Have you lost contact with old friends or former travel mates? If so, why not consider rekindling friendships through travel?
This is a story of one such experience in May 2014. As a retired boomer, I have many travel memories spanning several decades. I relish recalling those experiences that were born out of necessity rather than choice. Sleeping on beaches, eating out of tin cans and spending several days between hot showers come to mind. I enjoy those sweet reflections on how it was to travel in an era of minimal or non-existent airport security. Or experiencing the beauty of sleepy coastal villages before they were transformed into multi-million dollar resorts. There are others of course but I’ve discovered that one of the best of all is to share forty-year-old memories with someone who shared a previous journey.
The earlier journey began in January 1974 in Israel, during one of the country’s coldest winters on record. This led to volunteering to work on a kibbutz until the weather warmed up. It was there I met Sandy, a Canadian from St. Joseph’s Island near Sault Sainte Marie. In short order, we were matched up as roommates and assigned one of the old huts reserved for volunteers. It didn’t take long for us to become fast friends.
We laughed, told stories, shared dreams and hitchhiked together throughout Israel, and then in Canada later that year. Soon after, we drifted in different directions and went our separate ways as studies, work, and less youthful pursuits took over.
Fast forward several decades to retirement. That’s when I dusted off my old travel journals and pondered the whereabouts of people who featured so prominently in such rich stories of the past. With Google at my disposal, tracking down Sandy was easy, as she’d become a published author and expert in her field. After a quick email and just as quick response, we followed each other’s lives on Facebook for a couple of years without ever truly connecting.
That all changed when I was planning a bike-and-barge tour to the Netherlands, where Sandy had taken up residence. We explored the possibility of getting together and with the benefit of email, a plan was hatched to meet briefly in Holland followed by almost two weeks together in Portugal.
Travelling together to Portugal was a bit of a risk for both of us. Had our lives changed so dramatically that we could no longer relate or our interests were no longer compatible? Had our world views shaped by forty years’ living on different continents and exposed to different cultures and ways of seeing be so radically different that our attitudes and perspectives would clash? For me, it was a risk worth taking. It felt intriguing. Compelling. It seemed as though I was embarking on several journeys merged into one, and I wondered which in particular would be the most interesting.
Of course, there was Portugal. A visit to Portugal was long overdue. I knew I would come away with a rich appreciation of the history, people, beaches and seafood, among other things.
Then there was the nostalgic trip down memory lane. Just thinking about it evoked a smile on my face and warmth in my heart. I was looking forward to discovering which pieces of our youthful adventures we would each remember, and laughing all over again at some of our escapades.
And there was my almost insatiable curiosity about someone else’s life journey through the forty years sandwiched in between. I knew so little about the present day Sandy. Her professional blog and Facebook page were about her work, evidence that she had indeed fulfilled many of those youthful dreams shared as a nineteen-year-old all those years ago. But Sandy as a person on the verge of turning sixty was a complete mystery, and that was something I was interested in exploring. Sandy’s studies and career had unfolded much as I remember she said they would. This was so very different from my unplanned and spontaneous choices exercised in a somewhat higgledy-piggledy fashion along the way. How had the wisdom to know her career path, and the determination to follow it, influence the unfolding of Sandy’s life in other ways? I had no idea about her marital or family status, or why she decided to settle in the Netherlands. Or, what had become of her family who had so graciously welcomed me into their home for my first “white Christmas” in 1974. I pictured an exercise book with so many blank pages just waiting to be filled that I couldn’t wait to get started.
But a strange thing happened. What I hadn’t planned on was the journey within, a journey into self. This was triggered by memories and emotions as we talked incessantly about our earlier travels and the intervening years. The other revelation was the unanticipated significance of the unfolding of the travel adventure of two women who had not seen or truly communicated with each other in forty years. I had compartmentalized the trip into “Portugal,” “memory lane” and finding out about “Sandy’s journey” of the past four decades. But I had neglected to consider how the intersecting of both Sandy’s and my life stories after so long would have such a significant impact.
After the bike-and-barge tour followed by a week in Amsterdam, I took the train to Arnhem where Sandy and her partner collected me from the station. In no time at all, we started filling in some of the highlights and superficial details about our respective lives. I had a million questions that I figured would be answered in due course. After all, we would have almost two weeks in which to do so. The conversation was relaxed and fluid, and many questions were answered without having to be asked.
Sandy read me excerpts of her forty-year-old journal entries from Israel, and handed me forty-year-old correspondence I’d written during my first year in Canada. I was amazed the letters still existed, and had an ambivalent interest in what they might reveal about my twenty-something self. Over the course of the weekend, we laughed and told stories, much as we did all those years ago. Forty-year-old memories were traded, sometimes drawing blanks from the other person as she reached into the depths of her recollections and came up empty. Or, we helped each other contribute the necessary pieces to create something approaching a complete picture. As the connections were made, the trip to Portugal felt more appealing than ever.
In Portugal, our pace and schedule for each day were both leisurely and unambitious. This left plenty of space for spontaneity and conversation, and allowed our common and divergent interests determine our activities and route. Very early on, it became obvious that the trip to Portugal had morphed into a convergence of two journeys through the previous forty years. I felt less like a traveller in a foreign land, and more like a character in a play without a script, with no idea of how it would end. Sure, we took in many of the sights of Lisbon and Nazaré and points in between, but I found myself reflecting on all that we shared. Our present-day travel adventure felt like the closing of a circle initiated forty years earlier, and it brought insights I never imagined possible.
Each day, there were new discoveries.
Oh, how different we were. Sandy is an intellectual and I am… well, not. Sandy speaks several languages and I am boringly unilingual. Sandy’s a vegetarian and I adore seafood. I enjoy a happy hour brew, and wine with a leisurely supper; Sandy doesn’t drink. Sandy loves museums, architecture, art, hand-painted tiles, textiles, innovative designs and products, classical music and the list goes on… and I appreciate exposure to each of these in manageable portions. I love abandoning the tourist trail, and eating among locals in restaurants with names I can’t pronounce. I like to spontaneously jump on and off public transportation, walk my feet off and get lost in old and less glamorous working class neighbourhoods. But most of all I enjoy contemplative moments when stumbling across perfect places to allow feelings of gratitude for being where I am envelop me.
Under other circumstances, I might have suggested splitting up to explore our divergent interests. However, the glimpses into Sandy’s life and how it connected with mine were far too seductive to ignore. The more we talked, the deeper some of our conversations went. There were times I felt afforded a sacred position of trust – a place of honour when someone shares her most painful of memories or deepest of thoughts. Our conversations were sprinkled with laughter and tears, and discovering a long lost friend was powerful.
The journey within was tumultuous, like being on a roller coaster. There were times I felt twenty-something, filled with youthful exuberance and carefree abandon. At other times, I experienced it all as a journey of gratitude… for the inexplicable and unfathomable bonds of family and the goodness of the life partner I often take for granted. It was also a time to appreciate the intense relationships possible between women, uncomplicated by the distractions of sexual chemistry or gender dynamics. This was somewhat similar to other travel experiences with women friends – experiences peppered with powerful reminders and revelations about the reasons we became and remain friends. As the days unfurled and our relationship strengthened, I felt a need to explore why we somewhat abruptly went in different directions forty years ago. Excavating recollections and piecing together fragments from my letters Sandy had kept provided valuable clues about what I was searching for back then, and how it influenced the rest of my life. As I came to the realization of how much I had missed my friend, strangely enough, I didn’t regret the loss of forty years of friendship. I was somewhat thankful we hadn’t maintained contact as I suspected the distractions of work, relationships and “stuff” might have interfered with our ability to remain connected in a meaningful way.
The closing of one circle in such a memorable manner has spurred the conception of others. Sandy and I have made plans to meet up in Spain this spring, and I expect other travel opportunities will follow. I’ve since tracked down other long lost travel mates, and encouraged younger travellers to journal and retain contact information for reconnecting at a later date.
This was an unforgettable journey and one I would embark on again in a heartbeat.
Have you reconnected with friends through travel? If so, we’d love to hear about it.