People often ask me why I travel and as time goes by my answer to that question has evolved, from a simple desire to explore to something much deeper. The first time I left home it was to fulfill my thirst for adventure, to see somewhere new and experience a culture different from my own. During my service trip to Jamaica in 2009, I realized that meeting and interacting with the local people is an integral part of [my] travel. Now, after two years of living [and teaching] in a foreign country, countless Couchsurfing experiences, volunteering and exploring nearly 20 countries I’ve realized people really are at the core of it all.
I can think of countless articles which showcase the top destinations for [2015, solo travelers, adventure seekers, shoppers, etc.], but only a few of these mention the people. Usually it’s about sights one must visit, food to eat, historical sights to see, or adventures to embark on, but rarely do articles boast about the people you must meet. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still take part in a cooking class, hike a mountain for sunrise, shop the night markets and try all the street food, but if I had my way I would do this alongside someone. People from the community that I’ve met, shared stories, smiles and laughs with and hopefully, by the end of my trip, people I can call friends.
I recall a long bus journey in Laos, listening to another traveler talk about the word friend. He thought it was strange the way some of the students of their friends from America, Canada or England. These friends were people that had volunteered or met the students only a few times, so he didn’t believe they had earned the title of friend. He criticized these relationships, saying that if they were true friends they wouldn’t have returned to their home country but instead stayed in the country longer to build that relationship or help their friend, weather it be monetary, educational or by other means. Of course it would be ideal if we [as travelers] could stay in every country, city or village for long periods of time, but that’s usually not the road a traveler is on, and I think the locals [our friends] understand that. I also believe that it doesn’t take that long to build a true friendship.
I’ve yet to have the opportunity to host other travelers, but I think after being a guest in homes and villages across the globe I’ve come to understand how these relationships work. Living life in transit forces you to open yourself up to others more quickly, showing your true self, all while being observant of those around you. Throughout my three years in Asia I’ve made countless friends, some relationships forming within minutes while others took time to blossom; some people I’ve been lucky enough to revisit while other rely on modern technology [Facebook] to stay alive.
My two weeks volunteering in Klaten, central Java Indonesia, taught me a great deal about myself and how I choose to form bonds while on the road. I signed up to volunteer and was immediately welcomed into a family of locals and travelers from various countries. We were expected to spend time together, travel together, rely on each other and notify each other of what we were doing every day. Having come from a year traveling alone, following my own rules, schedule and fulfilling my own desires, this came as a bit of a shock. I came to teach English, not be told what to do, where to go and with whom to spend my time. As I got to know the city I began to meet others outside our family, people I wanted to befriend, but apparently that was going to be a problem.
After doing my ‘own thing’ one day I made plans to travel around Klaten with another of my new friends on Sunday. As my plans were revealed there was immediate backlash and questioning from the group, why had I not informed them earlier? Where was I going? When would I return? Why had I not invited the rest of the group? Clearly I was quickly becoming the problem child. I understand that my host felt responsible for me, but to me this was completely unnecessary and frankly annoying. When you travel you learn to make a quick judge of character and know who you want to surround yourself with, for me this was unfortunately not the family to which I was assigned, but my new friends.
I’ve been told I’m strong, independent, and maybe a bit selfish so it should be no surprise that I proceeded with my schedule as planned. I spent a day with a like-minded traveler, learning not only about his life and experiences but also gaining a more in-depth knowledge of his home and the people in Klaten. Everyday in Klaten provided me with a unique and interesting experience, but this was by far one of the best. There was no schedule to follow, rules, or appointments to be met. We visited and learned from the local pottery makers, had our own failed attempts at the wheel, sipped tea as the rain fell, cooked dinner together, and shared stories of where we’d been and still hope to go. As insignificant as the days’ events may have been to some, they were perfect for me, and I don’t think I’ve laughed as much or as genuinely as I did that day.
I seem to have gone off on a bit of a tangent but the point to be made is that as you travel the people you meet and friendships you build can come quick or slow, old or young, approved of or challenged, but none of that should matter. What matters is that you go with your heart, spend time with the people you feel most comfortable, be honest, and don’t waste a minute thinking about tomorrow. You might have a train to catch, class to teach, or adventure to embark on, but for now you’re here, making memories, which deserve attention of their own. My new friend taught me a phrase “Bahagia itu simple” which translates as “Happy is simple” and I thank him for that.