By Dag Walker
It’s easy to rush around the world looking at important sites only later to find one has missed the life of locals who make the world human. I travel so I can experience the greatness of places, to see architectural wonders, historic events, artefacts unique and brilliant. Sometimes, though, I just cross the street to talk to locals about their neighborhood. Nothing much comes from casual conversations on the street most of the time; but sometimes– not today but sometimes– I am enlightened in a chat with a stranger on the roadside in some far away place I know nothing about. I chatted a while back for a short time in a remote village in Cambodia with a young guy for an hour. We talked about motorcylcles. In the heart of the Southeast Asian jungle, we talked about modern things, surrounded as we were in skin melting heat, shaded by ancient trees and towering black stone Buddhas. I call that a good day, uneventful as it was.
I travel in part to meet people, locals as often as I can. I once heard a young man say, “I don’t care about the locals; they’re all the same: illiterate peasants. I travel so I can meet other travelers,” he said, “They’re smart and they know things. They’ve been around.”
True, sort of. But, locals know about the locale. They also, as often as one might reasonably hope, know about the Mystic in ways others do not. I like to learn, so I listen to anyone willing to talk to me. Sometimes it’s horrible.
In Cambodia, I tried chatting up a guy my age, an old guy, to ask about the genocide there when he and I were young. That conversation didn’t go anywhere. I’ll keep trying. I’ve been on the road a lot of years, and I don’t expect instant results just because I’m in a hurry. I’ve been on the road for almost 50 years now. I have a lot to learn yet.
In all these years it was in Iquitos, Peru five years ago that I met, for the first time during the decades of wandering the world, a person from my home state. I wrote about the encounter in my book, Iquitos, Peru: Almost Close. The young man I met lived in my home state, but so far from my hometown that he might as well have been from another country. He was, like others, almost close. Then, some years later, on a chicken bus in the jungles of Cambodia, surrounded by memories of genocide: The Horror.
I was in Cambodia to learn more about the world we share. I wanted to know more about the world than I can find on my own in my old hometown. I want more knowledge of life than I can find in libraries and museums. I want as much knowledge about human life as I can get. I talk to locals. I wonder where my own people are, those from my home. The horror: I finally met one.
I met someone who is local to my locale. She’s from my town, is my age, and knows some of those people I grew up with. She knows my hometown better than I because she lives there. It was horrible listening to her.
We sat in a chicken bus across the aisle from each other surrounded by quiet Khmers going to the market to sell vegetables and mangoes. Some passengers had woven bamboo baskets carrying squealing piglets. I said hello in Lao to the man sitting next to me. He grinned and smiled, all his teeth black and rotten, his sunburned skin tight and leathery across his face. He greeted me in Thai. I don’t know any Thai. I nodded and smiled. I turned to the lady and chatted with her instead. She is from America. To my amazement, from my home state. To completely surprise me, she is from my own hometown. She is my age. I wondered why I didn’t recognize her. I asked if she knows Mr. B. She said yes, “He was at our pool party recently. One of the richest men in the state,” she said. I asked if she knows Mr Y. She frowned. Everyone in town knows him. He has the local barbershop. She said she lives on the outskirts of town. “Oh,” I said, “You live out there at Rattlesnake Gulch?” She turned an unpleasant shade of bright pink. “We are petitioning to have the name of the area changed to Cedar Valley.”
It’s a long while since I was home, but the area is not a valley, and cedars would be rare around there.
“You live out by the Turtle Tavern.” I said, all excited to recall the land. I loved it out there, the old wooden building shaped like a snapping turtle where you walk in through the jaws, tree stump tables and sawdust on the floor, hay bales piled up on a small stage where Billy Ray played fiddle and Sally Lou played drums and sang heart-breakin’ cowboy tunes at the weekend, foot -stompin YEE-HAW music for those of us who loved to dance. The hootenannies with Frank and the Four Fiddlers! Old Jesse and the Cover-Alls! We had our ways from the Old Country. They seemed to suit us fine. Good old days, the Turtle Tavern.
The lady mumbled, “It burned down shortly after our arrival. Thank God.”
Then I knew: she wasn’t really from my hometown at all. She was a foreigner. “Where are you from originally, then?”
The lady I met is wealthy, married to a very rich man who moved her and all his other stuff from Southern California to my hometown to restart a factory away from the high taxes and decay of the ruined liberal city they used to call home.
I tried to ask about others back home, but she wasn’t interested in speaking with me much. She reluctantly admitted she knows a few people in my hometown, but she didn’t like me much and was mostly silent.
The lady in question spends her time with her real friends, those who have also moved from Southern California to where I call home. They don’t really speak to us locals unless they must because we are locals and illiterates who’ve never been anywhere else but my hometown. She prefers the company of her SoCal friends, sophisticated travelers, people who are smart and witty like her. She knows all the latest ideas about transgenderism and intersectional victimology and the latest quotations from the Dow Jones Stock market Report. About Harry’s Hamburgers, which has been in the same location for 140 years, down on Main Street she knows nothing, it being small and cheap and filled with beer-drinking locals who don’t interest her.
The bus finally came to a stop in the city and rattled and shook in a black cloud of diesel smoke. She said, “It was nice meeting you, sir. I suspect I won’t see you again. I have reservations at a rather up-scale hotel.” She got off the bus and into a taxi driven by a man holding a cardboard sign with her name on it. I said good-bye to the old guy in the seat next to me. He laughed out loud, hearing me speaking Lao in a land of Khmers.
I got off the bus and went into the city where I was surrounded by people my own age who had not so long ago been part of a movement led by smart people, many of them returned from being educated in Paris, men and women who knew how to create a perfect world in the remote and tiny nation of Cambodia. Sophisticated intellectuals, they were, the better people who knew all the right things to say to one another, unlike the crude and stupid peasants of the Cambodian version of Rattlesnake Gulch. Over a five year period the smart people murdered perhaps as many three million people to create a better world. There was no music, only the silent dance of death.
As I watched the lady from my hometown disappear into the ruins of the city it took me a few minutes to realize that to that lady from my home, me standing there in the remains of a destroyed Southeast Asian nation, I am a local– and that she hated me.
So, yes, I learned something that day. Too bad I don’t drink. Maybe I’d forget.
It is odd to find oneself an alien in one’s own home. It happens to individuals and even whole populations on a regular basis. That does not make it any easier to bear for those suddenly strangers in their own lands. One might attempt to live in peace with the newcomers, or one might fight to expel them. I have taken a third approach, which is to vacate my previous home for other lands and people. When things change so radically in one’s home that one is a despised stranger, it is time to move and find those with whom one has common values and concerns. My life brings me closer by the day to the average Liberian than to anyone from California. My interests are not so much in foreign lands but in people I recognize as like myself in terms of being human. And so, today, I write about Liberia, and people I like.
Main Photo: Chicken Bus, /Pinterest