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]
– 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.