Nov 6, 2020 • 9M

Couchfish Week 30: Six degrees of separation

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Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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Says Wikipedia: “Six degrees of separation is the idea that all people on average are six, or fewer, social connections away from each other”.

Watching the US election over the last 82 years, sorry, I mean four days, I’ve thought about this a lot—in a travel context. Six is a small number, but it gets big fast.

A tailor in Dompu, Sumbawa, Indonesia. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

In another life, I worked at the Australian embassy in Bangkok. In my role I met the Australian ambassador and various diplomats. I guess through their six degrees they’d get me to most world leaders. That is a bit weird.

Years ago in Thailand, I met a guy who claimed to be the spiritual advisor to Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. With Vedder as his first degree, I could stretch to Bowie. Yeah I know, I’d need the guy I met as a spiritual advisor to reach Bowie, but whatever.

At last year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, I was blown away by the talk by author Rhik Samadder talking about his book, I Never Said I Loved You. Afterwards, when I saw him in the green room (a sala, this was Ubud afterall), I walked up and introduced myself. Something I have done, oh, about once, in my entire life. I’m sure he doesn’t remember meeting some guy who started crying, but I do! Again, that connection brings a whole segment of the UK writing scene into my six degrees.

My father, on vessel in South Korea, around 1980. Photo: No idea!

I travelled as a kid a lot off the back of my father’s trade. A talented marine engineer, we lived in Japan, South Korea and Italy as a family. We lived in obscure locations. Countries don’t build shipyards next to Disneyland—and to this day, I’ve told Japanese people the name of the island, and they’ve never heard of it. Still, a semi–VIP would show up to launch the vessel, and I’d get a handshake, being the son and all. More degrees.

I used to climb volcanoes with an Indonesian from an insanely wealthy family. I guess that pulls me in some of the upper echelons of the Indonesian fancy–pants scene. And on the wealth circuit, to circle back to the embassy in Bangkok, of course there were degrees to Thai royalty. Don’t call me—I’ll call you.

Bonding, understanding, and plenty of swearing can all happen on a volcano climb. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

This is not intended as humble bragging. Anyone who has travelled has met some people along the way, and cast their net of six degrees further.

I wrote a while ago, about a woman I met who was travelling, retracing the steps of her daughter who had passed away. Her daughter had kept detailed diaries and Mum was trying to meet the people her daughter had known. She’d tell them about her daughter’s tragic accident, and they’d cry together.

While I didn’t mention it in the original post, there were plenty of people in her daughter’s diary who I knew. Later, when I found myself at a guesthouse in Bangkok, I asked to see the owner. I knew her, but not well. I had been an on–again off–again guest over the years, but I’d not say we were “mates”.

Flash from the past. Cheap Charlie’s, Bangkok. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The staff dragged Mama out of her bedroom—a room off the common area. She seemed to always be on the floor, drinking, smoking and counting money in about equal measure.

I explained to her I had met so and so in Battambang, and she’d told me about her daughter. She reached out, took my elbow, and burst into tears.

She led me into her money–counting/boozing/smoking chamber and sat on the floor. Rustling through a mountain of paper, she pulled out a photocopied page from said diary. It was the page that pertained to her, then she read it to me. It was brief, a couple of paragraphs, but the author captured Mama’s place, and the owner was beyond moved by it.

Hideaway places, memories forever. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

When she finished reading, I wasn’t sure what to do. She was still sobbing. She pulled a short of Thai whiskey and we toasted the author—and the diary owner’s mother. I felt uncomfortable lingering, so made my excuses and left her den.

A couple of days later, she was more composed and asked a staffer to take her photo with me—I thought nothing of it. A few years later, she had passed away by this stage, I was back at the guesthouse. The photo, and the letter, were there, on the wall, laminated. It made little sense, as neither the photo nor diary excerpt had an explanation.

Both though were on a wall of memorabilia. Travellers come and go. Some, like the diary owner, from the face of the earth, others, like me—against the odds—still kicking.

In Siem Reap, near twenty years of guiding and driving. Photo: Sandra McDonald.

I’ve never been a big one for “fan walls”. But this one touched me. An old Thai woman, a diary from a passed–away Canadian, and me—all laminated on a pale blue tiled wall. A staffer walked up, she said she remembered me coming and seeing Mama and talking about the letter. It turned out Mama had misunderstood who I was—she thought I was the deceased Canadian’s brother.

I’ve always been a big fan of the “travelling breaks down barriers” line of thought. Once you’ve lived, travelled and/or existed, with those other than your “home folk”, barriers can fall away. Sure cynics say it can reinforce barriers, but I lean towards the glass half full take. I’m an advocate that travelling promotes better understanding—in both directions.

Don’t be shy about saying hello. Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Over the last four days—or was it 82 years—I’ve thought a lot about this. More travel, more cultural mish–mashing, more understanding—it could not be a bad thing. Yes, this is all on a very pregnant pause thanks to Covid19, but there are still plenty of ways to try. Things may be out of our hands to a point, but the challenges are not insurmountable. A start could be as simple as picking up a book from another country.

I’ll finish with a Stateside story. In 1992, two British women, an Australian friend and myself drove across the USA, from LA to New Orleans. It is a long and messy story of young travellers doing stupid things, which I won’t bore you with. In the middle of the trip though, in Kansas, we pulled up at a Pizza Hut.

When people wave you over and say “join us for coffee”, do so. Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: The coffee guy!

We were driving the kind of panelled station–wagon you’d see in a Chevy Chase film. Once it was blueish, but the ravers we bought it off in LA had spray–painted it. It stood out—take my word for it. Everyone in California asked us what country we were from. Everyone east of Nevada assumed we were from California.

At the Pizza Hut, almost all of the staff came out to look at the car.

We ordered, then ate, our pizza. Later the manager came over to say hello and ask us where we were from. She was friendly—and I dare say she could have said “we don’t get many of your kind around here”.

We drove this uninsured, unregistered and couldn’t even prove we owned it, across the US. This, suitably, in Death Valley. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

We said we were from Australia and the UK. We made some small talk, then asked for the bill.

The manager waved us off.

“This is on me. I just want to thank ya-all for coming all the way from Australia and England to eat at my Pizza Hut.”

Kansas, and the central US, has been all over the news over the last few days—and when it has been, I’ve often thought of that Pizza Hut manager.

Travel—and meet as many people as you can—while you’re at it.