The first thing that strikes you about Sasha is her positivity, and her enormous smile.
I meet her for this interview via Skype – she’s in her apartment in Bangkok, I’m in the Intrepid office in Melbourne. She’s just finished leading a trip, and is making the most of her few days off between jobs by having her air conditioner fixed. I hear the repair person banging around in the background as Sasha tells me about how she came to work with Intrepid.
“I’ve been working for Intrepid since 2011; I got a job with another tour company after I finished studying English and tourism at university, but my friend told me I should apply for a role Intrepid. I went to the interview and got the job! I really enjoy what I do; it’s nice, it’s fun, and I love my colleagues and the people in the office so much.”
“When I meet my groups at the start of the trips, I don’t tell them I’m a Miss, not a Mister, or that I’m transgender. I just present myself as who I am: Sasha!
“People don’t really ask me what I am; they just enjoy what I do, and what I show them in my country. Sometimes people ask me about my life – ‘Are you married? Do you have babies?’ – and I say ‘No, still single!’.
“Sometimes I meet a gay or a lesbian couple and, after talking to them, I can read their faces and I can see they’re thinking ‘Are you…?’ and then we talk about it and they’re happy! I think it makes a positive difference to some travellers having me as their leader.
“I met one couple – at the beginning of the trip I thought they were just friends – and I was showing them around and talking about the city, and telling them a bit about myself. And after a while I realised that they weren’t ‘just friends’. So I sat down with them and re-introduced myself – “I’m transgender!”. I think it put them much more at ease. They were very worried to hold hands when they were walking around, and I told them Thailand is very open and respectful towards same-sex couples. Thailand is really very accepting towards gay, lesbian and transgender people.
“I’ve been working with Intrepid for eight years and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t comfortable to travel with me.”
Hearing Sasha’s stories about her life in Thailand makes me think about how members of the LGBTQI community are treated in other parts of the world, particularly in my home country of Australia. Same-sex marriage has only just been legalised, and prejudice towards members of the LGBTQI community is still pretty rife. Admittedly, I went into this conversation expecting something quite different; that Sasha would have likely faced numerous challenges from people who didn’t understand her way of life. I was so happy to be proven otherwise.
Our conversation turns to a topic close to both of our hearts: food. Sure, the architecture, temples, jungles and beaches are huge drawcards for travellers going to Thailand, but the main driver for my trip through Northern Thailand in 2016 was the food. I ask Sasha if there’s a particular dish everyone going to Thailand should try.
“Pad ka prow. Everyone should try it! It’s hot chilli, basil, rice and meat. But the first thing people eat a lot of in Thailand is Pad Thai. That’s the number one famous dish. My groups are always “Pad Thai, Pad Thai, Pad Thai!”. It’s basic, but it’s really delicious. Some people like trying bugs too – like deep-fried grasshoppers and things like that – but there are lots of other great things to eat, like noodle soup, barbecued meat, curries, chicken with sticky rice. People are often surprised by how cheap and delicious the food in Thailand is.”
I admit that I fell even more in love with Pad Thai on my Thai travels, and own up to a fairly alarming addiction to mango and sticky rice (I was eating it daily).
Sasha says, “On the trip I just finished, I found some mango sticky rice on the street – it was around 50 baht, which is about two Australian dollars. My group had never tried it before and they all said “Oh I love this, I want more, when can we have it again?!?!”.
The message in Sasha’s Skype profile consists of four short words that sum up everything I know about her from today’s conversation: be a good person. Speaking to Sasha, it seems that this is a key part of what she believes, and what is most important in life; the amount of money you make or the car you drive doesn’t matter. What does matter is being kind, welcoming and open.
“We are all different!” Sasha exclaims, her smile beaming widely across her face. “Man, woman, gay, lesbian, transgender – we all have different characters, and different things make us happy. If people respect each other, there are less judgments. I think that’s important. Just to be a good person.”
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