I want to write about travel, but until October my feet are firmly stuck on English soil (apart from 27 hours in Edinburgh for a wedding). I’ve travelled a bit in the past so I thought I would scan my memory for interesting stories to tell you. What you remember a year or so down the line is never what you think you will. I have a tendency to romanticise travelling on my return. I forget about the bone-shattering bus rides and sleepless nights spent convinced there is a snake / spider / giant antelope in my room; I paint a rosy glow over everything and just recall the stunning views, the incredible food, and the buzz I got from seeing an ancient temple for the first time. But more than any of these things, I always remember the people I meet.
Last Christmas I spent three weeks with my flatmates in Laos and Cambodia. For the first two weeks I tried to talk to local females. I covered-up, I talked slowly and restrained my exuberant mannerisms, but didn’t manage to have a single meaningful encounter. One woman, who owned a guesthouse we stayed at, managed about three minutes of monosyllabic conversation before scurrying off. I think she was just very shy. The men we chatted to were mainly monks. One explained that the only education really available to the poor is the monasteries, which are just not open to girls. As such the level of English spoken among women is much lower than men (I feel hypocritical saying this, my Khmer starts and ends with sua s’dei), but I also think that even when they have picked up bits and pieces, they’re often just not confident enough to use them. Then, on the bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap I sat down next to a young girl, and had, what I hope, was a proper cultural exchange (travelling gold star?). One of the main reasons why I don’t take organised tours abroad is that I am a firm believer in using public transport in a foreign country. In Cambodia and Laos it often felt like every local we interacted with was in some way serving us – from waiters, to hotel receptionists, to tuk-tuk drivers. Public transport is a great equalizer. Everyone is cramped, hot and sweaty. You are all in the same boat (*cough*), and that can be a really refreshing starting point for a conversation.
We shyly exchanged smiles and then hellos. I put my hand on my chest and said ‘Fiona’, she put hers on hers and said a name I wish I could remember. I am terrible at names even a few days after I’ve met someone. Slowly, with lots of hand gestures, we started communicating. I found out that a few days ago she had married a man who was a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, and was on her way to be with him now. She had just said goodbye to her family, and in the racks above our heads were all her belongings. On her lap was a massive book. I asked her what it was. It was her wedding photograph album. She asked if I wanted to have a look. Yes I did. Inside were printed over a hundred glossy photos of her and her groom. They were dressed in about twelve different, very brightly coloured, matching outfits. One of my favourite photos was of her groom and his three brothers in matching powder pink tunics. Many of the photos were superimposed onto famous locations – the Eiffel Tower, Vegas (romantic) and a golden sunset. She was so proud of these photos, especially when I pointed out the destinations I knew. It was just a small slice of her life, but it felt very real.
Half way to Siem Reap we stopped off for lunch. I brought back to the bus some Western style cookies from the supermarket, she brought back a flimsy plastic bag of what I assumed were raisins. I was wrong. They were bugs. BUGS. Deep fried I think. I offered her a cookie, she offered me a bug. I took a deep breath. What a great experience! It will show that you are not a snobby westerner, that you are genuinely interested in her country and its cuisine. I reached out my hand. IT’S A BLOODY BUG. I couldn’t do it. I apologised and tried not to listen to her crunch her way through the rest of the bag.
We got off at Siem Reap to a barrage of tuk-tuk drivers all wanting to take us to their cousin’s hotel. It was bedlam and I lost her in the crowd without saying goodbye. However, as we were pulling out I saw her standing next to her husband and his tuk-tuk, pointing at me. I waved back. I think they looked happy. I hope they are.