#24 It’s International Love

Postcards from Vaduz

Postcards from Vaduz… can’t get any better than the amazingly never-ending selection of Liechtenstein stamps.

Over the past half decade, my social network has literally thrown a net wide and arched itself across the globe, very much like THE Social Network itself. In this globalised world, it’s not difficult at all to easily meet people from here, there and everywhere in one evening, especially in places like the ubiquitous Irish Bar where everyone speaking English in varying degrees of proficiency congregate regardless of where they come from.

We made friends and acquaintances from all over the world when we were in university, either in the classroom or on study abroad.

Our friends from childhood days move away to another continent, for studies, for work, for love.

We become close with our mates from an online game like World of Warcraft, decide to meet when he/she or you travel to a common meeting point, and then part ways again after coffee to return to our lives.

Then there are things like Couchsurfing and Carpooling and Craiglist (why do they all start with the magical letter C?), where you holler on a forum page for people with similar interests or who just want to meet people and hang out. More often than not, you find yourself liking a new acquaintance, exchange numbers, and set up a ritual or regular meet-up…

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#15 Humbled in Si Phan Don, Laos

So, there I was, on the idyllic Don Khon, enjoying the cool breeze along the Mekong and gazing over at Don Det on the opposite bank… We just arrived in Si Phan Don, located in the southern region of Laos (right across the border from Cambodia).  Stomachs growling, we ducked in a rustic-looking restaurant overlooking the murky brown Mekong River.

That was when a Laotian boy, around ten years of age, armed with an impressive command of English, came up and served us our menus.

Seizing the opportunity to practice a bit of English, he asked, “Where are you from? China?”

I shook my head politely, but in my head I was once again slightly affronted. With all due respect, I may look Chinese but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m from China.

“Hmm, so where are you from?” He asked inquisitively, bouncing along with me as he showed me the way to the ‘bathroom’, a toilet bowl fixed upon a tiny attap outdoor cubicle, haphazardly built in between a chicken coop and a tool shack. Tiny green crabs were skittering across muddy tufts of grass while a yellow-furred dog stretched lazily in the afternoon sun.

“I’m from Singapore.” I wasn’t sure if he knows where that is, yet at the same time, I sort of hoped he did too. After all, Laos and Singapore aren’t that far apart. Let’s see if this kid stayed awake during his classes.

“Oh!” His saucer-like brown eyes lit up with recognition, two rows of shiny white teeth baring as he grinned.

He paused as if to ponder over that knowledge.

“Singapore? It’s a small country.” He actually sniffed and waved his hand in dismissal.

Every time I traveled to a less developed country, I try to play down on the fact that I came from a more well-off place. I did not want to let any preconceived notions or differences come between my making new connections with people I meet on my travels.

Yet, this was the first time I was faced with such an unexpected role reversal. I felt the need to defend where I came from. But more than that I battled with conflicting emotions: I didn’t know whether to feel glad at least we were “on the map” enough for a village boy to recognize us, or aghast that we are so small and unimpressive that a boy who has probably never traveled out of his village actually scoffed at us with distaste.

Later, it occurred to me that the boy probably learnt his English from the hordes of tourists that flocked to the islands all year round. It was also equally possible that he garnered his knowledge about the world from the Lonely Planet guides that travellers left behind… In any case, he is young and the world is his oyster. And hopefully, by being around tourists all the time will inspire him to reach out and see all the foreign places he has heard about.

One revelation that I came away with? That more often than not, surprises hit you when you least expect it, and in this case from a young boy barely half my age. ♥

#13 At Lhalung Village in Spiti Valley, India

An off-white pickup truck trudged up the winding mountain road, spewing tiny spurts of black exhaust fumes as it approached me. Upon closer examination, the truck was beat-up, its sides splattered with mud and covered in a film of sand and dust. I ran up to the driver, pleading desperately for a ride back into the main town Kaza where I interned at.

Alexandra, a fellow intern, and I had just arrived in Lhalung after a long and exhausting field survey, having hiked from another village for nearly four hours on foot. From here to the main town was a 45-minute drive on the treacherous mountain roads, but to walk back, would take almost eternity. Any vehicle that goes that way would be seen indeed as a godsend…

A cacophony of pure laughter, shrill screams and the occasional yelp from the one hapless boy being bullied by an older boy, swivelled my attention to a gaggle of children, bundled up in thick sweaters and scarves, cheeks flushed from the blistering winds. I sat on a pile of rocks, catching my breath as I waited for the truck driver, who coincidentally happened to the father of one of the gaggling children, to return so we could hitch a ride back. I took out my camera gingerly, worried that it would be ruining a pristine moment by taking a photograph.

What I didn’t expect was that the moment I removed my camera from its pouch, the children began to pounce on me like little cubs, curious yet knowing at the same time, some ready to pose for pictures. That’s when I knew that even in a remote village like this one, where children’s toys were made of twigs, sticks and little rocks, people were not spared from the influence of tourists and the outside world. I happily obliged, snapping pictures and showing them how my camera works. I wasn’t sure if they understood me much. But one of the older boys told me in broken English that he is ten and he gets English lessons in school.

Soon, it was time to go.

The children ran along the road, their tiny feet kicking up tuffs of sand and dust as the truck coughed up dark plumes of smoke.

I turned my head, craning my neck, and watched wistfully through the grimy back window of the truck, as their mottled little figures disappeared round the bend… ♥

#11 “Are You Chinese?” (你是中国人吗)? – Dubai, UAE

Travel Date: 10 Dec 2009

I had a 26-hour stopover in Dubai on an Emirates flight on my way to visit my boyfriend in France, and I planned to spend some time to see this city of gold rather than sitting around in the airport terminal which really resembled a classy shopping mall more than anything else.

After a grimy afternoon traipsing along the creek and having sand and dust blown in my face every now and then, I decided to explore the ethnic enclaves near Al Satwa and Al Rigga, upstream of the creek from the more popular Deira area. For people who are more familiar with the sparkling skyscapers and beautiful manmade islands of Dubai, these urban neighbourhoods where the locals make merry and pick up cheap haberdasheries are probably very much unheard of.

I didn’t want to spend a bomb on dinner in this notoriously expensive city, especially having known that there are a lot of delicious local Arabian food to be had in this vibrant area. In the day, the stifling heat sent everyone scurrying for respite, but at night, it was an oasis brimming of colorful lights, street vendors hawking affordable wares and people, mostly men, hurrying along the streets, running errands and doing some evening shopping. I only planned to stay in the area for an hour or so, just to get a quick bite and a feel of the place before heading off to more familiar landscapes like the Dubai Mall, and also knowing that it wouldn’t be entirely appropriate for a young foreign girl to be wandering the streets in a rather complicated neighbourhood where the population consists of a complex mishmash of workers from Africa and South Asia and low-income families. Continue reading

#10 Lady on the Minibus – Hong Kong, China

Travelling to foreign places can be an exciting and daunting experience for many, let alone wandering the unfamiliar labyrinths of new cities alone. I was in this situation myself a few times, walking around a city by myself, guidebook and map tucked safely away in my tote bag, hoping that I’d never have to pull them out and risk looking like a fresh-out-of-the-airport tourist. There’s this sense of trepidation, the fear of the unknown, yet at the same time, I felt this rush of satisfaction, knowing that I’m challenging my personal boundaries and building a new me that I never knew I could be.

This story is the first in a series of foreign encounters’ tales I’ll be writing about. Enjoy.

Lady on the Mini-bus in Hong Kong

I was on study abroad at the University of Hong Kong and my hall of residence was 15 minutes away from campus. It was one of the furthest halls away, allocated to me out of a balloting process so I couldn’t complain there. But I must say, those precious 15 minutes that I initially hated ended up featuring some of the most interesting fleeting moments I experienced in the city.

I was, as usual, running super late again, and missed the shuttle bus that I could have taken for only 2 dollars with a student bus coupon. Dang, I thought, as I hurried down to the minibus-stop at the side of the road, frantically tossing back the black and white scarf that was unraveling off my neck. Hopped onto Bus No. 8, eagerly awaiting the bus to move so I can for once get to class before the mid-lecture break. Three stops later, a lady with a heavily-tanned complexion from many happy days in the sun and sunglasses atop her coiffure plopped down on the seat across the narrow aisle next to me and gave me the kind of once-over that would make anyone uncomfortable.

I was happily chatting away on my cellphone with a friend, so I smiled nervously at her and quickly glanced away. After I put down my phone, she started talking to me in a mixture of English and Tagalog, and couldn’t stop for the next 5 minutes while I looked at her with an incredulous expression on my face. Realizing finally that I didn’t quite understand anything she said, she asked, “Are you from Indonesia? Are you working here?” Continue reading