This is the first of two guest posts by Melissa Pritchard. Many bloggers ask to write (as guest contributors) on more established blog sites.
I receive regular requests. And I always say no. Always. The few guest writers I do post are those I seek. They’re fascinating people that I think my readers would enjoy meeting.
My wife and I met Melissa Pritchard a couple of months ago in Singapore. We had cycled 200 meters from home to the grocery store when we bumped into Melissa. She was also on her bike, having cycled thousands of kilometers from Barcelona. Here’s the first part of her story:
I spotted a Buddhist temple on the left side of the road.
Surely if there wasn’t a hotel in town, I could pitch my tent next to it. “You can sleep at a temple in South East Asia,” I had heard. But still, I hadn’t tried. Tonight was going to be my chance! I had ridden my bike, leaving Phnom Penh 4 hours previous. I was confident of finding somewhere to sleep. In Southeast Asia, it’s rare not to find a hotel every 20 to 30 kilometers along the road. Yet this afternoon, I had pedaled 50 kilometers without any sign of a bed for rent.
When I saw the temple, I rolled up to a young guy on the side of the road with a young girl next to him. I asked my favorite question,…rather word.
“Hotel?” I asked with my eyebrows raised, palms up, and shoulders hunched in the air to gesture a question. Hotel is a universal world, recognized almost anywhere (except for China) and magically, when I ask, they always appear.
Being an optimist, I was sure there would be a guesthouse in this tiny little village. Should I have wondered, when the village didn’t even exist on my GPS?
The boy told me that there wasn’t a hotel in town and the next one to be found was about 10 kilometers up the road. That wasn’t very far, but considering it was dusk now, and visibility was low due to all the dust and road construction, he didn’t advise me to continue cycling.
I took for granted his level of English and ease of communication, and continued to ask about my options for the night. He told me the temple was out of the question because the Buddhists didn’t like foreigners. They didn’t trust them.
Then, he caught me completely off guard, by offering me to stay with his family. “My family takes foreigners,” he said. This was tough to believe. We weren’t on any kind of tourist route.
I could stay at his house as long as we went to the local police. Like a sex offender in the United States, I had to register my presence.
Without thinking twice, I accepted his offer, putting my well being in the hands of total strangers. I still didn’t know the name of the town. With a good night’s sleep, I figured I could continue my journey to Siam Reap the following day.
That night I stayed with Ly Peng’s family in their very modest house. Ly Peng was one of 5 children who lived with his grandmother under one roof in a tiny house with a simple concrete floor and thatched siding and roof. His parents were away for days on end working to make enough money to bring back to support the family. Ly Peng and his grandmother took care of the kids. Next to their house was his aunt’s home: larger, and with four generations of inhabitants.
They included Ly Peng’ grandmother, her daughter, her daughter’s daughter and her newly born great grand-child.
That night I slept with the eldest sister in the Aunt’s family. We shared a mattress in a room that was lined with mattresses from wall-to-wall with only a mosquito net over us. My shower was a simple bucket of cold water and the toilet—in the corner of the same room—was a small hole in the ground running to the back of the house. Electricity was limited, available only from 6 to 10pm. But they insisted I charge my mobile phone.
At night for occasional entertainment, Ly Peng’s younger siblings would gather around his laptop to watch a DVD cartoon movie in English. Ly Peng had used all his savings to purchased it while studying IT.
Even though his parents couldn’t afford to send him to university in Phnom Penh, he dreamed of running a technology store in town, which was more promising and profitable than working at a local factory. They fed me sticky rice, cooked vegetables, and a delicious salty fish. They refused payment. Accommodation was free, and so was the food.
Our conversation that evening was simple but fascinating. During the night I spent with them, I learned more about the Cambodian culture than I had the previous week traveling throughout the south of the country with another friend on bike, staying at upscale tourist resorts.
In fact the night before, I had been sleeping at a five star chain hotel in the capital city and indulged in an all you can eat New Year’s Day breakfast buffet. I had been treated to this luxurious accommodation, yet my night with Ly Peng’s family was more enjoyable and memorable, a priceless experience.
When I decided to follow my dream to cycle home, the loong way, pedaling 30,000 kilometers from Barcelona, Spain to Oregon, USA in a little over a year, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I felt nervous, scared, and doubtful. But my energy, excitement, and most of all, curiosity, prevailed and I set out on my trip on August 23, 2013.
I’m halfway through my around the world trip on a bike right now, and I’ve had countless experiences of local hospitality throughout the world similar to the one described above.
I’ve cycled 20,000 kilometers through 25 different countries, and found that the most memorable and enjoyable moments are those that involve spontaneous interaction with locals, whether in Turkey, Albania, Tasmania, Laos, or Malaysia. I would much rather eat with a local family or stay at their house than a 4-star hotel with fine dining. Thankfully, it’s how I roll.
I attribute my lifestyle preferences to my parents. Coming from a large family, I’m one of five children. We were raised to appreciate simple things. We weren’t poor, but my Dad was the only one working, while my mom cared for the 5 kids. My dad was adamant on putting his five kids through college, without any student loans. Therefore, they were smart with their spending and we never had a lot of extra frills.
I got a lot of hand-me-down clothes from my older sister. Rather than going out to eat, my mom almost always cooked dinner at home. Family vacations road trips to National Parks, baseball spring training camps, and our beach house. Sometimes we’d complain and ask, “Why can’t we have a Nintendo?” “Can’t we go out for dinner?” “Why can’t I have a phone in my room like all my friends?” However, there was never a dull moment growing up as we entertained ourselves with our surroundings. Today, I’m grateful for that.
My upbringing reflects my lifestyle. On or off the bike, when I travel, I want to see and experience life through the eyes of a local. I could stay at high-end resorts, eat at tourist restaurants, seek Starbucks and McDonalds. But that defeats the purpose of leaving home.
Why do I travel? I enjoy exploring and experiencing other cultures. I want to see the world through the eyes of the people in that region and witness how they interact with their surroundings. For me, the best way to do that is to be part of their world: eat at local restaurants, shop at a local fresh produce stall or meat market, and stay with locals whenever possible. I want to talk and interact.
Yes, I do occasionally seek privacy, choosing a hotel over a host. Some times I crave home cooked recipes and make them. But normally, especially as a solo traveler, I welcome local company.
How much does all of this adventuring cost? I’ve documented every penny, which I’ll share in my next post.
You can access Melissa’s personal blogsite here: http://www.theloongwayhome.com/