One of the worst things about travelling is having to say goodbye. Whether it’s to friends and family when you first start a trip, or to the people you meet on the road who disappear from your life as quickly as they entered, it’s always sad making that inevitable farewell.
And when you’re travelling by yourself, there are even fewer familiar faces around. Of course you’re always meeting new people when you travel – but that doesn’t mean the goodbyes get any easier.
People often get confused with what ‘travelling solo’ actually means. They seem to think it’s as if you spend your entire trip shunning any efforts from other people to befriend you – when its actually just the way you’ve started your travels. The friends I’ve made when I’ve travelled solo are some of my closest, because they’ve been privy to some of my highest and lowest moments – and they’ve stuck with me throughout.
But I’ve been incredibly lucky to meet the most amazing people over the years. Travelling solo gives you the opportunity to forge these friendships – but it’s how you treat the relationships from the start that makes all the difference.
Travelling friendships aren’t just about circumstance
Arriving at a nondescript grey building in Reading on a freezing January morning, I was worried. The teenagers I was about to meet were fresh out of school and due to leave for Ecuador alongside me in just a few weeks – but I had no clue whether we were going to get on.
There was a gap of seven years between me and them; time that I’d filled with an entire university degree and a hell of a lot of travelling, living and essentially growing up. Would it be too much? Would I have to spend the entirety of the volunteering programme keeping my distance?
Fast forward six months and I can’t imagine being in South America without them. They’ve made my time here absolutely incredible, filled with more laughter, craziness, adventure and colour than I could ever have expected, and the fact that I have to continue this journey by myself, now that they’re heading homeward to new adventures of their own, is nothing short of heartbreaking.
Once, twice, third time lucky
I’ve managed to score these kinds of ridiculously close friendships before, with other groups in other countries. Like my girls from India – who I spent seven weeks with, traipsing around in sweaty colourful heat – and the gang of boys I lived with in San Francisco; all street festivals, house parties and chilling in a garden of overgrown grass.
These sets of initial strangers became little family units that, quite apart from supporting me, also managed to cement an opinion of each country in my mind, filled with emotions and memories that are inseparable from my relationships with those people.
The problem with distance
It’s strange though. I know how strong these friendships are, and I’m pretty sure that they have the chance to stand the test of time – but the huge distances still absolutely suck.
When it’s a problematic time difference, a giant sea between you both, or the promise that there’ll be at least a few years until another face to face meeting, the thought of such important friendships relying on Facebook messages, scheduled Skype calls and a good internet connection is highly stressful.
And every time I find these incredible people around the world (who I’d never otherwise have met) I know it’s bittersweet. Because eventually we’ll have to part ways. And then I’ll be on my own again.
An unexplainable need for being solo
So why do I surround myself with such wonderful friends, only to willingly part ways with them again? Surely, if I’m so keen to be around them, it takes away somewhat from this whole solo travel deal?
Well, there’s a few reasons why I’m still doing it. A large part is for the sake of the person I’m becoming – and then there’s the people I’ve lost, too.
For a long time now I’ve known I’m not myself. Ever since I lost my mum in 2009, something changed in me, irrevocably, and its been four years of searching to find a self that fits.
Without knowing why, the way I’ve established this search is through travel; through exploring different cultures, through volunteering, and through meeting people and then leaving them again. The bittersweetness is an intrinsic part of this process, even if it hurts; a need to forge wonderful relationships and, perhaps, then have some element of control over when we say goodbye. Because having no choice in when I had to leave my mum is something that will always haunt me.
There’s also the discovery that some people don’t understand the process of saying goodbye – and what that, in turn, can entail.
Like the one man I’ve ever loved, who began our relationship by casually mentioning that I’d be leaving on a year abroad in eighteen months, so maybe it wasn’t sensible to get involved. And eight weeks into that year abroad, his confession that he couldn’t handle the distance between us anymore was enough to let me know we weren’t destined to be together.
The parting of the ways
Because distance – whether emotional or physical, long-term or short – is something I’ve built into my lifestyle. It’s a difficult thing to overcome, but the rewards that accompany it have the ability to eclipse it.
So while some people may live by shielding themselves from eventual pain from the outset, I know I can’t. The friends I make and then bid goodbye to are shaping me into the person I’m becoming, and despite the sadness at always leaving or being left, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
To those who I’ve met while travelling, thank you. You’ve changed my perceptions, my views, my attitudes – hell, you’ve changed my life! – in ways I could never have imagined. And I’ve said it many times to those I really care about; the distance means nothing when we’re close enough.
And to all those who think that a lifestyle focused around perpetual travel is a way of running away from real life, they couldn’t be more wrong. Whether with strangers, friends or striding out solo, it makes no difference.
I’m heading straight towards it.