From the April 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler
In some travel situations, elbow room takes on precious-commodity status.
People warned me that the morning bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, Laos, fills up fast. So I headed out just before sunrise to the bus depot, passing contingents of orange-robed monks shuffling down streets with their begging bowls and skinny men in yellowed singlets peddling crusty baguettes slathered with condensed milk from a can. The bus was an old converted school bus with the bench seats. Already there were 25 adults—all Laotians, it seemed, waiting in line, handing their bundles up to a worker who was lashing them with plastic rope to the roof.
I looked ruefully at the scene and at my bulging backpack that held my cameras and a month's worth of travel gear. Suppose it fell off or got rained on? Then a lightbulb went off in my head. If I bought two tickets, I could have a seat for me and one for my bag. I pulled the attendant aside and, using basic French and hand gestures, explained what I wanted to do. He nodded, took my double fare, and gave me two tickets. I settled in next to my pack for the long ride.
Passengers kept on coming, but when anyone tried to squeeze in next to me, the bus attendant would yell something at them in Lao, like: "Hey, bug off, the foreigner bought two tickets!" Pretty soon, every single seat was taken. I thought we'd head off, but no. A stack of red plastic stools materialized, and a new row of seats was laid out in the narrow aisle. More people piled in. Soon, the space on the "extra" seat with my backpack had turned into the bus's last piece of real estate. I shouted to the attendant when the last woman who boarded jammed herself onto the edge of the pack seat. He pretended not to hear me. Smooshed up against the window and hugging my pack like a teddy bear, I shoved back gently, trying to reestablish my right to the extra space—I'd paid for it, after all. The woman just smiled and didn't budge.
The concept of personal space—that is, the amount of room (physical and psychic) that's considered to be "yours" in a public place—is one of the first things to change when we travel outside our own culture. And it is one of the most difficult cross-cultural hurdles to clear. I enjoy learning new languages, eating strange foods, and even sleeping in unusual styles (futons in Japan, string hammocks in Amazon Brazil). I've learned, in trips to Asia and Europe, to adjust to the capsule hotel in Tokyo and the shared bathroom in the pension. But at the end of the day, I'm a child of a supersized nation. And personal space—or, more to the point, the lack of it—is my bête noir. When the Italian guy standing at the bar in Venice leans over six inches from my nose to tell a story, or when seven Indian schoolgirls crowd into my train compartment and peer over my shoulder at my book, I have to choke down the primal urge to shout, "Get outta my face!"
My need for space took a big hit when I found myself attracted to Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities in the world. I remember the first time I entered a crowded noodle shop at lunchtime and the owner waved me to the back. But there aren't any empty tables, I thought, wondering where he was taking me. He pulled out a little stool stuck in-between two diners slurping away with their heads in their bowls. I shoved in, trying not to poke anyone in the eye with my chopsticks.
Space in Hong Kong is not an abstract concept or a cultural construct—it is simply a limited resource. (After four years living here part-time, I now grab any empty seat and slurp away.) And just like high gas prices change our transportation habits, China's congestion has forced me to rethink my idea of what is "too close."
I've also learned to appreciate that a lack of space and privacy, which makes me anxious, can have the opposite effect on others. I recently took a short trip to a remote part of China's Guangdong province with my Hong Kong friend A-lan and her sister. When it came time to find a hotel, my friends asked the desk clerk for one room.
Figuring they wanted to save money, I went along, although, truthfully, I'd have rather stayed alone. But as we all got ready to squeeze into two single beds amid giggles, bantering, and late-night tales about A-lan's six brothers and sisters, I began to understand that sleeping three to a small room wasn't just about saving money—it was about feeling connected. The worst thing, from my friends' point of view, was not that I might feel crowded, but that I might feel left out. Lonely.
Like the taste for fish paste or the ability to write fluently in Chinese, the joy of closeness is something that's probably best acquired in early childhood. Traveling has helped me appreciate the way other cultures handle personal space. But I still lose my way sometimes, shifting gears between one zone where nobody would dream of intruding and the other, in which squeezing three people into two twin beds is not only considered practical but comforting.
Anyway, the battle between the lady on the bus and me ended like this. After a bumpy hour of jabbing elbows and shifting bodies, she grudgingly gave me back three inches of breathing room, and I let her use my pack as a backrest. I wasn't completely happy with the arrangement, and I don't think she was either. But for travelers, personal space is all about these little negotiations. Ten hours down the road, Luang Prabang—and all the space I wanted—was waiting.
Real Travel columnist Daisann McLane is now writing dispatches from the road and more on her new travel blog, www.TheRealTravelBlog.com .