While traveling through south India last week, we became fast friends with two Europeans fresh off an Indian train tour. India, as we’ve all heard, tends to punish outsiders with exotic, often vicious illnesses. And these two were no exception to that. Both had been hit with a malady just days before (which included a high fever and other miseries), only to venture onward as soon as it cleared up. That next adventure? They rented a pair of motorcycles for a solo tour of Pondicherry–only to get lost in a forest at night, low on fuel, with no phone to guide them… or something like that. We, meanwhile, we’re holed up in a fancy hotel eating cookies.

We first ran into this intrepid pair on the shuttle for our boat trip in Kochi. They spoke German and so we assumed they were a couple from Germany. But, as they explained in fluent English, that perception wasn’t exactly accurate. Stephan, a DJ living in Nuremberg, and Alessandra, an Italian wine buyer living in Barcelona, were merely friends enjoying a holiday together. And yes, I love how Europeans call their vacations ‘holidays’. Try it, “I’m going on holiday”. Nice, right?

After sharing a delightful afternoon which included biblical elephant and snake sightings, we traded contact info and agreed to meet the next day.

While en route to our planned rendezvous, we bumped into another traveling duo from our boat tour the day before–IT nerds from Bangalore. They happily joined our squad and from there we became the Kerala Six.

Our ad-hoc crew spent the entire day roaming Mattancherry and Ernakulam. At times, we would split up by gender–the women haggling prices, the guys on the steps outside feigning impatience. At times, we would walk in ever-changing pairs inquiring into the lives of the other. We learned about Stephan’s stint running a bar in Nuremberg and how he was desperate to kick cigarettes. We heard about Alessandro’s life in Barcelona, about her once-rich, now destitute roommate, and how she, too, once owned a bar. We talked about books and music and politics and money. We learned about the competition for IT jobs in India (“If I quit today, there will be a thousand applicants for my position tomorrow”). Stephan laughed at my obsession with photographing blue doorways, then discovered it was fun (in a weird sort of OCD way).

Making friends in foreign lands is one of the nicest perks of traveling. It has a practical advantage too. You can collectively keep an eye on each other’s belongings (including the all-important passport), reduce the risk of getting hustled, and raise your odds of finding destinations. But mostly it just makes the time more enjoyable.

In Paris, years earlier, we made a similar connection with a couple from Vancouver. It was a day spent laughing.

It makes me think that the key to surviving a trip to a foreign land is less about the preparations made ahead of time — the smart hotel reservations, the resourceful packing, the hours of research–and more about finding like-minded journeyers willing to share the experience. To gain short-term comrades, who may also become long-term friends. “Next time you’re in Barcelona/Vancouver/Nuremberg/Houston…” (oh, but who willingly visits Houston?)

So, if you see a couple sitting alone, take a chance and introduce yourself. You may be amazed by the outcome.

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By the way, I wasn’t kidding about the blue doorways.


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