Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Phonetically Speaking

Aw koon
Aw koon chiran
Suers day
Sin ciao
Chem toy la ban

These are but a few of the phrases I tried to retain during my brief stint in Asian countries. The last is particularly significant because my traveling companion Roger and I learned on our first excursion together that we had better learn the terminology for "we are friends" early on. Otherwise assumptions would consume us.

And assumptions are reasonable. Two adults of the opposite sex traveling together must be married or in some kind of intimate relationship, right? Well, no, not in our case. While Roger knows most of my intimate secrets we are simply very good friends who have found a way to co-exist during travel -- something many longtime relational companions find difficult to do. And as someone so profoundly put it, "It's nice to have someone wait with your backpack when you have to go to the toilet."

Assumptions, however, translate into a queen sized bed when we need two twins, seats together on the plane (and, yes, I seem to always be assigned the middle), and other irritants that we can easily resolve if we quickly learn the "chem toy la ban" of whatever country we're visiting.

When we first meet other English speaking foreigners, our revelation is also another great way of discovering a bit more about the way they think. To date, we've never encountered resistance or argument to our situation. Of course, given the rather out of the way locales we tend to visit, we've found most other visitors to be rather open-minded and curious enough about cultures and mores that we barely merit a blip on their curiousity radar.

Jen, Steve, Kimberly and Conrad are good examples.

We first encountered Kimberly by the fire in Sa Pa, Vietnam. She was recovering from the overnight train ride to this northern mountain village and had ascertained that her socks were way to damp to don. So she was attempting to dry them with the newly established warmth of the fire we'd just had rekindled in the hotel lobby. With all the boldness a 10-year-old with Thai-tied locks could muster, she launched into a in-depth explanation of what she was up to and why.

In her squeaky Australian lilt, she advised me that her 7-year-old bother Conrad was quite the bother all the while attempting to slap him headside with the aformentioned wet sock.

Soon Roger and I were hearing of their travels to date and their intentions of overnighting in a homestay. Later that day after we'd trekked several kilometers in the misty rain and lunched in one of the fire-warmed, battery powered, mud floored, thatch roofed homes, we thought of this quite sweet family and what they might encounter. Then later as we appreciated the Christmas Eve warmth of the down comforter in our cheap but adequate hotel room with its red hot floor heater, we said a Christmas prayer for them.

The next day in the open air market we ran into them once again. As I engaged Conrad (with Kimberly looking on) in a hand slapping game I'd often seen my brothers attempt, Roger learned that the overnight had been delightful. Beneath the covers in the upper loft of the fire warmed mudbrick, they'd soon beat the shivers and even enjoyed a bath while standing in a tub.

At that point, we surmised that they were our kind of people.

We met them again on a museum tour and Kimberly's became the missing head on the ancient sculpture thanks to Roger's lift and my photography skills. The parents were looking a bit weary when we next encountered them at the tombs. "Daddy's a bit cranky," was the kids' assessment. Jen declared it to be nearing "beer-thirty" on her watch.

At the King's pond, Kimberly asked about my "husband's" reaction to something.

"Husband? Oh, you mean Roger! He's not my husband. He's just a friend that likes to travel as much as I do," I explained.

To which mother Jen replied, "That's the better way, isn't it? Trips with friends rather than husbands. No worries about the usual stuff, right?"

To which her husband Steve injected, "Ahem!! It's not like I'm not standing right here you know."

And with a conspiratorial nod in my direction, she smoothed it over with, "Oh, you know what I mean, Luv."

We began suggesting that one of us were stalkers but we couldn't quite agree that we were stalking them or they us as over and over again we'd hear our names shouted and the children would appear.

We thought New Year's Eve would have been delightful with them but our crisscrossing itineraries departed ways at that point. Though we saw Steve in the distance at the market that day, he was too far away to connect with. And we figured we'd missed our chance to part with a final goodbye.

But some things are simply meant to be.

As we waited for our airport lift in the lobby of one of our favorite hotels, we were checking email and keeping an eye on the courtyard as messages slowly downloaded. That's when I saw Steve's bright orange Thai style shirt, long baggy shorts, and sandals stumbling down the sidewalk in an attempt to keep up with the continually stopping Conrad. I called out and the foursome all turned my way.

"Well, finally," Jen said. "We thought we'd look out for you as we made our way to the beach but we were giving up."

We invited them in for a tour of what the deemed a much better hotel than the one they'd been assigned, for some photos and for the exchanging of contact info, all the while regretting the missed opportunity of ringing in the new year with new friends.

The kids were getting antsy as Roger continued to collect details about the parents' careers (she's a travel agent and he's a contractor in the tiling business). So I played one last game (this time from my childhood) with Kimberly just before we loaded our bags in the car for the ride to the airport.

"Say say little playmate.
Come out and play with me.
And bring your dolly free,
climb up my apple tree.
Slide down my rainbow
Into my cellar door
And we'll be jolly friends
forevermore." (Clap, clap, clap)

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