I find the act of understanding other people thrilling, which is part of why I love traveling, and the more exotic the better.

Young monks in saffron robes sitting on the ruins of Angkor Wat may be the most exotic thing in the world to me, but to young men in central Cambodia, sitting around ruins in the only clothes they own is everyday life. The exotic thing for them was a huge foreign man traveling alone and taking pictures of everything he sees.

Young monks at Angkor Wat

Walking past a small group of these kids, I paused and said hello, and realized they were not just sitting there to be picturesque. They had a purpose for being there. These were poor students, probably abandoned by their families to the monastery when their parents couldn’t feed them, who spent day after day hanging out on the local ruins in the hopes of a few minutes of interaction with an authentic English speaker so they can struggle through the few words and phrases they had learned so painfully.

Thrilled at my attention, the little group I talked to followed me shyly as I walked the temples, asking questions, giggling, and struggling to understand my foreign tongue. Sometimes we just walked in silence, as they’d run through their stock phrases and I had no Cambodian to offer back. Then they’d remember something they could ask, and struggle to understand my answer, giggling and perplexed.

At one point my little posse paused and I saw them screwing up their courage as the bravest one forward to ask me for something. They wanted to take my picture. They had a simple camera, and wanted a group shot standing next to me. In that moment it hit me with more force than ever before — in that place, in their eyes, I was the exotic one. All us foreigners were taking pictures of them and their magnificent cultural heritage, and all these simple boys wanted was a picture of the truly exotic thing in that landscape: me.

I wish I had a copy of that picture, the one that they took, as their smiles at having their photo taken with such an exotic human being from so far away expressed our connection and respect for each other, and our celebration of the differences, in a way far beyond words.

I love moments like that, when the world flips over and for just a moment, I can see life through the eyes of another.