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Seeing the world through at-home eyes

Editorial: Every day as I travel through Southeast Asia I come upon behaviours that are new to me. Usually I try to understand them logically, albeit from a western perspective. So when I see a family of five riding together on a motorbike, my internal storyline goes something like this:

They are all skinny; they don’t own a car; they need to go somewhere together; the mother knows how to hold on to the little ones so they won’t fall off; the law allows it; only the father wears a helmet because he is the driver and the driver must; they can’t afford a helmet for anyone else.

I make up these little narratives all day long, filling in gaps as I move along by reading local newspapers and striking up conversations with anyone who can speak some English and is willing to spend time with me. I try not to be frustrated by this lack of information for this is why I travel—to experience what I don’t already know. If I am dogged about it and if luck is on my side then I slowly become more informed.

Speaking of luck, that’s a concept that has mystified me from the outset for what it means here is quite different from at home. Here you can influence luck because luck is controlled by gods and ancient spirits. Luck is different from fate, which you can’t control because fate is fixed. So fate and luck sort of run in parallel streams. All these rites and rituals I have been observing are to appease the spirits in hopes of obtaining favour. (I picked this up from a museum in Singapore.) The Nyepi ceremony in Bali that is featured this month is just one example of this, and it is followed by the people and even legislated by government.

I’ve also learned that you can interact with spirits in other ways such as through spirit mediums, a practice that is taken very seriously here. Everywhere I go I’m asked why I’m travelling alone and often make up answers such as “My husband is working to support me in my travels” or “My husband is dead.” The last time I used “my husband is dead” was with my driver around eastern Bali and he immediately wanted to take me to his spiritual teacher so I could talk with my husband. He was all excited about it. (I am sure my ex-husband’s present wife would not be pleased.)

I doubt most serious travellers want only happy-go-lucky-remote-island experiences. So when we visit a country such as Cambodia we don’t ignore its horrific past under the Khmer Rouge for, at least to me, the people still seem sad. But maybe that’s just an impression pieced together by someone who was just passing through.

Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2012

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