Friends in Faraway Places

Do you ever have certain memories from your childhood that stick out, but you don’t know why? You remember exactly what was said, and at the time you didn’t understand the significance of it, but it comes back to you again and again. 

One of these memories, for me, is when I was about nine years old and one of my best friends, Hannah, was moving to South Carolina, a nine-hour drive away from our hometown in Pennsylvania. One of my biggest concerns at the time was for Hannah – she had to leave her life behind completely, and that seemed so sad.

“What about her friends?” I asked her mother. “She won’t have any friends there.”

“There are friends everywhere,” her mother responded, almost dismissively, as though this was a well-known fact of life, and maybe it was. “There were friends in our last hometown, there are friends here, there will be friends in South Carolina.”

This comforted me; “There are friends everywhere.” So much so, apparently, that I remembered it for years and years; it was my mantra when I was preparing to leave home for college, and I kept it tucked away in my mind until I was 19 and I flew alone to Copenhagen, Denmark for my first ever solo trip.

Nyhavn Canal in Copenhagen

On my second morning in Copenhagen, I was already starting to feel lonely and wondered if I made a mistake coming here at all. But then I went on a small boat tour and met a girl from Chicago named Maddie, who I approached almost immediately upon noticing she was traveling alone like I was.

We went to several museums together after the boat tour, and the next day we took the train to a reindeer park outside the city that she had heard about and was excited to visit. Maddie and I are still connected on social media and frequently respond to each other’s travel posts with an “I’ve been there!! How do you like it?” or “I’m going there soon, any recommendations?”, and that type of thing. 

Maddie and I with reindeer at Dyrehavn, Denmark

My last night in Copenhagen, we went out drinking at her hostel bar and I met another friend – Mario, from Australia, here in Europe on business, for a wedding, and just for his own enjoyment, all in the same trip. We bar-hopped the rest of the night together until he walked me to the train station at 2 am to be sure I made it home safely.

Mario and I are still in contact, as we promised to share cocktail recipes once we returned home; there was a drink called “Tokyo Homemade Ginger Lemonade Iced F***ing Tea” that I swore I would figure out how to recreate (I still haven’t, but when I do, I’ll send Mario the recipe immediately).

Mario, Maddie, and I drinking mojitos at a hostel bar

My next solo trip was to Hong Kong in January 2019, and just when I was starting to feel lonely at the end of my first day, I heard a British woman in my hostel dorm ask an American woman whether she had been to the light show in Hong Kong. I quickly opened the curtains around my bunk bed and jumped into the conversation, relieved to hear my language and even my accent spoken by someone else.

Both women were in their 20s; Lottie, a British backpacker on holiday in Asia, in Hong Kong for the last leg of her trip, and Sarah, a freelance sound technician who worked on films in New York City, at the beginning of her journey through Southeast Asia. 

The three of us saw the light show, rode the ferry, and the next day, went all the way to the island of Lantau and rode the cable cars up a mountain to see the Tian Tian Buddha, the largest seated Buddha statue in the world, and visit the fishing village Tai O. We talked and joked as though we’d been friends for much longer than a few hours. 

From left: Sarah, Lottie, and I in a cable car above Ngong Ping Mountain

Lottie was leaving late that night to return to London, and we all spent the evening in the hostel lobby drinking wine from a convenience store down the block and playing with the provided board games and cards. There, we were joined by Jeon, our fourth hostel roommate, a Korean artist who drew sketches of each of us on little pieces of paper, which she signed and I kept with me for the rest of my trip, and still have somewhere.

Jeon and her sketch of me

Then the completely unexpected happened. My time in Hong Kong after that night was blighted by grief, as I learned of the sudden death of my best friend the next morning.

Sarah approached my dorm bed around noon asking if I wanted to go get Hello Kitty-themed dim sum. At a loss for words for a few moments, I opened the curtains and simply told her what had happened, and that I wanted to join her – it’s best for me to stay busy, I assured her.

Sarah and I spent the day eating dim sum adorned with edible googly-eyes, shopping for knockoffs and haggling in street markets, and getting painfully aggressive Chinese massages. It was Thursday night, which was designated as Ladies’ Night in the Lan Kwai Fong party district, and after resting quietly in our hostel for a few hours, we went back out to have some fun.

At the end of a mostly uneventful night, we ended up at a gay club called LINQ, where we met even more friends – a saucy 60-something-year-old drag queen, a British hairstylist named David, the friendly Nepalese waitress who bought me margarita after margarita, a boy about my age named Leslie who lived in Hong Kong, and a group of Thai tourists who appeared to be having the time of their life partying with us. I danced until I had nothing left in me, then fell asleep in a cab that Sarah found for us.

From left: Leslie, Sarah, me, and Mai (one of the Thai tourists) at LINQ

My happenstance friendship with Sarah was what saved my entire trip; had I not found a friend whose mere presence motivated me to do the impossible and simply keep on moving, I don’t think I ever would’ve left my hostel bed that week, and probably would’ve flown home even earlier than I eventually did. I would’ve missed out on beautiful sights and meaningful experiences in Hong Kong, like the bustling markets and warm beaches that I managed to drag myself to the next few days, even after she had left the city. 

The pier at Stanley Beach, Hong Kong

It’s not an exaggeration to say Sarah was the most crucial friendship I ever had while traveling, and I’m forever grateful to her for being there for me and to the mysterious forces of the universe for bringing us together at a time when I needed a friend more than ever.

When I say I like to travel solo, people always ask if I get lonely out there by myself. The answer is yes, of course I do – but there are friends everywhere, you only have to be open to finding them. 

Sarah and I at the Ozone Bar, the highest bar in the world (118th floor of the Ritz-Carlton)

Traveling solo can be about looking within yourself and learning to be happy alone, and it has been that way sometimes, but more often than not it’s about the new connections you are in the unique position to make.

I’ve traveled alone in Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Copenhagen, and even lived alone in New York City for three months – and every time, when I wanted people to talk to and make museum visits and nights out on the town a bit more fun, I found them. As a result, I now have friends all around the globe, from South Korea to Ukraine to Brazil and so many more places, and I hope to see them again if our paths ever overlap.

The lesson, simply put, is this: you never have to be alone when you travel solo or move to a new place, because no matter where you go, what Hannah’s mom said to me over a decade ago still rings true – there are friends everywhere.

Me with my friends the reindeer at Dyrehavn, Denmark

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