Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Study in Spaces

When I embarked on the Trans-Siberian Railway last fall, I never imagined that I'd decide, on that journey among, and perhaps as a result of interactions with, like-minded travellers to move to Cambodia to work. It wasn't even a seedling of a thought. Now, I see that once that idea took shape, formed roots, it grew at a breakneck speed.

There is something to be said about the distances traversed on that trip, both the external and the internal, distances beyond the measure of railroad tracks transporting me from Beijing to St. Petersburg, distances set against a backdrop of tremendous vastness, empirically measurable --an expanse of 9,000+ km, eight time zones, two continents -- yet incomprehensible to the human mind.

And, the people. In my train compartment, self-imposed platskartny, there were no walls of solitude behind which to hide from the piercing eyes directed at the foreign woman travelling alone. Questions were presented--the same ones, usually: Where are you from? Why are you here? Are you married? Are you scared? Are you religious? (Once: Has someone hurt you yet?)

Our butchered translations danced, a jovial jig. Eventually, the initial awkwardness, the strangeness melted. Or, maybe it was the realization, quickly ascending, that we would sit like this, face-to-face with gazes held, for two, almost three, days. Then, warmth: profuse offerings of vodka, sausage, bread, tea; gift-giving, trinkets, pine cones; small acts of human kindness; laughter.

All the while, outside, the landscape unfolded in a blanket of sand, snow and ice.


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