Scarf stories: Travelling the material world

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Three times in the past three years I have received a spontaneous gift in the form of a scarf. The gifts came from three different people, on three different continents. Two of the givers had only just met me. None of them knew about my secret addiction: an inability to walk past a scarf stall without buying at least one of them.

Catherine Marshall wearing a pink-checked krama in Cambodia. The krama was made at a Jesuit centre in Cambodia by people living with disabilities.There's a shelf in my bedroom cupboard stacked with neatly folded scarves and wraps in rainbow hues. Every last one of them has a story to tell.

There's the blue and coral pink-checked krama made at a Jesuit centre in Cambodia by people living with disabilities. In a village near Battambang, a local woman had taken it from around my neck and knotted it atop my head Khmer-style; appropriately clad, I had continued peeling pumpkins and stirring them into great cauldrons of soup beside her for a group of hungry children. 

On my shelf is an elongated stole made from orange stretch fabric and imprinted with a work by Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín. It reminds me of my last day in Quito: I'd taken a taxi up narrow, winding streets to the top of a hill where the late master's house, now the Casa Museo Guayasamín, commands sweeping views of the city below. Inside, I'd relished the mishmash of works on display — the representation of a long life that began in a poor, native Ecuadorian family and ended in the bosom of acclaim and great wealth.

At the bottom of the shelf's pile is the chocolate alpaca shawl brought home by my late father over 30 years ago after his own trip to Ecuador. He'd bought it from a roadside stall and gifted it along with the thrilling story of his week-long journey by dugout and mule through the wilds to reach a remote mine site. The boatman had gotten so drunk at one of their riverside overnight stops, my mining engineer father and his colleagues had had to leave him behind next day and make their way blindly upriver. 

My own alpaca purchase — a steel-grey scarf I bought from nomadic herders on a mountain pass in Bhutan — testifies to this innate sense of adventure (and habit of collecting utilitarian mementoes) passed on from my father to me.

Peeking out from the fabric mille-feuille is a silver-grey wrap sprinkled with diamante, a gift from my Indian friend during her wedding in Hua Hin, Thailand. It was waiting, delicately wrapped, on the bed in my hotel room, along with a rhinestone bindi which complemented the sari I was to wear. That three-day extravaganza — including fire twirlers, hennaed hands and a Hindu blessing ceremony — is relived every time I drape the twinkling shawl across my shoulders. 

 

"Like those other treasured swatches of fabric, it's a reminder of the deep meaning encoded in such gestures, of the honour that is bequeathed along with the object."

 

And then there are those spontaneous gifts from two strangers and one friend that I've added to this priceless collection. The first is a brown cravat speckled with sandy octagons given to me by a tour guide from Mendoza, Argentina.

He'd taken me into the Andean foothills and told me how he'd once crossed this great mountain range on rollerblades, arriving in Chile with a Guinness World Record to his name. As we drove back into the city, he'd untied the cravat from the arm of his rear view mirror and pressed it into my hand. 

The second is a turquoise-bordered, kaleidoscopic silk confection which transports me immediately to the Calabrian village of Rizziconi, where I'd taken afternoon tea with the aunt of an Australian restaurateur whom I was trailing for a story. That night we'd dined together at a restaurant in Tropea, overlooking the Gulf of St Euphemia.

Though this woman and I had no language in common, we communicated energetically all night long. After the final glass of grappa, she removed the scarf from around her neck and wrapped it gently around my own.

Most recently, a friend handed me a small, tissue-wrapped package; it contained a scarf that she'd collected on her own travels, one of a precious assortment she was now judiciously re-homing so that others might enjoy them. Enclosed within its decisive blue borders are splashes of pink, stripes of red, flecks of black.

Like those other treasured swatches of fabric, it's a reminder of the deep meaning encoded in such gestures, of the honour that is bequeathed along with the object. And it recalls the wisdom of a world that puts in my path people who, so often, have just the gift for me.

 

 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. She visited Svalbard as a guest of Lindblad Expeditions.

Main image: Catherine Marshall wearing a pink-checked krama in Cambodia. The krama was made at a Jesuit centre in Cambodia by people living with disabilities.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Cambodia, Ecuador, Argentina

 

 

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Existing comments

You look very fetching in your headscarf Catherine! What a joy it is to find a lovely gift for someone when we are travelling. Only this morning, I had the great pleasure of taking some of my scarves into a little op shop (and one has already found a new home).
Pam | 30 July 2019


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