By now, you have probably heard the exciting news: I am on the shortlist for the Next Great Travel Writer 2017 competition, which is an incredible opportunity provided by Travelex and Penguin. I entered the competition in February and received the great news earlier this month. I love documenting stories here on Road Unraveled, so I picked a favorite story from my time in Cambodia and submitted it to the contest. I wanted to share it here as well; you can also find it on the Travelex website along with the other four stories on the shortlist. There is a lot of true talent in the travel writing industry, and I am very humbled by this entire experience.
To travel is to take a chance. To open yourself up to the unknown. To get out of your own way and experience a different life than the one you’ve always known. That is, in part, why I went to Cambodia. Beyond Angkor Wat’s shadow were people living those different lives. Over chicken curry and pineapple fried rice I chatted with locals. They were so relatable that I found myself wondering exactly what it was that made us different. Everyone wants a safe place to live. Everyone wants fresh food to eat.
The sun had set but the air was still hot and thick as I sipped cold beer on the beach with my traveling companions and traded observations about a week’s worth of experiences in southeast Asia. Three beers cost less than a single US dollar, one difference I could get used to I laughingly told my friends. It was a beautiful night to sit outside without a thing to worry about.
I didn’t notice the air change as a new person approached our group. I barely heard his timid voice when he spoke. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. He wanted to sell me a bracelet.
“How much are they?” I asked him.
“1,000 riels,” he said, “but you can pick any colors you like. I can make it right here.”
It was the beer that made me say yes. Paying kids for crafts and souvenirs felt like exploitation. They should be in school or playing with their friends. They shouldn’t be selling things to strangers on the beach. As soon as I said yes, he got to work, presenting me with a rainbow of colored string from which he would create a bracelet. I picked cranberry, white, and navy—my wedding colors—and as he began to braid the string together I turned back to my conversation. Once and a while he grabbed my arm so he could measure the length against my wrist. After a few minutes, satisfied with his work, he trimmed the loose ends and tied the bracelet on my wrist. His job was done.
I didn’t have exact change, but I did have a dollar—about four times his asking price—and I gave it to him.
“No change,” I told him. “My bracelet is beautiful. You did a great job.” He smiled broadly and walked away. I was surprised when his small hand tapped my shoulder just a few moments later.
“I want to make you another bracelet. But I’ll do it for free this time. And I am going to pick your colors!” I laughed out loud—we all did—as this little boy began working on his new creation. “I must have overpaid,” I joked. The new bracelet was constructed just like the previous one, with periodic tugs at my wrist to measure progress as he wove together the green and yellow thread. When he was satisfied, he tied the ends together. I liked this one even more than the bracelet I had chosen for myself. I reached into my purse and found another dollar. The boy didn’t reach out to take it.
“I love my new bracelet, and you worked really hard to make it for me,” I told him. “Thank you for making me something so beautiful.” He reluctantly took the money, smiled at me again, and disappeared into the darkness. I should have expected to feel his hand on my shoulder again when he reemerged a few minutes later. This time, though, tears slid down his cheeks.
“I brought you a present, but I didn’t make it,” he told me. He took my hand and placed something small and round in it, and he held my closed hand around it. “I wanted you to have this so you would remember me. That way, we can stay friends when you go home.” Before I could react, before I could process his words, he was gone, running across the beach. I opened my hand. In it was a green plastic ring, clearly something of value to him. I slipped it on my finger and blinked back tears of my own.
What makes us different? Everyone wants a safe place to live. Everyone wants fresh food to eat. But not all of us get what we want. A few weeks later, I boarded a plane that took me to a house that protects me where access to healthy meals is never in question. When I sat at my kitchen table to eat my meals I would look at the green ring on my finger, and I would think of my friend in Cambodia. Did he have somewhere safe to sleep, too? Did he have enough to eat?
I traveled to take a chance. To open myself up to the unknown. To get out of my own way and experience a different life than the one I’ve always known. And now I travel to change. Pictures of that night’s sunset remind me of how it felt to sit in the hot night air with a cold beer in my hand. But the memory of that young boy—my friend’s—smile doesn’t live within the confines of a photograph. He changed me. In a world where we seek what makes others different from ourselves, that brief interaction proved it is our similarities that truly change us.
*APRIL 2017 UPDATE: Unfortunately, Stephanie was not selected as the winner from the shortlist.