How Strangers Become Friends

May 3, 2011 | ,

This article is part of the “Most Important Word in the World” series, a collaborative project to inspire people to step outside their comfort zones and find adventure and friendship. Other contributors to the series are:  Wandering Earl1 Year SabbaticalThe Dropout DiariesDisrupting the RabblementBeyond NormsDo Something Cool, and A World of Inspiration.

For those of us whose choices or lifestyles are a little (or a lot) different from the norm, the friendship of like-minded people is absolutely essential. Having friends you can count on to support your wacky ideas keeps you motivated when other forces try to steer you off course. And watching these friends take on their own unique adventures can even convince you you’re not so crazy after all.

I’m lucky to have many friends who fit this description, but one of them in particular never would have become a part of my life if it weren’t for a promise I had made to myself. I was deep in the throes of planning a solo trip around the world, and as a safeguard against getting lonely or missing out on interesting experiences on the road, I’d vowed to make an effort to be more outgoing while I was traveling. In fact, I thought I might as well start at home, so I could get some practice before I hit the road.

Not long after I came up with this plan, I was traveling to the East Coast to spend the holidays with my family. It was December 2003. Sitting on the BART train with my suitcase, headed for SFO, I heard some fellow passengers talking travel. I don’t remember many details of their conversation, but it ran the gamut of traveler topics—places they’d been, resources they liked—and my ears perked up when one of them, a woman about my age, mentioned one of my favorite travel sites at the time, BootsnAll.com, whose founders I had gotten to know through a mutual travel-writing friend.

Getting up the Nerve

Remembering my vow to be more outgoing and meet new people, I struck up a conversation with this woman as we got off the train at SFO, using our shared connection to BootsnAll as a jumping-off point. I learned that her name was Jessica, and she was also heading back east to visit family. It turned out that we were flying the same airline, and our flights were leaving from adjacent gates. As we talked our way through the check-in line, through security, and while waiting for our flights to board, we realized we had more than just travel itineraries in common: we were both fervent travelers, and we were both planning solo round-the-world trips, leaving in 2004.

When it was finally time for our flights to board, we exchanged contact information and vowed to keep in touch. Back in the Bay Area after the holidays, we talked incessantly—in person, on the phone, or by email—about packing lists, travel blogs, itineraries, and every other nuance of our trips.

Travel Buddies

Although we were struggling with some of the same logistics, our plans weren’t necessarily taking us in the same direction: she was dreaming of returning to Africa, where she’d studied abroad in college, and I was more drawn to India and Southeast Asia. But we were both hoping to go to South America, and really wanted to find a way to travel together. We managed to coordinate our itineraries to meet in Peru. Jessica arrived in Cusco from Europe just as I was finishing up several weeks of Spanish school, and soon after we set out with a group to hike the Inca Trail. It was an amazing experience—a definite highlight of both of our trips—and we really bonded on the hike, both with each other and the other people in our group. We traveled well together, and we spent a few days exploring the Sacred Valley around Cusco before Jessica had to head off to Mexico for a volunteer program.

We kept in touch through the rest of our travels, and mulled over what we’d be doing next. I ended up going to L.A. to be with my boyfriend and start my editing business. She was less eager to settle down again, and the day I was running around town setting up a new cell phone account and other trappings of “home,” she called to tell me she was heading back to Mexico to get CELTA certification to teach English. Although I was excited about embarking on a new stage of my life, a small part of me was definitely thinking, Take me with you!

Six months later, I’d left L.A. and was on the East Coast, plotting my return to South America. Jessica was on the run from an erupting volcano in Ecuador, where she’d been teaching English since getting certified. What better way to regroup than meeting up in Honduras to celebrate Jessica’s 30th birthday? Once again, we had a fabulous time traveling together.

Then it was her turn to settle down for a bit. She moved to Maryland and accepted a job that would allow her to travel all over Latin America and the Caribbean. I visited her in her brand-new, sparsely furnished apartment, and we talked about boys, travel, and all the things we’d done and wanted to do. I told her I was pretty close to being ready to go back to Argentina, and had seen some decent prices on tickets. “So,” she asked me, “what are you waiting for?” She was right: it was time. I bought my one-way ticket to Buenos Aires at her house that very night. I was so thankful to have someone to share that huge moment with, someone who was supportive and as excited about it as I was.

Friends for Life

Since then our paths have crossed only a few times, but it means so much to me to know she’s still got my back. I know that whatever crazy adventures I choose to embark on, she’ll support me, and that she’ll continue to inspire me with her own unique approach to life. All that, just because I decided to say hello to a fellow traveler on a train more than seven years ago.

This is hardly an isolated experience—in fact, it was hard to decide which story of a brief “hello” that led to great adventure and friendship I should share for this series about “the most important word in the world.” There’s also Ashok and Jeet, my angels who took me under their wing every time I passed through Jaipur, India, and even helped me sew up my package and then navigate the postal system to ship it via slow boat back to the States; Amy and Chris, whom I met in Patagonian Chile on Thanksgiving 2004 and ended up traveling with in Thailand and Vietnam a few months later; Anshul, another Indian guy I met via a RTW forum who showed me the ropes in Delhi; Aiden, the Aussie couchsurfer I befriended in Laos and later hung out with in Buenos Aires; Earl, the NASA scientist I met while standing under an overhang during a downpour in Punta Arenas, Chile (I spent the week drinking beer mixed with orange soda with him and his crew between their flights over Antarctica); other good friends I’ve made through random email messages, blogs, and forums; and on and on.

There’s no question that this one simple yet powerful word has the ability to change the course of your afternoon, week, trip, or even your life. What amazing adventures or relationships have you experienced as a result of simply saying hello?

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