Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

A response to my previous post

I started off writing a response to the comment made by Christine on my previous post, “Moral of the story is, the kindness of strangers isn't always for the purpose of being kind.” But my response got so long that I thought I’d just post my thoughts.

It may be true that people usually do have some sort of ulterior motive when they strike up a conversation with you- especially if you are a lone traveler. But after all I’d been through that day (my first and only day in Phnom Penh!) this girl was a breath of fresh air- a gentle, humble “ambassador” who was probably just interested in practicing her English. As you might have guessed, this chance meeting was one of the fonder memories I have of my short stay in Phnom Penh.

So what do you do, especially when you’re a woman traveling alone? You try your best to see warning signs, and go with your gut if you feel uncomfortable, but at the same time you try to recognize and receive others’ genuinely offered goodwill. And all the while, you still try to keep your eyes and ears open.

What I didn’t mention in this post was how much I had my guard up initially as I wandered around the museum- even when I was stopped and asked to either check in my camera or pay a fee to bring it in. I was about to protest since the person who informed me hardly looked like a uniformed museum worker- like the ones that I’m accustomed to seeing in the New York city museums that I used to frequent. The museum employee was dressed in plainclothes. As she motioned me over, I saw a sign clearly posted in front of the check-in desk, stating that if visitors wished to bring their cameras into the museum and take photos, there would be a fee. Otherwise cameras must be checked in. It seemed strange to me. In the west, museums usually clearly stated if photography was strictly prohibited or allowed. In my view, this policy seemed to effectively license people to freely photograph the museum’s entire collection, albeit for a small fee. So I checked in my camera.

It’s difficult but important to know when to let your guard down- just enough to not be on the defensive all the time and to accept the goodwill of others, while being aware of the risks. But isn’t that how life is sometimes?

What I also didn’t write about my arrival in Phnom Penh was that shortly after getting my landing visa in the Phnom Penh airport, a seemingly harmless, overweight, gray-haired, middle-aged American man started speaking to me with an uncomfortable familiarity. He had overheard me talking to the customs officials about the landing visa and had surmised that I was from the U.S. or Canada. He continued to make conversation as we walked over to line up to go through customs.

As I stood in front of the customs officer for the final stage of inspection, waiting for the customs officer to inspect my passport and landing visa, the fat, old American guy stood behind me and I was annoyed when I saw him lean over the counter to get a glimpse of what was on the custom officer’s computer screen. I turned and looked back at him; he looked away.

Later as the few passengers from the flight waited for their baggage to arrive, there were even more questions- from the now meddlesome, out-of-shape, man who was way past his prime. I answered politely, but evasively without specifics. In the end I courteously and firmly said that I hope he’d enjoy his stay in Cambodia and walked away. I was relieved to get away from him and went my on way looking for a pay phone to sort out my accommodations for the evening.

Thanks to the counsel of many wise girlfriends who had traveled alone, I had been wisely advised to dress like a bum, to stay in at night, to keep to myself, and to be wary of anyone, including other English-speaking foreigners, who quickly became overfriendly. Doesn’t sound too exciting, but I didn’t get into trouble, enjoyed all there was to see and do during the day and besides, having done the clubbing scene in New York City alone before, I had no need to satisfy any nocturnal curiosities or to invite any unexpected excitement.

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