Friday 25 April 2014

The Importance of Being Friendly

Is there anything in this world more important than friendship? Solid, unwavering friendship. Maybe love, but this is always rooted in friendship, albeit friendship on a deeper level. Love is also more volatile, likely to fade and dissipate altogether. Real friendship remains, persists, endeavours. Some might say truth, justice, democracy, collaboration, understanding, forgiveness. All undeniably vital in these troubled modern times. All required to improve the dire current situation with the rifeness of war, famine, prejudice, despair, hate. All sharing the same underlying necessity to exist, function and grow: Friendship.

I miss my friends. Travelling solo for extended periods of time - five months this time round, 11 months a couple of years ago and, if work goes to plan, up to nine months each upcoming year for the foreseeable future - in these circumstances you can't help but yearn for those connections with people who really know and understand you. In normal daily life you are surrounded by companions, maybe a lover (or two), a soul mate. Fellow human beings with whom relationships have been built over years of shared experiences, conversations and activities. A deep mutual appreciation. The sort of friends you want to be around no matter what the circumstances. Whatever your mood their company never fails to provide a warm glow. There may be literally nothing to discuss, no news, no updates. A state of affairs that would prompt awkwardness and stilted attempts to converse with anyone else, but with these true comrades you can talk and laugh for hours on end regardless. Without fail.

To go from having such amigos instantly contactable and meetable on a whim, unlimited social opportunity at your WhatsApp fingertips, to residing alone in a distant corner of the world where the only option for contact is Skype calls on 90's-era internet speed. This is a challenge. Even more so than you'd expect.

However it is not all doom, gloom and crying as your Facebook feed refuses to refresh. These unusual circumstances of amistad that travellers find themselves in trigger a quite beautiful reaction. Friendship is always built on shared ground, something that draws you together. Visit any hostel in the world and you will find all the inhabitants have one thing in common: A friendship deficiency. A sense of naked loneliness that leaves them feeling a little adrift, vulnerable, stripped of the support from those they would usually lean on. The gradual realisation that everyone else is in the same boat causes the solitary drifters to adjust course and move towards each other. Like survivors of a shipwreck, huddled close for warmth. You´re all in this together.

The result is a very direct approach to socialising. Gone are the barriers to starting a conversation you'd usually encounter (god forbid, with the extreme example of the London tube network). Gone too are the usual personal barriers - you're sharing a house, a bathroom, a bunk-bed, with complete strangers. It's not normal. And under these abnormal conditions with a heightened need for companionship, within seconds of entering the same room as someone else you will know their name, nationality and travel itinerary. After a few minutes, romantic and family circumstance. By nightfall, over a few drinks, worst habits, secrets, fears and dreams will be up for open discussion.

Friendships develop at an unusually rapid pace. Spurned on partly by the lack of amigos from home but accentuated by the daily routine of a viajero. Days are spent in a state of shared wonder, observing once-in-a-lifetime sights, otherworldly experiences. Hardships, visceral danger and tough challengers are faced together. Nights are spent marooned in your cosy new group, often drinking, always talking. Complicit in the sense of blissful isolation and abandonment a long, long way from home.

Most of these relationships are fleetingly temporary. Lasting only a couple of hectic days and heady nights before you all continue on your separate paths. Regardless, the strength of feeling is not diminished. These fires of fellowship may be permanently extinguished with alarming speed and frequency but nonetheless they burn true and strong in the moment. 95% of the people you meet on a trip you'll never see again. This may seem like a lot of effort for zero long-term result, but for me it has a real beauty on two levels:

Well-lubricated socialising
For one, the purity of these ephemeral encounters is genuinely humbling. There is a raw honesty and absence of pretence in all interactions. People thrive in the freedom these transient situations provide. You'll probably never see this group again, you're unshackled by the usual fear that they might not like the real you. If they don't, who cares? Tomorrow night you'll be in another city. The most interesting outcome of this unpretentiousness is that with everyone obviously dropping any cloak of falseness, the chances are people will like you. Unless you're a complete dick.

Secondly, the 5% who you do make the effort to see again - they must be special. Some of my current closest relationships, human beings for whom I feel nothing but untainted love and affection, those who I could and would tell anything, have developed from travelling buddies. No doubt these connections are all the stronger for having sprung from this source.

The last couple of weeks of my current trip inspired the theme of this blog. I've been in Cordoba, Argentina's second city, hosted at the home of one of the girls I met back in February in Ecuador (remember this blog). Our gang for those two weeks on the beach developed a closeness triggered by all the circumstances discussed above and on our inevitable parting I was bombarded with offers to "stay at my house" if the ongoing wanderings happened to pass by their various hometowns. Suprisingly, in Latin America, when someone says this they actually mean it.

El Jardin
No sooner had I informed Emi of my imminent arrival in Cordoba, along with our mutual vagabond acquaintance Spanish Stephane, than the invitation was reaffirmed and I was prohibited from booking a hostel. The following week was Semana Santa - the Latino celebration of Easter. Over here it's not just an afternoon of smashing oval-shaped chocolate into your face, it's a week-long celebration with great significance. The focus being on immediate, close-knit relatives. Not ordinarily involving a random hairy English guy. Consequently I had my reservations about imposing at a time like this. Objections that were scoffed at and dismissed off-hand as I was promptly allocated a bedroom in the stunning family home. Nestled on the leafy outskirts of Cordoba, a gorgeous single-story mini-mansion, it's horseshoe-shaped design wrapped around an expansive garden rippling with rich green and doused in autumnal sunshine all day long.

My inclusion was mandatory in all activities and outings throughout the week. Stephane and I were personally escorted on city tours, accompanied to the best museums and galleries, informed of locally-lauded restaurants off the tourist trail, dined in the company of extended family, feasting on famously-Argentinian Asados - huge plates of irresistibly succulent meat, giant cuts cooked to perfection and stacked to the ceiling, all washed down with traditional Fernet and coke - personally chauffeured around the peaceful, rolling sierras that surround the city centre, and accepted without objection at student parties we were both definitely too old to be attending. Exploring a place with locals like this really authenticates the experience. You're not a 'tourist' any more, you're a friend from overseas.

A little culture
Coming towards the end of my trip, after nearly five months on the road, such boundless hospitality was humbling and most welcome. Having spent all previous nights in hostels meant that every luxury barely noted in normal life was amplified and appreciated like never before: Not having a 'check-out' time in the morning, sleeping in a one-story bed with no-one fidgeting above or below, in a private room without a permanently snoring installation in the corner bunk, not living out of a rucksack, having a washing machine and fully functioning kitchen. Being part of a home, a family, friends. Eternally grateful to the level of natural unabashed generosity I've experienced here.

This situation, this wonderfully warm and affirming couple of weeks, wouldn't have been possible without the childlike open approach to friendship that is such an integral part of travelling and that allowed us to connect without barriers or borders all those months ago in Ecuador. Possibly transitory initial meetings that were embraced without hesitation and quietly developed into something beautiful. Something real. Something truly fulfilling. There you have it: The importance of being friendly.

The gang from the beach

The gang from the beach

The gang from the beach

Emi & Fede

My temporary home

My temporary pets

My temporary pets

Sharing Mate (tea) - an Argentinian tradition


Fede - the Asado (BBQ) king

The first course

Stephane likes meat

Fernet - the only alcoholic beverage in Cordoba

Fernet & Cola - I have drunk far too much of this


  1. i'm about to cry- thank you for being was a placer to have at home.xx

  2. What wonderful people to offer such hospitality. It's going to come as a bit of a such going back to roughing it in the hostels!