.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Travelling on trust

One of my inspirations as a traveller is my daughter, Melanie. Mel spent about eight years travelling in Southeast Asia, Europe and Africa. Sometimes I would hear little stories about some of the things she had done and I would wonder, 'Is she aware of the potential dangers or is she blind to them?'

After she'd been gone for about six years I took a trip to England where we met up. We talked non-stop for days and I learned that Mel knew of the dangers but was prepared to take a certain level of risk.

I remember the time, in Switzerland I think, when a group of backpackers, can't remember the details, were all killed on an adventure rafting expedition. At the time I thought of Mel. I thought that perhaps this is the sort of thing that she might have done and I asked myself how I would have felt if she had been one of those to lose her life.

The answer that came back to me was that yes, I would have felt very sad about losing my daughter, sad for me but not for her. By time Mel had reached 30 I believe she had lived as much in those years as others might live in six lifetimes. I would be happy that she had had the courage to put so much into her life. Fortunately Mel continues to live and to experience life to the full. I wonder how many lives she will have lived before she finally dies.

In the Vietnam travel forums there have been a couple of postings about people being robbed. This prompted a few posters to give their rules of how to avoid dangers while travelling. One such rule was 'Don't talk to strangers.'

I wonder what the travel goals of the person who wrote that are? I guess if all you want to see are sights then that's OK. But I love to meet people. Sometimes I go somewhere where I already have a contact and it's easy. Sometimes I go places where I know no one. Unless I'm prepared to talk to strangers I won't meet a soul.

When I'm in Kompong Chhnang in Cambodia, and people everywhere are saying 'hello' to me, of course I answer them back. I notice that most westerners visiting the town don't.

In Vietnam I talked to many people. Most were only talking because they wanted to sell me something. But I'm capable of saying 'no'. I can still have a pleasant chat with them before they go and try someone else. I made a few friends in Vietnam. They were all strangers at first. I don't automatically trust. One such person offered me a lift home the first night we met. I was wary. I declined. But we met again and built a mutual trust. Had we not talked in the first place my time in Vietnam would have been much less enjoyable. This friend proved to be totally trustworthy, just as my friends in Cambodia did. I'm glad I don't have that rule.

On Sunday I arrived in China for the first time. China is very different from anywhere else I've been. Is it dangerous? There are warnings here and there in Lonely Planet guidebook. When I booked into my hotel the receptionist showed me a sheet on which was written three rules, one of which was 'Don't accept a drink from a stranger.' I guess they are telling me people spike drinks in this town in order to rob travellers.

I'm in a town called Nanning and I've notice that there are very few western tourists in the town but my rarity doesn't make me an item of interest. I don't think I've been ignored so much in any part of Asia. When I have engaged people in conversation I have discovered that very few speak English. This does present challenges for me. I usually ask strangers for directions but most here can't understand me. Finding my way around town is not made any easier by the fact that about 99% of signs are in Chinese. They obviously don't feel a need to write bilingual signs which are not uncommon in other parts of Asia.

All this I see as a challenge that I take on with enthusiasm.

On Sunday after I'd booked into my hotel, I went looking for an internet cafe. The only one listed in Lonely Planet appears to have closed down. All that's there now are game machines and none of the staff could understand me. The best I could do that evening was to have a five minute trial on a demo machine at China Telecom. And for a demo machine I might add that the speed was quite slow.

Monday morning I went out determined to find somewhere close to the hotel to eat and an internet cafe. I had my laptop in my backpack. I also had my camera around my neck just in case an opportunity arose.

I hadn't gone far when I found a little hole-in-the wall place where I could see people eating noodles. I looked a bit closer and could also see they were serving congee (rice porridge). With sign language I ordered a bowl of congee with vegetables. The woman serving pointed to the Chinese sign on the wall where the price was listed as 1.50. Since one Australian dollar is roughly equal to 6.5 yuan I could figure out that my breakfast was going to cost me less than 30 cents Australian, not a bad deal. I nodded my confirmation.

While I was eating a young guy came in and ordered some noodles. As he walked past my table he said with the very careful intonation of an English learner, 'How-are-you?'

'Well,-thank-you.-And-you?' I replied with the very careful intonation of an English teacher.

After I'd finished my congee I went to his table and asked, 'Do you speak English?'

'A little.'

'Do you know where I can find an internet cafe?'

He didn't understand. I went back to my table and grabbed my Lonely Planet. I turned to the language section at the back and pointed to the word 'internet'.

'I send you,' he said. Many Asians use the word 'send' where we would say 'take'.

I waited until he'd finished his noodles. He led me a few doors down the street and into a building that had many signs but none in English. He led me down a corridor to the back of the building where there were stairs leading up.

I'm thinking, 'I don't know this guy. I don't know what's up these stairs. Is this safe?' I followed but kept a little distance.

On the next floor was a door. He opened the door and inside I could see many computers. We went in. He spoke to the girl on the counter and told me 'Two yuan an hour. I pay.'

'No,' I said. 'You don't need to pay for me.' I put five yuan down on the counter.

She gave me one yuan back and he told me, 'You have two hours.' He led me to a computer.

I got out my laptop and started to explain to him that I wanted to connect it. He understood and called the guy over. He got out the ethernet cable and I was able to plug it into my computer.

But it didn't work. Usually this computer connects automatically. I fiddled and tried a few things. I knew what I needed to do but I needed help from the guy who was running the place and with the language barrier it was too difficult. I decided to use one of their computers.

At first, my new friend sat beside me looking over my shoulder reading all the emails I wrote. Eventually, he picked up from what I was writing that I needed to go to an internet cafe where they spoke English. He got out his mobile phone and made a call. He told me 'Speak to my friend, he speak good English.'

I spoke to his friend who made a few suggestions.

Parn (that's his name) went off and came back with two Cokes. He'd also booked himself onto the computer next to mine. He got onto the chat lines and contacted a few more of his English-speaking friends and asked their advice.

The upshot of this is that when my time was up we headed off in a taxi to Guangxi University. While we were heading there I was reviewing the situation. I hadn't drunk much of the Coke, only enough to be polite. I don't usually drink Coke. But I had drunk a drink given by a stranger. He could have spiked it before he gave it to me. But it did taste like normal Coke. And now I'm going off in a taxi with him. I can't understand what he says to the taxi driver. He could be taking me anywhere.

But we ended up at a university and Parn, who has told me he doesn't have a job, insists on paying the fare.

At the university, which he is not familiar with, we find the foreign language department and an English teacher. He explains the situation to her and then excuses himself saying he has to go. The English teacher is going to send me to a computer lab with a note explaining what I want to do. But then she rethinks the situation and says I can connect my computer in her office.

I disconnect her ethernet cable, connect it to my computer and it works. I sit down and set to work. While I'm there students and teachers come and go. The teacher who set me up has gone off to a meeting. Others use the computer (without internet) next to me. At one point a student engages me in conversation. She comes from the same province I'll be heading to in a few weeks time. We chat for about half an hour.

I must have ended up spending about three hours connected to their network. The teacher is still at her meeting. I leave a 'thank you' note on her desk and take a taxi back into town.

When I look back, I had an enjoyable and productive day; I met many good, friendly people who wanted to help me, simply because I wasn't paranoid and was prepared to talk to strangers.

Labels: , , , , ,

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?