For those who prefer to travel light, scarves are a popular fashion hack to relieve the boredom of wearing the same clothes again and again. For me, scarves acquired in foreign travel are also a trigger for poignant memories that tie me to people, places and experiences. That’s become especially true since the pandemic.
I wasn’t much of a scarf enthusiast until a summer cold snap in Brittany left me shivering at an outdoor folk festival. Amid demonstrations of Breton lacemaking and dancing, I stumbled upon an enormous assortment of cotton scarves for sale by Armor-lux – a locally based manufacturer of iconic nautical-striped shirts. Many were one-offs, suggesting that they were samples or discontinued patterns. The sarong-size scarf that I selected, with large turquoise, pink, green and yellow flowers, reminded me of Paul Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings. With practice, I mastered the art of tying it and wore it for the rest of the trip. In retrospect, I shoulda, woulda, coulda bought more.
A scarf purchased two years later, after the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, has accompanied me on almost every journey since then. One reason is that the subtle floral pattern, of pink, gray and beige, bordered in skinny blue-and-white stripes, coordinates with many outfits. More importantly, it has become a talisman, reminding me of our capacity for resilience.
My husband and I had been staying at an Airbnb near the Catacombs when terrorists attacked on the evening of November 13 at five locations around Paris. The next morning, we looked for signs of life in the city, just as we had in New York following 9/11.
A stroll through the Luxembourg Garden might soothe the soul, we thought. Finding it closed for security reasons, we wandered into a nearby Armor-lux store. My purchase there was both retail therapy and a gesture of support. Commiserating with the sales clerk, we mentioned that we lived five miles from Ground Zero. “Il faut continuer, mais ce n’est pas fini,” she said. (It’s necessary to continue, but it’s not over.) Those words continue to resonate.
Scarves bought during 2020 travels now stand for a different – and once inconceivable – threat. Undeterred by early reports about the coronavirus, we left home at the end of January on a Southeast Asian sojourn that turned out to be our last hurrah before the world shut down.
One of our first stops was Battambang – a city in the northwest part of Cambodia that feels like a provincial village. Its colonial center so closely resembles Phnom Penh of the 1970s, that Angelina Jolie did a location shot there for her film “First They Killed My Father,” about a family forced into rural exile during the genocidal regime of Pol Pot. All the Cambodian characters in that movie wore the traditional gingham scarf called a krama.
Generally woven from cotton, krama are used, especially in the countryside, for everything from sun protection to carrying babies. Perhaps it was the costume designer who made the red-and-white ones look so elegant in Jolie’s film, when paired with the shapeless black pajamas mandated by the Khmer Rouge. Red krama, once a symbol of that radical Communist movement, are still sold, but today there are many other color combinations available. In the gift shop of our Battambang guesthouse, a place that seemed to be plucked from the pages of a Somerset Maugham novel, I bought a pale-pink-and-gray krama.
Rotha Khmer, a rice farmer who taught himself English and drives a motorized taxi called a tuk-tuk during the dry season, smiled approvingly when he saw me wearing it the next morning. We had hired him to take us on a two-day backroads tour of the surrounding villages.
Krama were in evidence everywhere. At a blacksmith’s stall along a dirt road, a man in flip-flops forged red-hot iron over a fire, a blue-and-white krama wrapped around his head. Men with blowtorches repairing a rickety suspension bridge over the Sangker River used them to cover their necks. As we crossed the bridge on foot, a woman rode by on a motorcycle laden with bundles, a black, white and burgundy krama fashioned into a mask.
About one month after our visit, Covid-19 was declared a pandemic and borders closed. As Cambodian tourism waned, the owners of Bric-à-Brac – the charming B&B where we had stayed – conducted a fire sale, shuttered their business and repatriated to Australia. With that, my pink krama scarf became a souvenir from a place that no longer existed.
Another scarf from that trip stirs even more powerful memories. I purchased this one at Weaves of Cambodia, which for decades has provided work for land mine victims, their survivors and other people with disabilities. Once financed by Bobby Muller, founder of Vietnam Veterans of America, it is situated in the remote northern province of Preah Vihear. Though the area is famous for a Khmer temple over which the Cambodians and Thais have long battled, the studio, in Tbaeng Meanchey, gets very few visitors.
Interviews with Carol Cassidy inspired me to make the journey. She’s an American entrepreneur in Laos who for three decades has created and exported silk decorator fabrics for an affluent Western clientele. I first met Cassidy in 2004 when I visited her Vientiane atelier, and reconnected with her 15 years later when she appeared at a program at the Asia Society and Museum in New York. There she was selling silk “rainbow scarves” consisting of narrow, multicolored stripes. Made by Weaves of Cambodia, they were part of Cassidy’s sometimes Herculean efforts since 2003 to help sustain the entity.
It took us more than two hours by taxi to reach the weaving center from the city of Siem Reap, gateway to the famous Khmer temples of Angkor Wat. The road, improved in recent years but hardly a superhighway, took us past rice paddies and palm sugar trees. Along the way, the driver, arranged by our Siem Reap hotel, phoned the studio for precise directions.
Sar Toch, who has managed Weaves of Cambodia since 1997, greeted us as we pulled up on a dirt road beside the open-air loom house. Outside stood a conveyance that looked like a cross between a bicycle and a wheelchair. Sar, who lost a leg almost three decades ago when he stepped on a land mine, walks with a prosthesis.
The studio was bustling with others who had adapted to their disabilities. We observed them at various stages of textile production, dipping silk thread into vats of die, winding bobbins, weaving or tying the fringes on a scarf. On one loom was a rainbow scarf. A couple of others were devoted to filling orders for handwoven cotton fabrics suitable for clothing or home furnishings.“We don’t need people to give money to us. We need people to see our cotton and silk and buy it,” Sar told me as he showed us around. In an effort to advance that goal, I asked for samples of fabrics available by the yard, that I could circulate when I got back to the United States. Sadly, I have not been successful in these volunteer efforts. Each time I wear the rainbow scarf that I bought from Sar, it pulls at my heartstrings.
Through online shopping I’ve done better during the pandemic supporting Ock Pop Tok – a fair-trade textile company in Luang Prabang, Laos. Their goal is to provide a sales channel for village weavers, enabling them to earn a living producing scarves and other handicrafts. Joanna Smith, who is British, founded this social enterprise in 2000 with Veomane Douangdala, a Lao weaver.
I met them three years later, on my first trip to Luang Prabang, a former royal capital on the banks of the Mekong River, in the mountainous northern part of the country. At the time, Ock Pop Tok had five weavers and one small shop. When I returned, in 2019, they were operating two shops plus a Living Crafts Centre: a two-acre tropical retreat at the edge of the Mekong with a five-room bed-and-breakfast, a café and a studio where tourists can take classes – in dyeing, weaving and batik, for instance. The company name means “East meets West.”Every item they sell has a tag that credits Lao craftspeople, either with their name and photograph, or by indicating that it came from the Village Weaver Projects. The latter is a cooperative effort with artisans in 13 provinces, involving 15 different ethnic groups and distinctive textile styles.
Strangers often compliment me when I wear one of Ock Pop Tok’s earliest and simplest designs. Called the Khanna (the Lao word for rice field), this scarf consists of wide bands of two types of silk and comes in a variety of colors. I bought mine, which is black and gray, about eight years ago after I spotted the Ock Pop Tok label while browsing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art gift shop in New York.
Eager to help Ock Pop Tok survive the pandemic, I have shopped liberally at the robust online store that they set up after Laos went on lockdown in March of 2020. My orders have included tote bags, upholstery fabric, holiday gifts and more scarves.
I plan to take one of those new scarves – a silk ikat zigzag pattern in turquoise and three shades of blue – on an upcoming trip to Croatia. It will take a place in my suitcase beside the Parisian floral, Battambang krama, and rainbow scarf from Weaves of Cambodia. Together they are a reminder of the many ways that travel inspires us, broadens our perspective and teaches us to adapt.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.