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.