Do you have any certain memories from your childhood that stick out but you don’t know why? You remember exactly what was said, and maybe at the time you didn’t understand the significance of it, but it comes back to you again and again.
For me, one of these memories is when I was about nine years old and one of my best friends, Hannah, was moving nine hours away from our hometown in Pennsylvania to South Carolina. One of my biggest concerns at the time was for Hannah, she had to leave her life behind completely and that seemed so sad.
“What about her friends?” I asked her mother. “She won’t have any friends there.”
“There are friends everywhere,” her mother responded almost dismissively, as though this was a well-known fact of life, and maybe it was. “There were friends in our last hometown, there are friends here, there will be friends in South Carolina.”
This comforted me, the idea that “there are friends everywhere.” It comforted me so much so, apparently, that I remembered it for years and years. It was my mantra when I was preparing to leave home for college, and I kept it tucked away in my mind until I was 19 and flew alone on my first ever solo trip to Copenhagen, Denmark.
On my second morning in Copenhagen, I was already starting to feel lonely and wondered if I had made a mistake coming at all. But then I went on a small boat tour and met a girl from Chicago named Maddie, who I approached almost immediately upon noticing she was traveling alone, like I was.
We went to several museums together after that, and the next day we took the train to a reindeer park outside the city that she had heard about and was excited to visit. Maddie and I are still connected on social media and we frequently respond to each other’s travel posts, sending a “I’ve been there! How do you like it?” or “I’m going there soon, any recommendations?” from time to time.
My last night in Copenhagen, we went out drinking at her hostel bar and met another friend. Mario, who was from Australia, was in Europe on business, a wedding and just for his own enjoyment, all in the same trip. We bar-hopped together for the rest of the night until he walked me to the train station at two in the morning to be sure I made it home safely.
Mario and I are still in contact, too, as we promised to share cocktail recipes once we returned home. There was a drink called “Tokyo Homemade Ginger Lemonade Iced F***ing Tea” that I swore I would figure out how to recreate, and I still haven’t yet, but when I do I’ll send Mario the recipe immediately.
My next solo trip was to Hong Kong in January 2019. Just when I was starting to feel lonely at the end of my first day, I heard a British woman in my hostel dorm ask an American woman whether she had been to the light show in Hong Kong. I quickly opened the curtains around my bunk bed and jumped into the conversation, relieved to hear my language and even my accent spoken by someone else.
Both women were in their 20s; Lottie, a British backpacker on holiday in Asia, who had arrived in Hong Kong for the last leg of her trip, and Sarah, a freelance sound technician who worked on films in New York City, who was at the beginning of her journey through Southeast Asia.
The three of us saw the light show, rode the ferry, went all the way to the island of Lantau and rode the cable cars up a mountain to see the Tian Tan Buddha, the largest seated Buddha statue in the world, and visit the fishing village of Tai O together. We talked and joked as though we’d been friends for much longer than a few hours.
Lottie was leaving late that night to return to London and we all spent the evening in the hostel lobby drinking wine from a convenience store down the block and playing with the provided board games and cards. There, we were joined by our fourth hostel roommate Jeon, a Korean artist who drew sketches of each of us on little pieces of paper. She signed them for us and I kept mine with me for the rest of my trip. I still have it, somewhere.
Then, the completely unexpected happened. After that night, my time in Hong Kong would be blighted by grief as I learned of the sudden death of my best friend the next morning.
Sarah approached my dorm bed around noon asking if I wanted to go get Hello Kitty-themed dim sum. At a loss for words for a few moments, I opened the curtains and simply told her what had happened and that I wanted to join her. It was best for me to stay busy, I assured her.
Sarah and I spent the day eating dim sum adorned with edible googly-eyes, shopping for knockoffs, haggling in street markets and getting painfully aggressive Chinese massages. It was a Thursday night, which was designated as Ladies’ Night in the Lan Kwai Fong party district, and after resting quietly in our hostel for a few hours we went back out to have some fun.
At the end of a mostly uneventful day, we found ourselves at a gay club called LINQ where we met even more friends — a saucy 60-something-year-old drag queen, a British hairstylist named David, a friendly Nepalese waitress who bought me margarita after margarita, a boy about my age named Leslie who lived in Hong Kong and a group of Thai tourists who appeared to be having the time of their life partying with us. I danced until I had nothing left in me, then fell asleep in a cab that Sarah found for us.
My happenstance friendship with Sarah was what saved my entire trip; had I not found a friend whose mere presence motivated me to do the impossible and simply keep on moving, I don’t think I ever would’ve left my hostel bed that week, and probably would’ve flown home even earlier than I eventually did. I would’ve missed out on beautiful sights and meaningful experiences in Hong Kong, like the bustling markets and warm beaches that I managed to drag myself to the next few days, even after she had left the city.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Sarah was the most crucial friendship I have ever made while traveling. I’m forever grateful for her being there for me and to the mysterious forces of the universe that brought us together at a time when I needed a friend more than ever.
When I say I like to travel solo, people always ask if I get lonely out there by myself. The answer is yes, of course I do, but there are friends everywhere, you only have to be open to finding them.
Yes, traveling solo can be about looking within yourself and learning to be happy alone, and it has been that way for myself sometimes, but more often than not it’s about the new connections you are in the unique position to make.
I’ve traveled alone in Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Myanmar and Copenhagen, and I’ve even lived alone in New York City for three months. Every time, when I wanted people to talk to, to make museum visits with, to have nights out on the town with and have a bit more fun, I found them. As a result, I now have friends all around the globe, from South Korea to Brazil and so many more places, and I hope to see them again if our paths ever overlap.
The lesson, simply put, is this: You never have to be alone when you travel solo or move to a new place, because no matter where you go, what Hannah’s mom said to me over a decade ago still rings true — there are friends everywhere.
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