Choosing a person to travel with is not something that you should undertake lightly. You’re going to spend a scary amount of time with them: eating, sleeping, drinking, walking, sightseeing, waiting. Trains and planes and automobiles. Ticket booths and absurdly long lines. Restaurants and toilet stalls. If you weren’t close before, you’re going to be close now.
You’re going to face stress with one another, and stress because of one another. As you scrounge for food and tickets and the best opportunities for travel, trading in your precious grubby local bills, vigorously negotiating with a hard-selling samosa man, lugging around enormous weights on your back while festooned with mosquito bites and harem pants, things will grate. You will begin to seethe. And in time, the person(s) you are with will become the focus of your rage.
Under these specific and highly strenuous conditions, what path should one take in order to ensure smooth sailing? How best should one procure an even keel, a good working relationship, a balanced distribution of cost and effort? How can you guarantee that you will not smother your travel companion on some dark night when the clouds swell and the wind is high, muffling the sound of their wails with an inflatable Hello Kitty travel pillow, and then you have to drag the body to a lagoon, and you have to decide whether dismemberment is even an option, and then regardless of your decision you still have to wrap it in a fine tarpaulin (which can be expensive in some foreign markets) and then weight it down with an appropriate amount of rocks and find a good way to bind the bundle, good thing you had those carabiners and bungee cords on your bag, but also you need a body of water that will not shift your contents or drag the corpse down-current and lead to its discovery and your incarceration, and whatever, like they’ll find you anyway, you’ll already be halfway to Timbuktu?
Fret not, dear reader. I’ve travelled with numerous people, relatives and friends and complete strangers, people I’d known for years, and some I’d only met once before stepping on a plane together. I have some experience in not savaging the people I have to spend large swaths of time with. Here is a helpful list to avoid all of those pesky situations that might trouble you and your absolutely still living and un-disembowelled compatriots.
- Alone Time: Because You Are So Great I Want to Save Togetherness for Later
This is first because it is the most critical. Just because you are travelling together does not mean you must spend every waking minute with one another, nor even every day or every week. Convenience will drive you together for the sake of expenses or accommodations, but no one will revoke your friend license if you take a break. Your commemorative “Besties!” two-person gold necklace will not shatter itself in dismay upon your very neck. Go. Eat dinner alone. Explore a temple solo. Take a long walk. Read a book. Masturbate with reckless abandon. Do something that you want to do, and do it without anyone else.
You’re going to hate your friends some of the time. Maybe don’t be standing beside them when you feel it coming on.
2. Be Calm, Collected, and Refrain from Beating them to Death
There are times, of course, when you can’t simply break off and enjoy some alone time. The road conspires to put you right beside your bosom chum just as you’ve realized you can’t stand the sight of one another. You’ve just had a very long day of broiling under a hot sun and being devoured by tropical fever mosquitoes, and now the two of you need to be wedged next to each other like two cozy Tetris pieces in the back of an interstate van with no air conditioning and faulty shocks.
Whatever choice, snide remarks you may concoct, whatever brutal and cruel turns of phrase you devise in your sweaty, rage-addled brain, you must keep them to yourself. Though the pressure valve is dangerously high and just telling them how stupid you think they are might alleviate some of the tension, it will not aid you towards long-term harmony. Sure, the temporary pleasure from telling your friend what a repulsive butthole they are may be nearly toe-curling when the stress builds enough, your long-term ability to enjoy the trip may suffer.Allow yourself to cool down before speaking, perhaps fantasize about drowning your friend in a bog, and only talk to one another when you are sure you can do it without biting each other in the face.
3. That Volcano Sure is Loud and Red: Know the Signs
Everyone has a tell, a subtle indication that they are not interested in playing right now. Much like it pays to know what a bear looks like when it is either hungry or particularly interested in goring something that is threatening her cubs, it behooves all travellers to recognize and make careful logs of the warning signs.
Have you noticed a change in posture in your companion? A different tone of voice? A slouch, a sigh, a disparity in mood? Have they begun walking faster or slower to get away from you, have they gone silent when they are usually talkative? Have they, perhaps, begun slipping rat poison in your drinks when you stop by the washroom? These are signs that you need to back off.
You must know your own signs as well. If you detect a change in your breathing or blood pressure, if you note a disinterest in activities you usually enjoy, if you start considering which of your friend’s organs might fetch the most bhat on the Thai black market, you know you are in a bad place. Use these early warning signals and get away before you impulse buy that scalpel and several bags of ice.
4. No One is the Designated Packmule
Everyone has a different skillset on the road: some are master barterers, some can memorize convoluted roadmaps in mere instants, others are large and intimidating enough to ward off pesky riff-raff looking for trouble. An ideal travel team will have members with varied capabilities and interests, complementary personalities and dispositions that allow for most situations to be handled with aplomb. But after a few months of doing most of the bargaining, or being the only one who remembers the way to the hostel, or needing to look imposing all the time, tensions can rise. No one likes to feel they have a job on the road, and being the designated person for a particularly sucky task can lead to grievances. Responsibilities sometimes need to be traded, to be shared, to understand the effort being put in by each traveller, to learn not to take them for granted. If someone else catches the tuk-tuk this time, it’s less likely that anyone will be hurled bodily before the next one.
5. Tonight’s Special Guest is Anyone That Isn’t You
Temporary travel companions, those nebulous figures that exist in your life from anywhere between one drink at a crowded bar to a tagalong that sees you through all of Vietnam, can be lifesavers. They provide a new dynamic, they change the usual patterns of conversation, they give you a new face to look at that isn’t one you’ve come to think of as eminently punchable. Sometimes this new person is charming, attractive, and so utterly pleasant that you can’t imagine the rest of the trip without them; other times these new people are so repellent you can’t imagine the rest of the next minute with them. But it doesn’t matter, because there’s something new to talk about.
They also bring about something in your companions, and in you. Faced with a new person, everyone brings out the big guns in terms of charm. Stories and jokes and winking references are refreshed, given a quick coat of paint, are taken out for a spin. Old anecdotes are unearthed from hope chests deep within the attic of the friendship, are dusted off, presented anew. These old stories, these relics carbon-dated to aeons before in your friendship, suddenly seem alive and rejuvenated. You’ve been to the museum so many times that it holds little for you, but in the eyes of an eager child, suddenly the old bones hold a renewed fascination.
These reminders are the key. You liked these people once, so much so that you thought you could probably tolerate weeks or months of uninterrupted contact with them. It can be easy to forget why you liked them when you are stressed, but with the right circumstance, you can be reminded why you thought you could stand them for such a long time. Removed from wait times and long train rides and stomach bugs, you remember why you came together in the first place. You couldn’t imagine doing this trip without them.
And besides, blood is really hard to wash out of a modern travel backpack, anyway.