It’s Monday at 1:48pm and my flight leaves at 5:40pm on Monday and I arrive in New York at 5:40pm on Monday. I will have flown all my hours back, and it reminds me that none of this is real.
It’s all just the same globe spinning, sometimes hitting sun, sometimes hitting emptiness, and we sleep for seven hours or are awake for those seven hours. I’ll see you tonight, or I’ll see you in the morning.
Janelle asked me to paint her in a flattering light, but it’s really not a matter of flattering or unflattering. To begin: The streets here are just bananas. Scooters (motos) zoom to and fro, with no actual lanes, stop lights, etc. Also the sidewalks are parking lots for the motos, and there’s no way you can walk down them. You kind of have to walk along the edge of the street. You also have to cross at intersections. This is mostly done by wading into the stream of cars and trying to time it so that you slip between vehicles, which are generally four or five across at different speeds.
Today Janelle and I were crossing a small street when a man with a bicycle taxi stopped us in the middle of the road and asked if we need a ride. No, no, we’re walking, we said, and continued onward. Except that the distraction was too much – a moto riding against traffic knocked Ms. Janelle over. She tumbled gracefully to the road. Other motos swerved around her. I took her by the arm and we staggered to the side of the road. She was unhurt, just bruised and scraped.
This was bad. It could have been much worse.
But after a few drinks, some chocolate cake, and a bit of shoe-shopping, things are much better. She is icing her ankle and hip, alternately. And it is now so, so funny that she got hit by a moto. I am trying to figure out why we find this so funny. Maybe it’s because it is amazing that neither of us got hit by a moto earlier. Maybe it’s because we’re very, very white and very, very inept and of course the local transportation would strike us down. Maybe it’s because it’s been a long night, and moto is a funny word, and she’s ok.
I have always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. Except I don’t really want to be in a war zone. Bombs, etc, very stressful. So tonight Janelle and I did the next best thing and grabbed a drink on the rooftop of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Phnom Penh. Most drinks cost a dollar or two so our $13 pitcher of sangria was a little steep, but it was worth it, to watch the lights sparkle on the wine-dark Tonle Sap river, from a pretty sweet perch.
Siem Reap is a town built for tourists. The logic goes: You’ve come to see Angkor Wat, the famed temples, and now you will also get a massage, a 75-cent beer, and a ride in a tuk-tuk. Also you will get your feet eaten up by fish.
Janelle and I saw many temples on the first day, became severely templed out on the second day, and by the third day were ready for more adventuring. We thought we’d hire a driver to take us to sunrise at Angkor Wat and to a few other spots.
I’ve been trying to describe this driver but keep failing. Here’s some facts: 44 years old, maybe 5’6″, slicked-back greasy black hair, wiry frame, smokes cigarettes with a James Dean squint, talks to everyone who will converse with him, speaks just a few English words, mostly: same, big, small, hello, like, love, thank you.
As Janelle said, it was kind of like having a dad around. He went to all the temples with us, whereas most drivers would just park and wait. He pointed out great angles to shoot our photos. He taught us as much Khmer as we could handle. Which was not very much. I now know how to count to three and say “thank you very much.”
He drove a red Toyota Corolla. He got lost a lot. Most of the time he mumbled the few English words he knew, in rapid succession: I like you, hello, small small, same. At one point he got stuck on the phrase: I love you for about five minutes.
I realized this is probably how I sounded practicing Chinese.
He tried to set us up with all of his nephews. We politely declined.
We took one of many wrong turns when he turned into the parking lot of Wat Thmey. We were looking for a fashion designer who makes his chique little silk clothing outpost in a dusty corner of Siem Reap. Instead we came upon a memorial to the survivors of the Khmer Rouge and – hell, why not take a rest and read the display. Our driver had been in work camp during that time, at age 14, and he missed a lot of school, and it was very bad.
Ok, we couldn’t understand much of what he said. But we stood there at the memorial, next to a glass box the size of a washing machine full of skulls and bones, and learned just a little more about humanity.
Janelle wanted to go to Cambodia for a week at the end of March, for her spring break from teaching, and since I was staying with her in Taipei it seemed like a good idea for me to come along. It’s a place I never thought of going, and honestly didn’t know my history. So before we left, I did a whirlwind crash course and read First They Killed My Father, a memoir by Khmer Rouge survivor Loung Ung. The writer gave a talk at Janelle’s school the week before we left – a bit of amazing timing. And so now we’re here. And it’s utterly bizarre to reconcile the Cambodia we’re seeing with the Cambodia of Loung Ung’s book about the time of the Khmer Rouge. Ok, I’ve been here two days. But I sense a relaxed vibe here that’s missing from Taipei. The kind that makes me smile more easily – good food, kids with shy waves and big smiles, bright silk and flowers and noise spilling out everywhere. A monk in a bright orange robe walks barefoot on the sidewalk next to a street jammed with zooming, honking scooters.
-Janelle offers me warm, melty M&Ms.
-I am wrapped in a white towel, water from my pigtails drips down my back.
-We swim in the hazy green hotel pool, in the dark, under the gaze of the huge, dusty half-constructed hotel next door.
-The Tasmanian owner of the hotel holds up two packets of M&Ms and waves at us from patio.
-Janelle and I race-swim. She wins every time.
-Janelle asks the owner where we can find a convenience store. He said “Oh you’re funny. I’ll go out and find you a little something. Maybe a Mars bar.”
-We dismount from scooter, hand $2 to our kind driver. I am giggling from the ride.
-We weave through scooter traffic in the dark, passing monks in brilliant orange robes.
-I look over my shoulder and am smiling uncontrollably. Janelle laughs next to my cheek.
-Janelle and I shoot each other looks of “WTF” but both slide onto the seat, me behind the driver and her behind me.
-We leave the Riverside bar, and because it is in sketchtown nowheresville, we ask for a tuk-tuk home. We are told the bar has its own moto driver downstairs.
-We order dinner at the Riverside bar, on the second floor. We sit on the cool balcony overlooking a not-terribly-pretty section of the Mekong river. The place is empty except for two French men, smoking in the corner.
-We find the Riverside bar. Which supposedly has food. My first thought: It looks like a haunted house.
-Janelle with a guidebook under one arm, we take long strides around town and try to pretend no one’s looking at us. We try two restaurants from the Lonely Planet, both are closed.
-We grow despondent in our hunger.
-We are hungry.
-We arrive at our hotel in Battambang, a collection of freestanding rooms around a central swimming pool. It is blazing hot. We can’t even look at the pool let alone contemplate swimming in what must be 90-degree water.
Alleys. I love Chicago’s alleys: twisty little lanes full of treasures or weird peeks into peoples’ garages or forgotten brick roadways. Some of my best memories are winding walks through alley after alley on a spring Chicago day.
Taipei has alleys too- but somehow instead of garages and backs of houses, the alleys bloom with life; shops, produce stands, food carts… have a scallion pancake, why don’t you?
One of the first things that struck me about Taiwan was the large number of people wearing surgical masks. I know mask-wearers are being smarter than me and my germ-spreading cohorts. But it’s a little disconcerting to see half-faces everywhere. I wonder if there was an infomercial at some point that really caught on:
Are you about to perform an appendectomy? Are you the hostess at Chili’s? Are you simply walking down the street? You will need a surgical mask. Your surgical mask can be made of paper but that’s a little gauche. Best to have a custom mask that speaks about your personality. Vinyl? Creepy and shiny – you’re so edgy! Cotton? It can match your sweater! Maybe pink felt embroidered with flowers. Buy now!
No one can see you smile, but no one can see you frown.
This trip involves a lot of walking. Get from point A to point B. Find somewhere to feed yourself. Luckily I think best on my feet – my brain works at top capacity when I’m walking a quiet, unhurried path from somewhere to somewhere else.
So I’ve had time and space to think. And I realized something pretty basic: I ignore a lot of my own negative emotions. I don’t want to be the person who’s angry or afraid. I want to be the balanced one.
This works for a bit. Survival for the sensitive. It’s a quick fix. I’m famous for quick fixes. But those negative emotions don’t just vaporize. They hide. And then later, even years later, the raw emotion can bubble back up from my bones.
Turns out: If I can truly feel that emotion the first time, and acknowledge that it’s real, and take the time to study it, then I’m actually doing myself a favor.
Janelle and I are planning our upcoming trip to Cambodia. Our conversations, flipping through the Lonely Planet guidebook, are going like this:
-Ooo, we could be bear keepers for a day!
-I wonder if I’d like to be the keeper of a bear. For a day.
-What else can I be the keeper of? I want to be the keeper of the elephant.
-There’s a silk worm farm, we could take a tour…
-Can I be a keeper of the silk worms?
-Ooo, we could go to this hotel called the Golden Banana. It’s gay-friendly.
-There’s massage by blind people… but we’re supposed to look out for imitators.
-Do the imitators pretend to be blind or pretend to know how to massage?
-We have to get foot massages.
-No way is someone touching my feet.
-If I have to be the keeper of an elephant with you for a day, you will get a foot massage with me.
A long time ago, in a land far away (Denmark), I became friends with a boy named David. He wore a heavy steel chain around his wrist, fell asleep on his desk in the back of mythology class, liked climbing trees and exploring. We only knew each other for a few months when we were 20 years old, but I had the same what-should-I-do-with-my-life worries back then. I just found a note that he wrote me, which fits just as much today as then:
You could be comfortable, you could go to grad school, you could move to hollywood and pursue a career in the movies, you could rat out the mobster in your family and join the witness protection program, you could leave everything you know and run away with a random guy, you could sell all that you own and beg, you could seek enlightenment, you could, you could.
I think people swing through one’s life for inspiration at important times. Yesterday I learned of the Chinese concept of yuanfen, for which there is no English translation, but which roughly means a binding force, a combo of serendipity and compatibility. It’s not just for lover-types though it sounds romantically inclined. It’s for friends, your family, the girl you chat with on the bus. One’s past lives influence yuanfen, but there’s not necessarily a divine hand involved. It’s what it feels like when you say “we just clicked”.
The Chinese culture has been around the block a few times. Maybe they’re on to something. I hope so. It would make everything seem less frighteningly random.
After the workshop in Guatemala I hung around town, exploring, moping, being lazy, being curious. I had long, peaceful talks with Gabby, an Israeli woman who lives in San Marcos now, beautiful red-black curls, pale skin, piercing eyes. Gabby has a small white fluff-dog and just adopted a brown, lanky puppy named Max with the sweetest eyes who licks my hand and nips at my ankles.
Max and the fluff-dog play together like best friends in the truest sense. They fight for a few minutes (they’re both the same size now – what will happen when Max grows ten times bigger?) and then give it up and cuddle. Sometimes they play totally in sync, then suddenly they both agree it’s time to split up: you chill on the steps, I’ll chill under the coffee table.
Max was found half-starved on one of the boats that transport people around the lake, and Gabby adopted him on the spot. Often she cradles him and says she thinks he’s so ugly but so sweet.
I accidentally left the gate open on the chainlink fence that’s around Gabby’s house and they got out… I couldn’t take the chance of being responsible for losing them. I walked around the path for a few minutes but didn’t see them anywhere, then sat on the stone steps by the gate, hoping and waiting until they came back, which of course they did. No dogs in San Marcos get walked on leashes. They all know their way home. Max and the fluff-dog lept past me and headed back to the house after half an hour, with a beeline for their shared water bowl.
On Gabby’s deep porch made of fine, glossy wood, I read in a hammock while Max chewed on the hammock’s fringe and nudged me with his warm, squirmy body. I heard the little waves of the lake make shushh, shushh sounds.
I had been thinking this whole time that I wanted to write in a very beautiful place. Like that would make me inspired. But now I realize you can work in a tiny closet more easily. No distractions. In beautiful places, it makes more sense to bask.
When you’re a kid no one expects you to know anything. You can just kick back, observe, be cool with the fact that you can’t understand much, and then pipe in when you can. That’s kind of what it’s like to be a non-speaker of the local language. I learned snippets of Spanish and bits of Kaqchikel , and now I’m picking up Chinese. Stuff like toast, egg, cheese, bathroom, welcome, let’s go, excuse me, how are you?. and (crucial) I don’t understand. One of my favorite words so far sounds like you’re saying “bang” with a British accent and it means “awesome”.
As someone who thinks a lot about language and conveying meaning, it’s just plain liberating to be able to walk around saying BANG! or (English translation) TOAST CHEESE EGG! New words feel good on my tongue.
These people were really happy to make me little pancake sandwiches filled with red bean paste, from their sidewalk stand. Plus they posed for a photo. I was really just trying to take a photo of the little pancakes but it became clear that the woman wanted to pose behind her creations. The man on the right was off doing something else but the woman motioned him over quickly to join her in the shot.
Also, these shirts give me a pep talk every time I pass them: