People often inaccurately associate vagabonding with vacation-style travel, where the objective is to accumulate 2,000 photos of forgettable landmarks and beach horizons on disk, never to be looked at again.
With the average, hard-working American being entitled to only two weeks of vacation per year, often little time is left for the most exciting part of travel: meeting people.
Even wild animal encounters and bungee jumping don’t compare with the sheer thrill of meeting a stranger, connecting with them, and forging a friendship or romance. Hands down, this is the only reason I continue to pound my passport — and bank account — into submission every year.
Perhaps that’s what makes remaining at home for a long time so difficult.
I’ve been fortunate enough in the first nine days of 2012 to meet some interesting and creative people. I knew they existed here in my little hometown, however, finding them among the hordes was never an easy task while visiting home.
Perhaps meeting new people was made easier because many of the 30,000 University of Kentucky students who usually fill bars to capacity were still out of town. Gone were the keg-bellied sorority girls wobbling around drunk on painful heels while managing Facebook empires.
Also missing were the college guys dutifully trying to calculate if buying their hair-twirling dates one last beer would result in clothes or regurgitated Goodfellas pizza ending up all over the bedroom.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got many friends still mired in academia, and many times the students’ company is preferable to the 8-to-5 stiffs; The types who fry neurons with Blackberries pressed against brains and spit at their secretaries. I see plenty of those guys here in Lexington, too, usually hovering over a plate of cholesterol in Applebees while their buddies fart and argue about football.
At least the students bring youth and energy with their naivety.
So needless to say, meeting delightfully delusional people here is not always easy, especially for a chronic introvert like myself. On the road, I can — and do — sit down with tables of complete strangers in restaurants. Never once in six years of travel and 30 countries has a group asked me to move along. Sure, I don’t always hit the mark when choosing my dinner companions, so I simply finish eating, thank them for the meal, then move along — problem solved.
After the social situation depicted below — Indonesia, 2009, any table approach seems easy by comparison. They didn’t speak English or understand my Bahasa, but I was befriended and stayed there for a week.
I’ve experimented some at home with the same social approaches, and unless a group is collectively bored suicidal, comatose drunk, or both, rarely do you receive the same welcome. Sure, they can be won over, but being charmingly aloof or possessing vagabonding street credit certainly doesn’t do the trick. Usually nontravelers stop talking the instant that you sit, then wait like soon-to-be-consumed rabbits for the worst.
Shaking in fear, your new companions anxiously struggle to determine if you’re going to pull out a bazooka, meth pipe, or worse: ask for money.
If women are present at the table, the resident alpha male usually begins pounding his chest and grunting; worried about this infringement upon his harem. I usually eject politely about the time he stands on his chair and starts jumping up and down; Viagra pills spilling out everywhere.
Case scenario, this is an actual conversation from my weekend as played out in a classy bar with live jazz band playing. Granted, it was loud, but I’m still worried about catching a contact brain tumor after the encounter.
Random Person: Nice boots. So what do you do?
Greg: I’m a writer.
Random Person: Ohhh, I love horses, they’re so pretty. [Kentucky is serious horse country]
Greg: Not a rider, a writer. I write about travel.
Random Person: Ohhh…like, where do you travel?
Greg: Well, I went to Sumatra this year…
Random Person: Yes, this is Sinatra! I love Frank Sinatra, too!
Greg: No, I said Sumatra…it’s in…[I see confusion setting in] never mind. This is actually Louis Armstrong’s Summertime they are playing.
Random Person: Yeah, the drinks are strong some times. Nice to meet you Gary, we’re going to [insert venue].
Greg: Actually, it’s Greg…
Fortunately, later that night in the same bar, as brass trombones squealed and veins popped out on sweaty foreheads during high notes, I did meet several nice people who actually could point to Sumatra on a map in less than 30 minutes if they had to do so.
How did I do it? I talked to everyone. If one in 50 people is indeed interesting, wading through the 49 duds is worth it in the end. One conversation has changed my life countless times now.
Still, despite the small success, in the great words of Hunter S. Thompson: “It never got weird enough for me.”
So, each and every time I click the final purchase button on a flight, and I can hear the funds sucked out of my account from across the country, I always wonder: Who will I meet this year? How will they change my life? Whose lives will I change this trip?
Despite my social slobbering and fumblings at home where I can no longer remember the rules, I walk abroad without fear, for I know: there are still a few weirdos left out there. Creeping vegetarians, tortured souls, life hactivists, technophile flashpackers, hairy hippies — it doesn’t matter what your inclinations are when we are all strangers in a strange land.
We’re all vagabonds in the end.