When you travel on your own you’re bound to experience moments of loneliness. You’ll spend meals alone, trying to make your smile look confident rather than desperate as you butcher the foreign words for ‘more wine, please.’ At times like these you’ll wish you had someone, anyone, to talk to.
The opposite can also happen. Somewhere along the road you might find yourself travelling with someone you want to throttle. Someone you just can’t get rid of.
I met Emiliano — Em for short — at a hostel in Seville. He had a ring through his upper lip and a pair of reflective John Lennon sunglasses that he wore constantly. A small clump of short, green dreadlocks grew at the back of his head. He needed a lighter and I needed a friend.
As we smoked a morning spliff on the rooftop terrace we asked and answered all of the usual questions: Where are you from? What do you do? Where are you going next?
I learned that he was a Swiss-Argentinian artist living in Barcelona, and that he was in the process of buying a Volkswagen van. He dreamed of being a surf bum, living the good life in the surf towns of Spain and Portugal. He was stopping in Seville before he left for the surf breaks in the South.
Our first day together was magical. We wandered the cobbled streets, laughing and smoking and watching performance after performance of Flamenco. He was the clumsiest person I had ever met. His cheap Lennon sunglasses were always falling off his face, and every time we smoked he lost the lighter in one of his many pockets.
“It is gone!” he would declare, only to find it five minutes later. He was a walking slapstick comedy; everything he did was funny. At the end of the day he asked me if I wanted to travel with him to a tiny surf town the next morning. I had other plans, but I believe that the best travel experiences are the spontaneous kind. So why not?
Two’s a crowd
Exploring a city with another person is one thing, but once you start travelling with someone you really get to know them. Em and I traveled together for a total of five days, and during that time we got few breaks from each other.
We surfed together, hitchhiked together, and twice, lacking an available hostel or change for bus fare (there were no ATMs and Em spent our last ten Euro on a bag of dried up hashish), we slept in his tent together. The red flags started cropping up around the middle of day two, and each day Em’s personality got under my skin a little bit more.
It started with small things, like the way he would blast music from his laptop in cafés to drown out the background music (as a result, no one in the room could enjoy either song). Or the fact that he was traveling with six bags, a tent, a ukulele (that he couldn’t play), and a long board (that he couldn’t ride), which was strapped to his back pack so that he could never fit through doors, and whenever he turned around, he nearly broke my nose.
He was so disorganized that I had to fight the urge to label his pockets like the overly fussy mother of an overly spacey kindergartener.
There were bigger issues, too. His chilled out, hippie vibes thinly masked laziness and negativity. He also seemed to think that we would hook up if he dropped enough hints, even though he had a girlfriend.
And then there was the fact that he was a little bit crazy. On our last night together he told me his theory that his girlfriend was actually a CIA agent sent to spy on him.
“My name could be on a list!” he kept saying. “That is why she keeps asking me where I am, who I am with…”
Long story short, the signs were clear. We were not a good match, and I wanted out.
The great escape
Most of the time it’s relatively easy to part ways with a fellow traveller. You have your route and they have theirs. My problem with Em was that shortly after we started travelling together he changed his route to follow mine. He wanted to travel with me to Morocco. He changed his flight and everything. When this happens, parting ways gets a little bit personal — it feels a lot like a break up.
Our last two days together were spent in Tarifa, a windswept beach town at the southern tip of Spain. Morocco loomed just across the Strait of Gibraltar. I was so excited I could practically taste the tagine and mint tea on the wind. Every hour the ferry leaves for Tangier, and during our time in Tarifa I pondered how I was going to get myself onto one of those boats without Em.
I considered the cliché break up approach: It’s not you, it’s me… I think we need some time apart. No. Too melodramatic.
Then I considered a more “hippie-dippie” method of separation: My heart tells me that I need to walk this part of my path alone…
Most tempting of all was the idea of slipping away in the night without explanation or confrontation, but that seemed too cowardly. After all that we had been through, he deserved an adios at least.
In the end, what I did was this:
I had an early morning scuba appointment, so I was out of bed before Em could smoke his morning joint. After my dive, I marched straight to the ferry terminal and bought a ticket for the next boat. With this concrete escape route in place, I went back to the hostel to say my goodbyes and pick up my bag, but (admittedly, to my relief) Em was out.
We never did get a real goodbye, but I wrote him a quick note: It was nice meeting you, Em. I caught the boat to Tangier, and I am gonna go it on my own from here. I hope you have a great trip. As an afterthought, and because we are both dope smoking wannabe surf bums, I added, Keep riding the good waves.
With that, I stepped out into the bright, Spanish sunlight feeling positively buoyant. I was headed to Morocco! Alone! I practically skipped down to the ferry, filled with a sense of euphoria that you can really only find while traveling. The excitement of the unknown, a new adventure, a fresh and beautiful start in a completely foreign land.
My advice to my fellow backpackers is to never stick with a travel companion who changes your trip for the worse. Nobody has time for that. Never travel with someone out of the fear of being alone, or for protection in numbers, or because you are too ‘nice’ to part ways.
Meeting new people is one of the greatest things about travel, but never feel that you’re committed to staying with them. They’ll find another companion and so will you. Maybe some feelings will be bruised in the process, but it’ll be worth it in the end, trust me.
I ate my first meal in Morocco alone, and it was delicious.