So I’ve got this list. Some people call it a life list or a bucket list. Mine has mostly been stuff I must learn, as in: Spanish, guitar*, Israeli street fighting, skateboarding, riding a motorcycle, swimming, etc. I was so in love with this list. I pictured the woman who knew all the stuff on this list, who could slice you to bits with her bare fists and then play you a Joni Mitchell song.
I am done coveting this list.
Last weekend I went to Kampong Cham. It’s a town that is not really on any tourist’s to-do list, a town that I’d never given any thought to. J-P suggested it, and it was his birthday, and so I said fine. We took a dusty 3-hour bus ride through the rolling countryside, snacked on Pringles and cashews, and I braced myself for a chilled-out stretch of dull nothingness.
Kampong Cham is actually a tiny little wonderland. First, there are ponies. Magic mini horses with tassles high on their heads, that look like the sweetest little ponies every girl ever wanted in her backyard on Christmas. Second, there are houses on tall, tall stilts, houses so high that if you fell off your front porch you would die — or maybe, because you are in a lovely place, sprout paper wings. They are made of ramshackle weathered planks but with exquisite magenta lace curtains blowing in the breeze over the Mekong. Third, you can rent a motorbike and rumble around this countryside, down rutted paths, on an island where everyone you pass says HELLO. To get there you and your motorbike must take a ferry full of other villagers and their motorbikes, and their cows. Fourth, there is a temple called Wat Nokor. It is very old. It is the oldest thing I have ever seen, from the 11th century. I have been to Angkor Wat, but that was full of enough tourists that it never felt real. This felt real. Quiet, ancient stone worn round into new shapes, rolled socks stacked in a forgotten drawer.
And then within these walls, a new temple. A bright and colorful temple with fluttering flags and gleaming gold and, there, on the floor, monks napping on mats inside. They were napping! We found monks napping in a new ancient temple!
There is the line from Italian writer Carlo Levi: “The future has an ancient heart.”
But it is also true that the past enshrines a new soul. And maybe – just maybe – it’s not on your list. You won’t know what it is. You won’t know if it’s Chile on a Harley or Kampong Cham on a moto. You won’t know if it’s swim lessons at the gym or learning to swim by jumping off a boat in the Gulf of Thailand. Shelve Spanish. Swear in Quebecois. Keep it simple. Sit cross-legged on a straw mat with a mug of Nescafe. Call your parents. Search for ice at every roadside stand — mime “cold” to people who’ve never seen winter. Ride a ferry next to a cow. Try not to worry when it begins to pee.
The purpose of a real bucket list is to capture things you want to do before you die (which, most people assume, is a while away). Mine was never a real bucket list at all. The list felt urgent. If only I could start checking things off, I’d be so much tougher and more worthy. (Of what? Who knows.) Here is what I failed to remember: you can’t know what will shape you, make you, save you, break you. Your heart cannot be cauterized on command. And in fact, it’s braver to see that you are imperfect, and be okay with it, and go forward anyway. Tiptoe past the ancient walls. Roar down the unmarked path through the endless field. See what you find. Write it down. In a list.
*Ok, I still want to learn to play guitar.
My alarm clock talks to me. It’s a cell phone, a warhorse Nokia that you can throw against a wall and it flies apart into pieces that you can reassemble in your sleep. My roommate and most of the city has the same one. A tiny British dominatrix lives inside mine. Or, more accurately, the factory settings made the alarm clock a tiny dominatrix Mary Poppins, and I never bothered to change it. She tells me in a stern voice: “It’s time to get up. The time is now SIX AY-EHM. It’s time to get up.”
This is not my first talking alarm. When I was very small, my mom and dad got each of us kids talking alarm clocks for Christmas. Mine was something stupid, but my sister’s was the best one. A rooster. It said: “Wow, yeah, hey baby wake up, come on and dance with me” in an Elvis-like croon. Ms. Nokia is not so kind or groovy.
When I woke up this morning for an early meeting, I hated my tiny British dominatrix. Ms. Nokia, I thought, you can go right to hell. I did not sleep last night; I imagined centipedes with Doberman heads attacking me from the corner of the ceiling, chained around their miniature necks and snapping at my nose. GO THE FUCK AWAY.
But Ms. Nokia did not go the fuck away. She persisted. It’s time to get up….
FOR THE LOVE OF JESUS.
I hit snooze, and I swear to GOD she was supposed to give me ten minutes and, this time, she gave me two.
WHO HAS TIME TO SNOOZE IN THE SPACE OF TWO MINUTES. I AM STILL IMAGINING THE BLEEPING CENTIPEDE/DOBERMAN ATTACK.
I was drifting in and out of consciousness, but I swear Ms. Nokia then scolded me thusly, a long rant in British English about how I should do laundry and sweep the floor and wear your helmet and button your lip and ignore liars with shiny teeth and plan my future and show self-respect and give up on assholes and stop drinking so much coffee. Drink. Tea. You will be fine. You will be fine. It’s time to get up. The time is now SIX THURTY-AY-EHM.
So I threw her against the wall. Got out of bed. Re-assembled the pieces.
JP, who is French Canadian and thus has all kinds of quirky words for things, calls them “grasping moments”. It’s when you don’t have a camera, but you really freaking wish you did, because something amazing is happening. So you just decide that you have to remember it, and you concentrate with all your might.
–Sitting in the hair salon with Rachel and Nimol, staring in the mirror at hair sudsed high on top of my head, with glittering jewel-toned Khmer wedding dresses on a rack in the background.
–Riding on a motorbike with Panha on the back and Rina on the front, arms looped around each other, Panha saying she is so lucky because she gets to hold us both.
–Huddled in a wool blanket in a shelter on a mountaintop, eating rice and drinking wine. The next morning, posing for a fashion shoot for KeoK’Jay, on the spur of the moment and standing barefoot on a dirt path in a pretty dress.
–Listening to new music at the cafe, with rain pouring down outside during a power outage.
–Sharing mango salsa on our balcony with a half-circle of compatriots, comparing English accents.
–Sitting on the lazy wooden platform of a river with Panha’s entire family, eating fried chicken and jackfruit and tiny snails. Her sweet grandmother tied a red bracelet around my wrist.
–Stomping like crazy to the tunes of a bluegrass band in an old French colonial house being converted to a music school.
–Eating ice cream with the girls straight from the container and watching The Tourist dubbed in Khmer and subtitled in English.
–Walking home with Colin and two orders of fried noodles from a street vendor. Both, apparently, for me.
–Being told the followng two best-ever compliments. First, from a student. “You correct my dream.” What? Looks in dictionary. Is sure she’s right about the phrase and repeats it. “I correct your dream?” Yes, she says. She used to want to be a food stylist but now she wants to be a teacher like me. Second, from my American friend Becky, as we’re eating ice cream sundaes at the Blue Pumpkin, and I’m rocking shabby chic in a head scarf because mostly I’m just shabby. “You really have a Paris-between-the-wars look going on.”
–Falling asleep and being woken by Marady climbing into bed with me so that I can help with her English homework.
There are more, lots more. With you and you and you. I wrote them somewhere, if not here.
Rina once drove me to the candy-colored amusement park at sunset, parked her moto in the gravel next to a carnival game and won me a crystal mug with the balloon toss. I didn’t have my camera, so she just started shouting, TAKE A PICTURE! And she clicked an imaginary shutter.
I’ll just have to remember it.
My friend Brechjte is a Dutch woman with stars tattooed on the backs of her arms, who listens to punk music, and, with her mad legal skills, will drill the bejeesus out of you for violating the human rights of the marginalized.
We first met when I was new to Cambodia and had taken the bus alone for $4 to the coast. I didn’t know anything to do in town and was about to spend the evening staring at the ants parading across my motel bedspread. Then I had an idea. I texted a friend to see if he’d gone to the coast, too.
No, he said, but don’t hesitate to contact Brechjte. I am not the kind of person who texts total strangers to say hello, but like I said. Death-by-boredom loomed, and the ants were converging upon my Pringles crumbs in alarming numbers, and I was starting to get the spins from being in air-conditioning on a gorgeous starry night. So I texted her. She and two other girls were bumming around the beach with cocktails, listening to live music and generally riffing on topics such as pancakes, ska music and Paris. Certainly, I’d come to the right place, regardless of the fact that we ended the night exterminating the fist-sized spiders from their bungalow with a two-by-four.
Months later, we all ended up on the same adventure, a five-day trip to the remote islands off the coast of Cambodia. It was cool like this: At the time, I was reading a book about Ewan McGregor’s round-the-world motorcycle trip, and when I looked up from the book at the crystal-clear waters as our boat steamed towards a deserted island I thought: Ewan McGregor would be jealous of us right now. Hell, I am jealous of me right now.
But it was also scary. For example, there were spiny sea urchins. Swimming with sneakers on. Sleeping in hammocks suspended above sharp rocks. And wacking through thick jungle just to get to breakfast. Most notably, there were hornets, a whole nest of them that descended upon our group with fury while we tried to set up camp, and a mad dash down a rocky path to the sea that will forever be replayable in my memory.
But, except when attacked by insane hornets, Brechjte projects calm. She says things with such simple certainty that they sound like ancient koans:
“Today we fish.”
“So we go.”
And there were some tense moments in which to be calm.
After dinner one night, we’re sitting on the deck of the fishing boat, lit by a dim overhead light, sipping rum and lukewarm juice. The guys are teaching us a new card game, which I am already losing. I watch a giant cockroach climb in and out of a loafer then disappear through the floorboards.
Suddenly a few dozen Khmer soldiers show up on the dock where we’re anchored, drinking what is clearly not the first of their beers. Tension crackles — uncertainty over whether this means trouble or not. We’re not technically supposed to be camping on this island. Last night the Khmer skippers of our fishing boat said they’d been threatened.
The four guys on our trip stand up, ready to make friends and keep peace even though we’re all tired. Brechjte, Karen and I whisper back and forth that we’ll stay on the boat and give the guys a better excuse to head home early: Gotta tend to the womenfolk.
But how do we look too occupied to join the party? I suggest the simplest card game ever: Go Fish. Easy to play under duress.
Except that after I start to deal, I realize I don’t remember the rules at all. Brechtje’s from Holland, and Karen’s from the Phillipines, so they’ve never played it. We veer into a gin rummy-Go Fish hybrid with a discard pile. They are patient.
Finally Brechjte looks at her hand and just says, “Different game, yeah?
We reshuffle. Karen starts teaching us a game that requires her to sit on one of the cards. And pretty soon the uncertainty dims, and the only thing that feels urgent is going back to camp to get sleep. With the light from our boat, I see Balazs, being loud and diplomatic simultaneously. He dashes around refilling cups. Jungleman strikes the same calm, alert pose that he watches the campfire with, his tattoo’s scrolls curling over one shoulder. Archi nods and smiles, bright-eyed and breezy as a Kennedy. Alex sits cross-legged and straight-backed but with his blonde, curly head drooping, as though valiantly trying to stay awake in math class.
With the guys on the dock, and Brechjte and Karen on deck with me — I adore everyone a little harder. I’m not much for competitive card games, but I am an absolute sucker for team spirit.
Anyway, Brechjte’s leaving town soon. And it’s hard because expats transition in and out of town often. But I also know it’s a unique waystation for people I’d never meet otherwise. People who are off to new adventures. It’s ok. Everything’s ok. So we go.
There are two kinds of crowded places. Yesterday I was sipping iced coffee with sweet milk in the most aesthetically plain cafe, as decorated as a vacant shop in a suburban mall. Last time they served me fried rice full of bone shards.
But it’s the good kind of crowded. It moves like a busy diner — quick quick, chop chop, no nonsense, shutyerface, it’s comin’. Also, there is wit. The wait staff was really amused that I’d showed up and asked for coffee. I was so, so tall! They all took turns comparing their heights to mine, laughing and wisecracking. And then they brought me noodle soup and an iced coffee with sweet milk.
Bad kind of crowded? The theme parks of Orlando, Florida. We went to Disney World the summer I was 13, the summer of frizzy hair and braces. I just wanted to eat ice cream in the hotel and watch Saved by the Bell, and I hated Cinderalla for her silky-smooth tresses. Thankfully the Universal Studios tour was marginally more tolerable, and it is here that I learned of the crowd walla.
According to our guides, the “crowd walla” is the background noise you hear in restaurants while the main characters in a television show are talking. It’s not real dialogue. It’s people pretending to eat and saying the same stuff over and over so it seems like they are talking. Although actual Hollywood may not really do this, our guides said they were all saying “peas and carrots peas and carrots” over and over. We, the visitors to this portion of the park, practiced doing a crowd walla for an episode of Murder, She Wrote. Peas and carrots, peas and carrots.
Yesterday in the cafe when I looked around and realized where I was, there was absolutely no reason for me to be there. Yeah, I really need to eat. And this place was cheap and close to where I live. But it also had absolutely nothing to suggest it as superior to any of the million places around it. Instead I was drawn in by its hive-ness. Businessmen chatting and reading the paper, teenagers slouching on their motos out front and throwing tiny green fruits at each other, waiters and waitresses rolling their eyes and calling orders across the room. It had a killer crowd walla.
What is it about this; this background hum that seems necessary for me to think? I can write better; like maybe I’m pulling words from the air and putting them together, recycling old vibrations into new language. Maybe it’s just less lonely, and more lonely, all at once. Maybe it’s the ability to exist as a loose electron orbiting an otherwise strong force, and watch without watching, and listen without listening. Peas and carrots, peas and carrots.
When you are bitten by something unknown in a foreign country, there’s really little to stop you from thinking: This is it. This is how I die. And then if you don’t die, well. You had a nice little existential interlude, didn’t you?
I had one such interlude a couple weeks ago, and sometimes in my sleep now, I brush at my left shoulder blade thinking something’s there. The culprit, a centipede — which, frankly, sounds like the least harmful creature to ever try to kill you, but so it goes.
Me and Janelle in Kampot, a sleepy town on the river. I was half-awake around 7am in our cabin on the water, just thinking. As much as I would like to be able to report that my mental state was bliss and peace-infused while Janelle was visiting, it was not. She and I have “different travel styles” which means that she goes for 30-minute walks with a sun umbrella and three liters of water, while I have devolved into a dirty slum camper with no patience for transport slower than 30 miles per hour.
I can really spool out a laundry list of worries when given the space, so I just free-associated from there: love and money and art, just for good measure.
Then I glanced through the netting at the gorgeous hilly landscape outside and decided: Girl. Shuddup. Be happy. You are in an amazing place. You have friends, family and your health. (You always underestimate the importance of one’s health!) Let’s take a moment and just stretch and then fall back to sleep in this beautiful setting. You. Are. Lucky.
Not three seconds later, a pinprick. Ok, probably just a red ant. Those bites fade fast, but this got worse, radiating more and more. So I thrashed aside the mosquito net , launched out of bed and flipped over my pillow. I didn’t have my glasses on so all I saw was a dark curvy shape affixed to the underside.
Snake, scorpion, Jesus only knows. I woke up Janelle, who roused immediately to my aid.
With her night retainer still in and eyes half-open, she started calling out instructions, cruise-director style: Put on clothes. Don’t panic. Find your shoes. We’ll go to the front desk.
Tank top askew, shorts pulled too high, flip-flops half-on, I walked with her down the dirt path to the guesthouse cafe. Janelle began to explain in slow English, since hell if I knew how to say any of this in Khmer, and before I knew what was happening, a small cluster of white people was at my side. I can’t really explain it any other way. All of a sudden, a small cluster of white people, as though I were being checked by four doctors at once.
Turns out, I was being checked out by four doctors at once. They were tropical medicine doctors traveling through Cambodia. I recognized them from the night before, at dinner. We’d given them our extra order of onion rings.
They huddled briefly and then turned to me again. One of them explained he’d been bitten by a baby centipede earlier that week. “Hurt like hell,” he said, describing how the pain had radiated over one entire side of his body. “The big ones are really deadly. But we think yours was a baby. You’ll be ok.”
One of the doctors told me to take an antihistamine and some pain medicine, and ice it. And so I sat down to a riverside breakfast with a bag of ice melting against my shoulder, thinking, again, that I was lucky.