Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Water of Life

As many of you may know, The Great Affairs has been in hiatus for the last month. 'What the hell,' I hear you screaming. 'You've only been around for seven months. What lazy bums you must be.' Well now I'm going to make you feel very bad. We were in Cambodia and Malaysia trawling, suffering, expiring for stories for you, our avid readers. And boy did we find them. This first article will kick off a brand new series entirely made up of East and Lara, featuring East and Lara and threatening even more East and Lara in the future. You lucky rascals. And so:

I am not a woman who enjoys the idea of 'settling'. There are so many bad connotations related to the word: tea leaves settling in the bottom of my mug instead of floating around like happy little antioxidant motes; settling a bill that I was never really able to afford; going to a settled estate and finding absolutely nothing I want to buy. But the most frightening significance I understand is that of physically settling down. I so desperately don't want to find myself disappointed with where I find myself. There are so many options in life and only a fraction of them are concerned with where I choose to live but this just makes me panic more. How do I sift through these choices to find the one that's right for me? Is there even a right one? Why can't there be a right ten, all at once? Why can't I have all the countries?

It seems to me that the more places I go in life the more I realise that the world is, basically, fluid. Every country has the shadow of another upon it in the forms of landscape, religion, people, to the point where one piece of scenery can be completely replaced by another with barely a flicker of an eyelid. When I first touched down in Korea way back in April I looked out the airport bus window and thought, my god those trees look like the trees on the highway leaving Heathrow. East seemed excited by this proclamation, as though I'd told him that the northern hemisphere was essentially all the same and visiting one country gave you a passport to all. In reality this fact has become a worldwide phenomenon.

We had been in Cambodia for twenty minutes, long enough to hire two Khmer drivers to take us into Siem Reap proper on the back of their motorbikes. We rumbled along a newly developed strip lined with enormous hotels all called things like 'Pride of Angkor' and 'The Angkor Wat Palace' and in between asking my driver what was growing by the side of the road and him telling me he used to be a monk, I saw a billboard for Korea's KEB bank. As it flashed by I went over the Hangeul in my head and for a long second completely forgot my location. There I was, a British/Australian on holiday, riding along the outskirts of a Cambodian city and reading the language of the Asian country I call home. The stretch of the world has made everything concrete turn fluid, everything that you assume to belong to one country able to bleed into another. When we got off our bikes I told East what I'd seen and his amusement made me realise just how funny it was that I was even able to read Korean let alone read it on the back of a speeding motorcycle in Siem Reap. Thus was my first introduction to our time away. And like all enormous realisations, it came in a pair. This was the first thing I saw upon stepping off the bus at Kuala Lumpur's central station:

On our first day away I made a bet with myself that I'd meet someone who came from somewhere I once did. I managed to win this bet six days after we arrived in Battambang, a place most tourists know due to the fact that the summer season necessitates a ten hour boat trip to reach it. Before leaving this largely market-place city for Sihanoukville, we went for drinks and pool with a couple we'd met at our hostel and I asked the Australian man where he was from. It went like this:

Me: So where are you from?

New Friend: Australia.

Me: Yeah I know but where?'

New Friend: Near Sydney.

Me: Me too.

New Friend: A place called Bowral.

Me: You're kidding. I'm from Bowral.

New Friend: What school did you go to?

Me: Bowral High.

New Friend: Me too.

And yada yada yada. While we expounded on our amazement and compared who we both knew and where we both went, East and our new friend's girlfriend sat back and rolled their eyes with the boredom of not knowing who or where we were talking about. At first I thought they were bitter but then I wondered why I was making such a fuss. Is it entirely surprising that we would come across the familiar while travelling abroad? If the world is fluid and each section is now so completely diluted with another, surely there's nowhere left where we can be truly free from our home? Nowhere to really be immersed without familiarity or language?

Our trip to Nepal offered me my first experience with the English language becoming a badge of honour rather than a valid method of communication. Billboards for Coca Cola, Pantene and North Face were plastered across Kathmandu's city face and each one carried English instead of Nepali. Though the general fluency was impressively high there were still glaring errors made all the more obvious because it wasn't English I was expecting to see. Especially when compared to Korea where English is either massacred or dramatically steered away from by the general public. Cambodia took Americanisation to a whole new level. Their chief currency is still the American dollar, though all our change was given in local riel. The tourists attractions, which make up most of the activities in larger cities, are written somewhat hilariously in pieced together English. Children on the streets of Phnom Penh greeted us with a barely accented 'hello' and if we didn't answer or pretended non-comprehension they proceeded to rattle off endless greetings in a variety of other languages, just in case we heard one we recognised. What I really appreciated, however, was the comedy of the signs.

Since getting back to my comfortable little apartment in Seoul I've been thinking about what this fluidity means to my future travel plans. I want the road less travelled, the unbeaten path, the mountainside not yet logged but I'll forever find myself falling into the tourist traps. And for good reason. These hugely popular routes have been created because there are amazing things to be seen. Angkor Wat may be crowded but it's also hauntingly beautiful. There were times on the Tonle Sap that we were staring at passenger boat after passenger boat but floating all around us were houses on plastic drum rafts and children paddling in bin lids with snakes around their necks. Like all things in life, we took the good with the bad and who's to say that fluidity is one or the other? Or that we can't appreciate seeing part of ourselves everywhere we go?

Lara could travel to the moon and meet someone who went to her pre-school.

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