words anastasia miari || image ella sullivan
Backpacking, as I discovered this summer, requires an extensive amount of waiting around. You wait to board your flight. You wait for your connection between airport to hostel. You ring the transfer company and complain and then you wait on the other end of the line to hear that they had no idea they were supposed to come and retrieve you. When you arrive at your hostel, you wait to check in behind a line of drunken gap year kids. You wait for buses. In South America, they are usually hours late. You sit and wait for the bus to set off. Then when it finally rolls into action you wait for the driver to pop out for a cigarette and quite possibly a snack. You await your arrival at the desired destination and when you get there, you kill time and wait until you have to leave.
All this waiting requires a distraction, a little light relief from the clock-watching. Perhaps this is why seasoned backpackers always carry a deck of cards with them. Worn, torn and beer stained, this pack of cards will see them through hours on the floor of an airport departure lounge. They’ll touch the sticky surfaces of tables in Irish pubs across the globe. The odd one will be lost - in a hammock, on a boat, or a treacherous trek up a traversed mountain, buried in the sand and lapped at by a turquoise tide - but they don’t require a full deck. They make do. Because waiting is all about making do.
And so games filter in to the traveler’s consciousness. Suggesting a game of Arseholes and Presidents or Shit Head becomes a means of introduction. Don’t know how to play? Even better. An explanation of the ‘magic cards’ and their attributes is less invasive than the low-down on why you’re traveling, where you’re going and what you intend to do upon your return to the real world. Games kill time and cut out awkward small talk with people we barely know.
A deck is easy to carry around and providing there’s a flat surface and someone that can remember the rules of at least one game, you’re good to go. Loners don’t even require another player if they know the rules of Solitaire. The best card games are played around a table and involve copious amounts of alcohol and raucous, competitive players. An entire night was whiled away in Ecuador’s Montañita, ten of us huddled around a coffee table playing Shit Head for hours, each of us taking it in turns to be verbally abused for losing at a card game. Being called a ‘shit head’ in five different languages by people you have only just met is the one time you can revel in being verbally abused. Cards help the bonding process. Games with funny names act as a catalyst to that process.
There are the classics of course. Chess requires commitment and a quiet day. This is not a game to embark upon if your point of departure is imminent. My very best chess day was on a post-Peruvian hike: body weary, mind wired. This is a game to play on a rainy day in a café that serves good coffee, cake and actual tea, with tealeaves. Chess requires patience, something a long-term backpacker develops in time. If you’re new to the game, hone in and focus. The temptation to charge in with your front line is all too strong for a beginner. But on a day where you’re going nowhere, why the hurry?
Every so often you strike gold. You hit up a hostel that has a stack of functional board games. Sometimes a compromise is required. Upon my arrival at a remote village in Patagonia, my French travel buddy and I were met with a daylong torrential downpour. Our bike ride was scratched in favor of the log fire and another wait. Imagine my pleasure at coming across a Scrabble board on a shelf, wedged between hundreds of back-issues of National Geographic. Compromises must sometimes be made: It was a German version of the game. My French friend insisted that he would lose playing in a language that was second to his own, with letters he could barely pronounce. Scrabble was our only choice however and after two hours of intense word formations, he proceeded to nearly beat me…nearly.
Since then, I have left him behind in South America but our Scrabble battle endures. We have downloaded Words with Friends. While he waits for his buses in Colombia, he attempts to concoct passable idioms and I, returning from work on my on-schedule London bus, bash him for attempting to play words like ‘Meff’. The waiting game goes on.