Making Friends of Strangers

We were often told making friends as a couple would be more difficult for us than for our solo traveling counterparts. Naturally, when traveling with a companion you don’t need to lean on serendipitous relationships to ensure you enjoy each moment to the fullest. As a result, Dana and I often found ourselves “wasting away” an entire day in our van having formed close relationships with no one other than our trusty traveling companions, Merlot and Cab Sav. As many could predict, a safety blanket as cozy as this one could spur some complacency. To avoid the atrophy of our friendship building muscles, we set out on our journey with an open mindset to allow strangers into our lives. Consequently, we felt more like locals in a foreign land and created many friendships that will last a lifetime.

Early on, we were seeking out opportunities to meet new people and break down this negative stereotype carried by couple travelers. One night during our North Island tour we found ourselves parked behind what appeared to be a small town sports complex building. Well, a bottle of wine with dinner lead to some cheap vodka for dessert and before you know it Dana and I are wondering our way around the car park mucking it up with other campers offering up what we had left of our wine. During our chat with a fellow van traveling German, we noticed several trucks driving into the car park. Each man exited their vehicle and entered the two-story building nearby. Curiosity got the best of us so we said goodbye to our neighbor and went to check out what was going on. As luck would have it, we stumbled upon a squash league composed of most of the men in the small town of Onewhero (pronounced “own-eh-fair-o”). Some of them came to compete, but all of them came to drink. To sum up the rest of the night, we ended up spending the next few hours drinking beers with the locals learning the differences between rugby union and rugby league, discussing technological advances in modern farming, and everything in between. Amongst the many men we met that night was a father of an Arizona State student, a mechanic who later helped repair our van, and a guy by the name of Scotty who will always remain a lifelong friend and will surely show up in later blog posts. (He also made the cut on Dana’s photo gallery. Go check out the pics from our turkey hunting expedition.)

Locals weren’t the only targets on our crusade to build traveling relationships. Some of our most memorable friendships made were with fellow travelers. These friendships were like the burning of cedar in a campfire: they ignite easily, burn hot and bright, and go out shortly thereafter. The majority of the friendships made on the road didn’t last more than twenty-four hours. We would pull into camp and spark up a conversation with the folks cooking next to us, offer them something of our own (like extra potatoes given to us by the farmers at the squash league or some smoked marlin given to us by Captain Scotty), and in the blink of an eye we would be thrown into deep conversation many would expect only to have with close friends. Some of these friends were weekend warriors, like Rod and his wife, traveling by van to see their grandkids while crossing off a few bucket list items along the way. Others were more long term travelers like the Italian friends we made on my birthday at the campground by the Hot Water Beach. Those nomads had all been solo traveling for several years since meeting each other in Australia and had been weaving their traveling to spontaneously meet up ever since. We shared lifestyle advice and swapped adventure stories while slurping Kahlua Tim Tam Slams (for a quick tutorial of this delicious treat click here) late into the night only to wave goodbye to them the next morning as they left the campground. That will almost certainly be the last time we see those Italians.

Eventually, our Van Life travels lead us to the place we now call home, Lakewood Lodge, and new types of friendships are being made. We now work a typical Monday to Friday work week, so our growing list of traveling buddies has slowed for the moment. Our fellow staff members, on the other hand, have now become some of the closest friends we’ve made and are more family at this point than friends. We spend the days cracking jokes at each others expense and the nights sitting on our balconies on Gypsy Lake learning about the vast differences in each of our life stories. I think it’s safe to say these friendships will certainly extend beyond the limits of our time at The Lodge.

Just because our traveling has slowed down for a while doesn’t mean we don’t seek out the opportunity to turn strangers into friends. Just last week, Dana and I drove five hours north to the Town of Russell to spend the day hiking from one bay to the next in a once-a-year guided tour. After the conclusion to the hike, we spent time getting to know our guides a bit better over some wine and a delicious platter and by the end of the night Dana was winning prizes from the local bowling club (think bocce ball not tenpin bowling) at their Walking Weekend award ceremony.

We are quickly learning that these experiences are as available as one makes them. We are enjoying putting this knowledge into practice while being so far from home, but we are also discussing ways of implementing it when we get back. With that, I’ve got my first ever request of my readers: Take a weekend to be a tourist in your own city! Look up a guided tour in your area or go visit your local museum on one of its busiest days. When you get there, be sure to start conversations with the strangers around you. Maybe you will end up making life long friends. Maybe just friends for the afternoon. Either way it should make for a unique change of pace from your normal weekend activities. And after you’ve done it, let me know how it goes! I know this blog doesn’t have the biggest following (possibly just you, Mom and Dad), but I’m hoping to get at least one response from a loyal reader telling me how their experience changed their life!

6 thoughts on “Making Friends of Strangers

  1. Ben, you’re a phenomenal writer! I just teared up reading this thinking back on van life/travel life.


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