The Vacationship

Andrei, Caroline, Sarah, and Matt. Met in all kinds of different ways, reunited in Mozambique. 2013.

Andrei, Caroline, Sarah, and Matt. Met in all kinds of different ways, reunited in Mozambique. 2013.

There is a joke circulating around in traveling circles that goes something like this:

In Heaven: The French are the chefs The Italians are the lovers The British are the police The Germans are the mechanics And the Swiss are in charge of organizing everything. In Hell:

The British are the chefs The Swiss are the lovers The Germans are the police The French are the mechanics And the Italians are in charge of organizing everything.
It only really works with Europeans, but the more of them you know, the funnier it is. And yeah, I’ve watched a German neatly fold and color-code a Snoop Dogg singlet, been unlucky enough to ingest English “food” (No judgment. I’m from America after all– the land that invented spray-on “cheese”), and been unceremoniously licked in the NOSE by a clueless (but well-meaning!) Swiss. Even those who’ve been gone a long time still bear their “manufactured in” labels in some way… a quote in Fahrenheit, a date made for “half seven,” an impassioned defense of the nutritional properties of Vegemite… but overall, you’ll find that, amongst the wanderers of the world, backpacking culture trumps national culture, every time. There is no discussion about clothes (are you technically not naked?). There is no discussion about hairstyles (if there isn’t any food in it, you’re solid) … and heck, even these are negotiable. In THIS culture, a ripped-up sarong is treated with familial respect, the 3 words “it was expensive” are adequate justification for doing or not doing pretty much anything, and a bag full of tampons or a decent book in English will turn more heads than a half-naked Adonis.

Shiran. Traveled through Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Israel, and Australia together. 2009/2010.

Backpackers come in so many different colors: college kids doing a gap year, IT consultants working cyber as they drift through exotic lands, yoginis getting their certifications abroad, teachers enjoying their sabbaticals, those who’re taking a break before beginning the next chapter of their lives, and the scores of in-betweeners, doing this and that, all tied together by the singular desire to see the world. These are people you’d never meet in any other way, and yet you share the time that is likely to hold the best memories for both of your lives. Emotions run high, and the immediacy and strangeness of every encounter nets fast and intense meetings. Friendships are born from 46-hour bus rides, or experiences walking pumas together, or unforeseen “holidays” at border crossings, or monkey bites, or $5 all-you-can-eat buffets, and touch you so deeply because they are marked with the kind of honesty you only get when nothing else relies on it. It’s not like your brother’s twat of a girlfriend whom you’re only nice to because you’re afraid she’ll steal from you if you aren’t. When you meet people on the road, you’re only friends because, well, you feel like it. And, most of the time, you do. There’s a certain type of personality that is drawn to living life out of a sack. People who are, oh, say- about 20% MacGyver, 10% stubborn, 30% romantic, 20% commitmentphobic, and 20% obsessed with finishing their lives sans any regrets. People like this aren’t super common at home (I’ve found a few!), but, like bureaucratic paperwork or armed robbery, they are part of the fabric of budget travel.
Matt from Oregon. Goa, India, 2009/2010.

Matt from Oregon. Partied our asses off for NYE, 2010. Goa, India, 2009/2010.

So you get attached to these people, these soul-mates from around the world, and it becomes hard to let go. And if you take one more step up the ladder, it becomes nearly impossible. Falling, and I mean REALLY falling, for someone on the road is a bit like dropping ecstasy, snorting a line of speed, and then getting on a roller-coaster. And I don’t mean any pissy little shit roller-coaster, either. I mean the kind where you have to be at least THIS HIGH to ride, with a massive queue littered with signs that read, “2 hours left,” “1 hour left.” You’ve no choice but to ride it like a pro, with your hands up, screaming the whole way, because hey, it’s going to end. You both knew that before you got on. So there’s no point in lying or hiding anything from each other. This isn’t like at home where she’s going to make a scene at your office, or where he’s going to tell everybody you went to high school with that you’re secretly into… y’know, THAT. There’s no real “checking out” and waiting to release information because fuck, if they don’t like it, you don’t ever have to see them again, and after all, this is your one time together. You’ll never get a second chance to show them who you really are. You’re both free to go when you please. No drama. No baggage. There’s never the issue of “stuff” (neither of you HAVE any, anyway) or worrying about running into each other at the local brew hall. You are, 100%, only in it because you want to be. After all, a relationship is rife with sacrifice, and the fact that you’re willing to do it in order to be with that person during the ONE time in your life that you’ve truly carved out for YOU…  that really means something.
Danielle from Minnesota. Met when our flight from India to Sri Lanka was canceled and we were stranded. 2010.

Danielle from Minnesota. Met when our flight from India to Sri Lanka was canceled and we were stranded. 2010.

And when it’s over? My friends Stan (England/Canada) and Bob (Australia) have been backpacking since before all y’all were even out of the sandbox and still live by the belief that, when it’s over, you leave it. Respect the time you had together, and then move on. Relegate your relationships to being the explosive, temporary thing of a finite time. I suppose that could work. While volunteering in Swaziland, I met loads of other nurses and healthcare workers, and I ended up hanging out with them on our breaks. On my last day in Manzini, I ran into one of them on the street. We chatted for a bit and when we parted, he didn’t ask for my Facebook, and we didn’t promise to stay in touch. He gripped my hands tightly and closed out the one time our lives would ever intersect with a sweet but finite, “Well, farewell.”
Lior and Kevin. Became friends with Lior when my hotel tried to kick me out because he was trying to bed her and I was being a cockblock. Met Kevin when he spied my book in English and tried to bargain for it. Laos, 2010.

Lior and Kevin. Became friends with Lior when my hotel tried to kick me out because he was trying to bed her and I was being a cockblock. Met Kevin when he spied my book in English and tried to bargain for it. Laos, 2010.

I still remember him with fondness and especially remember the classy way he sidestepped petering out into some meaningless Facebook “contact” but hey, truth is, we also didn’t really know each other. Working in the ER leaves very little time for soul-wrenching talks or philosophical ruminations, and so, although I got along well with all of them and left a month later tossing more than one backwards glance over my shoulder, keeping in touch long term and calling each other over Skype would be a little, I dunno… weird. Yeah, Stan and Bob’s philosophy can be pretty appealing in some ways, but what about those buddies that you’ve been traveling and sharing every moment with for weeks – discussing the depth of the human capacity for evil and those other topics that are so easy to ignore at home, but that comprise the fabric of what you face every day of your traveling life? What about when that person whose presence pervades the most meaningful moments of your trip has things and people to attend to and needs to go home? Don’t forget that these people have seen the way you handle your finances. They watched you lose it at that taxi driver and know that you’ve taken on the habit of spitting all over your own hands to “wash” them in a crux (don’t knock it, it works!). And that special person? The one that was in your bed, in your shower, your bus, your friendship circle? The one who, when you had the runs, kept going out on “errands” because of a shared mutual understanding? The one who had the kindness to keep pretending and letting you hold onto that one last tattered scrap of mystery in your quest for self-preservation?
Paul, Tilman, Ben, and Sharmen. Roadtrip buddies across Europe. 2013.

Paul, Tilman, Ben, and Sharmen. Roadtrip buddies across Europe. 2013.

Part of the reason it worked so well was because you knew it was going to be over. Of the scores of friends you make on the road, 80% will fade away and peter out. Some you hang onto – using Skype and Facebook to their max – and it works, because good friendships require little more than a quiet evening with a bottle of wine and a pot of homemade gumbo to reignite. It’s sad to lose that 80%, but for those special ones, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. With wanderers and vagabonds, the upkeep is minimal. You can keep it, at least for a few people, the way that it was. The difference with vacationships is that it is, indisputably, over. Skype and Facebook can only cover so much – it can’t be the way that it was… not unless you guys originally connected over your equivalent cases of severe haphephobia, that is. The ride has come to a stop. Please exit the opposite side, and don’t forget to look around and collect all of your belongings. Maybe the doomed nature is what makes them so appealing to begin with, but what happens after? Some people can get off, giggling, happy to have done it, but eager to move on and get back to “real life.” But what if THIS is what you consider your real life? What about those who are left at the end of the day looking around thinking to themselves, “Hey! I wasn’t done with that yet!”?
Labuan Bajo, Indonesia.

Labuan Bajo, Indonesia.


“Happiness. Simple as a glass of chocolate or tortuous as the heart. Bitter. Sweet. Alive.” — Joanne Harris, Chocolat

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