Travel chums and other bums
Words: Rebecca L.Stewart
When traveling solo, you’d think that selecting a mate to accompany you for a few days would truly give you the pick of the litter. You’re a free agent! You sleep in till 2 and party till 5! You answer to no-one and say yes to anything.
Sadly this is seldom the case, and more often than not you’re trapped with the girl on her first overseas trip who declares all of Africa ‘a slum’, or decide to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge with a bloke with two antique Chinese maces and a salon-quality hairdryer in his pack (we’ve all been there, right?).
You can try and take everyone’s financial and intellectual needs into consideration, but in reality, selecting a travel buddy is not unlike choosing a life partner. Fraught with difficulties, embarrassment and misunderstandings, travel companions are ultimately easier to find than to get rid of (as journo Art Buchwald might say).
Most guides to selecting a good partner-in-crime, however, are about as insane, unhelpful and vague as advice columns for single women in their 30s: “share common interests,” “be upfront about your expectations” and “step outside your comfort zone”. As there’s no person on the planet who actually communicates like this, it’s best to settle a few very broad issues before you depart.
What’s going to bother you the most, and what can you live or not live with? For me, this is a low ranking on the International Scale of Hippies. Do they shy from beggars, preferring to save their small change for that time of day when the 10c bread is slashed to 5c? Are they wearing the sartorial equivalent of Tibetan prayer flags? Do they use a good quality aluminium-based deodorant or just rub crystals on their armpits?
In deciding who you want to travel with, use all your senses.
It’s important that you’re both roughly at the same stage of travel or the same stage of life. If you’ve only got 8 days off work before your boss starts breathing hot lava down your portals, you’re never going to jive with someone who’s on their third year of finding themselves – no matter how tousled and cute they may be. Likewise, if you’re at the (very important) ‘will literally sleep on the side of the road to save cash’ part of your life, you’ll have trouble identifying with someone at the (also very important) ‘happy to pay for four seats in this shared taxi so we can get the fuck out of here’ stage.
What are their eating habits? Soy chai latte with a side of smug, or straightforward flat white? Enjoys every vegetable as long as its potato? Happy to eat rib eye but rears up and paws the air like Silver at the sight of any anatomically identifiable tubes or sagittal fossa? Any gluten or nut intolerances? Mostly though, make sure your travel mate is not intolerant of other things like foreign people or new experiences. Could be a real buzz kill.
Beforehand, listen to your mates and family veerrry closely. If you get any “…oh!” or “hmmm” when you say who you’re travelling with, a re-think might be prudent. I once got this overwhelming reaction from everyone I knew when about to embark on a journey with someone I thought a platonic friend. He then spent the entire holiday behaving like my insane, possessive husband. When I talked to someone who was not him, he’d stand over them glowering until they moved away. The sweat on my pony’s back was pointed out as proof I was too fat to attempt to ride it and I was cursed roundly for wanting to eat three meals a day instead of the one he was used to. These tales surprised absolutely no-one upon my return.
How sensitive is this individual to hot or cold? Do you think their personal comfort levels will be discussed every week? Once a day? Three times a day? Five? Are they someone who is always ‘sick’, or who gets a cold and tells everyone it is the flu? Project yourself forward to the time when you haven’t slept for 48 hours, your pack got drenched in the typhoon and you’ve run out of poo-blockers. Will they screech with laughter and bust out the scotch while cheerfully draping their soggy scungies over the nearest tree, or fall into a spiral of despair?
Whether you follow the Strasberg or the Adler school technique, treat your potential enemy/friend like an auditioning actor. Know the role they should play and look to see how closely they match it. Beware those who are too Method with either hygiene or money.
After years of finding out the hard way that who looks good on paper may not necessarily be The One, I’ve found that you can have a lot of success travelling alongside people who have completely opposing tastes and habits. And I had to go deliberately out of my way to find them.
I once took what I thought was a massive punt on a close mate I’ve known for 25 years. I’d always travelled alone with only my mouldy backpack for company, whereas she’d never travelled without her partner, or her natty wheeled suitcase. She’s all taupe frills and 1980s Kathleen Turner; I’ve been mistaken for Judith Lucy. She works hard and spends with vigour and I’m usually counting out the change from under the couch.
Once happily installed in some boutique delight in Asia (both of us brandishing duty free Tanqueray and tonic disguised in water bottles to save cocktail money), I realised that a full case of Nice N’ Clean wet wipes, more clacky mules than Toorak and Brighton combined, and a toiletries bag bigger than most MSF medical kits does not a high-maintenance travel companion make. We had a whale of a time. Much of it laughing at one another, to be true, but it’s a trip that’s gone down in the annals.To truly appreciate how the other half lives, we spent a couple of nights in a resort where you could get a cocktail at any time by waving a little flag, and a couple of nights in a shared dorm with feral hippies and blocked loos. Despite my years of training in some of the filthiest pits of the world with some of the filthiest people, my unlikely travel companion won the day.
Rebecca is a freelance writer and editor who only recently threw out her last pair of fisherman's pants. She blusters here.