I love to play solitaire; it’s a fantastic game that hones your resilience. I also love to read books, make friends with strangers atop mountains and try to balance all my bags while squatting on an eastern toilet.
Traveling alone is liberating, powerful and immensely enjoyable, I reckon.
It’s the freedom I love the most.
Just as awesome is meeting some Swedish blokes – what’s not to love about Scandinavians? – and tagging along on their adventure. If you’re going that way anyway, why not, eh.
I’ve been fortunate enough to hook up with a cards champion who doubles as my Food Buddie, and a celebrity: Marky Marc Wahlberg.
I met the Swedes as I checked into a hostel in Guilin. Wahlberg was emerging from the shower in a towel. There’s no better way to meet a person, I reckon, than when they’re half-naked. He went out to buy cigarettes and I met his mate and their Yankee pal.
The Yankee has since passed in a bubble of enthusiasm and rancid stories.
They invited me to throw my backpack over my shoulder again and join them on a trip to Yangshuo, about an hour and a half away. I quizzed them about their plans and some logistical information, much as a child quizzes their father about the prospects of icecream. Indeed, there would be bike riding and good times provided.
It’d been a week traveling solo in a completely alien environment. I was thriving on the challengee, but accepted their kind offer and began indulging in some English-speaking company. It seemed a rare decadence at the time.
Being Sacndinavian, they are good-looking, of course, and that makes the journey smoother. The easy laughs don’t go astray, either. Wahlberg commented yesterday, when I asked him about his diet that “he was not leading a super-healthy life-style at the moment.” With a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, we laughed as if we’d just escaped a minor traffic accident.
I later realised the Swedes were surprised at my willingness to join them that day in Guilin. Certainly the receptionist was surprised at me checking out just half an hour after I’d checked in.
The point was to say yes, yes to a new adventure. That’s why I’d traveled alone. The opportunity was sitting on the table for me and now I see how fruitful it was to take it.
My Food Buddy later told me he was surprised I’d joined them. “I guess she has good intuition,” he gloats about my choice.
I first realised we would get along as companions when we checked in at our Yungshuo hostel. The Foodie Buddy cocked his ear and playfully said “can you hear that?”
“The birds,” I asked, still marvelling at the Chinese countryside.
“No,” he said, looking at me as if I had a orange bush growing out of my head. “It’s the bar. It’s calling us.” And then I felt we may just get along.
Almost a week later, I still cannot shake them.
We have biked around Yangshuo together. I showed them how to put a chain back on a bicycle and the best place to store your bags on a train.
They showed me the best method for drinking Chinese liquor and how to miss a bus so you have to pay extra to change your ticket.
An important factor here is that we’re all similarly laid-back. No-one was distressed at loosing ten bucks – the equivalent of two night’s lodgings – rather, we were stoked at the adventure and laughed at the grumpy ticket-sales lady. She turned the microphone on just to sigh loudly at us!
Also, it’s been splendid to share the long train journeys. Our honest get-to-know-each-other-as-if-it’s-school-camp-again conversation helped the 18-hour train ride to Kunming and the subsequent seven-hour trip to Dali pass easily.
Our inhibitions were left on the tracks, to be replaced by an ever-deepening friendship and comraderie.
When you’re traveling, relationships form quickly. It’s an interesting quirk. A few bike rides and a train trip later and it’s as if we tried to hoodwink our parents into buying us Bacardi when we were teenagers.
The best part, for me, is the deviation of my path. As we laughed our way up a mountain in Dali (south-west China) today, I realised that I would not be in that place, and it was such a stunning, peaceful place, if I had not decided to take a leap and trust the strange Scandinavian men.
In essence, I’ve traded solitaire for euchre and poker and become accustomed to dining with friends.
Travel relationships produce honest friendships. It’s hard to hide a fart in a dorm. The like-mindedness of fellow wanderers is as comforting as a doona and a Brad Pitt film on a rainy Sunday.
But, like all things in the carefree world of the backpacker, nothing is certain.
Wahlberg and the Foodie, they’re mine, for now, at least.
My solitaire skills, however, will not be left by the wayside. Adaptability is key. I’ll keep saying yes and trusting my fine intuition.
Freedom, after all, is about embracing opporunities. And I’m thrilled to have some new Swedish mates.