The Inner Journey: Hi and Bye

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I used to conduct a special tour for my out-of-country friends visiting Los Angeles-the all Drive-Thru Day. We'd start at the drive-up laundromat, then bark some orders to the clown at Jack-in-the-Box, idle for dough outside the drive-up bank teller, ride through the car wash if I could talk the guys there into it, and top it all off with a drive-in movie. But the one thing I couldn't offer was the drive-thru relationship. Much as that may seem to be a specialty of this town, you have to really hit the road for that.

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.''

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