Meeting new friends in the middle of a travel adventure is the adult equivalent of playing in the sandbox. You’re in a good spot in the playground with fellow toddlers. You don’t know what the other person’s predispositions are—nor would you care or want to know. You’re just there for the pure and simple joy of play. You don’t abhor each other yet because you haven’t delved deep into each other’s layers of trauma and biases. You’re instant besties who just want to build a sandcastle under the sun and laugh heartily without a care in the world.
One of my favorite travel bloggers, the OG Nomadic Matt, tweeted this in June:
I always wonder happened to all those random strangers I met traveling but didn’t get contact info for. We were best friends for a moment in time and then they were gone. I hope they are living happy lives.
I couldn’t agree more. In my early years of backpacking, I was the ultimate girl scout who made sure I got the social media handles, emails, or numbers of every single person I met in group tours and random holidays. I was often the one who created a Whatsapp or Facebook messenger group, where we could exchange photos and videos, or invite each other to dinners and other adventures. Those chat groups would dwindle after a few weeks, when all the “How are yous” and “I miss you guys” have waned and people have moved on to itineraries that are cities to countries away.
Eventually, I got tired of being the class president. I’d just wait until someone else stepped up to the plate by jotting down everyone’s numbers and Instagram handles. A little voice inside would often tell me, “No use keeping in touch; they’re only for this ride.” But sometimes that voice nudges me harder with, “Don’t let that one go without getting their info.”
I’ve learned to keep it casual with just an Instagram follow. There’s no pressure to chat regularly, sans a few likes and emoji reactions. Their IG photos and stories make great travel tips.
If the instant friendship is meant to go beyond that one waterfall adventure, then one of you will find a way to keep in touch, or better yet, fate finds you in the same direction. I love it when someone you bonded with is also staying a while longer or going to the same destination next, which means that the saved phone number won’t go to waste.
I no longer feel bad when someone doesn’t email back or the excited How Are Yous die down. I’ve kept in touch with many people from my travels around the world. I chat online with some of them a couple of times a year. Sometimes we meet up in another country or city. Some of them call me when they come to the Philippines.
Others disappeared. We either forgot to get each other’s contact info or never really bothered. The rest are just floating social media friends. Every now and then, we like each other’s posts, especially when it’s a travel photo or post related to the location where we met. Others deactivated their account or unfollowed me, which, although is sad, doesn’t offend me because let’s be honest, we haven’t really spoken since that quick adventure.
Once in a while, a person reemerges—a familiar face I met on a trip months to years ago and they are in the same location as I am and would like to meet up.
That’s the beauty of the nomadic lifestyle. You meet like-minded spirits (before familiarity breeds contempt, so I’d rather not bring up controversial topics like politics when backpacking) in picturesque and exciting places—on the train, in the middle of a hike, on a boat to a secluded island, while getting lost in a strange city, in the kitchen of a hostel, at a random party—and for that brief and temporary moment, you are the best of friends. You have each other’s backs and for whatever reason you’ve decided to escape your workaday life to travel, you are exactly what each other needed at that moment. Most are only meant to stay in that small episode in your life, while a few good ones step onto the next chapter with you. You’re lucky if you find a few true friends who outlive the adventure.
I am grateful for every single one of them. Whenever I browse albums of my past travels, I break into a smile or laugh whenever I see the faces of all those strangers and not-so-strangers that I met. The senior American couple who invited me to join their table in an Ubud restaurant when they noticed I was dining alone. The Cambodian hostel owner who told me his life story. Those backpacking Europeans I met in Cebu. That French teenager who thought I was his age and tried to ask me out in Louvre (I said no). That Hong Kong-based writer who kept me company when I went on trip to The Farm in Batangas while battling depression. My namesake bunkmate in Madrid. That hot surfer in Siargao. That birthday boy whose party I crashed in Spain. My travel buddies in Dulan. And countless more.
I often wonder how they are, and even if I realize that perhaps our post-pandemic opinions on science (I’m vaxxed and pro-science) and politics may eventually strain the friendship, I wish every single one of them well. I hope they are healthy and happy.