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.

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