His wild, brown hair twists all through my fingertips, back and forth three times until I complete the cornrow braid. I won’t tell him I learned how to braid from YouTube, I think. His back uncomfortably sits upright between my legs. I try to detangle a cowlick, my new friend’s hair very different in texture from my wild, Afro like hair, always somewhat caught between a fight with humidity and my comb. I embrace it anyway.
“You know, I’ve never had my hair cornrowed before.” He laughs, full of excitement. Judging by how tender headed (teary-eyed) he is as I grab the next strand of hair, I could already tell. There’s no way I’m going to tell him that though.
I put a rubber band in my mouth and open it with my teeth to secure the end of the braid.
“Here’s to sharing our cultures!” I giggle.
I am 5,485 miles from my grandparents remolded home in North Carolina where my parents raised my brother and I. My friend’s cell phone blinks 3:32am. Our hostel rests in the downtown area of Fira, in Santorini, Greece. Earlier this morning, my friend and I flew from Athens and watched the sunrise over the blue and white small buildings on the edge of cliffs overlooking the Aegean Sea. The water is the bluest I’ve ever seen. This is a place you see on your Tumblr dashboard and roll your eyes because you are positive it cannot be real and you already know you cannot even afford a hotel in said location.
The buildings are all painted a picturesque navy blue and white. Our RyanAir plane lands. It is a seemingly bumpy landing; I grab the seat in front of me, cursing, but realize I’d fly them again because of the cheap price. I lean over and ask my friend Tosin how many companies on the island sell white paint and their monthly net income. She throws her long braids over her shoulder with one hand and tilts her head sideways and laughs. Somehow, I still feel that she understood me. This is the importance of friendship.
Several bright and colorful, beaded bracelets on her right hand shake; one in particular grabs my eye. This is the same bracelet she wore 6 months ago when we met at a party beach hostel in Krabi, Thailand. I saw her sitting on the steps alone when I was walking upstairs from the bar. I was also alone. A girl in the bathroom was screaming at the top of her lungs and throwing up from a stomach bug. I ran downstairs and got the reception to assist the girl.
I walked up to Tosin and said, “do you know why that girl is throwing up?”
We’ve been friends ever since. Now, we’re backpacking through Europe together for two weeks, five countries down and four to go. Nothing but a crazy idea we had while I was studying Spanish in Guatemala and she was living in Thailand, back in June.
Most people, when speaking of travel, think of a vacation of a lifetime, an ocean villa next to ocean clear turquoise water, Mojitos galore, dolphin sightings in the distance, a refreshing but cooling breeze, peace and quiet for five days and four nights, excessive, yet narcissistic Facebook photo posting, and an all- inclusive buffet and drink deal awaiting.
I challenge you to think differently.
Upon arrival, I tiredly collapsed into the lobby couch, and ended up discussing gentrification in Portland with a new, bubbly and energetic friend I met from Oregon. A liberal! I get so excited that I almost emotionally burst into tears.
Traveling gives you a new perspective. People are so interesting.
I look around the room at the hostel room of guest (cheap knock off hotel with less amenities and rooms full of bunk beds that cower under your weight at 5:00am when you climb into the top bunk) suddenly converted to eight new friends. Everyone sits on a bunk bed or chooses the floor, criss cross applesauce. Even though we are all in our mid- twenties, no one is ever too old to sit criss cross applesauce.
Everyone is from all over the United States, Africa, and Brazil.
A couple of friends are traveling around the world; one lives out of his Volvo that he transformed, traveling around the United States and building his photography business domestically and internationally. As we speak, he’s kayaking through the islands in Greece and I am rapidly tapping my index finger twice on all of his Instagram pictures. How many more photos can I possibly like today without being considered a creep?
Another just quit his job in search of something else. He wears glasses, an enormous, light brown beard, and a big smile whenever you crack a joke. He’s sporting a blue fleece pullover bearing his old company’s name in the upper right hand corner. It looks soft; I reach out and put my hand on his shoulder. He doesn’t flinch. It’s like we’ve known each other for years. I congratulate him on quitting his job. Those things take courage.
“I hope you let that fleece jacket go,” I tell him. His rebuttal about how it’s the softest jacket he owns makes sense, but to me it’s an old reminder. Days later, he loses the jacket in a gyro restaurant, frustrated.
“I hope the man who stole it stays warm,” he whispers to me over a plate of baklava, our forks tangled between layers of the Greek pastry, almost as sweet as him.
He teaches me new things over the course of the next five days, like the wrist placement to throw a Frisbee, West Ethiopian culture, and Jewish Birthright. I drink from his cup of coffee at Starbucks that doesn’t have any sugar in it for the first time. I find out ultimate Frisbee is pretty damn cool. In my future life, I secretly wish I will be reincarnated into an ultimate Frisbee player.
One new friend is the most mature 18 year old I’ve ever met. She is traveling through Europe alone and I feel a sense of pride that she is doing what she wants in her life. I am so proud of her that I want to call her mother just to express her that she did an amazing job. Two weeks later I get a sweet iMessage text on my American phone number, telling me how much she misses our little family we formed.
Another friend turns out to be a free spirit, desiring to travel through South America in the upcoming months. He teaches me how to put up a hammock on a tree and refreshes my chess skills. His perspective on life makes me dig deeper on my thoughts and perspectives. We speak of life and the pursuit of happiness. I learn an excellent dinner recipe from him in another city three days later while Couchsurfing in an apartment painted the strongest color of hot pink you will ever see.
Another friend is in a study abroad program for architecture in Greece. He speaks of the challenges of a 9 to 5 life after he graduates. I challenge him to think about creating what he really wants.
“Why can’t you have it all?” I ask. He looks at me, surprised.
I meet him the day after we arrive in Santorini; him arriving in the wee hours of the morning. That morning I rolled over, rubbing sleep out of my eyes, making eye contact with him on the top bunk bed across from me.
“Where are you from?” I yawn, smiling, my scarf still hanging off of my head.
Another friend lives in Dublin, he speaks to me about the life there and between his native country of Brazil. He later shows up at my hostel in another city three days later, laughing and hugging me in the hostel lobby.
“It’s so great to see you! Where is everyone?!” He beams.
I begin to understand how amazing it is when friendships transcend to other cities, countries, and transitions and stages of our lives.
Days later, I sit with a new friend in Athens, discussing her impact from being a part of AmeriCorps for a year. She speaks of her family and friends and the impact of poverty and the difficult cycle of change. I listen in awe. We discuss difficult topics like privilege and race in a small bar in the center of Athens. I end up leaving the conversation thinking that my mind expanded during our conversation.
One friend invites us all out to visit her in D.C. Her bubbly and direct personality adds so much to our group. I’m so sure that I’ll see her again with her being only four hours away from me in North Carolina. What a small world. We’ll laugh and tell everyone we met in Greece and we’ve been friends ever since.
I’m surprised how deep the conversations go. One friend asks what’s the most important thing we accomplished in the last year and the hardest lesson we learned in the last year; what our story is. We take turns sitting in a chair, everyone having a chance to ask the other person whatever his or her heart desires.
“Hot chair,” Tosin calls it.
“Tianna, what’s your deepest fear?” Someone calls out from a top bunk.
The room goes still.
I twiddle my thumbs. Anyone who truly knows who I am can easy tell you that I am outgoing, outspoken, and that I never meet a stranger, but now, I sit in complete silence.
I feel the truth on my tongue, but vulnerability can feel like your first broken heart, those nights crying and jumping on your bed desperately screaming the lyrics to Drunk in Love by Beyoncé with your college roommate. Or friendships and relationships lost due to pride and the “I’m sorry’s” and the “I miss you, but you are no good for me?” that you abandoned as soon as your mind formed the thought. Or the “I’m new here, do you want to be friends?” that always sounded similar to a 1st grader speaking to a classmate, even though you’ve known three different states as your home since you were born.
Or what about the feeling in your chest when you sign yourself up for counseling, too sad about a taboo subject you cannot even discuss without feeling shamed. It can taste like the blood in your mouth after your first boxing match at 19, your coach yelling directions, your flaws quickly leaving you naked by a jab to the ribs by your opponent. You do not float like a butterfly or sting like a bee but you like Monarch butterflies and you’ve never been stung by a bee. Or what about the fresh scar on your knee, the sharp, rounded concrete curb laughing at the nerve of you and your purple bicycle, taunting you every time you ride past.
I’m older, but it still feels the same.
“I feel that no one is going to truly see me for who I am and appreciate me. I mean I definitely know who I am and what I’m worth. I’m just afraid that if I keep traveling around without having a home, that I’m never going to meet a guy and settle down,” I exclaim, almost gasping for air.
“I want to own plants and an apartment that I can always come home to, to have hangers and towel racks, to not live out of a backpack. I want a dog. I want community. I want to make homemade pizzas with a man on a Friday night that truly knows what he has in front of him.”
“I am afraid that I will never be loved,” I whisper.
I’m surprised to hear another person echo my exact same fear aloud, five minutes later.
Sometimes, you feel as if you’re going through this world alone, that what you are going through is nothing but yours.
And then, you suddenly have friendship.
Someone reaffirms you, makes you feel like you aren’t alone, that they feel the same.
You share your life, your culture, and your innermost thoughts on everything under the sun.
And that feeling… that feeling cannot be explained further.