I was taking a bus into a big city to go shopping one afternoon when I was living in Korea the first time (2013 – 2014). I was traveling with a fellow ESL teacher from Wales. She and I taught in a small town where foreigners were rarely seen. So when we saw a big group of Germans board the bus, we were excited to talk to them. We were headed to Daejeon, while they were headed to Seoul for a martial arts tournament. Other than being foreign, we didn’t have much common ground for conversation.
I mentioned that I’d been to Switzerland and Austria, and that I’d love to go to Germany one day. One of the guys responded by saying that the Swiss and Austrians only try to speak German.
When we hit a lull, I started talking to my Welsh friend. While swapping funny stories about our students, one of the Germans offered me a piece of chewy ginseng candy. I accepted the gift, even though I don’t think they taste very good, and thanked him. After finishing it, I continued my conversation. Then they all laughed, saying they wished that would have shut me up. My attempt at a friendly conversation with my fellow foreigners was a failure. I was silent from embarrassment for the remainder of the trip.
I was taking a bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap during my Cambodia vacation in February 2014. I sat across from two beautiful girls from London (the redhead was born in Ireland). We were exchanging travel stories for about the first half of this six-hour trip. There was an older woman sitting in front of me, and looking through the space between the two seat-backs, I could see she was reading a travel book in German. Apparently I was once again enrapt in conversation to the point of not being aware of the volume of my voice. I assumed everybody must be talking to somebody. After all, people have loud conversations on planes. There was loud street noise and we were driving on old bumpy dirt roads. Surely nobody was attempting to sleep. It’s not like we were in the study room of a library. But once again, someone from Germany was tired of hearing me speak to someone from the UK.
She turned around and asked if I worked for CNN. Confused, I said no, I’m an English teacher. Then she hit me with the punchline: “Oh, because you’re really loud.”
The girls asked me what happened, and I whispered that we need to be quiet on the bus. They both promptly took a nap.
We pulled over somewhere for a lunch and bathroom break. Each individual stall was like a little wooden closet with a hole in the ground instead of an actual toilet. There was a cafeteria-style dining area. None of the food looked appealing to me, so I shopped at the fruit stand. I bought a bunch of bananas for one US dollar.
There were steers wondering around, and I thought that I also heard stray cats. If the cattle here aren’t fenced in anywhere, seeing wild cats wouldn’t be surprising. But I never saw any. Just as everybody started to board the bus, the German woman approached me said I have to go check out this bird. I saw the bird cage she pointed to, and I knelt in front of it. There was a small black bird inside. There were no cats. The bird said “Meow.” It didn’t make a sound similar to cats. This bird literally said the word “Meow.” It also told me “Hi.” I was mesmerized. By the time I turned my phone on to record a video of this, I had to get back on the bus.
Three days later I visited a village on my 26th birthday. That night I decided I would try something new and crazy to celebrate my new age. I had been curious about trying bugs, since it was something people did in Southeast Asia–locals for the protein, and tourists for the novelty. So I found a food cart that sold crickets, beetles, ants, tarantulas, and snakes. I thought the crickets and beetles would probably have the most unpleasant texture, and ants were too small. Tarantulas and snakes were only 75 cents each. I figured if they were gross, I wouldn’t lose much. So I bought one tarantula and one snake. The snake was on a wooden stick like a kabob. It was about a foot long. Due to the dried skin and cartilage, I had to eat it like beef jerky. The taste was also similar to beef jerky. I didn’t hate it, but I’m not a fan of gnawing on dried reptile skin. The tarantula was black, almost the size of my hand, and a bit greasy. I didn’t want to taste the guts, so I didn’t even attempt to eat the body. I plucked the legs off like flower petals.
When I started snacking on my spider, the German woman who mistook me for a newscaster showed up. She approached me as if we were complete strangers to tell me how entertaining it was to watch my face as the hairy barbecued legs inched their way down my throat. She also congratulated me on being so brave. She didn’t ask if I would be reporting this on the news later. No jokes about the cat-bird. No jokes at all. She was just being friendly. She didn’t hate me, or even remember me. The tae-kwon-do Germans probably don’t remember that annoying American they gave the shut-up candy to either.
I thanked her.
She waved goodbye.
I finished my serving of spider legs. Something new. Something crazy.
Happy Birthday to me.