Cold day, warm brownies: another happy island

I’ve been writing about days filled with islands and sun. They’d have seemed like a vacation if they hadn’t been so fraught with uncertainty. When living someplace familiar (and possibly chilly), it’s easy to forget that your anchors are your buoys. Friends, family, the indelible bond between you and that sidewalk. I’ve been visiting Chicago, on and off, over the past few months since returning to the U. S. of A., and my favorite days have been the simple ones.

Like with Eliina and baby Alice.

Eliina is a friend I’ve known since we were 17, both brand-new transplants to the venerable Northwestern University. Gathered for an all-dorm meeting, 100 of us kids squeezed into the cinderblock basement lounge, crowded on blue polyester couches or seated knees-to-chin on the cold linoleum floor. The session leader instructed us to find a partner and interview each other. I’m sure there was some sort of awkward shuffle of who-will-pick-me, but all I remember is that Eliina and I somehow paired up. She looked like such a cool chick, punky short blonde hair and an eyebrow ring.

One mandatory question was: Weirdest fact about you. Eep – I felt simultaneously completely alien and totally non-descript, a kid from a farm town outside Buffalo, New York. Eliina had a cool fact. Of course she did. She’d played the sousaphone in the marching band. Me? All I could think of was the twenty pounds of candy that my parents had sent me away to college with, now the only thing stuffed in the drawers of my particle-board desk. “I’m addicted to chocolate…?” I said.

Then we had to introduce our partners to the entire group — It’s a testament to the extreme nerdiness of our dorm that no one laughed at either of our weird facts. And Eliina and I became fast friends. We lived together all through college in the dorm and then afterwards in an apartment with friends. Later, when I was thinking of moving to Chicago after two disorienting years in D.C., she sent postcards. Highly persuasive postcards. Maybe twenty of them, one after the other, so that shuffled in with student loan invoices and credit card offers, I started getting photos of the Chicago skyline and her notes on the back that all amounted to: “Get over here. Be with us.”

So I went. And this city has been the best place I could ever hope to spend so much of my short life. Now she’s married to an artist and has a sweet, tiny Alice baby. But we are still total nerds. On one lazy weekday, with the rest of the world working silly JOBS and making batches of DOLLARS we decided to bake a batch of brownies and watch the movie Adventures in Babysitting.

It’s a Chicago movie, which is partially why we picked it. But also Elisabeth Shue is a total badass. There are gang fights, a tow truck driver with a hook for a hand, sewer rats and singing the blues. (“Ain’t nobody leave this place without sangin’ the blues…”) We knew all the best lines already, so it was the perfect backdrop by which to catch up and watch Alice gurgle and scootch on her back across the shiny wood floor. (She’s already rubbed a bald patch on the back of her tiny milk-scented head. I can only imagine how awesome she’s going to feel when she can transport herself facing forward. )

So, brownies. From scratch, which Eliina whipped up such with mechanical speed that before I could take my eyes from wiggly giggly Alice, the batter bowl was ready for licking.

The only thing better than half-watching Adventures in Babysitting with a dear friend  is adding slightly undercooked brownies, right from the oven. (Really key for a still-recovering chocolate addict.) And the only thing better than that is washing them down with fizzy cocktails of wheat ale and a splash of blood-orange juice. And the only thing better than that? Narrating a fake advice column starring the characters in the movie.

Dear Ms. Manners,
What is the proper etiquette for escaping from murderous car thieves? If you accidentally scrape rust into one of their coffee cups whilst traversing an overhead steel beam, must you stop and apologize?

And the only thing better than that is doing the whole thing again, getting to the end of the movie, pressing “Play” and reaching for another brownie. Because the first time we missed a bunch of stuff. There was, as always, more.

Part four: Always sit at the bar

Sometimes sitting at the bar in an unfamiliar place is the best idea. Total strangers have become great friends this way. Florian, who gave me crash-courses in sociology and dive bars over good beer at Simon’s. Lauren, who cheered me up when the only thing I could eat was coconut soup at Setsara. Scoddy, who’s become a treasured pen pal ever since a glass of red wine at Equinox. And, my friend Kompheak.

After failing at learning to ride a moto, I go to the town dock and board a boat to the island. They’re bigger than canoes but similarly shaped. Tippy, weather-beaten little things, in calm blue water.

Hiring a ride involves several boat captains writing numbers and phrases on the back of a white square of paper and passing it amongst themselves. But soon you’re holding that white square of paper, hunkered down next to backpackers and tourists going your way, as the boat  coasts over semi-choppy waves. Half an hour later, it lurches to a halt near the brown-sugar shore lined with sleepy coconut trees.  A handful of other tourists play cards at picnic tables and read in hammocks. Opposite of a party beach.

I will read this book. I will pad in bare feet on this perfect shore and find a string hammock hanging between two coconut trees. I will reserve a room at some bungalow, where I will sleep in peace and wake up to the sunrise. Unless being alone begins to truly freak me out, in which case I will go home immediately.

Beach bungalows, little one-room shacks with thatched roofs and no running water, are the lodging of choice for this island. They’re arranged in clusters of four or five, each cluster managed by a different family. I’ve visited nearly every establishment, pacing the sandy beach, messenger bag over one shoulder, and there aren’t any rooms open, none at all.

It’s making me itch. Not the mosquitos, just the uncertainty. Should I go back to the mainland? Maybe even back to the city?

Then I get to the last set of huts. A Khmer family is sleeping on straw mats in one open-air shack, chickens running around out front. They send a teenager out to see what I might want, and the angels sing: one room left. It will be ready in about half an hour, some Australian woman is getting ready to leave. For $5, paradise. Yes, I say, and sign my name with a Bic pen on a blank white piece of paper. He signs his name too. With this seemingly nonsensical contract complete, the room is mine. Last one on the island.

To celebrate this feat, I order a beer, a nice golden glass mug with a big cylindrical ice cube in it. I’m sipping and reading my book. Then, down the end of the bar, I hear laughter. It’s the kind of chuckling that’s equal parts glee and mockery. Laughing with you, not at you, but… kind of at you. I turn to the right and there’s a young Khmer man with a laptop open sitting at the other end of the bar, grinning like the damn Chesire Cat.

“How was the moto lesson?” he asks.

Oh, great. How the hell….

But I set down my mug of beer and look at him. He doesn’t look so, so harmless. In a dress shirt and khakis, he appears to be telecommuting. Also, let’s be honest, I’m bored already, and I’ve only been alone for five minutes.

I ask how he knows, and — turns out — he’d been sitting at the cafe when I’d pushed aside my coffee and first embarked on Operation Rent a Moto.

So I tell him the truth. It didn’t go so well, I explain, and give him the play-by-play. The Australian woman is taking her sweet time vacating my bungalow, so we keep talking. Before long I slide myself and my beer down to the other end of the bar. He’s the only beach-goer with a laptop, so I ask what he’s working on. He’s writing a play. He runs an experimental theater company.

Funny coincidence, I tell him, but: me too.

So that’s it. That’s Kompheak, fluent in French, born in Cambodia, grins like the Cheshire Cat, and is the country’s only experimental playwright. On the spot he hired me to tutor him in English — my first paying job in Cambodia. Later he taught me to ride a dirt bike on a weedy lot that ran along the Mekong, with an audience of chickens. I met his friends, who invited me to camp with them a few months later on another crazy trip. I got invitations to Khmer/French puppet shows — sing-song children’s stories and veiled critiques of government corruption, paper puppets dancing in lace and shadow.

One day he explained what he believes about writing.

-To be a writer you must analyze everything like a…. [French word for surgeon]

– Surgeon?

– The doctor who cuts.


-Yes.  But you cut with the heart.

He writes dark plays, things about the poor and about injustice. I’m floored. We drink lots of Pastis, a French liquor that tastes like licorice. I teach him prepositions, and we read the English newspaper slowly. In his ESL workbook, there is always dialogue of people trying to talk over the phone but who can’t quite understand each other. Linda makes phone calls from the pay phone but George isn’t home and she has to leave a message with his confused sister. Or Linda runs out of quarters. Or George is half-deaf. It took me ages before I realized this was practice in repeating oneself to clarify information. Practice in saying, “What?” “I’m sorry, can you say that again?” “I don’t understand.”

I test out my French, which is worse than his English. On really rainy days he sends me texts, “It’s raining in my heart.” A French phrase, perfect for a tortured writer. He tells me about the ghosts that haunt his parents’ farm.

We spend a lot of time practicing, “What?” “I’m sorry, can you say that again?” “I don’t understand.” But I love these twists of language, how teaching English is like picking locks but with prepositions. And I learn the fastest way to somewhere good on a red-dust day: Follow the road that leads to the sea. Just sit, just wait. Turn when you hear laughter.

Scratching pennies on an aquamarine afternoon

I woke up today with a weird phrase in my head, maybe planted there by the self-help gods that leave kisses under your pillow, an Oprah-style tooth fairy. “Happiness is a choice.”

There is a balance. The give, the take, the wallow, the leap, the edge and the ledge and the space between breaths. For me the balance is often between making meaning out of things and just plain noticing things. Awake-like. If I search too hard for meaning, analyze too hard, meaning just scratches away, like the desperate scrape of a penny on a Lotto ticket that bores right through the paper. Time to easy up, slugger. Put the scratching pennies away.

I woke up one night with the image of a favorite essay in my mind. The fuzzy Xerox-of-a-Xerox typeface, and my professor’s cramped script in one corner. Cruising Blues, Robert Pirsig. I referenced it here about ten years ago, almost to the day. Which is weird. I read it a little differently now. It’s about people who spent years saving up for sailboats so that they could spend their days sailing around the world, only to find they’d rather be home after all. They liked “real” life. Ten years ago I thought those people were idiots but now find myself understanding their predicament.

The give, the take, the wallow, the leap. Choice. It’s nice to have options, to look into your many open doors and see the sky flying through them, the birds chirping and flitting in their non-committal ways. It is also annoying as hell. Because pretty soon, you can’t keep five feet in five doors, and all your friends are wondering what your address is. They want to send cards.

The edge and the ledge and the space between breaths. Everything’s a balance except wonder. There’s always wonder.  In the laugh of E’s baby Alice, in the icicle melting off the gutter, in the one cherry tomato petrified and hanging on the vine. In the paint chips at the hardware store, where you collect the brightest ones, just  to stare at. Chip number 7201. And 7943. And HC-50.  And you overhear: “I’m playing with yellows in the bedroom… this one’s too green.” And you can’t imagine TOO GREEN or why everything’s not always the 7675 of an aquamarine afternoon.

But scratch too hard on a paint chip, and it scrapes right through the paper.

Part Three: The fastest way to nowhere

Part one, part two. This is part three.

The tuk-tuk chugs up a long hill to a scrubby patch of lawn with a handful of motos in various states of repair. It reminds me of the small town where I grew up  — sometimes, when you’re fixing a few things at once, just leave ’em all out on the lawn. My driver negotiates the rental cost for the moto but first, he says, they need to see if I can actually drive it. A short test, if you will.

I am not totally sure I can, in fact, drive this thing. See also: long-legged klutz who, when falling, looks like a “swan dying”. But I am definitely going to try. Rubber! Meet road! So I select the hot pink Honda, fully automatic, the easiest, most cream-puff vehicle on the planet. Women in Phnom Penh drive these in heels while carrying a baby under one arm and a little purse-dog under the other.

One of the Khmer men gives me the keys, shows me how to start it and directs me to drive up and down the long street, circling back around the median. On goes the helmet. In goes the key. It turns. The engine starts! It revs! It dies.

We try again.

It starts! It revs! It dies.

Finally we switch me to another moto. And by now I am so freakin’ positive that I can ride this machine, I take off with a magnificent zoom. It is SUPER EASY! ALL YOU DO IS SLIGHTLY TURN THE RIGHT HANDLE AND RIDE LIKE A FAST FAST BUNNY. OR A FAST FAST SWAN. By the time I reach the roundabout where the bus stop was, I see that I’ve left the rental shack too far behind. So I swerve back around and back up the long hill, ALMOST skidding into the grass but definitely not skidding.

They are waving their arms.

They are incredulous.

No no no! They are crying. You can not rent! Too fast. TOO FAST!

And so that is how I didn’t rent a moto that day.

This seems like a total loser way to start off an independent journey. And I definitely can’t go back to that cafe and risk those stupid guys laughing at me. I just want to get back on the bus and go home. But there is no bus for hours. So I ask the tuk-tuk driver to take me to the main dock. Lorna the British Insta-Friend said I could negotiate a boat over to Rabbit Island for five dollars. I don’t actually know how to “negotiate a boat” yet but that is what I will do. Then I will be totally, totally alone.

Next post: the island.

Part Two: On the empty street that leads to the sea

Part one is here. This is part two.

In my head, I’m telling this as a funny story, like it’s the Edgewater Lounge and it’s time for another PBR. But even though it’s sort of funny, it’s sort of more. It was the first time on this journey that I struck out with completely blind trust. I didn’t actually want to sit by myself all weekend on a deserted island. Secretly I hoped for magic. I was a miner panning for gold, a high five from the general cosmos and maybe a visit from the tooth fairy.  If the tooth fairy could bring you some pals and didn’t actually require compensation in teeth.

It is, still, kind of a funny story.

The bus drops me off at a weatherbeaten statue, on an empty street that leads to the sea. In the distance, water laps at the rocky shore. It’s both eerie and beautiful, the same quiet I’ve felt in a dark theater after the audience goes home, a gaping vaccuum where the chaos was but an energy that lingers. This was a busy French resort town, back in the country’s heyday, and now it’s practically deserted.

I’ve traveled light. A small messenger bag, sundress and sandals. I will get a cup of coffee at that cafe by the water and collect my thoughts, figure out what’s next. I walk slowly down the long road to the sea, settle down at a bamboo table and order a syrupy Khmer coffee from the laminated menu.

The coffee arrives, black as tar, and I shovel in sugar from the little jar. Then a tuk-tuk driver approaches, because this cafe, apparently, is also the major depot for tuk-tuks. By “major depot” I mean that there are two. I don’t need a tuk-tuk, I say, I am going to rent a moto. He can help me rent one, he says. He knows just the place.

From a few tables over, I hear chuckles and laughter. A few young Khmer men leaning back in their bamboo chairs, overhearing this and thinking it’s the funniest idea ever. So that, of course, seals it. I will definitely be renting a moto. I put aside the coffee and we are on our way.

Next post: Born to ride.

The lost art of navigating on a red-dust day

Let’s celebrate the calendar flip with one of my favorite stories, how I met Kompheak. Although I got back to the US a couple months ago, I still have a backlog of Cambodia stories because I need an inordinate amount of time to think about things. Kompheak himself once pointed this out in his dead-pan manner and hybrid Khmer-French accent, “You theenk a lawt. Too mahch.” Then he poured me a drink.

I was lost. Losty lost, on a bus pointed south but maybe the wrong bus. A red-dust day in the midst of dry season. But I was going to do this. I was.

1) I was going to travel alone.

You might be thinking: Wasn’t your whole trip to Cambodia… alone? But from minute one in Phnom Penh, I was part of a family of 32 young women who asked, constantly, where I was going, whether I had eaten and if not recently, when would I next eat? I slept in a room with three other girls, bottom bunk. Not. Alone.

I loved them, but after many weeks of this, I was headed to the seaside town of Kep. I could already feel the silence, sweet as a hammock in the breeze. If I ever got there.

And 2) I was going to learn to drive a moto. Which would be called a “scooter” in the U.S. but is definitely a moto in Cambodia.

For more than a year, since my first-ever visit to Asia, I’ve wanted this. Promised myself. Psyched myself up for a tough learning curve. See, I’m a long-legged klutz who not only trips over stuff randomly but, when falling, has been described as “a swan dying”. (My own father said this.) But I believe you can learn to do pretty much anything if you start small enough and try hard enough. So I will learn a moto in the mostly empty town of Kep and circle the hills. And someday I will zoom through the beautiful spaghetti of Phnom Penh’s misnumbered streets.

This was my chance. Yes. Rubber, meet road.

My grand plan to travel Super Alone goes sideways immediately. First, I meet Lorna. She’s a British teacher at a Phnom Penh university, and we gab for three hours from adjoining seats, sharing fresh pineapple on a stick, juice dripping onto our bare knees. We are insta-friends. She tells me I am not lost, and she points out my stop in Kep.

But now. Now I will be totally alone.

Next post: The moto lesson.