Travellers jumped up from their seats knocking over plastic chairs and cans of Cambodia Lager, as a rat ran through the outdoor restaurant, a few minutes’ walk from Pub Street, Siem Reap.
We, the disturbed diners, are mostly too old or too young for Pub Street and, as we sit back down, slightly embarrassed at the furore, I catch the eye of a woman on the next table and we smile as we acknowledge that embarrassment. A couple of minutes later, Nadine, the braver one, the Namibian wave and dune surfer (as I later discover), approaches and says, in the secret code of solo travellers, Do you mind if I sit here?
It’s a simple question that opens doors, starts conversations and that, at its best, makes solo travel not so solo. For me, it has started at least two lifelong friendships and led to some very unexpected results.
For future reference, “Is this seat taken?” works just as well.
On this occasion, the request for a seat translates into, shall we have food, beer, chat, share some temple chat? We meet up a few days later at the beach in Otres. Nadine has sat next to Vafa on the way, I sit next to Karina on the plane and she comes along for the ride. We end up with a United Nations beach trip with representatives from Iran, Australia, Namibia and the UK. Karina knows the cocktail makers at Otres Market, and our crowd grows.
In the even longer term, I found myself, 15 months later, being transported around Namibia like a queen, tents pitched for me, steak braaied for me, shown around artists’ studios in Swakopmund by Nadine, her boyfriend, sisters, sisters’ boyfriends….the list goes on.
In summer next year, I hope to return the favour somewhere in Europe, all of which is now my tour-guiding responsibility.
A week or so prior to the rat-led encounter in Cambodia, I spent Christmas Eve in Laos with Danish hotel owners and a festive crowd made up of tour groups and families, with one notable exception. This time I was the approacher, rather than the approachee, and I was indeed permitted to sit with Laurie from NYC.
Again, only good things flowed. A game of tag on our Christmas Day tours, Laurie going to a homestay in the back of a truck, me on a motorbike tour up into the hills; a fantastic meal at Tamarind in Luang Prabang, a shared transfer to the Kuang Si waterfalls and, through Laurie, I vicariously experienced a monastery stay, without having to leave my hotel.
When I went to NYC 5 months later for work, Laurie took me to a jazz night at the Plaza, which I guess I could have done myself but it wouldn’t have included a chat with the singer, now a friend of a friend of mine. And I never would have found free dancing with 5 Rhythms myself, or dared to walk through the door if I had. With a Laurie, I felt like I’d stepped into a film set – vegan food in Greenwich Village, then dancing in a studio with a hundred others sharing the view of sunset in Manhattan – I was a Kid from Fame.
This Christmas and New Year, Laurie spent a week with me. I showed her some of Manchester, the Lake District and Whitley Bay in spectacularly unfavourable conditions. She could easily have felt like she’d walked into a drab British soap opera. Even on home ground, I got the better end of the deal as her Jewish faith gave me access to a local community within north Manchester which I have walked alongside but never inside, all of my life.
Of course, there have been seating arrangements that ended at the bus station, and countless encounters, especially pre-internet, which ended far too soon; partners in crime for global adventures don’t necessarily follow. But they might. At worst, at least you’ll get a seat.