My first night in a Melbourne hostel, I am hesitant, feeling slightly too old and also out of place from what appears to function much like a college dorm mixer, replete with ice breakers, drinking games and awkward conversations that lead to generic questions, like, “So do you have any siblings?”
In a couple days, I learned, most importantly, the specific types to avoid:
1) Pre-Career Brit—He goes to boarding school, then busts it in college so that he can get a job. He interviews and finally snags a career that should land him in an appropriate social echelon and income bracket before he is 30. He is traveling because he knows this is his last chance (and his father gave him a lump sum to do so). Also, he thinks it would be good to mingle with some “common people.”
2) The Brat Pack—The gaggle of 18-year-old girls who are “out in the world” for the first time. They each have very distinct, attention seeking laugh and can be seen scantily clad or even topless running throughout the hostel. They make out with each other for attention. They think sexiness looks and sounds like child porn and suck on lollipops. They come home vomiting and wonder why Justin, Jason, or Jared has not called them back.
3) Bucket List—This guy has been everywhere and will remind you of this at any (even unnatural) break in the conversation. He carries tour books in his backpack marked with notes, a thick-penned travel route and an itinerary. Even if you have no interest, he will remind you of everything you MUST do to make your life complete. He can be spotted by his wedged force into conversation, higher than average voice volume, and excessive use of the word, “amazing.”
4) The Awkward Aging Backpacker—He is in debt, has family issues in his home country, and is possibly awaiting extradition and criminal charges. Now he has made a lifestyle darting around the world, inhaling drugs and hookers from budget accommodations since the 70’s. He is nice, but mostly wanders around mumbling, spilling drinks, and scaring people. It’s not his fault, but, really, he just doesn’t fit in (anymore).
Once you learn who to avoid, it is almost impossible to tell who may become your new BFF. In Melbourne, I met some 20 year old German guys who I immediately identified as “kids born in the 90’s.” Freaky. They are funny and cute and they liked my stories. “What do you think of Germany?” they asked me, even though my only experience with Germany was with a guy named Christoph I lived with in Boston who was so anal, he rounded rent to the third decimal. I believe Germans like precision, so I give them a succinct response:
“Cold. Hitler. Beer.”
I win. The Germans laugh. They introduce me to an adorable 18 year-old from the Netherlands and a couple wily Irish men (the kind who go missing for days and then turn up without an explanation). I find comfort in the diversity of our age, nationality, gender, and politics (everyday, the Irishman tells me I should convert all of my cash to gold). I have no choice but to call him a Leprechaun.
We spend the next two weeks cooking dinner together, going dancing, and swimming at the beach. I worry when they come home late. I give advice about girlfriends and life. They make me pasta. I make them tacos. On my last day, they walk me to my bus, I kiss them each on the cheek and wave from the window as we pull away towards the airport. We promise to see each other again.
When I arrived in Bali, I was a little bitter, wishing I could be back in Melbourne with the comforts of my old hostel friends. I sat next to the cabana and an infinity pool pouting, wondering how to move forward so quickly, when I had just gotten settled and comfortable on an entirely different continent.
Enter “M.I.L.F,” a stunning woman from Quebec who stumbled into the Bali hostel from the cab. She was wiping her brow and shuffling along with her backpack and trying to lift her rolling bag up the stairs. She approaches the front desk, checks in and collects her key. Her first language is French and she is pissed off that she can’t understand Indonesian-English: “What the fuck did you say?” she says to the guy at the front desk, “What the fuck did he say?” she turns to me.
“He said you can get free breakfast from 7:30 to 10.”
M.I.L.F. throws down her bags and asks me for a cigarette. She is a badass… also kind of a bitch. In less than a minute, I decide that I like her. We are the kind of hostel mix-up shake: insta-friends. We immediately spill our guts like hosts of The View just released from solitary confinement.
We talk about relationships, family, work, life in travels, going to therapy, having kids, my cancelled wedding, the father of her child… our respective issues. The M.I.L.F. is like a lot of travelers I have met—leaving something behind, possibly looking for some resolution, as if a time zone difference and a change in temperature will give us the right perspective to handle the lives we left behind. The M.I.L.F. has a seven-year-old son in Quebec, who she misses dearly, but swears that she will be a better mother if she leaves him for a while to travel. She has suffered addictions (cocaine, ecstasy, painkillers, etc.), is manic depressive, and on medication while awaiting diagnosis for borderline personality disorder. She has never met her own father, but once hailed a man into court for paternity testing.
The tests came back negative.
She tells me about her recent lover in Australia: “He hasn’t called. He must have gone to jail,” she says matter of fact. “He said he had a pending sentence, but I thought he was lying just to get in my pants. I wouldn’t care if he had to go to jail. I don’t judge” then she sighs, “It wouldn’t bother me… my brother is in jail.”
M.I.L.F. and I make a lot of plans—yoga, surfing, Lombok, bike tours, elephant rides, temples. We are happy that even though we travel alone, we have found each other for (at least) the next 10 days. Like friends for ages, we make habits–she wakes me up, knows what I eat for breakfast, makes sure I pick up my laundry, and reminds me that I need to drink more water. Our lighters become community property. We share clothes. We accumulate running debts. She tells me if I have a booger. Sigh. A true friend.
The end of our time draws near and when the M.I.L.F. leaves, I miss her in the strangest way. It made no sense. She was gone less time than I had even known her. In one month, the Germans had split between Australia and New Zealand, the Leprechaun landed in Perth, M.I.L.F is permanently on her way back to Quebec, Janne is in Singapore, the Belgian Waffle is back in Bruges, and I am sulking again by the pool the day before the Hindu ceremony.
Everyone is preparing for the festival, but the hostel is quiet. My friends have dispersed. I hate to say goodbye, even though we have all made promises to see each other again. I am getting anxiety, because, I too, am leaving for Thailand.
There is an older man sitting at my breakfast table: “Your heart seems heavy,” he says.
“I think I may be too sensitive for all of this. I am not sure I can keep saying goodbye.”
“Stop wearing your heart on your sleeve, and remember, you will never see these people again. That’s okay. You just can’t get too attached. You should just think of these friends like a good fling. You wouldn’t want to take them with you anyway.” I wonder what the alternative is.
Part of the intrigue of travel friendships, is being able to connect with people who you wouldn’t otherwise. They are non-committal, affording some kind of freedom in intensity. We are all supposed to recognize the impermanence. I think this part is supposed to be okay. I think I am supposed to be getting used to it by now, though I am not sure I am ready to harden my sleeves.
Even the Superhero is reduced to a travel love story. He cannot come to Vietnam: “The stars are not aligning,” he explains. His life goes on in Australia: jobs, pay, family, commitments, “real life,” as it were… mine keeps pushing in a different direction. Star-crossed or just nomadic? We are the types that impose momentum, and understand its consequences.
I make it to Bangkok alone and Janne stops to see me, but only for a day: he is traveling west and I am heading east. By the time I make it to Europe in the spring, he will already be in L.A. or San Francisco or Seattle or New York. We decide that when we cross longitudes again, we should smack a high-five at some arbitrary airport.
There is still hope. Even if it were just a high-five, I think, it would be a warm high-five, a recognizable one, a high-five that carries weight and memories… and, even if only in passing, it gives us some kind of strength to keep moving forward.