Don’t worry this is not another soapbox, well maybe it is…but on a more personal matter.
We are 7 and a bit months into our adventure and we’ve visited 17 countries and covered about 40 000km. We’ve met lots of people, some we have really engaged with and others were cursory interactions. We’ve seen lots, done some crazy things, had lots of laughs and some tears too. There have been unexpected surprises and some disappointments along the way. Of course, we’ve made some mistakes, but they’ve been outweighed by everything else and, hopefully, we're all a little wiser because of them. Sometimes even though you are in incredible places and seeing amazing things you just need to get out of there….
We experienced our first intense “get us out of here” feeling after 6 weeks in SE Asia. We were simply SE Asia’d out. The culture, food and low cost of being in SE Asia makes it appealing as a travelling family. We had some great times, did and saw amazing and interesting things in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos (my favourite), Cambodia and Vietnam. I am so pleased we spent as much time as we did in SE Asia and got to grips with its tumultuous history. BUT, it must be said we were excited to be getting on the aeroplane to Hong Kong from Hanoi.
A few days in in Hong Kong staying in the home of a friend, thanks again Ben and Anna for letting us stay I your fabulous home, was a little respite of normal (for us at any rate) life, we even made a roast chicken with the works - YUM. It was a little like being at home again and we recharged our batteries ready for the next leg of our adventure, China.
I will leave the statistics and economics to St.John in his blog, suffice to say it was a mind-blowing experience to see the scale of the cities we visited; Shanghai, Chengdu, Xi’an and Beijing. The scale of everything and the number of people just moving about all day was fascinating and even slightly overwhelming at times. Personal space – what is that?!
6000 years of history makes for lots to see and do around every corner. We were travelling in the height of the Chinese summer school holidays so it was busy, okay crazy busy! To contextualise this – the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing visitor statics are advertised at the entrance to the Palace gardens. On the day before we visited, 130 000 visitors were received at the site, yes that is one-day visitor stats! There were times where we just moved past looking at something because we couldn’t bear pushing our way through a swarm of people in the 40degC heat to see something at a monument or historical site. Thankfully we had got a tip from a person who had lived in Beijing on what part of the Great Wall to visit that was not too crowded. We got to experience the Great Wall of China without being jostled about – plus the toboggan ride down was fun! Kudos to the Chinese Government Tourism department, all the sites we visited are well managed and curated and seem to cope with the vast numbers of people moving through. On a frivolous note, they are merchandise masters and rival Disney on the ability to turn anything into a souvenir!
In our time in China we learnt lots about Chinese culture, tried new tastes and, amongst other things, marvelled at travelling at 300km/hour on a train. We had an indulgent 2 days at a 5-star hotel thanks to a disaster booking that we cancelled and a last-minute booking deal at the Peninsula Hotel. We’ve learnt that often what seems like a huge mess, at the time, creates other opportunities. Warning to parents– kids are very adaptable when they choose to be. Charlotte settled into the 5-star environment of the Peninsula very quickly! It was quite a bump to reality for her when we moved to a bland average hotel after the 2 night deal was over. However, after in a similar way to SE Asia after 3 weeks of being moved along in a mass of people this little family was finally China’d out.
So, what is this ‘SE Asia’d’ out and ‘China’d out’ nonsense all about? You know that feeling when you just want the world to stop and let you off for a few minutes to gather yourself? Well, it is a little like that I guess. Let me try and explain.
There is not one thing or event that makes you feel this way and some days some things grind more than others. Some days I didn’t get annoyed by being touted by vendors just trying to make a buck and other days I saw red if someone approached me trying to sell me some “same same but different” trinket. Sometimes the cloying smells of the drains were overwhelming and other days barely noticeable. Charlotte had days of feeling gawked at, and other days the stares of people as she walked down the street didn't bother her. The other annoying thing was people (especially in China) trying to take surreptitious photos of Charlotte. We got good at photobombing when we noticed it. Despite us all knowing this would happen in Asia where, in some parts, blonde little girls are a novelty and almost seen as a good luck omen, it still pushed boundaries for us. A few times we had to bite our tongues hard when someone touched her or took a photo – a look had to suffice. Some people realised they’d pushed boundaries with these westerners other simply didn’t give a flying ….! When we had people come to ask if they could take a picture of Charlotte or with Charlotte we’ve mostly said yes. It was really circumstance dependant. We tried not to be disrespectful of the belief/superstition. It’s the way it was done that sometimes annoyed us.
Soapbox moment almost over…The one that we just couldn’t get used to was the snorting then simply spitting huge gobs of snot wherever. This is common place in SE Asia and China, but we encountered it far more in China and everyone did it, everywhere and anywhere. When I say anywhere I mean anywhere, I was spat on (I assume & I hope by mistake) by a small delicate little girl on the Great Wall of China! It took a lot for me not to turn into the 'Momster' I am rumoured to be when pissed off! I had to settle with a loud OMG and dirty look thrown her mom’s way!
Sure, one learns to be comfortable being uncomfortable most of the time, that is what travelling, the way we are, is about. We were under no illusions when we left South Africa. Our travel is not the glamorous NatGeo type that one sees on sponsored Instagram posts. Our travels have involved some insanely beautiful places and beaches but also some pretty challenging moments and sights where we’ve sucked in our breaths and done a collective WTF?!
St.John and I consider ourselves to be very open minded and believe we are doing our best to raise Charlotte in this manner too. Our mantra is to be respectful and understanding of everyone around us. We are trying to raise Charlotte “in the world” rather than shielded from it. This year has certainly been a year of being raised in the world for her. She has seen and heard many things that I think some parents would raise their eyebrows at. We believe it is important that she understands the world she lives in and not to just float around in the privileged environment she is used to, in in Cape Town. We have spent hours talking about the history and dynamics of our home country, South Africa, the Vietnam War, Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and are prepping her for a visit to Bergen-Belsen, so WWII is a topic of conversation. We talk about the capacity of humans to do terrible things to gain power or in the pursuit of an ideology and how to rectify this, if one ever really can. Big topics for a 10-year-old but this year is not about sugar coating the world. It’s about learning and experiencing new things, opening our minds and understanding of the world we live in. She has had some insights along the way that have taught St.John and I a thing or two.
Travelling to places so very different from your own country for extended periods of time makes you realise that you are actually less tolerant than you believe yourself to be. Sometimes it is the tiny things that grind and not the obvious big differences. Many moons ago I facilitated training sessions that covered a section on tolerance and being respectful to clients especially when they were being rude. The session covered respect and understanding and different points of view. This rang in my ears as St.John and I discussed why somethings were just grinding us.
“One doesn’t need to UNDERSTAND another person/culture/habit, one doesn’t need to ACCEPT the behaviour of another person but one has to RESPECT the other person/culture/habit”
It is hard to when a blob of gob lands at your feet or on you or someone touches your ten-year-old child or takes a picture of her without your permission to understand and accept. So, the feeling of “SE Asia’d” out “China’d” out is not about not respecting their cultures and traditions, it is about trying to understand and accept but not always being successful. I think this is about just being human.
My deduction is that sometimes one just wants to be in a world you understand, know how to operate in and customs and habits you are familiar with. I think that we as humans can take our boundaries being pushed for a while but eventually, we just want the boundary-pushing to stop and retreat into a space we know and are comfortable with. A little respite from the world and then we are ready to go again.
As we trundle towards Europe on the Trans-Mongolian express and the clickity-clack of the train lulls us in a slight somnambulist state, we get curious stares from fellow passengers. Just earlier, I think St. John scared the living daylights out of 2 children down the corridor when we smacked his hand against our cabin door trying to kill a fly. (BTW he did kill it and it was hence named Flati-mier!). We get questions fired at us in Russian by the staff and do our best to answer in "Da" and "Nyets" and hand movements. I hope like heck we've understood what time supper is in the dining car and the meat dish we've ordered is not too boundary-pushing!
PS: On a lighter note Charlotte discovered the “bum gun” in SE Asia and this has revolutionised her life! Some, seemingly strange, foreign customs are quite sensible really! See her YouTube Video here!