The Unbearable Lightness of Traveling

On one of my last nights in Montenegro, I sat around a table with seven other travelers playing a game called Askhole. I’m still somewhat unsure as to the origins of this game – some guy’s friend’s brother had developed it, I think? – but the concept was simple enough.

Basically, we went around in a circle and each player had to pick up a card. The card would then ask a deeply personal question, like “what’s your biggest insecurity?” or “would you rather love intensely or be loved intensely?” or “actually, some of the questions were pretty NSFW and my editors wouldn’t want me to reprint them, so I’m going to self-censor”. That kind of thing.

When we first started the game, I’d thought there was no way we’d play for longer than thirty minutes. The game required extreme vulnerability among total strangers, which is a lot to ask of any group. But about ten minutes in, it became clear that this particular group of total strangers was up to the task. Each answer was incredibly sincere, open, and honest. After each person’s turn, the group would earnestly engage with the response.

We’d get into genuine discussions about questions of morality, of politics, of human nature. I can’t tell you the names of every person in that group, but I can tell you all about their goals in life, their vulnerabilities, their strengths. 

About four hours later, we’d finished the stack of cards. By this point, it was early morning and we were all exhausted, both emotionally and physically. We looked around the table, taking in these people we now knew so deeply – and, after tonight, would probably never see again.

“I don’t know what to do with all this stuff I learned about you all,” someone confessed. “Like, there’s no way we’re going to meet again. That’s kind of sad.”

And it’s true: there’s something innately tragic about travel friendships, in that almost all bear an expiration date. With a few notable exceptions (you know who you are!), most of my travel friendships have been inherently temporary. We come together for these brief moments of intense serendipity, only to go our separate ways a couple days later.

But that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. This temporariness lends itself to a kind of intensity that is difficult to replicate in day-to-day life.

That game of Askhole is a testament to this phenomenon; you can be deeply vulnerable with strangers abroad because the context is innately different. Most of the people you meet are in the exact same situation; they’re often also traveling alone and also eager to connect with other people.

The conversations you have, then, are framed by these similar outlooks. It’s not weird to discuss insanely personal topics. It’s expected that you’ll engage deeply, that you’ll speak honestly, that you’ll totally be yourself – because that’s what you sign up for when solo traveling and staying in hostels. It’s what everyone else is doing, after all. The walls between people come down. You’re all of a sudden at your friendliest, at your most outgoing, at your most open, because that’s what this context is conducive to. 

And when you walk away from that table or check out of that hostel, you don’t need to overthink everything that was said, because – for better or for worse – you probably won’t see those people again. That doesn’t have to be tragic; it can be freeing.

That’s why you can spend four hours sitting in a circle with a group of strangers and walk away knowing them more deeply, more immediately than some of your friends back home. This fleetingness lends itself to openness, because there’s a kind of liberty attached to ephemerality.

Earlier this summer, I received a thorough education in Australian music courtesy of an Aussie I met on the road. One of the bands he introduced me is called Gang of Youths, and they have this truly beautiful song titled The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows. The whole song is immensely quotable, but one of my favorite lines goes: “not everything means something, honey/so say the unsayable, say the most human of things/and if everything is temporary/I will bear the unbearable, terrible triteness of being”.

Lydia Tahraoui | Lets Go

Bibliophiles everywhere will recognize the allusion to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a fantastic Czech novel that explores the inherent ephemerality of life. Every moment, every experience is ultimately finite, and that can either be deeply depressing or extraordinarily liberating.

If everything is temporary, you may as well buy into that temporariness and allow yourself to fully embrace those ephemeral moments, because soon enough they’re going to disappear. There’s no meaning beyond the meaning you actively choose to make.

What I’ve appreciated the most about solo traveling is that, yeah, everything you’re experiencing is temporary – so you make the most of it. You allow yourself to be the most open, the most vulnerable, the most human you can be. What other choice do you have? You say the unsayable and you create significance and you ultimately embrace the unbearable lightness of traveling.

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