In fact, travel can outdo Hollywood-or Vegas, for that matter-anytime for the instant hookup. All you need are a couple of hours and, say, a seat on a Peruvian bus to pick up a friend to go. That's how it happened for Caryl Dolinko. After a British traveler in the seat next to her unloaded a recent love breakup, she opened up, too. Before she knew it, they had forged a deep enough bond that both got choked up. 'It was amazing, the connection we made,' marvels Vancouver, B.C.-based Dolinko, coauthor of The Globetrotter's Guide, a budget travel primer. 'It was such an immediate closeness and trust that we let all the other, superfluous stuff go. I was thinking, I can't believe I opened up to a total stranger.'
Ride sharing was never like this back home. Welcome to the whirl of the instant road friendship, where strangers connect at time-lapse speed, condensing months and years of acquaintance into highly charged encounters measured by the hour. It's one of the headiest parts of the travel experience, a mystifying, synchronistic meeting of the minds and passions no dating service or Rotarian mixer can approach.
'It was as if we knew each other,' says Gregg Gebetsberger, a medical worker in Laredo, Texas, recalling his super-session with a local at a cafe in Santiago last fall. 'It was just one of those rare things I don't quite know how to explain or can't understand exactly.'
These instant friends run counter to everything we know about human interaction. It's as if we've entered a parallel universe, which, in effect, we have, where the usual rules of contact-suspicion, caution, go slow, avoid revelations-have been canceled. Chat up a stranger at home, and you could wind up with a court injunction. But on the road, you're swiftly joined at the hip with locals and fellow travelers turned blood brothers or sisters, ready to leap into a verse of 'We Are the World' at a moment's notice.
It's weird. Euphoric. 'Powerful,' declares Bob Fama, a longterm traveler who's logged stints of up to five years on the trail. 'You're in this strange land with strange people, and you can connect and catch a wave. It feels good. You're groovin' with a friend or a group of friends. It's beyond a bond, it's a trust. You're open to share whatever you want and be yourself without any pretense.'
Trusting strangers is something so removed from a life of averted eyes that clearly something's changed out there. Is it us or them? As one who shares only name and fingerprints with my Road Self, I'll go out on a limb and say it's us. 'You're way more outgoing,' agrees Fama, an intensive care nurse in San Francisco who turned a chance meeting on the porch of a youth hostel in Harare, Zimbabwe, into a three-year traveling partner/girlfriend. 'We're pretty closed in America. When you're traveling, you're in cafes, hotels, trains, and you can say, 'Hey, what's up?' or 'Watch my stuff for a second while I go to the bathroom.' I've had times in Africa where a perfect stranger will come up to me and say, 'Here's my money belt; hold it, I gotta take a shower.''
'I'll meet five times as many people on the road as I do at home,' e-mails Nathan Sato, a computer programmer in Berkeley, California. 'And five times as many people traveling in the Third World as in developed countries.'
There's no doubt a radical shift takes place when we move from the home fortress-cocoon framework to one of explorer/visitor. We go from command-and-control mode, screening out all beyond usual contact, to unconditional receptionist, from stuff-defined to light on our feet. 'The only baggage you take with you from your life is your luggage,' states Cele Fichter, a director of psychiatric services at St. Francis Medical Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 'You can just pack up and leave your work, your problems, your unhappy relationships, so that when you meet somebody on your vacation it's almost like you're coming in fresh. There's something very free about that. You don't require anything of them, and they don't require anything of you. All you have to do is enjoy this experience together.Helping us cut to the chase is a phenomenon we've discussed before here, the stranger-on-the-train effect-you can tell folks in faraway places things you, wouldn't say to people close to you since there's no fear of it coming back to haunt you. 'Because it's an environment that's unknown, people will risk more of who they are in an authentic manner more quickly,' explains Suzanne Lopez, a psychotherapist and author of Get Smart with Your Heart. 'It's not like, 'Oh, if I'm really like myself, it's going to get back to my friends.''
The real question, of course, is: What is really yourself? Which is the more authentic you, the home brand, conditioned by social pressures, or the unchained road model? I submit that for most adventurous travelers, it's the latter. We're reduced to a kind of basic self out on the trail that is closer to how we'd like to be. Stripped of all the usual distractions, we can have total focus on the people we meet. Off the yardstick track that comes from needing the approval of our fellows, we don't have to measure people by who they hang out with or what they take home each week. And perhaps most freeing of all, we're no longer hemmed in by our own rigid behavioral code.
I was stunned on my first jaunt abroad to find myself a social instigator. The cringing awkwardness of opening lines that dogged me at home was completely gone, and I struck up conversations with other travelers and local people like a veteran pickup artist. With roadies there was always a built-in icebreaker-'Where you going? Where you been?' With locals, sheer stupidity was all I needed to get something going. Not knowing where I was or how to get somewhere forced me to reach out and find a hand, often with a friend attached to it. It's the same thing that creates the rapport with fellow travelers, as we come together in cluelessness.
'When you get off a bus in a tiny village in Bolivia or Laos, and there is only one other backpacker, an instant bonding occurs,' says Sato. 'You're both in the same predicament-strange surroundings, different culture, same needs.'
The lack of pretense allows travelers to relate without the usual fears of rejection. 'I can be who I am at that present time,' enthuses Dolinko. 'People I meet don't judge me on my past, my pattern, my family, my job or money. They just judge me on face value. And because of that we can establish a relationship starting from now.'
The judges, it seems, are on vacation, too. 'When we're traveling, we don't judge people as quickly, mainly because we don't think we're going to have to interact with them on a long-term basis,' explains Fichter.
We get a dose of perhaps the ultimate freedom, one hard to find in even the freest of societies: the freedom to be yourself. 'You are who you are on the road,' says Fama. 'A lot of times at home you mask yourself behind some shield. That disappears when I travel.'
Though far from everyone we meet out there is a mind-meld candidate-especially travelers in mob form in Phuket or Bali-most of us have an immediate affinity as fellow wanderers. Just the mere fact of showing up in a place like Sulawesi brings certain core commonalities-curiosity, global interest, adventurous spirit. So in a way we're hardly strangers, more like distant relations of the tribe, thus the feeling of having known someone you've just met your whole life. It's the Heidelberg or Sydney chapter of the family.
The sense that we have something more in common with a stranger than the weather is exhilarating because it yanks us out of the illusion of our separateness from everyone else and gives us a feeling of belonging we may not feel at home. Usually we're reminded of our link to the species-even neighbors-only in times of disasters or men on the moon. Travel gives us glimpses of that connection in the day-to-day, a union as righteous as the one surfers enter when body, spirit and nature converge on a wave that just keeps on rolling.
'It's the kind of experience that you dream about,' recalls Gebetsberger about his Chilean ride. 'I'm in the middle of a group of people who are welcoming and generous and want to show me a side of their country that tourists on a bus don't see. I remember thinking to myself how lucky and magical this is.'
The seeming happenstance of it all is part of the charge, but we also have a hand in sparking these sessions. There's more of a need to make friends on the road, for practical reasons-watching gear, finding a place to stay, scoring some Lomotil-but also because our social-animal impulse becomes more active when we're far from our comfortable circle of acquaintances. 'We have a deep longing to be able to communicate and make contact with other human beings,' says Lopez. 'When the longing and loneliness overrides you and the need to make contact is great, you'll talk to somebody and bond with them in a way you wouldn't if you were here.What makes 'situational' friendships, as psychologists dub these transitory relationships, different from the home variety is, of course, their duration. It's hi and bye, and in between an intense period of hours or days when close, but some think not-so-close, connections are made. 'I think it creates a false sense of intimacy,' argues Lopez. 'It's intense, it's immediate, but it isn't something that can continue. So there's an illusion of an intimacy that's far greater than what the actual experience reflects. There's so much about who it is we are that isn't known.'
'We've only shown our vacation self to these people, and we've only asked to see their vacation self,' notes Fichter. 'We are able to leap into some serious emotional sharing, but then there is always that day-after syndrome.'
I got a taste of this when I visited some Scottish travelers I'd met a couple of years earlier on the trail. We'd written letters in the interim, but from the moment I showed up it was painfully clear in the profusion of pregnant pauses that we had nothing in common but a point in time three years earlier. Still, there are other connections that live on and tell me the best road friendships are no illusion.
Dolinko traveled with an American woman in India for five weeks and built a lasting friendship. 'We went through such hardships together that we developed an incredible closeness and understanding. It wasn't a transitory thing where I said 'Thanks very much, goodbye,' and that was it.' Eleven years later, they're still in regular contact.
Most encounters, though, will be brief ones. We'll go through the ritual of exchanging addresses, but we know that life will intervene. Since shared adventure can bring people closer faster than years of surface exchanges, it's that much harder to part when the inevitable moving day dawns. 'It can be heartbreaking sometimes,' says Dolinko. 'But on the other side, you think, 'I've just met somebody wonderful I know there's going to be someone else wonderful. It gives you faith in friendships.'
We come back with a buoying sense of just how many people in the world we could get on with and a major lesson for our hyper-transient times: There's no holding on, only moving on-to a place where you can live each day fully, where 'every person has something to offer us and us to them,' says Lopez. Where we can be accepted as the geniuses/models/epitomes of wit that we aren't. And where we realize that, above all, that it's the people, not the sights, who make our world go round.
To hear more on this topic, join our discussion on road friendships at ESCAPE Online. Just click on Coconut Wireless or Traveler's Forum on the homepage. I'm anxious to hear your thoughts. See you there. -J.R.
FromEscape(July, 1999.) Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.