OK, before I start … DISCLAIMER: This is not a huge prompt for you to go running off into the Brazilian favelas because you think it’ll make for a good story if you come out unscathed. There’s a big difference between trusting your gut and avoiding something because it’s been confirmed unsafe!
There’s been a large number of occasions where I’ve been somewhere where an opportunity has presented itself, and I’ve thought “I’m in an unfamiliar place. Is this safe?” I touch on this during my posts about picking up hitchhikers. My gut instinct really paid off in Cambodia. I couldn’t have bought this experience it gave me, to date, it’s one of my most memorable travel experiences.
I went to Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia by myself. It was a big ‘bucket-list’ location for me, and I was worried that being there with someone else would ruin the moment. I hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day (at a cost of $10) and he took me into the site park. After doing Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom, I chose a few of the smaller ruin sites and headed to Krol Ko.
Those of you who have visited Angkor will be familiar with the kids (sent out by their families) selling flowers and handmade jewellery to ‘wealthy’ tourists. Some of them are quite persistent, and those who speak English will offer tours of the area (in exchange for some cash). There I found myself, in Krol Ko, being followed by a girl of around 10 (who I later learned was called Buramai). Buramai hassled me for a bit, finally getting the message that I was a backpacker, not a holiday go-er, and that she was probably carrying more cash than I was. I told her I didn’t need a tour, but said she was free to walk with me. She did.
Buramai followed quietly for 5 minutes or so, then started asking me questions. What did I do at home?Where was I born? What was it like where I’d worked? I answered all of her questions and after touring the temple for around 40 minutes, we sat down, where she asked to see photos on my phone from home. Aware that it was getting late, I finally got up to go back to my driver. “What are doing tomorrow?”, she asked me. I told her I had no set plans, to which she eagerly invited me to come visit her village the next day. “Come back here to meet me, and i’ll take you. We’ll make you lunch”. I told her I’d think about it.
I’d developed a mini friendship with my tuk-tuk driver after hiring the same guy for a few days. On the way back, I questioned the authenticity of Buramai’s offer. “It should be OK”, he told me, “I’ll take you tomorrow to meet her. Take my phone, and call me on my other number if there are any problems”.
I mulled over it during the night. Did I want to go wandering off into the jungle with some 10 year old kid I didn’t know to god knows where? I knew nothing about her, or whether she’d have mentioned to her family that she was bringing a twenty something British girl back to the house. However, keen to interact with the locals (and experience a bit of Cambodian home life), I figured “whats the worst that could happen?”. I could get mugged, I could be conned out of a load of money, it could be embarrassing as hell when I get there and her mother asks “urm, what are you doing here?”. But my gut told me that it felt genuine. I should go!
The next day I took the taxi back to where I’d left Buramai, and there she was, waiting for me. She’d brought two bikes, which we peddled through greenery for about 20 minutes, cycling into the middle of nowhere. Her house was larger than I thought. Her family was larger. A group of fifteen or so women stood waiting to meet me. They explained the men were all out working, introducing themselves one by one. They showed me around the one bedroom house that they all slept in, and then took me out to a small, shed like structure around the back.
The ‘shed’ turned out to be a school, which the eldest of Burmai’s sisters had built for the surrounding community, and where she was teaching English. They showed me photographs of the kids, and the basic materials she was using to teach. They showed me their garden, where they grew their own veg and raised their own pigs, and then we sat down for a basic rice and veg lunch. I painted the youngest’s toes with a nail polish that I’d had in my bag.
This family welcomed me into their home for no other reason than to do what I was doing – experience another culture and meet new people. They were the perfect hosts. There was no awkwardness, no hint of a need for money, and I might have missed the whole thing had I given into my pre-programmed need to be suspicious. Listening to my gut feeling had given me that chance to meet people the way I really wanted to on my travels.
When travelling, its sometimes difficult to trust people offering to help you for no apparent reason. We’re warned of the dangers of being conned (or worse), and to keep our wits about us in unknown places. But when I’m not sure, my initial gut feeling tends to be the right one.