Sometimes I wonder why the shortest, most profound encounters always happen on the road. In my dizziest daydreams, I think I am bound to travel the world.
A few days ago, a friend dragged me along to travel with him to places we have only discovered through bizarre social media hashtags and clandestine travel blogs we cannot even pronounce correctly. We booked flights on a very normal day because spontaneity is the word we live by.
With a tight schedule and too many places in mind, we made sleep our last priority to fit in everything in our seemingly impossible itinerary. Instead of spending our nights in some hostel’s cozy bed, we’d hop on trains and buses in the wee hours of the night only to wake up and see the swathes of green in some place with hundreds of acres of passion fruit plantation and where nobody really understands English. Believe it or not, and you can laugh all you want, but our aptitude in comprehending hand gestures, communicating through eye expressions, interpreting things from context clues and whatnot was the reason we made it through. Translation apps didn’t help at all as they drove us nuts by translating things farthest from what we meant to convey. The. struggle. was. real.
As the language barrier put heaps of impediment in our journey, we had to go chasing last minute trips to our next destinations because we were either issued the wrong trip tickets or we were skeptical if the taxi drivers really understood where we were going or we’d come late to train stations as our phone’s clock automatically synced with the country’s time zone. But despite all that, never did we miss a single trip because, in my belief, heaven and earth conspired to get us where we needed to be. Every. Single. Time.
Unfortunate events untangled into what I would consider as gratified encounters because sometimes, we just need to let things be; and what I loved most in everything that transpired was the chance to meet the people whom I got to share profound ideas with, all the while learning things and discovering places I never knew existed. It was like making a genuine connection with the world while
feeling being at home and eating foreign dishes.
One night, we found ourselves having dinner at a building’s rooftop in Phnom Penh, overlooking the city lights clouded with soot. Some guy politely asked to sit with us as he ate the croissant he bought from a nearby french bakery. It was nine in the evening. I asked him where he came from because he didn’t come close to resembling a local, or a southeast Asian for that matter.
He said he came all the way from Barbados and is now based in Phnom Penh, teaching English to kids in an international school. I only know the place as Rihanna’s country of origin, and it got me singing her song Four Five Seconds. But other than that, I know nothing else – not even the continent it belongs to, much less the symbol of their flag that was tattooed on his arm.
I was asking too many questions out of curiosity. I believe I even crossed the line when I asked if he happens to be an albino because everything about him speaks of being one – blonde hair, blonde eyebrows and white skin; either that or it was just my inability to contrast people, and the only other person I can compare him with was Rihanna. I really meant no offense and I guess I was just being a little too inquisitive. The moment I realized that, I apologized without even finishing my question, but he was already laughing. I was glad he didn’t take offense and he just told me matter-of-factly that twenty percent of their population are white people. Now I can declare I am a better person.
He showed me the map of Barbados as I munched on the fried noodles I bought from some kiosk in the busy streets outside. It is a small island somewhere near the Caribbean. I asked more questions about Barbados because it was overwhelming to meet one of Barbados’ approximately 300,000 people, let alone meeting one in Asia. I felt ignorant afterwards but he consoled me by telling that most people are absolutely clueless about Barbados and that he always tells people he comes from America to minimize questions and save time. Apparently, I was most people.
Halfway through my dinner, I asked him how it’s like living in Asia and being away from home for the past six months. It did not come as a surprise to hear him say that he has come to love Asia, its people and its culture despite the pollution, the language barrier, the spoiled brat kids at school, the numerous snatchers lurking in the streets and the barren soil which makes you wash your white shirt three times after an afternoon stroll. Touché. What’s not to love?
He then went on to talk about how much he enjoyed his travels to nearby Asian countries, his frustration on some high school kids articulating foul language at such young ages, how they constantly break school rules and not get expelled, and how life could be so unfair as learning English becomes a privilege to rich kids who can afford the skyrocketing fees in international schools. It was so unlikely yet very pleasant to hear esoteric views of life from somebody who hails from a first world country where 24-year olds are supposed to be young and wild and free, partying at night and getting wasted and not having deep reflections on how lucky they are.
Three hours and hundreds of stories later, we bid goodbyes. It was nearly midnight and we were leaving early morning the following day. It was sad, but we all agreed that some things are left undone, words are left unsaid, places are left unseen and names are left undisclosed because these circumstances guarantee a next time (keeping my fingers crossed).
Flashback to a day before that.
We were in Siem Riep and everybody thought we were Cambodians, from the immigration staff down to the hostel staff, locals and even the monks. The hostel staff even talked us into going with them to the Angkor Wat complex just so we could get free passes. However, no matter how thrilling the pretenses make me, it is always a good practice to have the willingness to pay for the dues to boost the local economy. Good thing I do not speak their language because I believe I could have totally pulled it off.
We were welcomed with much hospitality and generosity from the moment we arrived. The tuktuk driver fetched us from the station, drove us around town, made us eat local food and local beer and drove us back to the hostel, FOR FREE (well, except for the food). There were four of us now: me, my friend, the tuktuk driver and a Balinese friend we met on the bus to Siem riep.
There were people at the hostel’s lobby playing billiards and watching TV. Upon hearing us talk (confirming that we were not Cambodians), they immediately asked if we were from the Philippines and kept telling us how much they love Manny Pacquiao, and they did so for the rest of the evening while we were in the lobby. It made me realize of just how much we need to take pride of who we are, where we come from and what we are capable of doing.
Fast forward to two days after Siem Riep. Grey skies hovered above me.
The rain poured mercilessly as it left droplets of water on the car’s windshield while I listen to Jason Mraz’ The Sunshine Song on repeat for seven hours. I was about to see Vietnam. Again. In seven hours.
I must have traveled through time while listening to just one song. I remembered being on the bus surrounded by Caucasians as we embarked on a 12-hour journey to somewhere, three days prior to The Sunshine Song.
It was also pouring; and being the childish creature that I am, I was saddened because the window pane was covered in mud and I kept on murmuring about having no view. With my earphones’ volume in full blast, I didn’t realize that the bus’ ceiling was dripping with rainwater – almost everywhere except for a few spots, mine included – and there was a little bit of commotion. But instead of hearing rants from people who were now drenched, it seemed like they were all smiles as they embraced the imperfections and inconveniences of traveling across Asia. Sweeeeeet.
And the view-less window pane did not bother me anymore.
Still three days prior to The Sunshine Song, there was the tuktuk driver.
The tuktuk driver, I remember, told me while we roamed around Siem riep one night that he really wanted to learn English (he was already good though). According to him, since Siem riep is touristy, it is only fitting that people who make a living through tourism be good at it. He shared to us that on regular days, he drives tuktuk during the day and studies English at night. I am fully aware of life’s unfairness. And while I do not live a perfect life, I have always been grateful of how circumstances like these make me realize of how privileged I am as a person. I swear I would have volunteered to teach the tuktuk driver for free had I stayed a little longer.
Last stop: being tourists in Ho Chi Minh city.
I was having separation anxiety and I thought only good food can cure that, or a dose of vanity with my red lipstick on.
We walked around the city and tried all the food we could get our hands on. Since I am far from being a foodie and I’m afraid that I might not give justice to these delicacies, I’m letting these photos speak for themselves.
After three hours of walking around the city, feeling like foodies, we decided to settle in a coffee shop that took us a little over an hour to find. Good thing, we didn’t lose our patience. Or at least, my friend didn’t.
I sat next to three blondes while sipping the most delicious iced coffee I have ever tasted and taking small bites of the lemon tart I ordered. I was minding my own business reading the cafe’s journal and I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on them, but with our close proximity, it was impossible not to overhear them or get distracted by their conversation that was rather interesting. And, sensible.
Their topics ranged from social media, to their friends back home, to kids at school, to backpacking around Asia, to the cafe’s food and even the complexities of life – all of those incoherences over cups of coffee and jumbo french fries.
All three, I learned, are English teachers in Ho Chi Minh. This one guy made an impression on me as he made a very blunt remark, chastising people who are on social media a lot, saying that what they portray online aren’t a representation of what truly happens in real life. He was right in so many levels and I couldn’t agree more to what he said. However, I didn’t know how to react to that because his timing couldn’t have been so right: in that very moment, I was Instagram-ing the food and coffee I ordered. In my argument, it was happening in real life, real-time. But still, I was totally guilty!
I had a feeling that he deliberately said that and honestly, I wanted to laugh at myself, or at him, because he had a point. But instead of laughing, I just shrugged it off and pretended I didn’t understand anything.
An hour later, I found myself looking intently at a map of Mekong river that was hung on the wall, to the left side of our table. I was trying to memorize its winding path until this same guy started talking again and got me distracted, again; this time, it was about backpacking Asia and how his friends have always wanted to try it.
With my ears on him and my eyes glued on the map while I had my back on everybody else, I was grinning from ear to ear as I heard him say, and I quote, “If you come from our country and get to live here, you would appreciate life even more”.