The sunburn was possibly the nastiest and most severe I have ever suffered. The merciless Thai sun had scorched me the colour of lobster, leaving most of my torso inflamed. I quivered when I walked, and wearing a shirt was an encounter with pain I couldn’t even comprehend. When I went to bed, I willed my body into early sleep paralysis and hoped I would not shift while I slumbered. But Bill was worse. His burn was nearly comical in its violence–his absurd hobbling and swollen joints would have been howlingly funny, if I wasn’t already busy howling from my own swollen and reddened flesh. Our daily applications of liquod aloe vera gel became fanatical in their frequency and provision of solace, but we would face trouble when it came to reaching our backs. If we tried to reach with our own hands, it would require the use of joints and muscles that would send us into spasms of pain. Soon, we accepted fate, and began regularly applying aloe to one another’s chapped, repulsive, leathery skins. It was awkward and embarrassing and absolutely necessary. And after very little time, it simply stopped being weird.
Travel necessitates a certain level of wear and tear on your body. You are away from controlled humidity, skin-care, proper nutrition, and most of the tools with which one would regularly groom oneself. Your skin begins to crack and crumble away like dried cheddar; your mouth collects detritus which breeds entirely new species who grow and form new civilizations, entire cultures in the crevices between your unflossed teeth. The sniff test becomes a daily part of your wardrobe choice, far more important than decisions of colour or relative temperature. A wet nap is the very best thing next to a shower, and very soon it becomes its equal.
It is a kind of doleful self-acceptance, a knowledge that elective homelessness—that adventure spirit, that beautiful but also kind of grimy desire to go out and discover the world—comes with a certain degree of stank. The human body is generally just kind of gross, but we extend great effort to mask that when at home. With nothing but a backpack, whatever Baht, Rupee, or Euro happen to jangle in your wallet, and still so many roads to walk, cleanliness takes a backseat, and your body is allowed to return to its natural, horrible state.
And that’s okay. There are just too many things for you to do to concern yourself with petty issues like taking care of yourself. A certain level of body comfort just begins to develop after a while, as you grow accustomed to how filthy and unmanaged you feel. There are sores and blisters and festering wounds, in places you were barely cognizant of being on your body. Your hair is lank and greasy, if it is even still attached to your scalp. Your clothes are filthy, soaked as they are in layers of sweat, food, sunscreen, and beer. You haven’t had a proper night’s sleep in probably over a month, and when you do you ignore whatever must have rolled through those sheets before you. Because it doesn’t matter, not when compared to everything else you spend your money and energy on.
But what about the people you are travelling with?
While gallivanting around Europe, me and my travel companions Zack and Donny headed on a misguided, enormously long hike that dragged us through unmarked and seemingly unending boglands. Combining wet, sopping shoes with hours upon hours of walking every day left my feet ravaged: trembling, pallid, and molting useless flesh like chthonic monstrosities. The blisters were tragic and unthinkable, but they could be managed, and were ultimately only of concern for me. A bigger issue was the smell.
Each of us was wearing, and walking for hours, in shoes that had been soaked in Irish bog-water, and by our own footsweat. The scent was unavoidably repulsive, and any time we entered an enclosed space, it became impossible to deny. If anyone put any effort into detection, they would recognize it was us.
We took charge of the issue, and began buying aerosol deodorant, which we filled our shoes with before and after every use to combat the aroma, even as it rallied and regrouped against us. It became a trio-wide issue: at least one of us would carry around a spray at all times, no matter the occasion, and eventually we euphamized its use, asking one another simply for a “shoe top-up.” We all knew what it meant without having to ask.
The status of a friend’s foot-stank is not usually something that falls into the realm of my concern, and when it does, it is usually not treated with such a level of blasé comfort. Never before had I so casually assessed the stench levels of my companions, or had them do the same of me, and worked with them to ration our sole-perfuming supplies to keep our filth, if not at bay, then at a manageable distance.
When I first arrived in Korea, the severe jet-lag crippled my body as much as weeks on the road would. My roommate at the hotel and I worked to get to know one another rapidly, and this, in turn, meant dealing with the way our bodies reacted to being on another continent. Which of course meant we both had to be very conscious of one another’s need to poop.
There was timing of the procedures involved, knowing when to leave and allow the room time to breathe, and knowing when to put one’s earphones in to provide a sound buffer. At first, it was embarrassing to have to inform another adult of when I needed to defecate, and how likely I anticipated that need to travel along with either sound or smell. But very rapidly, and again with more euphemism (for the record: “disturbances”), it became a matter of common courtesy and camaraderie to inform one another of our bowel statuses. Other friends told me about a similar situation abroad, where they knew jelly belly would soon overtake them: a colour-coded warning system, to alert one another of the current need to find a toilet (green: all clear; yellow: within ten minutes; red: my pants are ruined, we must return to the hostel).
Because whatever comfort you harness about your own body, you find ways to cultivate to extend it to your travel companions. You get used to your own terrible, gurgling stomach, your peeling flesh, your rancid odours—and you grow used to those of your travel partners, as well.
Where at home, discussing fecal consistency and blister rot with other humans will get you kicked out of the decent society, on the road it is more a matter of keeping the train on the tracks. How your stomach feels matters to your travel partner: they’re going to need to stop and wait for you to puke your guts out, after all. Your poop matters to them, and vice versa, in a way that we seldom have to deal with as people. But the deterioration of your health and cleanliness is only matched by your partners anyway, and soon your mutual repulsiveness, so regularly shunned in society, becomes something to bond over.