International Writers Magazine Asia:
showdowns in Southeast Asia
meet a lot of other travelers and backpackers while on the move.
Some are outgoing, adventurous and independent all in one. Others
are understandably not as confident in a country where you might
not know more than the standard greeting phrases. A fair amount
of people get stuck in a loop of comfort and uncomplicated communication
with other westerners.
Especially in a
country such as Vietnam, with intensely persuasive and relatively convenient
alternatives to transport and destinations. Hurdling tourists like cattle
in open ticket buses to a handful of quite specific unchallenging destinations
from north to south. It was strangely here that I had my first slingshot
a little boy who didn't understand a word of English and me, who didn't
know any more than hello on Vietnamese.
There were a few different showdowns, some in Laos and a few in China
including one highly competitive in Tibet. I had a simple, wooden slingshot,
clearly visible, dangling from my backpack. Sometimes kids walking by
simply snatched it at sight and the challenge was on. Other times it
came in handy when boredom sat in and soon a crowd of youngsters and
adults alike gathered to try to outshoot me. I developed my style, picking
up on others technique and taking gestured pointers along my travels.
On the hikes, when I got tired, I simply took it out to practice to
some soothing tunes of Bo Diddley. A gunslinger, and there I was, on
tiger leaping in China trying to imitate one. I can sense a sluggish
smirk on the faces of readers but watch it! You have no idea of my improvements
And behind this playful facade there lays something
much more profound.
It was such a simple joy just searching for round pebbles that would
perfect a shot and hit whatever target it happened to be. How fun it
was loosing to little kids giggling at my lack of aim. I didn't just
interact, I hung out with people, on equal terms. Not as some civilized
westerners taking pitiful glances at people "worse off" than
them. A lot of people I encountered on my travels had this approach
to the people they met. What a disgusting showcase of megalomania executed
with strange pride and a delusional sense of righteousness.
You can picture the same people at home giving money to homeless people
to pay of whatever guilt their lifestyles had been building up.
Perhaps they would do more good by offering themselves as target practise
to the very people "worse off"? Slingshots are present in
all of southeast Asia. From advanced ones with wrist bracers at the
weekend market in Bangkok to the very basic ones I used and bought at
the night market in Luang Prabang. Those could be found at any other
market anywhere else though. It was not that easy to get a hold of slingshots
in China so keep that in mind if you're heading that way. Something
that might be worth doing if you sense some truth in these writings.
Since it was there that I had some of my most rewarding showdowns.
In Shangri La, or Zongdian, call it what you may, at the famous temple,
I was riding a rented bicycle and the weather turned on me and rain
started pouring down. Just as I had made my way around the back of the
marvelous Temple I went down to a gate where I took cover with several
Tibetans. I remembered my slingshot, took it out and just showed it
to them offering them to shoot. They politely said no, so I thought
I might take aim and completely missed target. That was basically all
to it. They immediately and impatiently lined up (not literally a line,
it's China, mind you) to try to outshoot this weird but strangely amusing
Westerner. Sure it was probably partly to earn bragging rights to friends
but it soon turned into something, not just a competition. Some were
better than others and I was by all means not even close to the best,
but from there on I was treated to everything they could possibly offer
me. From cigarettes to warm yak tea from their thermos, which was greatly
appreciated even though the taste wasn't of sunshine it did all right
in the chilling rain. They even had beer and chewing gum.
They didn't know any English but used gestures of digging in the ground
and pointed on the wall I was standing next to and then to themselves.
I did similar gestures suggesting that they built the wall and they
all nodded and laughed while the slingshot made its way around to all
of us. It was merely a pastime while we were all taking cover from the
rain. It felt as if I wasn't just a random westerner intruding or treading
upon their culture. True I was probably a bit weird at first but soon
it felt like I could have been just anyone who happened to be going
by. We shared some wonderful smiles and even a few loud laughters while
trying to outshoot each other and trying to explain different things
through gestures. I think the slingshot has the psychological effect
of bringing the guard down on people and your own guard for those matters.
It becomes so easy to go on making all the more silly handmovements
and gestures using your entire body to try to advance the "conversation".
I can't help to wonder what they all said about their day at the dinner
table when they came home. It must have been something. It would indeed
have been something to tell my family if it happened back home and I
think it would be a worthy topic anywhere in the world.
It has struck me when thinking about events such as these that traveling
is not just about seeing and taking in the views. True, it is said to
be believing but there is so much more to it. You hear intellectualls
such as Chomsky talking about war and conflicts for hours on end but
still finishing every speech with the fact that there is progress and
hope in the world. Such things can be hard to believe even after seeing.
The most wonderful structures such as the Temple in Shangri La or the
wonders of nature just like Tiger Leaping might not be convincing enough.
But to meet people and through interaction discover the most astounding
warmth and generousness and also some sort of common ground is something
enormously rewarding. But it takes experiencing to believe it and don't
just trust faith on this one. The language barrier is in no doubt real
but it isn't that hard to crack through and with a slingshot in hand
and playfulness in mind you can easily reduce it to rubbles.
© Alexander Hanke
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