The Fine Art of Not Throwing Your Friends Before an Oncoming Train in Rural India: A List

Absolutely none of my friends were crushed to death below this Kanyakumari-bound train.

Absolutely none of my friends were crushed to death below this Kanyakumari-bound train.

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?

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A Refined, Gentlemanly Discussion on the Delicate Etiquette of Travel Diarrhea


The bathroom of our guesthouse was spacious and was home to a perfectly reasonable number of dragonflies. It had a bathtub, though I don’t think anyone had ever used it, as I’m fairly certain a wild boar had lived in it at some point. Still, we were in the middle of the jungle, and it was the nicest bathroom we had seen in a while. There were four of us using it, and even that wasn’t a problem: after long enough together, you form a mutual, unspoken agreement that bathing is a suckers’ game. The real issue was that it was kind of an echo chamber.

Indonesian food, as it turned out, was a wonder: delicious, spicy, cheap, and plentiful. Our favoured hobby in Bali was eating, and our other activities for the day took on an air of going through the motions before we could engage in our next round of local delicacies. We hiked and toured and photographed, but our minds were always fixed on curried tunas and goat meat dripping with blood-red oils. Travel is food, and food is travel.

But eating that often, and that cheaply, did not come without risk. Every time you entered a restaurant was a gamble you decided to make, a game of southeast Asian roulette. (In this metaphor, “terrifying intestinal parasites” takes the place of the traditional bullets in a game of Russian roulette.)

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Our Private Pidgin and the Great Slang Convergence

Wat Rong Khun - The roof

“Roof” or “ruff”? Well, it depends who I’m talking to.

All of us hailing  from varying parts of the world, in Korea we had a series of long arguments on the regional variations in description of carbonated beverages. Being from southern Ontario, I was staunchly in the “pop” camp, as were any others raised in the American Midwest, or who had a vested interest in Freaks and Geeks. My friends from elsewhere were adamant about calling it “soda,” while still others maintained that “soda pop” was the most righteous colloquialism. (No one we knew was in the “coke” camp, which is good, because what?)

While in my mind I championed “pop” in all situations, and would indeed do so until my dying day, when my great-grandchildren would pry a can of pop from my withered, dried old talons, in practice I had begun to falter. Around my American friends, I began to insert “soda” into my sentences, as though they couldn’t possibly understand what I might be referring to otherwise.

In time, my friends also brought to my attention that they had been doing the opposite for my own comfort. While they might not yield on pop, they were dropping Canadian, Korean, New Zealand idioms all over the place for the comfort of their listeners. Moreover, we had all been softening our accents. Ty would turn off all remnants of his Texan twang; the hollowed, rounded “o”s of my local Canadian dialect were receding. We had all been taking efforts to make our language more similar to the others’, in turn pushing them ever forward towards a mutually acceptable middle ground.

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Travel Partners, or, The Gentle Hate Cycle


Hong Kong: land of OH GOD IT’S HOT OUT HERE

It was approximately 475039 degrees celcius in Hong Kong, and I was just about done with Tony and Will.

Almost none of it was actually their fault, of course. It was disgustingly hot outside. There was a toxic, hazy fug in the air that made it near impossible for me to breathe. I am terrible at sleeping on planes, and thus our twilight jaunt from Indonesia to our stranded waylay in HK had left me woozy and sleep-deprived. When outdoors, I couldn’t walk up our downhill without feeling disoriented and weak. I think maybe also my liver was failing, and my bad hip, and also my terrible whooping cough. I was in a bad way.

Also, we had been spending roughly 24 hours a day with one another for the whole week, and I was beginning to think I hated them.

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The Would-Be Friends

We could explore the temples together, if I actually remembered your name.

I have a lot of conversations with acquaintances in bars—it’s very nearly a hobby at this point. I know a great number of people, and have no shortage of time in which to mindlessly and mutually flap gums with them. Often in these interactions, we are struck once more with discovery: we like one another’s company! Why, we’re quite the pair! We’re both such a gas. How have we not spent real, invested time with one another before now? We are both so cool, as we make sure to say aloud and with alcohol-tinged earnestness, several times. We vow to call each other soon, to have dinner or a beer or a deep conversation about geopolitics, and we even make the bold move to exchange phone numbers, to make it a solid pact. We’ll facebook. We’ll text. Email. Carrier pigeon. Smoke signal. By rain or sleet or snow, our missives will be sent and received, and hanging out will be had.

I never contact them. And they never contact me.

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Friends Forever, I Guess

L-R: Korean from a bar; Oh crap, everyone else is gone; Toronto carry-over; person from airplane; me; temp roommate. Forever!

Dave and I hadn’t really been close in the first year. We lived in the same neighbourhood, and hung around the same people, and did occasionally similar activities–but we were sort of tangential people. We’d see each other at parties and be pleasant, but both of us were really too busy to put out the effort. “We should really have dinner!” we’d both say, and then be satisfied with the extent of our interaction and never feel the need to actually go through with eating. The Venn Diagrams of our lives had significant enough overlap that it was basically like being friends anyways, just without any sort of real commitment. He was not bad, and neither was I, but both of us already had full phonebooks and weren’t really desperate for more entries.

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Acceptable reason for being popular: awesome Halloween costumes.

Like everyone else, I hate people that are popular.

Growing up, most of the popular kids I knew were kind of jerks. They were uniformly white, and privileged, and blond(e) and terrible. They seemed to emerge fully formed out of descriptions of ideal Aryan youth from textbooks, or preteen novels about bullying. They were terrible in might and social prowess, ruthless and adept at gathering and leading the populace–gangs of miniature Musolinis; Stalins with cowlicks and sibilant /s/ sounds. They generally made going to school unpleasant for all of the social misfits, the grossly unpopular, and anyone else in the masses (yours truly). Our schoolyard was their fiefdom, and all other children their loyal serfs; moreover, the royal crown was handed down through the generations nepotistically, some grade fives graduating and bestowing the mantle of cruelest, prettiest, and most deranged to their horrible siblings or young tagalongs. It was a brutal, medieval kind of landscape, where our hardened spirits were forged through suffering, name-calling, and weak punches to the face or belly. It was elementary school.

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Foxhole Friends

Homewall. My unyielding source of stock photography.

Whenever I’m particularly nostalgic, I like to think back to exactly how many people I have claimed to, or who have claimed to me, that we would be friends forever. I usually stop when the list grows too naively, foolishly long. I forgive myself those who I claimed life-long allegiance to from Kindergarten until about mid-high school, as friendships that last more than a year through schooling basically count as a lifetime friendship, anyway. But even as I’ve grown older, I seem to be perfectly confident of the longevity of the friendships I adopt, only to see them evaporate once the situation no longer holds us in one another’s company.

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The Friendship Buffet

Make friends. You have exactly five days.

Describing orientation when we first entered Korea, one friend recalled the experience as a sort of friendship buffet. Everyone put on their brightest smiles, turned their personalities up to 11, and became obnoxious, exaggerated parodies of themselves, creating a giant sea of Pauly Shore characters. It was a sort of, “And if you pick me, this is the sort of zaniness you’ll get! Heyo!” People marked their territories as different person archetypes, sought out others like them, and staked claims on the people they found coolest. They would spend the next year with these people, and they needed to acquire them as soon as humanly possible, lest they be left alone and, most horrifically, uncool-seeming in Korea.

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