One of our favorite weekend destinations is the infamous Iguana Perdida hostel, located in a small town called Santa Cruz on Lake Atitlan. Santa Cruz is a charming town with a welcoming atmosphere and a stunning view of the lake and bordering volcanoes. However, the town’s real tourist draw is the Iguana. Located right on the edge of the lake, the hostel is the quintessential backpacker hotspot. Not only does it possess bohemian dormitories tucked into the jungle of banana, avocado, and palm trees, but the Iguana also provides diving lessons and certifications, a Mayan sauna, hammocks, Spanish classes, weaving instruction, guided hikes, kayaks, a library, and a lounge complete with a fireplace and a huge flat screen, cable television. Every night, the hostel provides an all-you-can-eat, family-style dinner, in which hostel guests all sit at long dinner table and swap stories of their travels. Overall, I concur with the many guide books that say that the Iguana Perdida is its own, small but pleasant universe.
A few weeks ago, my friends and I were fortunate to be at the hostel not only for BBQ night, but also for the hostel’s notorious costume party that occurs each Saturday. Raiding the Iguana’s costume closet (yes, the hostel has a costume closet), we quickly made friends with the other guests as we all helped each other to select the most ridiculous outfits possible. For example, while I sported a fuchsia business coat and a one piece floral jumper that could have possibly once been a bathing suit or maybe an adult diaper, Hudson donned a pink terry cloth dress, cowboy boots, and a sunhat. Lawyers and business men in the United States, two of our fellow guests wore outdated prom dresses and neon exercise suits, while two pairs of newlyweds sported tacky makeup and MC Hammer pants. By and large, the evening was a classy affair. With all of us decked out in the “fancy dress” required for dinner, we ate our BBQ and tried to take each other seriously as we discussed travelling, life, and work. Following the meal, everyone began dancing and playing games like musical chairs, limbo, and other games from our childhoods. The fun lasted well past midnight, until everyone went to bed, reluctant to relinquish their earlier elegant attire.
For me, the evening at the Iguana perfectly embodied one of the reasons for my love of travelling. Throughout my life, I have been blessed to have backpacked in many countries, including the Dominican Republic, the majority of Western Europe, and Germany for the FIFA World Cup in 2006. I have most often travelled alone, but no matter the destination, I have always met fellow backpackers and have left the place with new friends and memories. Innumerable people have shared a similar experience. When travelling, it is very common and almost expected for strangers to meet and immediately make plans to grab dinner or explore the location. Somehow, making new friends is just easier when you are travelling.
I believe that these quickly established friendships are not just random phenomena or trivial occurrences, but that they are in fact the most magical components of the travelling or backpacking experience and should neither be underestimated nor overlooked. At the Iguana, I helped complete strangers to select some of the most absurd outfits that they have ever seen. I cannot say their favorite stores, their political opinions, or what cars they drive, but I can say that we now share a bond, a common memory that we will cherish for years to come. And thus is the magic of travelling. When you meet another backpacker in transit, the superficial facts about his life cease to matter. You both occupy a liminal space, that is to say that you both are living in transit and out of your comfort zones, and this mutual liminality creates profound bonds based on shared experiences rather than common interests or opinions. While the bonds between backpackers are in no way better than the friendships established at home, these connections are special and magical both in their depth and in the speed with which they are forged.
Perhaps the power of liminality applies to even more than friendships. Perhaps, not in the routines of daily life, but instead in the breaks from these routines can a person can best strengthen his self awareness and world perspectives. I do not know if this idea is true or not, however I do hope that everyone can and will seize the opportunity to travel and experience the magic of these friendships firsthand.