The Inner Journey: Hi and Bye

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.”

‘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.

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