Tag: travel blog

Connected in Translation at Hong Kong Airport

IMG_3736 I remember back to nearly ten years ago when I was sat, stranded, waiting for a connecting flight in Hong Kong. Glancing out of the window, rows of planes were lined up in front of the barely visible runway, thanks to a mini-typhoon that had all but shut the airport down.

 I stretched back in my seat trying to shake off pins and needles that, after a few hours of sitting motionless in a waiting area, were cramping my legs. The air-conditioning was spluttering out warm and humid air. A woman sitting opposite me was fanning her face with a newspaper. Announcements echoed apologies for delayed flights down the endlessly long corridors.

 I watched as the rain cascaded in heavy drops, bouncing down. I could see pools of water forming on the runway. The wind was howling and the sea surrounding the airport was spilling white, diamond-tipped waves violently in all directions. I watched the few flights that were taking off ascending shakily as I exchanged promises with god over the safety of my own flight.

 I shuffled in my seat as a girl sat down next to me. “Hi, my name is Kim.  I am from Manila. Where are you going?” she asked.

 I looked up. Smiling back at me was a petite woman in her mid 20’s dressed in a bright pink jogging suit, with equally pink matching painted lips and waves of black curls bouncing down to her shoulders. Big golden hoops hung from her ears.

 Kim explained that she was going to London to visit her brother who was studying there. “This is the second time I have been to London’ she announced proudly.  “I will go to the place, at Bucking’.

I laughed. “Do you mean Buckingham Palace?” I asked.

“Yes, this is the one” she exclaimed.

 Kim whipped out her phone, which was also pink and covered in glitter that sprinkled off onto her fingers. She tapped into it and beamed as she showed me pictures of her and her brother stood next to a variety of famous London landmarks.

She told me that she liked tea and Britney Spears. I told her that I liked coffee and Billie Holliday.

 We both agreed that we liked the ocean and sunsets.

 After disappearing for ten minutes, Kim returned with 2 boxes of food (filled with fish, steamed rice, and green vegetables). We were famished and dug in.

 Kim described pieces of paradise of remote islands sitting in the southern Philippine archipelago. I exchanged stories of the tourist resorts and the not-quite-so beautiful beaches that dotted the Yorkshire coast. Kim told me that she wanted to go to Bridlington and eat fish and chips. I told her that I wanted to swim in the ocean off the tropical coast of Mindano.

Kim took her flight to London and I took mine. I sometimes wonder what she’s doing all these years later.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always found something curiously exciting about airports. They get under my skin. There’s something about the hustle and bustle of people connecting to the world’s vast and remote corners.

I’ve crossed paths with all kinds of people in airports over the years – Buddhist monks journeying to central China, a man returning to his family in Iraq, an Indonesian lady travelling as a domestic worker to the Middle-East, an elderly couple returning home to Bangladesh, who shared their boiled sweets with me, as they told me about their grand-daughter’s wedding, students travelling to Europe. Everyone’s moving for a myriad of reasons. Each travelling with a unique life story printed upon their soul –  holiday makers seeking sun chill outs, people moving to reunite with their family or loved-ones, to see friends, for work, to start a new life, to seek new opportunities, adventure seekers or others who are running away from something. All displaced – some from what’s comfortable and others from what’s routine. Our paths crossing.

There’s also something strange about airports. These are places, where, despite all the movement, you’re essentially stuck in the middle of nowhere. A pseudo reality. Impersonal. Marbled floors, perfume filled duty free counters and endless halls, filled with rows of chairs, where the venue never really discloses much about its destination of origin. Sitting at LAX (where Donna Karen’s trying to sell you her duty free American Dream) probably doesn’t feel that dissimilar to sitting at CDG airport, despite being thousands of miles apart.

Years later, when I think back to the girl dressed in pink and gold earrings, I realise that we were both, for that moment, caught in nowhere. We were connected, for a brief moment, in a world which tries its best not to disconnect us from the bubble of all but that which is familiar. But what’s wrong with the unfamiliar? Nothing at all. I think we should all, occasionally, seek to disconnect from what’s familiar and make a connection with the unfamiliar.

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Genghis Khan and the Ice Temples of Central Asia

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I awoke to the sensation of dawn rising.

 

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Somewhere between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

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41,000 feet above.

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Bound for central China.

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The cabin was silent but for me,

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as the black night yielded to the dawn.

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The closed, mysterious, secretive and distant lands of the republics of the former Soviet Empire lay shut beneath me.

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Sapphire glows pleated the ledge between Heaven and the Earth.

 

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Dawn’s cautious sunlight sprinkled the horizon with its amber glow.

 

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Lonely, apricot coloured, clouds drifted past me through the vast, empty sky.

 

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Crossing the lands which mark the border between Islam and Buddhism.

 

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Ancient seats of nomadic empires laid in horizonless steppes.

 

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Silk roads holding secrets deep.

 

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Passing over lands where Ghenghis Khan had once weaved his armies,

 

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bringing Empires remote violently down onto their knees.

 

 

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Frozen lakes.

 

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Crystal clear torrents.

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Glaciers running slowly through icy veins.

 

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Rippling gales chasing bareness, everywhere.

 

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Endless white planes.

 

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Centuries old. Wild and untouched.

 

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Sparse villages.

 

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Stony mountains climbing so high I could almost reach out and touch them.

 

 

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Inhospitable lands,

 

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cut by time and dreaded weather,

 

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lay frozen,

promising to hold off summer and spring.

I felt like I was at the earth’s edge.

 

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And, as I drifted further East,

I thought of you,

as winter stretched out everlasting,

and my warm tears threatened to melt the snow beneath me.

 

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Why are we told that women shouldn’t travel alone?

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Historically, solo travel is often perceived as a bold activity for men where men are admired and applauded for their adventurous spirits (think Di Caprio in The Beach) whilst, conversely, female solo travel is often considered a risky business.

The journalist Laura Bates recently discussed the categorisation of women travellers ‘into reductive stereotypes’ where it’s often considered that the focus of a woman’s solo travel must surely be to find love and romance. Why else? We couldn’t possibly want to travel for travels sake.

My experience has been that when you choose to travel alone as a woman you’ll probably be met with the judgement of creased foreheads or the shaking of heads as various family members implore incredulously ‘but you can’t backpack alone’ as they question your travel choices and try to warn you of the dangers of countries (from the stance of them having never visited the same).

I can’t help but understand the narrative of ‘it’s far too dangerous to travel alone as a woman’ as stemming from an ideology which suggests that women shouldn’t stray too far from the home without a male protector. This position reeks to me of being steeped in stereotypes of women needing to be looked after rather than of an understanding that women are skilful and resourceful enough to have the capacity to explore the world and have the awareness to make equally important safety decisions when travelling on their own. Some of the most astute and focussed women that I’ve ever met have been other women travelling alone.

It’s certainly true that as a solo female traveller you’ll probably experience harassment at times. I experienced this most recently when I was on a long haul flight last year. I was sat in the middle aisle set of seats, a few seats up front to my left a young American woman occupied a window seat and two men, in their fifties, were sitting next to her. The guys were persistent in trying to engage the woman in conversation, talking and laughing loudly and shouting ‘American’ at her. She was doing her best to ignore them.

During the flight, the guys progressively got more and more drunk. I could hear the clinks of their glasses as they downed drink after drink, high fived and their behaviour became more obnoxious.

I’d gotten up to get a drink and as I was walking back to my seat I could see both guys turned to their left leaning over the woman as they talked AT her (essentially pinning her into the corner of her seat).

One of the guys turned to me smiling as I walked past and glared at him so hard I think I may have burned a hole into his head.

I could see the woman nodding and she was half turned away from them towards the window. It was clear she was trying not to engage. Shortly after, the woman stood up and asked to be let out of her seat to visit the rest room. Instead of moving from their seats, the guys gestured for the woman to move past them. I watched as she squeezed over their legs as they sat laughing and feigned to grab her. When the woman returned to her seat their behaviour got worse. I called the air-hostess over and explained what was going on. The air-hostess approached the woman asking if she’d like to move to one of the empty seats at the rear of the plane.  The woman immediately moved seats and with that these guys lost their ‘entertainment’ for the rest of the flight.

Women shouldn’t have to tolerate this type of nonsense – I’ve had this kind of behaviour directed towards me before when travelling solo as I’m sure many other women have on occasion too. Equally though, I’ve also experienced this kind of harassment at home in the UK too so I don’t think the position that solo female travel is fundamentally dangerous in itself automatically flows given that most countries in the world haven’t stamped out sexism and gender inequality.

For me, the concern and/or mild criticism people venture towards solo female travellers fails to address prima-facie the position as to why they think it’s objectively anymore dangerous as a woman to travel alone than as a solo male.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not saying I’ve not had run ins whilst travelling alone: I’ve been stuck where I can’t speak the language more times than I can count, scammed (even by innocuous looking kids), followed, I’ve been so deliriously ill I couldn’t move from my bed for 48 hours, and been lost umpteen times (including at night in a jungle) but these experiences are not attributable to my gender.

Travelling solo as a  woman gives me an absolute and overwhelming sense of freedom. The ability to step out of your comfort zone alone into the unknown and into this vast and amazing world (and to see first hand how the wider world interacts around you) is part of where the magic of life lies for me. And, it’s entering this unknown space that I think is where we as people truly expand.

Kindness rather than danger or hostility has been the main baseline of my experiences along with an awareness that the world is made up of more good people than bad. Whilst, I certainly take safety precautions when travelling alone, I feel uncomfortable about any proposition that essentially attempts to constrain a woman’s travel movements for no other reason than her gender as these kind of narratives seem to me to feed into an idea that violence against women is inevitable (rather than tackling the societal and structural causes of the same).

Follow my next blog on why every woman should travel alone at least once in her life!

 

A gem called Melaka

Although I’d visited Malaysia a few times before, my most recent visit took me on my first trip to Melaka. Quite simply, I adored this place. I’d challenge anyone to visit and not walk away charmed.

Eat delicious lemon grass flavoured sorbet as a cooling afternoon treat (Melaka is seriously hot).

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Watch the Chinese New Year lanterns sway in the breeze.

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Fall in love with the traditional architecture, and get lost in the narrow alleys.

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Eat cake at the biscuit enterprise.

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Consider: Am I really in Asia or is this Amsterdam?

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Drink coffee by the riverside.

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Take a ride on a trishaw.

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Do not (SIMPLY DO NOT) miss the Hawker food market (2 minutes from the  Casa Del Rio hotel). I ate here virtually every night (there are umpteen stalls to choose from).

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Take a stroll down the riverside.

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Visit the beautiful churches.

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Watch  fishing boats heading out into the Malacca Straits.

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As you absorb the sunset, loose yourself in the hauntingly beautiful evening calls  to prayer from the many Mosques.

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Have a cocktail chilling out in a roof top infinity pool.

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View Melaka from up high.

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Finally, think twice before messing with Melaka!

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Have you tried a Cambodian fruit shake?

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I spent a long afternoon blowing my mind learning about Cambodia’s incredible history at the National Museum of Cambodia. As I walked back, I followed the meandering Siem Reap River, which flows like a heartbeat through the town.

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My pace was initially buoyant but I soon succumbed to a wearisome limp as I fell victim to the claustrophobic Cambodian afternoon heat.

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Adjacent to Siem Reap’s infamous Pub Street, and within walking distance of the river, you’ll stumble across a maze of little carts tightly packed together at the roadside’s edge dishing out fresh fruit-shakes, fizzy drinks, ice cones, crepes and tiny water snails sold freshly cooked on the street.

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The little carts are attached to motorcycles. Locals, from the surrounding villages, travel into town pulling their carts along before sunrise, closing up and heading homewards late into the night. Siem Reap is a town that rarely sleeps.

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It’s not unusual to see whole families sitting aboard these tiny motorcycles, balancing precariously, and clinging on to each other as the bike, swerving to avoid giant potholes embellishing the roads (as the infrastructure creaks under the rate of development), teeters dangerously to one side.

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I stop at a little cart owned by a lady named Dara. She tells me that her name means ‘star’ in Khmer. She asks my name, and has difficulty pronouncing it (I tell her not to worry as English speaking people can’t pronounce it either). Smiling at me, she settles for calling me Laya.

Tuk-tuks with foreigners sitting in the back snapping pictures on expensive cameras, and selfie sticks pointing towards their pouting faces, fly past next to us.

Thrusting a sticky plastic menu into my hands, she reels off a range of delicious flavours to choose from. Settling on  apple and pineapple, she cuts the fruit up into little chunks and whizzes them up in the blender.

As she pours iced coconut water into the gooey mixture, a lady from a souveneir shop, situated on the sidewalk behind the cart, ventures forward shouting towards Dara. She has a broom in her hand, and knocks a small chair (belonging to Dara) into the road. Dara’s young child, who sits with her all day, runs into the road to retrieve the chair. Ex-pats sit behind laptops, sipping European coffee, in the exclusive hotel across the way pretending not to stare.

Another shop keeper comes out to calm the fracas and leads the agitated shop-keeper back indoors.

Dara spoons 3 sizeable gelatinous dollops of sweetened condensed milk into the drink and switches the blender back on, all the while having ignored the commotion taking place behind her. Backpackers walk past us in their gap-year ‘I’ve found myself and helped the world digging toilets in rural Cambodia and now I’m gonna drink loads of beer‘ pants.

I ask her what’s just happened?

‘What am I supposed to do’ she tells me. ‘I have to make a living. This woman doesn’t like my stall outside her shop but where am I to go’. ‘I have to make a living’ she repeats.

Street vending across developing countries is a politicised issue. As a  relatively accessible occupation for many in Cambodia (and around the globe), these kind of economic activities often absorb a significant proportion of women into the labour market. These are women who would otherwise be excluded and marginalised as a result of factors such as: poverty, gender/social inequality and lack of access to education.

In a report by the International Labour Office (on the borders of legality, a review of studies of street vending) it was reported that in Phnom Penh, for instance, almost all of the street vendors were women. And yet, many undertaking these kinds of activities find themselves in a vulnerable position. Their physical space, and entitlement to their livelihood is not guaranteed, and they are left in precarious positions, despite contributing to the state through legitimate taxes, wondering if/when their stall will be closed up or moved on.

I pay Dara the equivalent of about 20 pence for the drink. We say goodbye. Her daughter waves at me.