Our view of the world is inescapably shaped and moulded by our own experiences of life. The filters through which we see are created by layers of experience laid down over time to form a uniquely personal construct that colours and influences how we interpret what see. I’m sure that’s news to no one. Seeing a bit more of the world at a more mature age (God that sounds awful!) is adding to those layers and I think changing my filter. Asking different questions, seeing all the people around me – tourists and Nationals alike – and reminding myself that they all have their stories is central to making me see things differently.
We caught the Thai-Burma railway to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok to visit Hellfire pass and learn some more World War ll history. Walking down the main tourist road we were surprised and a bit uncomfortable to see so many grey-haired Australian and English men sitting in the bars, drinking in the mid-afternoon heat. It all seemed a bit seedy and we thought we had stumbled upon an unsavoury part of town. ‘What are they here for?’ we asked ourselves, but believed we knew the answer, and we didn’t think much of it. Later that night, as we walked past the Australian Sports Bar, it occurred to me that tomorrow was the 11th of November and the men we were seeing were actually ex-service men, Diggers and veterans of wars who had come to pay tribute to the thousands of men who had died as prisoners of war constructing the ‘Death Railway’. As we stood in the sweltering, sweaty heat of the Remembrance Day memorial service at the war cemetery the following day we saw lots of men, some with their young local wives and children, complicated stories, but all of them there to remember. I was made to remember that everyone has their story.
I have reminded myself of that often along the way. I see a young Javanese woman – teenager really – with a child on her hip and I wonder if the child is hers or if it’s her little brother. Driving past rice fields in Lombok and seeing the old man walking through his paddies, trying to imagine what his life is like. The woman making orange juice outside our hotel in Bangkok, who has been there every time I’ve left the hotel, does she have children? Where are they? Who’s looking after them? Does she enjoy squeezing hundreds of oranges to make juice for people passing on the street? How many years will she stand there pushing the handle on the press? Does she even think about it?
I will never forget talking to a new friend at the girls’ school – a woman who had just come home from 12 months around Australia with her two young children – and she was talking about travelling overseas. She said something that I still think about and ponder, not just because it was poignant for me at the time, but because she completely flipped a generalisation upside-down, and people don’t often do that. She said that she wanted to take her kids travelling in SE Asia not to show them how lucky they are, but to show them all the things that these people have that we don’t. We didn’t get to expand on the conversation (probably interrupted by a young child or 2!) and I can only really guess at what she meant, but I was intrigued by her perspective, and I loved the fact that she challenged mine. Entering a new country not only looking for all the reasons we should be grateful and how lucky we are, but how lucky are these people that they have these things that we don’t. The child who wanders safely around the market all day while mum cooks satay sticks because everyone has known the child since he was born and looks out for him. Mum doesn’t know where he is but she knows he is safe.
A few other observations challenge what I know….
I was wondering if the bedrooms in our new house are big enough for the girls, especially when they become teenagers. When I see the number of people living in such close quarters in Bangkok, with no personal space or privacy, it seems like a luxurious concern. I don’t imagine that there are too many teenagers with their own room in this city.
I think about what job or occupation might fulfil me when I get home. What shall I do that will give me satisfaction, make me feel like I’m contributing and still stimulate me? Some of the people I pass on the street here will sell mass produced t-shirts or sweep the footpath for most of their working lives. They will probably be happy they earn an honest living and look forward to having fun with their families and friends when they can.
I love camping. I love the simplicity and more often than not, the solitude. The quiet. The night we spent camping in Khao Yai National Park in Thailand we were with about 10,000 (might be a slight exaggeration, but only slight) snoring Thais and their families and friends. It was crowded. But, the park provided tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves, blankets and pillows for rent so that anyone who wanted to experience camping in a National Park away from the bustle of Bangkok was able to, without buying lots of outdoor equipment.
I’m not saying that one way or another is better or worse than any other way. I’m pretty sure that when I get home I’ll still be looking for the ideal occupation that ticks all the boxes. It feels pretty good to have all those filters stretched and twisted a bit though.