bonded over our love of art-house films, Mexican food and wildlife photography. I’ve since spent a whole month in his hometown of Ubatuba (not a made up name!) on Brazil’s southeast coast, practicing my rusty Portuguese, honing my surf skills and chasing waterfalls.
And proof that age is no barrier is my friendship with fellow solo traveller, Angelica (above left), a 58-year old real estate manager from Chicago.
We met on a challenging jungle trek in the remote Indonesian island of Sumba. I distracted her from her snake phobia whilst she loaned me her (only) walking stick to get down a steep trail with a sprained right knee.
We were each other’s crutch and that trust has blossomed into a solid friendship. Earlier this year I spent a week hanging out with her and her family in Chicago, and we’re already planning a European rendezvous next spring.
Travelling solo (the good and the bad) has a knack of strengthening the bonds and similarities we make with individuals. Your travel friends show you a whole new world.
These are the people you lie beneath a star-studded sky with until your toes go numb, contemplating life and the future. These are the people who have the potential for being the best souvenir you could ever hope to bring home.
Turn strangers into true friends on these three small group adventures:
Find joy in Japan
Explore hidden corners of East Tokyo by bike, sea-kayak around the Great Torii floating shrine and hike through the spectacular Hakone Mountains followed by a relaxing soak in a hot spring.
Break free in breathtaking Tanzania
Snorkel through vibrant depths of coral reef, soak up the sun on Zanzibar’s white sands and take a drive through Serengeti National Park in search of the Big 5.
Embrace beach life in Brazil
Discover the hidden beaches and lagoons on Brazil’s rugged coastline, dive into warm tropical waters and resurface for a fresh seafood feast. By moonlight, get your samba on and dance the night away.
Images: Sarah Freeman, Shutterstock, Flash Pack