As a young woman traveling alone in Thailand in the 80s, the only Thai person I knew in Bangkok felt personally responsible for my safety. After we had ironed out the misunderstanding that no, I wouldn’t be staying in 4 star hotels, I’d be going for the $1-3 a night options I set off on my travels.
As it turned out, my good friend had alerted people all over the country. Even when I ended up getting a different bus or train to the one I had planned there would be a smiling friendly face to greet me asking if I was Miss Catarina. The wonderful thing was that these were local people of modest means. I got to sit in their kitchens, play with their children, even go to a few weddings as it was the auspicious time of year for that event.
One of the most interesting days was in the distant corners of the Golden Triangle. I could see Laos (on the right in the photo) and Myanmar / Burma (on the left) from where I stood by the river before going down to a small jetty to find a boat. A father and son were to take me out for the day in their small dug out. I barely understood what the plan was but figured it would unfold. And indeed it was a great lesson for someone used to organizing everything to entrust the day to two strangers who didn’t speak a single word of English (nor me Thai). Not only did I not know where we were going, when we would eat or if we would ever return I was also facing the challenge of a day of not speaking.
Turned out that last assumption was wrong. The three of us chatted all day as though language meant nothing. It was illuminating. They started with what felt like kind greetings and I did the dame. During the day they would point things out – including a great impersonation of an elephant to make sure I didn’t miss that! And most interesting of all were the joke telling sessions. They would tell a joke in Thai and we would all laugh uproariously. I would reciprocate in English and generate the same reaction. The power of human connection and communication transcends language by leaps and bounds and the day was one to remember.
Since then I have learnt about body language and realize that in fact words are far from being the most important aspect of our communication. Yet we so easily get caught up with them and give them to much of our energy instead of paying more attention to the human spirit in the room. I try to remember to breathe with the people I am with, it makes the jokes so much funnier.