Traveling and the art of goodbye

Goodbye Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam

Travel is open to many definitions, and here is one: “to move in such a way that your life intersects with other lives and is shaped by the encounter.”

For me, a vital component of relationships formed on the road is the goodbye, nicely demonstrated in this photograph from Vietnam. Chau and her friend have just spent part of the day with me in Hoi An. As the river ferry that will take them home pulls away from the dock, they wave goodbye. It’s a small and ordinary thing, yes, but imagine a world in which nobody ever said goodbye.

This past summer, while chatting online with a friend in Shanghai named Michelle, I was reminded of something I’d nearly forgotten. Michelle and I first met in Kathmandu, and two months later we met again in India. Michelle recalled the morning in Rishikesh when she and her traveling partner checked out of the hotel to catch a bus to Delhi. The night before, knowing they would be leaving in the morning, I had asked that they wake me before setting off so that we could say goodbye. But because for two days I had had a blazing fever and sore throat, Michelle decided they’d slip away quietly from their adjacent room so that I could rest. When I awoke and discovered their vacant room, however, I rushed to the receptionist—he said they had left 10 minutes earlier—and then, mostly clothed and in flip-flops, tore off down the small street paralleling the Ganges. Michelle remembered her surprise and happiness when she saw me wheezing and disheveled, having finally caught up with them to say goodbye.

A life void of the “goodbye” custom would be missing something. And I’m not the only one who thinks this; so does the young character Pi Patel in Yann Martel’s backpacker favorite Life of Pi. Along with a tiger named Richard Parker, Pi is lost at sea for several months, and when finally he and the tiger come ashore the tiger ups and walks away, never to return. And Pi says, “I was weeping because Richard Parker had left me so unceremoniously. What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell.”

Yes, that tiger did Pi wrong.  While not many have been shipwrecked with tigers, each of us has experience in farewells.  Please feel free to share any of your own stories—whether sweet or downright unceremonious.

Posted by | Comments (5)  | October 8, 2009
Category: Images from the road

5 Responses to “Traveling and the art of goodbye”

  1. Joel Runyon Says:

    Goodbye’s have to be my least favorite thing about travel, but at the same time its good to know you’ve met someone that impacted your life in a way that there’s something missing when they’re gone.

  2. Stacey Says:

    Great post. I think the traveler’s goodbye is such an interesting topic because in some ways it can encapsulate the richness of travel, when you share a heartfelt goodbye with someone you’ve just met, but it can also show how desensitized travelers can become when they avoid emotional goodbyes because they’re too common.

    I know lots of people who prefer to dash out from the hostel, or hop on the next train, without saying a real goodbye. It’s just part of the travel cycle, they say.

    I’ve done both. But I can much better remember those goodbyes where I stuck around and cried and hugged until the train was leaving. And not surprisingly, I remember those people better too.

  3. Says:

    Goodbye doesn’t have to be final. You could keep in touch via social media sites, email, and texting, if you really want to keep in touch. You could continue to develop relationships with the people you meet if you really want to do so. It’s up to travelers to decide if they want “goodbye” to be final or just for a moment.

  4. Nora Says:

    When you travel – a lot – goodbyes can be tiresome. More often than not, you won’t see the fast friends you made on the road again, and sometimes keeping in touch can be awkward. For me, instead of putting a lot of pomp and circumstance around the “goodbye” process, I prefer to say “see you later” along with a hug. Because you never know…

  5. Casey Says:

    I love the post idea. Goodbyes can be pretty difficult at times. I was lucky enough to travel for the past 13 months and needless to say, I had my good share of goodbyes. One of the hardest was with my French buddy Loic who I had met traveling and wandered around SE Asia with for over 2 months. Knowing it was our last night, we partied our a$$es off the night before. He had a 7am bus the next morning so he tapped me on the shoulder in the morning. In my groggy state of half-drunken slumber, I gave him a high-five and mumbled “we ended on a great note.”