We’re sharing some of the Passion Passport team’s most memorable travel stories in our “Staff Stories” series. To go along with our Twitter chat, this week’s theme is Celebrations — stories associated with moments of celebration or excitement of some kind!
Michelle (business development)
A few years ago, I traveled through Cambodia during the early spring — known by some as “wedding season.” After spending a week in Kampot, I became friendly with a guesthouse employee who who invited me to be his guest at a Khmer wedding. It’s still unclear whether he knew the bride, the groom, or anyone at all in in the small community, but that somehow felt like an unimportant detail.
On the day of the wedding, I showed the guesthouse staff my dress, which had been washed only once during my travels and was caked in the dust of motorbike trips gone wrong. One of the horrified boys witnessing my fashion show felt compelled to lend me his dress, and then drove me to a friend’s house where I received clip-in extensions and a meticulous hair-crimping.
The wedding was about an hour away in a small community close to the Vietnam border. It had no official start time, but at least a hundred people were already sitting at the tables that had been set up all over the family’s property. A constant stream of staff worked to bring out raw meat and vegetables to cook in over a hot pot. Not that there was any time to eat with the constant raising of glasses and screams of “jul mouy” inviting those around the table to finish their Angkor Beer. When someone finished their meal and left the table, the place was cleared and another was set for a new guest.
Eventually, a man with a microphone took to the outdoor stage and the teeming lot of wedding guests came together in a circle to dance. Everyone in attendance already knew the moves, which meant I had a lot of excited teachers. Before long, my velvet pink dress, extra pounds of hair, and I were sweating and jumping and dancing alongside the community of people that had come together to celebrate the new union. This went on all night. Around 4 am, I gathered my fake hair from a table (as long as I dance the way I do, I’m not cut out for long hair) grabbed two muddy sandals from the yard and got back into the car.
I’m here to tell you this: Weddings are not worth attending if they’re not Khmer.
On the opening day of the Euro 2016 Championships, I found myself in the main square in Zagreb, Croatia, surrounded by hundreds of jersey-clad football-loving Croatians. Football — or soccer, whichever you prefer — has never been my thing. I’m more of a baseball girl, myself. But Croatia was playing in the tournament for the first time in years, so I thought I’d see what it was all about.
As I walked around the crowd, trying to avoid getting beer sloshed on me by rowdy fans, something shifted. Even though I had no idea what was going on, I suddenly wanted the Croatian team to win — badly. It felt good to be part of a group all rooting for the same thing. There was a certain energy in the air and it was contagious.
In the game’s final seconds, the crowd came alive. Everyone around me was clapping, cheering, or singing. They were so proud, so excited. And somehow, though I’m not even slightly Croatian, I was too.
A couple of weeks after moving to Hong Kong for my first “real” job in 2009, I was invited to a colleague’s wedding. I entered the grand hall where the celebrations were taking place and encountered table after table of Hong Kong families playing mahjong. I watched them with mild curiosity and soon moved on to chat with some of my colleagues in another part of the expansive room.
As the evening wore on, in addition to trying dish after dish of strange food (including a roast pig with flashing hearts in its eyes), I noted the disparities between Eastern and Western weddings. At the beginning of the ceremony, every individual at the wedding took photos with the bride and groom on stage — some dressed in suits, others dressed in T-shirts and jeans. The bride changed dresses no fewer than seven times during the course of the evening (!) and, after the ceremony, the bride and groom toasted every table in the room — to the point where the groom was so inebriated he could barely stand. It was an incredible introduction to my new colleagues, new home, and its culture.
I rang in 2016 on Copacabana Beach, surrounded by thousands of people dressed in white. Rio de Janeiro welcomes millions of visitors for New Year’s Eve, and everyone sticks to the dress code.
Locals and tourists alike wear white and throw flowers and wine into the sea to honor Iemanja, the Yoruban goddess of the ocean. In the days surrounding the holiday, the beaches are littered with rose petals. Entire families camped out for the night, vendors sold champagne by the glass on street corners, and when the giant clock on the sand counted down to midnight, the Cariocas (Rio locals) jumped into the waves as the fireworks started to burst above us. Afterward, the whole boardwalk turned into a party.
On a frigid night in the Argentinean desert, I found myself sitting around a fire listening to local folk songs. I was in the small city of Tilcara — a beautiful place immersed in a valley of painted mountains, and simple ways of life. In terms of celebration, it was quaint and modest, but it felt very special to be part of something so different than life back home. Surrounded by complete strangers, there was a feeling of understanding as I listened to lyrics completely foreign to my tongue. And, although I was wearing at least three layers of clothing out in the cold, I felt nothing but warmth. In such a lonely little city, where there appears to be more cacti than people, I had found a safe haven.
One of my favorite birthday celebrations was exploring Italy for the first time by myself. Growing up, I watched lots of old Italian films by Fellini, Benigni, and Bertolucci and, after so many years of dreaming in these images of Italy, I suddenly found myself in my own dream, celebrating my life up to that point and growing closer to myself in a brand new way.
I silently strolled the cobblestone roads of Trastevere in Rome and wide piazzas of Florence, feeling like I was living the last scene of Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” with the world around me as a kind of parade. The noises of life in Italy became my birthday’s symphonic soundtrack — chairs clattering as restaurants began to open, brooms sweeping last night’s glass bottles into the streets, nuns’ heels echoing through the wide squares into cathedrals.
This is how I’d always like to celebrate a new year of life — wandering and finding new sounds and songs to my life story.
What celebrations have you experienced while traveling? Share your stories with us!