Nov 13, 2020 • 6M

Couchfish Week 31: Single serving friends

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Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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I wrote a few days ago about a “single serving friend” and a reader got in touch asking what I meant. They wrote “I can’t decide if you’re being snarky or affectionate, can you tell me what you mean?”

The line isn’t mine—I borrowed it from the movie Fight Club. Edward Norton is sitting beside Brad Pitt on a flight and Norton describes Pitt as a “single serving friend”. When he goes to explain it, Pitt cuts him off and says he understands what he means, and that he thinks it is clever. So do I.

So much of travel is single serving. The coffee and sugar satchels, the shampoo and conditioner, the bottles of water. And that’s just in the room!

People often say one of the joys of travel is the people you meet—both locals and other travellers. Many of these will be single servings, and over the last six months of Couchfish I’ve written of dozens of such cases.

Pick a serving, any serving. Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

All travel is transient to a point—you’re on the move, meeting (or avoiding!) places and people. I’ve written before about how train travel, for me, is travel. The perpetual motion sliding by the window, steaming humidity and chilly nights. Vendors passing by. Passengers sitting beside or opposite, sleeping across from, or above.

They’re there in the evening, wake in the morning and they’re gone. Ships in the night. As with Pitt and Norton, a single serving can change your life.

Single servings are everywhere. Also, drive with care. Sangkhlaburi, Thailand. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

This issue had started off in a different place. I’ve put that piece on the back burner for now, but I want to quote a snippet from it. I’m meeting J, a Danish doctor working in a camp on the Thai Burma border.

“I meet J at the bar. She sidles up next to me, orders some drinks, then turns to me and says with a smile:

“Well hello Mr Backpacker, what brings you to our parts, we don’t get many of your kind here?” She bursts out laughing. To say we hit it off in seconds is an understatement. She invites me to join her group.”

It is a meeting where we both think, how is it we haven’t known each other our entire lives? Still, it remains a single serving friendship. Within 24 hours, we’re in a car accident, and she is unconscious. Life comes at you fast. (She was fine).

Oh Yasothon. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Yasothon in northeast Thailand. I’m there for the Rocket Festival, and I meet a Bangkok–based American drinking beer in front of a 7-eleven. We get talking and end up hanging out for the festival. Against the odds—as our meeting felt single serving—we keep in touch and become close friends. Long story short, it is through his generosity that I remain in Thailand.

A few years ago he left this world for good. By then, he’d left Southeast Asia and we’d become estranged. I find out about his passing on Facebook, and attend a wake for him in Hong Kong.

There are less than a dozen of us in a tiny roof–top restaurant. We eat, drink, cry, swap stories and toast him. A couple are colleagues, and have known him for years, others have had the briefest of encounters. He leaves a mark on all he meets—that’s for sure.

From 7–eleven beers to a wedding guest. M on right. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The other week I learn (again on social media) of the passing of a journalist I met a couple of times—we’d got on super well. As with my friend above, we later have a falling out of sorts and lose touch. Of course that doesn’t make the loss any less wrenching.

Years ago, I met another writer in Saigon. He’s an old Asia hand and while we’ve moved in similar circles, we’ve never met. We catch up for a messy evening of beers and bars, riding around town on his dismal excuse for a motorbike.

We hit it off and catch up on a decade’s worth of experiences moving in the same circles without ever meeting. We part with a “next time you’re in town, look me up,” kind of thing.

My god I got soaked that night. Saigon, Vietnam. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

It is a year or so before I’m back in town. I email him but never hear back, the ghosting feels strange. When I get into town, I contact his girlfriend, has he changed his email address I ask?

He hasn’t. Instead he collapsed in their house a month or so after we meet—dead before he hit the floor—she tells me.

That evening in Saigon, will for me, always be my favourite night out in that city. Likewise the slow afternoon of coffee in Seminyak with the journalist. Also, sitting out front of a Yasothon 7-eleven.

Beach time equals chat time. Seminyak, Bali, Indonesia. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Even though something—or someone—might be single serving, it doesn’t mean it won’t leave an indelible mark. When the person is gone, you can feel every inch of the forever.

That moment, when everything just feels so perfect—so sublime. Something as simple as a plate of noodles, or as complex as realising you’ve fallen in love. Travel is so often but a stringing together of these moments.

And that is what makes it so memorable, so life–changing, so addictive and so heart wrenching. And far out, I miss it!