Instant Friends – Just Add Water

Guest Post by Colin Heinrich, the global traveler behind www.elsewhereman.com

I don’t know why I’m looking back. I never do that, not even with my family. When I arrived at my terminal in LAX, about to spend the next who-knows-how-many months in Southeast Asia, I hugged my mom once and walked on in through the automatic doors. I didn’t look back then. But here I am, neck in reverse.

Hannah and Natalie are looking back too, though their faces are rapidly disappearing into the distance as the taxi accelerates towards infinity. Soon I can’t even make out the details of their features, though I can tell they’re still waving through the window.

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It’s only been four days. I only bumped into the girls at Sunflower on Thursday night. None of us were staying in the hostel – I was stationed down the road and they had just been kicked out for lack of extended reservation – but we had all been in Hoi An, Vietnam long enough to know that most good nights started there. I was ordering a Saigon at the bar, they were gathered with a crowd of strangers talking about Thailand. My ears perked up at the word “Pai” behind me – it’s my favorite little town there, and turns out it was theirs as well. So I invited myself to the conversation.

That was only four days ago. And now that they’re gone, I know it wasn’t enough.

At home, friendships incubate in the warmth of social expectations and selfconsciousness. They grow slowly with the ebb and flow of anxiety, until one day without warning you wake up and realize that any questions about your relationship – “would it be weird to invite him? Can I trust her with this secret?” – have already been answered by the test of time. The recipe calls for a low flame over a long roast. Even in the age of Facebook, where a person’s entire life is three clicks and a bored half hour away, pushing for a friendship feels unnatural and looks desperate. So what changed? Why did putting 7,000 miles and god knows how many gallons of water between me and my home compress a month of playful flirtation into the time it takes to say hello?

Five minutes later, I had told them what I wanted to do with my life. Ten minutes after that, they knew my insecurities, the fears of what I’d never reach or see. By Friday morning, they knew me. And it was okay. Because I, in turn, knew them.

In the realm of the Abroad, when you’re on an adventure, you can rarely predict where you’re going to eat that night, let alone where you’re going to sleep the next week. It’s why Hannah and Natalie didn’t reserve enough time at Sunflower (though thank goodness they stuck around anyway). In that kind of atmosphere, there’s no time for awkward pleasantries or surreptitious sideways glances to see if others approve. If you click, fantastic. If not, move on. Carpe Diem Incarnate. Combined with the lack of accountability a foreign country provides – there’s no point in keeping secrets from strangers – and it’s easy to see why such powerful bonds can be flash formed.

It’s why it hurts so much to say goodbye. The stay within each other’s presence may be fleeting, but the friendship forged is real and ironclad. But there’s also something refreshing about it. About leaving. Because you can always come back.

Last year, I backpacked through Thailand where I met three Welsh burlesque dancers. One of the more interesting groups of professionals abroad, to be sure. And it happened – we became very close, only to be torn asunder by different plans. But we kept in contact – social networking is brilliant that way. So in February, when I traveled through Europe for a month, I went to visit them. At that point, it had been roughly eight months since the last time we had met face to face, and yet there was no catching up necessary. No bullshit pleasantries, no indication that our separation had any parasitic effect on our friendship. The only acknowledgement of my absence came in the form of drunken laughter:

“I forgot how thick your accent is!”

For three days, they carted me around their city, showing me sights most tourists would overlook. When I told others I went to Cardiff in the first place, the response was often “…why?” But to me, the why was obvious. There’s no sight to see that compares to your friends, even when they live on the other side of the globe. Before Hannah and Natalie got in their taxi, we talked endlessly about plans to visit later in the year. Music festivals, road trips. We have months to start saving money.

Eventually, I figure it out, why I don’t normally look back at people when I walk away. I’ve spent my life moving around the country, saying goodbye to hundreds of people. You get good at it, that kind of lifestyle. Saying goodbye becomes a fact of life, loses its meaning. Semantic Satiation. You stop looking back the way they do in sad movies, one last regretful look before the schism, because when you’re on the move, the chances are higher you’ll see them again.

That’s why I looked back to watch Natalie and Hannah disappear. Because it wasn’t really a look back at all, not a sappy chance to catch one final look at two fleeting friends. But because it was less than that. It was just a parting glance before going on my way. Because ultimately, despite the superficial pain of regret, their departure doesn’t matter. Because when you travel the world together, there’s never really such a thing as goodbye.