There is no way around it, solo travel is inherently self-centered. There is also no way around the fact that traveling with others has the potential for disaster, and the possibility of being miserable for everyone involved. Like all relationships, it is magical when people can be together, and in spite of all our quirky needs, find the taste of unity to be desirable.
For the last six weeks, I abandoned solo time to travel with friends. The thing about being together on the road is that you are ALWAYS TOGETHER…even in ways you might not otherwise connect with your closest compadres at home. Every decision becomes a discussion of, “What should we eat? Where should we go? Should we turn left or right? Do I have time to go to the bathroom?” There is an intimacy to being together in small rooms, sharing finances, and well, you know, even sharing the bathroom space.
After years of experience, my collection of travel partners is small. Often, the reason is more, “It’s not you, it’s me,” than anything. I am not everyone’s cup of tea on the road as I don’t really like sightseeing, am pretty cheap, don’t drink much alcohol, talk to everyone I meet, and spend full days daydreaming in cafes.
For me, my recent travel partners were dreamy. In December, my dear co-teacher Colleen and sweet friend Cat met me for travel throughout Israel and the West Bank. Sometimes, traveling as a trio can be tricky because it’s hard to coordinate ideas. For us, it was perfect. I have visited the area multiple times, so in some cases, it was fun to enjoy familiar spaces through the eyes of my friends. Other times, they journeyed out for exploration while I snuggled with a cup of tea and a good book.
While we were together, we walked Biblical steps…sharing days in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and at the Sea of Galilee. We floated in the Dead Sea – just barely – splashing in just minutes before sunset. I was able to connect them with dear friends who live in the area over shared meals and fellowship.
Travel was easy together because we have so much in common…teachers, women, friends. We laughed. We philosophized. We made plans for the future.
The best part of being with these ladies was that they know me so well, and there was total freedom to blend our shared times with a bit of independence. As they went off on adventures, I anxiously waiting back to hear about their exploits and laugh about their shared adventures.
As we said goodbye, I prepared for my next travel partner. Brian is Jason’s good friend from Portland. While we have met during visits to Chicago, and for a few days of overlap travel, being with someone 24/7 who is relatively unfamiliar could seem a bit daunting. Yet, all the things I knew about Brian made me quite comfortable with the idea. What I knew is that he is a low-key and seasoned traveler. He loves to read and has a great appreciation for the value of being quiet. He is a dreamer and a planner – one of my favorite types of friends. We spent two weeks exploring Lebanon on our own and then traveled to Kurdistan/Iraq to meet Jason.
Our month together seemed to fit into two distinct sections. In Lebanon, I didn’t preplan any Hope projects, and once we arrived, being reminded that sometimes, the best outreach begins at home, I felt like our time together was more important than anything else.
In Lebanon, we spent our first week in Beirut. I realized that my own perceptions of the city were so far off…formed from movies and wartime newsreels. The remnants of these times can be found scattered throughout the city in the form of abandoned buildings that are often broken from explosions and gunfire. While walking, you wonder about the deep history of these buildings that sit as memorials to tragic civil war events.
The seaside in Beirut is something special. On our first day, we watched as others climbed a fence to visit a lighthouse and pool area in Manama. There we met Abu Hoda – an octogenarian who happily posed in his swimsuit, shared some of his fanciest swim strokes, and showered me with a bit of water to the face and a shared grapefruit. It was easy to see why Abu Hoda was considered the “king of the sea.”
In both places, having friends along increased the ease of renting a car. To me, driving a car in an unfamiliar place is a two-person operation with a driver and navigator. In Lebanon, Brian was a driver and I was co-pilot. Usually, I am happy to drive, but sitting back and enjoying the mountainous views from the passenger seat was exquisite. As we visited destinations throughout Lebanon, we got splashed by waves, took a cool swim (mine was more of a toe dip until a wave pulled me in), and did a tiny bit of hiking. Even with exotic food options, most of our meals were shared grocery store treats at the end of our days.
Conversations with Brian were deep. I think not knowing each other well proved to add depth to our time together because we had so much to learn and hours by which to do so. His insights were valuable with a knack for asking thought-provoking questions. Moving beyond the travelers’ special, “What is your name? What is your job?” and “Where are you from?” felt really good. We explored new places, chatting the entire time. Brian’s research and insights into our destination added depth to all we saw.
We also rested – a lot. Brian’s jet lag gave me a valid excuse for heading to sleep at my typical 7:00 PM. We had time together, but also included some important hours of personal time too.
For the second half of our trip, we met with Jason to complete projects in Kurdistan/Iraq. After weeks of resting, we were up to the many planned tasks and intense socialization. More on this part of our trip later, but overall, traveling with Jason and Brian together was fun….because they are both funny. Silly actually.
It’s fun to be with friends who have shared so much and still believe in the power of being goofy. Sometimes, a good laugh was all that was needed for a bit of decompression from the intensity of our days.
I am back to being alone…with mixed feelings. In a way, it’s like taking a deep breath. I have spent four days recharging by writing, reading, and spending hours being quietly invisible. At the same time, looking at the empty chair across from me leaves me a bit nostalgic for shared conversations over hot tea.
Since I am focusing on mental health, I have spent time thinking about the benefits of traveling. For me, while the good outweighs any challenges, there are definitely some pros and cons. I wouldn’t just recommend that everyone just take a leap to get away as a form of self care. However, one thing I know for sure is that my time with friends was important and valuable for my own feelings of comfort. Traveling far and wide has only served to increase appreciation for the friends I hold so close.