Anmol asked us, “can anyone come up here and draw a picture of India? Do you guys know where you are? Did anyone look at a map?”
He was met with silence. I was too tired to even feel embarrassed. The last thing I wanted was to be philosophically enlightened after nearly 24 hours of agonizing travel.
We left Phnom Penh around 11 AM and didn’t end up in Mumbai until about 4:30 AM Cambodia time. After waiting a half hour to be picked up at the airport, we drove an additional ten minutes off-site to a hotel, where we spent a measly four hours sleeping. Rise and shine. We hopped back on the bus for six hours toward Pune. We were irritable and exhausted.
We met Anmol, a philosophy teacher at MUWCI, upon arrival. He is strikingly handsome and will make your head spin with remarkably relevant references that support any argument or point he’s trying to make. He’s able to pull out details of historical events, like names and dates, as if the textbook page has opened right in front of him. And though his intelligence is intimidating as hell, he comes off gentle and good-hearted. The kind of guy you’d love to invite over for dinner just so you can listen to him speak. I wouldn’t think twice about contributing to the conversation of course. I know my place in this world, and it isn’t in a Philosophy class (the one time I finally managed to raise my hand and say something, he sort of looked at me as if to say, oh dear, please stop).
So, we didn’t know where we were. Not the worst case scenario. Here’s the thing about taking a gap year through an organization – you don’t have to think too much, you’ll still get somewhere. The effort needed while making your own travel plans is not required. I’m not saying it’s a good or bad thing. It just is what it is. If we were solo travelers beboppin’ around South East Asia this conversation might be different.
Anmol started asking us about our travels. We told him we had just left Cambodia. He asked us about Angkor Wat and what we thought of it. He asked if we did any research before, you know, showing up and taking a bunch of pictures. No one said anything. I felt blood rush to my cheeks. Started fumbling with the notes I wasn’t taking. Ah, shit. He was about to shove our heads into the toilet and give us a swirlie.
With the exception of knowing when the temples were built and that, at some point, they were converted from Hindu to Buddhist temples, we didn’t know much. “Didn’t you wonder what the faces were all about? You must have had some questions?” He’s pleading with us at this point. Please, please don’t be average American saps. SHOW SOME RESPECT. TELL ME YOU HAD SOME QUESTIONS. (We’re not all American. But, the majority of us are. So our group tends to be linked under that assumption).
Blank stares. We had nothing.
Come to find out, he’s never even been to Angkor Wat. He’s never been to Cambodia. And yet, there he sat, informing me about the history behind the most recent pictures on my iPhone camera roll. I thought I did a good job “getting to know” Cambodia. I read all about the Khmer Rouge and it’s aftermath. I walked through the Killing Fields audio tour feeling a sense of satisfaction that I already knew what it was telling me. I had an appreciation and understanding of some of the more important cultural differences. I wasn’t the white girl wearing a tank top and shorts through the ruins. I wasn’t just a tourist! I was embracing the culture! I’m doing this right, Goddamnit! Aren’t I?
Anmol left us with this: how do you intend to differentiate between being a traveller and being a sightseer? What does it mean to actually BE in a place? Come on, Anmol. I don’t want to think this hard. Can I travel the world and not be bothered by this? Why must I choose between being a traveller and being a sightseer? Can’t I be both?
I’ll answer that one next time.