Aside from Shithead and Laos I have nothing in common with Gaz, Jenna or Peaches.
They are my defacto travel posse. A version of how I met them is what always happens when you travel alone in Southeast Asia: The first day you are tired and hot and sit at a restaurant overlooking the flat brown expanse of the Mekong River. You strike up a conversation with the Aussie couple next to you. Then a skinny English guy joins in. Soon you are pulling chairs to their table, you are learning how to play a card game called Shithead. You are going to the bar down the road for more beer and several ill-advised games of pool. You are laughing and drunk. As you stumble back to your rooms you give the Englishman a nickname -- which you hope has the added benefit of showing him that the two of you will not be sleeping together.
The next day you slip your bags onto your shoulders in unison and go together over the border in a bus decorated with fluffy curtains and red fringe that makes you feel like you are trapped inside a piñata.
At our hotel in Vientiane, Peaches comes up to the hotel’s shared balcony brandishing a bottle of alcohol containing two oversized scorpion carcasses.
Earlier, Gaz and Peaches had decided they are not in the position to turn down weird food. If it is on the menu, they will order it; in a shop window, they will buy it. This is their version of cultural immersion -- eating insects.
It began when Gaz ordered crickets for lunch -- a heaping pile of black wings, feathery legs and ribbed abdomens garnished with chilli and kafir lime leaves. He ordered them, I think, partly to spite Jenna who squirmed uncomfortably next to him, alternately staring in horror at the plate and averting her gaze.
After vigorously consuming nearly half the plate, Gary washed them down with a Beer Lao. He looked down at his plate and a flicker of disgust momentarily clouded his face.
Our empty lunches were cleared away and suddenly we were all gazing in the direction of the crickets. “Eat one,” Gary pushed the plate forward and making some of the pile shift as though they might still be alive.
“Their little heads,” Jenna said mournfully.
“What if I take the head off, then will you have one?”
Gaz picked up a shiny black cricket, bared his teeth and delicately bit off its head, holding out the decapitated body to Jenna who jerked away, clutching her own head protectively.
After several hestitations Peaches picked one up and popped it into his mouth.
“Not bad,” he said, picking a leg from between two back teeth.
I looked at their limp black insect bodies and before I had the time to think about what I was doing, speared one with a fork and propelled it into my mouth.
It tasted like stale potato chip.
Now Peaches passes the bottle around the table as though for show and tell. The wax seal is broken and the glass is slick with alcohol. The scorpions are pressed thorax to thorax, their little pincers joined romantically: together even in death. The liquid around them is yellow and flecked with bits of insect dermis.
“Yeah?” Peaches says excitedly, fiddling with the top.
“Fuck yeah,” Gaz says.
He pours the liquid into a glass, which he passes to me.
I let a little bit touch my lips and feel a burning there, like I’ve rubbed chili on them. I imagine the scorpion venom working into my blood stream and traveling to my brain.
There are allegiances you form with people when traveling because they keep you from feeling alone, but mostly they are convenient. You have an unspoken pact that you will not check out of your hotel without telling them, that you will watch their bags while one goes to exchange money, that you will not, under any circumstances let the bus pull away from a rest-stop without them. They are also there to prove you are, too.
And to call the hospital if you poison yourself with rice wine.