I decided to do something completely different with the travel writing this time. Instead of picking out a few stories and telling them, I wanted to find a way to convey the whole story of the trip and the internal journey I took. So I decided to do something that’s really scary to me: I’m basically sharing my journal. I didn’t intend to share my journal when I wrote it-I was just writing for myself. So it’s not a literary masterpiece, and it’s full of unenlightened thoughts, un-PC observations, premature judgments, doubts, insecurities, and all that crap, as well as hopefully a few good moments and some interesting stories as well. Entirely unintentionally, it seems to have a definite plot progression, as things go from bad to worse, and then I eventually break through to a completely different experience of Asia.
This is probably way more of a look at the inside my brain than anybody is likely to want, but, well, at least I went through it and took out the really boring parts, like the extended dream analysis (you’re welcome), and I expanded on the parts that wouldn’t have made sense on their own. So it flips back and forth from straight journaling to a more narrative style at times, and you might notice that the verb tenses are less than consistent. If you do read it, I recommend printing it out and reading from hardcopy-it’s 30 pages. It picks up where I left off in the email: Ko Chang, Thailand, with a strange illness that I thought was gone, until I realized the strange red bumps were persisting even after the fever and other symptoms had subsided.
Mon. Feb. 11, 2008
So as soon as I announce to the world that my spots have gone away, they’re back. Eight new ones today, half on my left butt cheek, where it all started, and the rest on my right shoulder, that’s new. Not cool. Coffee yesterday and five hours in front of the computer probably wasn’t so good for me. Maybe I had a few bumps all week, those things I was optimistically thinking of as bug bites. But staying another day in Thailand to go to the hospital after I’ve already packed up and bought my ticket for the 8 a.m. bus to Cambodia doesn’t feel like the right thing to do. Tomorrow I’ll have to find a hospital in Siem Reap. Maybe I really am destined to see the hospital in every damn country I go to.
Oddly, what’s making me feel better about it all is the dogs. The first time I sat on the beach feeling sad because I was sick, three adorable puppies and their mom ran up from out of the blue and jumped all over me. It cheered me up instantaneously. How can you help but smile with puppies jumping all over you? Over the next few days several dogs came up and sat by me without any encouragement from me. Dogs always like me, probably because they can sense I like them, but this was more than usual.
Then yesterday the big black teddy-bear dog came and sat on my yoga mat. After that it got stranger. I watched two little dogs play on the beach all morning, paying little attention to anything but their dog-wrestling, until one walked all the way across the beach to squat right next to my mat and leave a smelly gift for me. Then this morning a very sick-looking dog was lying next to my door, which is at the top of a flight of stairs and well out of the way of anywhere it could possibly have any business going. It was so many unusual dog-occurrences that I stopped and stared at it for a minute, and wondered what dogs as a totem animal might mean in various spiritual traditions. “Do you have a message for me?” I actually asked it out loud, happy afterward that no one was within earshot. Not surprisingly, the dog didn’t answer. When no answers miraculously popped into my head, I shrugged and proceeded on to breakfast.
So now I flip through the “Diseases” section in the Lonely Planet guide, and what is the first thing I see? Cutaneous Larva Migrans, or dog hookworm. “Common on Thai beaches” is says, and spread through feces on the beach. “A small, itchy rash that spreads in a linear fashion.” And most importantly, “easily treatable with medications.” I have no idea if that’s what I have, but for some reason reading that made me feel a thousand times better. I think it just reminded me that whatever this is, it’s going to be treatable. I’m going to be fine. This is annoying, but I’m not that sick. I don’t need to keep worrying.
Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2008
Wow, yesterday was hell. First the rash reappearing, then I get in the minivan and everyone’s speaking Swedish, so I’m completely excluded from the conversation. Then, four hours into the drive, the air conditioning explodes and the next thing I know the girl next to me is climbing over me to open the door and try to jump out of the moving van to escape the gas. After fifteen minutes on the side of the road we climb back into the van, now nice and hot, and I’m wondering whether the odd-smelling air is actually toxic.
Happily, it’s not too much further to the border, but instead of going to the border, we drive to a little office nowhere near anything, where we’re given the option of paying double-price for our visas, or getting out and walking, losing our pre-paid ticket on the bus from the border to Siem Reap. I tried to organize some solidarity among the other passengers, but no one wanted to protest with me, so I eventually paid the extra $20. Fuckers. I even came prepared with a print-out from the Cambodian government website stating that the visa was only supposed to be $20, but their response was simply, “Cambodia is very corrupt. You can go on your own and it might cost less, but it might take you three days to get across.”
I hate how everybody lies all the time. It wouldn’t take three days. It might take me an extra hour or two, but not three days. But lying is just ordinary business practice here-people say whatever will get the cash into their hands, and nobody seems to think there’s anything wrong with that. As a result, nobody’s word means a thing, and you’re always trying to decipher the truth of any given situation. It’s exhausting.
After the visa scam came the money-changing scam. I didn’t fall for it but the woman next to me changed 200 euros at the bank they brought us to for 2/3 of what the exchange rate should have been. Another woman got stopped outside the passport-checking office by a young guy who claimed to be a border official collecting the $5 crossing fee.
“But I already paid for my visa,” she protested. Confused, she spent about five minutes negotiating with him until we went back for her, and suddenly the “official” disappeared from sight into the crowd.
At the Cambodian side, we were given the option of paying a few dollars extra to go to the front of the line. On principle, I refused, but the people in front of me went ahead I had somehow lost the rest of the group, so now I was standing alone in the line, which was moving very slowly due to all the assholes paying extra, wondering if the bus was going to leave without me. When I finally got through the line I saw some of our group in line behind me, and felt better, until a guy I’d never seen before told me to get onto a large, empty bus by myself.
“No fucking way,” I thought to myself, but the guy who we’d been told to follow suddenly appeared and told me to follow the other guy onto the bus.
“Why would the bus go with only one person on it?” I asked, not moving.
“This bus only take you five minute down to where you wait for other bus.”
“No. I want to wait for more passengers.”
“No, you go now. It take you where you can change money and shop.”
Well, that made a bit more sense. I still didn’t want to go. But this was the guy we’d been told to follow. Was I being paranoid? Were they going to take me to some remote place and rob me? No, I’d read about all the border scams, and they weren’t that extreme here. Decidedly uncomfortable, I boarded the empty bus.
It did, indeed, take me five minutes down the room to a bank and large shop.
“No, I don’t need anything,” I insisted stubbornly when they tried to usher me into the store.
“You need Cambodian money,” the driver told me.
“No, I don’t,” I replied simply, pretty sure that dollars were accepted currency in Cambodia. And even if they weren’t, I’d rather go hungry for the rest of the day than buy anything from them. I was still angry about the visa. Some random guy associated with the driver planted me in the waiting room and took my bus ticket, then disappeared. Somehow I’d lost the pink sticker that indicated which group I’d come with, and I realized as I sat by myself in the waiting room that I had no way of proving I’d paid for a bus. A headache was beginning to throb in my temples, and I wondered if I was dehydrated from the heat. No one from my group appeared. I was exhausted from mistrusting everyone and constantly watching my back.
Only minor confusion ensued from my lack of a ticket, and I was eventually ushered onto a large, rickety bus to Siem Reap. I realized that they left every 15 minutes or so, and that I could have easily gotten on one even if I had ditched my group to cross the border by myself and avoid the visa scam.
The next five hours were grueling. The unpaved road was absurdly bumpy, and rumor had it that a certain airline that runs flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap was bribing the government not to pave it. The more I learned about Cambodia, the more that preposterous rumor seemed likely to be true. A loud movie blared dialogue I couldn’t understand, as the pounding in my head grew worse. I tried to read a book to take my mind off it all, not an easy task when you’re being thrown out of your seat every few minutes. I was covered with dust from head to toe. The rash itched, and I wondered if it was spreading. I didn’t look.
Finally, after fourteen hours of travel (not eleven, as they’d promised me in Ko Chang), I arrived in Siem Reap, at some hotel associated with the whole racket.
“No, I want to go here,” I said, pointing at a place called Smiley’s in the Lonely Planet guidebook.
“You just look here, nice rooms, good prices, if you don’t like we take you to other place.” Some of the other travelers we too tired to argue, but I knew this scam, too, and I wasn’t going for it. On principle I wouldn’t go anywhere associated with this cartel, and I knew the rooms would be overpriced for what they were.
“I have reservations here,” I lied, pointing at the book. “I meet friends here.” The woman who’d sat next to me on the bus looked over my shoulder at the book.
“Yeah, me too,” she joined in. “We take taxi there.” I was amused at the deterioration of our English.
It worked. The got us a rickshaw, or “tuk-tuk” as they’re called in Cambodia (like toot-toot, the name comes from the fact that they’re always on their horns), and brought us to Smiley’s, where I got a beautiful room with a hot shower for a very reasonable price. Finally, I can relax.
Tuesday, Feb. 12, afternoon
Here I am again, at the front desk of the hospital. Walked for an hour in the hot dusty sun and gray smog, then gave up and hired a moto, who proceeded to take me in spite of my protest in the opposite direction, where, upon arrival, he insisted there really used to be a hospital (why don’t taxi drivers here ever seem to know where anything is?). He asked for directions there, made a U-turn, and drove back to just past where I’d started from.
I wonder if I’ll ever get used to sitting side-saddle on the back of those little scooters in this crazy traffic. If I do longer trips I’m just going to sit normally, despite the social norm of women sitting daintily and precariously off the side.
Now I’m in the clean, beautiful, empty International Hospital, where most Cambodians can’t afford to come, and they want $120 to look at me, plus the cost of any treatment. And again, I don’t want to do it.
The thing is, I feel fine. No new bumps this morning. It’s hard to pay for something you don’t actually want. I don’t want to see doctors. I don’t want tests. And I don’t trust the medical facilities here, although this one does seem very nice. It feels great just to sit in this clean, air-conditioned room and rest. Maybe I just recontracted the dog hookworm thing on the beach, and it’ll go away again. On the internet it said humans are an accidental host and the parasite goes away on its own. But the photos didn’t really match what I have. I think I probably do have some sort of parasite. It would be best to treat it. But maybe I could do that in a month back in San Francisco. It’s so funny that I’m sitting in another hospital, and it looks like once again, I’m not going to get past the front desk. OK, I’ll give it another day, and if it gets worse I’ll go to the government hospital. It’ll be way cheaper, and interesting to see the difference between the tourist hospital and facilities for average Cambodians.
For a culture that supposedly places the community before the individual, a lot of people seem to have a “me-first ” attitude here. But I supposed cultural values are what a culture aspires to, not necessarily what it always is. And of course, I may be making inaccurate observations and seeing only the surface, without a deeper understanding.
Anyway, queuing up is what’s annoying me today. People just push to the front. There’s no shame in walking in front of someone who’s been waiting longer. Waiting in line for toilets, instead of forming one line so everybody waits about an equal amount of time, people will walk around the line and stand behind an individual stall, so some people get in faster and others have the misfortune of landing behind the mom and her kid taking five times as long. I supposed it only seems wrong to me because this isn’t my culture and I don’t understand it. Everyone here seems to think this makes perfect sense.
Speaking of things I find crazy here, the rules of the road in SE Asia are insane. You just go, unless you can’t. Whatever’s bigger gets the right of way. Lanes mean nothing. If someone wants to make a left turn, they just creep into oncoming traffic until it has to stop or can get around them. And if you want to cross the street, you literally just step into oncoming traffic. There’s no other way to do it.
The first few times I had to cross a street, I waited on the side of the road for a break in traffic, until I realized there wasn’t going to be one. Then some local guy walked up next to me, stepped off the curb in a way that would get someone killed or at least screamed at in San Francisco, and no one even blinked. An entire line of traffic swerved around him, and that’s just normal. The trick is, you have to walk slowly and consistently, even if it looks like you’ll get hit. Because the way it works here is that traffic drives around you. Your job as a pedestrian is only to be predictable. Tourists confuse and scare Asian drivers by running erratically across the road like they would in the States, trying to avoid the cars. Not possible. In the States drivers are supposed to be predictable and pedestrians steer around them, but it’s the opposite here. Traffic goes around you.
The whole system is so inefficient! Traffic always moves so slowly, because someone’s always walking into it or making a left turn. And safe driving means honking all the time, so people know where you are. If you’re going to swerve into oncoming traffic to pass someone, just make sure you honk first. Most crossroads have no stop signs or lights, so everyone’s trying to push through the intersection any which way they can. Roads here look like a bunch of people just got into vehicles and landed in the street together, without anyone ever sitting down and figuring out what will work best for everyone.
Still, I can’t be entirely critical of it. It does work, somehow. And sometimes it seems to have an organic fluidity in it that we lack back home. People tend to know where everyone else on the road is more than we do, and they act based on what is actually going on, rather than what the rules and lights tell them to do. I suppose we can look pretty illogical and inefficient in ways too, like when we’re stopped at a red light with no cross traffic and no apparent reason to be stopped, except that the little box told us to. Or when people are so reliant on the signs and rules that they can’t respond well when something unpredictable happens. Americans can be so attached to following the rules that they’ll yell furiously at someone who’s not, even if what that person is doing makes more sense. Around here, that would probably embarrass everyone within earshot.
Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008
I went straight to the chocolate this morning. I didn’t talk to anyone all day yesterday except small talk with people selling things. Yesterday was one of those days when I really don’t like traveling alone. Sometimes I just can’t get excited about things without someone to share them with. I felt better when I left the internet, though, after getting so many nice emails from people. Reminded me I’m not alone in the world, which is how I felt all day. Maybe it’ll be easier to meet people when I get out of this tourist town and back to the beach. I’m ready to be out at the ocean again, and explore Sihanoukville, and get on to Vietnam. Cambodia has not made a good first impression. And I’m not looking forward to dealing with Phnom Penh, although I hope to see a traditional Cambodian ballet while I’m in the capital, and am excited about the odd mission I’ve been given by my friend in San Francisco of delivering this envelope to a monk at some monastery there.
Three new bumps today. Very faint, but I could feel them right away. I guess this thing never really went away completely. It’s not dog hookworm-too bad, that would have been magical with all the dog signs-but that’s good, because the photos of hookworm looked nasty online. Interesting how the spots are coming back in the same places they started. Well, I’ll just hope for the best and keep moving. I don’t want to stick around this place an extra day to go on another ridiculous hospital mission.
Intentions: All spots and whatever caused them gone.
Find someone to travel with.
Start having fun again.
I bought a glass owl yesterday to keep by the bed to remind me of magic, and Spirit, and of strength and wisdom. Owls started appearing around me conspicuously often last November, just before a series of big changes in my life. I looked it up in a book of animal symbolism and it said something to the effect of: “A symbol of change and harbinger of magic, the owl is able to see details clearly while at the same time seeing the bigger picture from above. It sees what it wants and goes for it with accuracy and skill.” The owl became a reminder to me to never fear change, and to recognize adversity as my friend as much as harmony and peace are. This one also reminds me of clarity, since she’s a crystal owl. She reminds me there’s beauty everywhere, if I look for it.
My stomach’s a bit off. That really sucks, because my good digestion was the one reassuring thing over the past week with this weird polka-dot illness. Hopefully it’ll pass quickly.
Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008, after breakfast
Let’s face it: I’m bored. Monuments, markets, pushy vendors, long bus rides. Been there, done that. Without a buddy it’s boring. Maybe I’ll make up games in my head when I go to the ruins at Ankhor Wat today, like I used to when I was a little kid walking home from school pretending I was actually driving a spaceship. Maybe I’ll pretend I’m on some sort of secret research mission. I need something to get me excited about being here.
Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008, breakfast
Yesterday was fun! Seeing the temples was really cool. They were amazing. One day of Ankhor Wat was plenty, though-I wouldn’t want to do it for three days like the guidebook suggests. I was exhausted by sunset.
I loved wandering through the ruins, imagining what life might have been like here a thousand years ago. It’s hard to imagine a million people living here. That’s more than San Francisco, but without skyscrapers. I wonder what their day-to-day lives were like? It’s fun to imagine them praying, studying, making dinner, falling in love. The books call it the time of greatness of the Khmer empire, and claim that modern Cambodians are proud of and nostalgic for those times. But I have to wonder, were times really great just because the government was strong and they build lots of monuments? Or was it oppressive? Did the average person get a share of the wealth?
They were at the center of an empire, kind-of like how we are back home. They spent their resources conquering surrounding cultures, always at war. And now all that’s left is moss-covered stones and a desperate tourist industry. How things change. Always change, that’s the one thing we can count on.
My elbow is annoyingly and constantly itchy. OK, in Phnom Penh I really will go to the hospital. Maybe it’ll be less expensive there. Doxycyline is obviously not the appropriate treatment, at least not at the dosage I’m taking. I doubled it yesterday, maybe that’ll work. Ah, DIY (Do-It-Yourself) medical care. The pharmacists don’t know a thing about anything, but they’ll give me whatever I ask for. I wrote my doctor in SF but she wouldn’t give any advice over email, understandably, so I’m just making it up myself. The spots are fading again, except the really itchy one, and the one that appeared on my leg yesterday afternoon, so I have nine now, plus the four on my butt that are fading. At least my stomach’s fine again. My lungs are still not normal. I feel like I’ve been coughing forever. Maybe I should practice that Balinese meditation.
I’m excited about Phnom Penh now that I’ve read up on it. I’ve devised a bunch of little missions for myself-the London book shop, postcards and the post office, the lakefront and Amok restaurant for dinners, maybe the silver pagoda, and of course Josh’s mission of delivering this envelope to the monk at the monastery.
Thursday, Feb. 14, later in the day, back on the bus after an hour on the side of the dusty road in the middle of Nowhere, Cambodia
This is hilarious. Every once in a while everyone in the two rows behind me in the back of the bus panics and runs for the exit, looking at the ground outside. I can’t understand a word of what’s been said, and I really can’t see what they’re looking at. All I know is that it was a long hour sitting in the heat on the side of the road, trying to avoid ant bites while they fixed whatever the problem was. Judging by the periodic panics, it seems whatever it was is not entirely fixed. But the driver doesn’t seem to want to stop again. What is it with my bad luck on buses lately? And how can it be that on a bus from the biggest tourist spot in Cambodia to the capital city, not a single person speaks English? I guess all the tourists took other buses. Lucky them.
At the last panic the driver moved some guy from the front to sit next to me. I don’t see what the point of that was, but I’m sad to lose my spacious double seat. At least for a while they turned off that horrible loud video program. The Cambodian equivalent to American bandstand, it was really entertaining to watch for about five minutes, due to the absurd choreographed crowd swaying in controlled half-movements to the bad music, like partially animated statues with plaster smiles.
But that got old quickly, and by mid-afternoon I was seriously regretting ever coming to Asia, and trying to figure out some alternative to another month of long lonely bus rides. But there’s no turning back now. Now I’m hiding from the florescent lights under my sarong and playing my ipod loud enough to partially drown out the Cambodian pop songs and rattling old bus, and maybe damaging my eardrums a bit while I’m at it. If so, I think it’s worth it.
Still Feb. 14, finally in bed after a very long, very alone Valentine’s Day
For a minute I wondered if the two tuk-tuk drivers were going to start throwing punches over who would drive me from the bus station to my guesthouse. Finally, one guy won by grabbing my bags and racing off to his rickshaw. I had to follow, of course, but it was interesting to watch how after I was in the passenger seat and it was clear he’d lost, the other driver made a point to pat the guy on the shoulder and tell me they were friends. I think a graceful ending is important here.
Once we were driving, I started to get excited about being here. That familiar city vibe, energizing but not as overwhelming as Bangkok, and the air of possibility that comes with such a big conglomeration of people in one place, it felt good. I really am such a city kid.
But the good feeling disappeared when I got to Tatdhi’s guesthouse and they were full. Without even seeing a front desk or talking to anyone whom I was convinced worked there, some guy was grabbing my bags and leading me down the small dark street, with me only understanding every fifth word: “full,” “restaurant,” “one night,” “back tomorrow.” Of course I didn’t trust him, so I grabbed my bag back from him and dragged it back to Tatdhi’s and up the stairs, until I was reasonably sure the place didn’t actually have a front desk, and was indeed full. Skeptically, I followed the guy. This is not what I wanted after such a long day. I just wanted a real meal and a soft bed, and instead I was off on another sketchy adventure.
My suspicions only grew as he took me to another hotel a block away, spoke to the front desk clerk in Cambodian, and received a negative head-shake in response.
“Full,” he said as he picked up my bag and darted to the hotel across the street.
“No more single fan rooms,” he explained after another brief exchange at another front desk, “only air-condition double. More expensive.”
“No,” I said flatly, suspicious. He picked up my bag and moved on down the street, more slowly this time. I began to protest, and he attempted another explanation in broken English. God, he was difficult to understand. Eventually I deciphered that we were going to find another hotel, I’d check in and leave my bags, then come back to Tatdhi’s restaurant for dinner. Tatdhi’s would have a room available in the morning, and I could move in then.
At the third hotel, we finally got a polite smile and a nod, so here I am, in a sparkling clean modern room with a perfect comfy bed and fluffy pillows for all of $6, showered and fed and feeling so much better. Tatdhi, the smiling grandmother in the family that runs the guesthouse, makes a great veggie curry. I really needed a good meal! That was too many hours without any real food. And after a long day with no one to talk to anywhere along the way, it was so nice when she just plopped herself down at my table and started a conversation. Made me feel human again. Turns out she’s the sister of the guy who runs Smiley’s in Siem Reap. What are the chances of that? I picked them both blindly out of the Lonely Planet guide.
Sometimes I hate how skeptical I am. I didn’t trust that guy at all when he told me the guesthouse was full and grabbed my bag, but how much nicer was it to have him help me than to have to schlep my bag around trying to find a place by myself? I know my wariness saves me from falling into scams often enough, but I miss that bright-eyed trusting naivety I see in young travelers’ eyes (wait, did I ever have that?). Anyway, it would be nice to let my guard down a little more, but at this point I probably couldn’t if I wanted to, and I guess that’s a good thing. Besides, that guy was a bit sketchy, the way he walked me up the stairs to my room and then kissed me on the cheek. We’re not in Europe-that’s not part of the culture here.
I’m excited to go explore the city. Tomorrow I get to see if I can locate this monastery and find a monk named Mouen, a friend of my friend Josh in San Francisco, whom he met while he was traveling here some years ago. He gave me an envelope and a small package for him that I’m told contains $50 and a letter. I have no address, no phone number, and I’ve never heard of the monastery. How’s that for a good adventure?
Maybe I’ll even go see some sights tomorrow. I’m starting to get over my aversion to the tuk-tuks and markets. My instinct when people are pushy is to back off and take nothing from them. But I’m getting used to the constant bombardment and learning to take what I want from it, and nothing I don’t.
I hear Indigo’s voice in the back of my head at our Toltec classes: “Engage,” he says. And he’s right, and so I do. But on my terms.
February 15, 2008
I love this room. And I love my new habit of sleeping naked. There’s something very luxurious about it. In cold climates I like to have a shirt on, but there’s no need for that here. Phnom Penh has given me a very warm welcome so far. That’s nice. I think I really needed a warm welcome.
I had good dreams last night. There were large animals everywhere, and we were working with them, maybe being them. I remember the lion most, I was stroking his/her arm. Then we were all sitting around in a Jacuzzi with people telling stories of the time they spent in jail for political work. I saw an image of a world without political prisoners or jails. There were only rehab centers-places with Jacuzzis, classes, meditation and respect. No punishment, just everything people would need to get into a healthy state of mind. I woke up in a good mood.
We don’t have enough trainers on earth. People who know how and can teach people to be grounded and healthy and empowered. We need more Indigos and all the other folks doing that work. The image in the dream I had could actually work, but there are a whole lot of steps between here and there.
I feel ready to explore Phnom Penh. I wish there were some polite way to just stay in this room, with its perfect bed and clean white sheets and squeaky fan. Oh, well. I’m sure Tat’s will be nice, too.
Traveling alone like this really challenges me. I keep waiting for it to be fun and easy, but I guess you don’t go to Cambodia by yourself if “fun and easy” is what you’re looking for. I don’t have the safe refuge of a Western friend by my side, and it was probably no accident that I got on the bus of all Cambodians. I think my practice is to learn to be comfortable in my skin here, to learn to engage without fear or discomfort, to be present with people here in all types of situations while still holding my own space. I can’t say I’ve quite succeeded in that yet. But I’m getting closer. The language barrier here has been tough. I should learn a few words from Tatdhi.
It’s good for me to spend time in places like this. Good for me to remember that this is what life is like for a lot of people in the world, that this is one of the possibilities of how things can go for humankind. I think it’s important that I keep seeking to understand how and why life and people are the way they are in all parts of the world. It’s easy to think of in theory, quite another to experience it. There are beautiful things about the culture, the food, the people, and the art here. But what strikes me the hardest is the poverty, the pollution, the daily struggle, the oppression and corruption.
War… it’s always war that makes the biggest messes. People keep asking me if I’m going to the killing fields, or the torture museum. I’m not. I know too well what the Khmer Rouge did here. I’ve read the history. I’ve also been to the Mothers of the Dead Museum in Nicaragua, seen European torture devices, visited American jails, watched my friends be beaten, watched the video of my ex-lover as he was murdered, listened to stories of Vietnam and China and Iraq and Abu Ghraib. I’ve seen torture in a hundred forms across the world, and I don’t need to see it any more. I know way more about how people hurt each other than I’d ever want to.
What interests me is how it came to be this way, and how we can learn to stop it.
How is it that people like Pol Pot come to rule a country, and who are the people who follow and support him? How do they not recognize the situation, when it has replayed itself a thousand times in varying degrees throughout history, and is replaying itself right now, right in front of us? Are they people who are so disconnected from the bigger picture that all they can see is what seems to be in their immediate short-term interest? Do they not see that what hurts another will eventually hurt them, too? Are they just so afraid that they’ll stand behind whoever seems to be the strongest? Are they people who are so sure they’re right that they refuse to tolerate anything that threatens them? Are the leaders so addicted to their own power that they’ll do anything, including murdering thousands of people-1.2 out of 8 million in the case of Pot Pot’s regime-to maintain their positions? Pol Pot is not an aberrant figure of the past. He is alive and well in the way we function today, and it is only a matter of time before he is standing again in each of our backyards, unless we vow to stop him every chance we get.
So I’m not going to the killing fields. But I am asking people to tell me their stories, when the topic comes up. People are surprisingly willing to talk about it. My taxi driver watched his family be abducted when he was nine years old. A woman talked about bombs falling in her village, and it reminded me of the stories my mom told me of bombs falling on the railroad tracks near her hometown during World War II, and the time my aunt, only a child at the time, had to run for cover behind a cemetery wall to avoid being killed by an Allied bomb. My older aunts worked in government offices for Mussolini, not because they supported his politics, but because it was a job, and they had to eat, and that seemed to be the only option. It’s always the innocent who suffer from war, and ironically, it’s often the “innocent” who make war possible.
So I’m not going to the killing fields. Besides, I heard that a French corporation bought them, and is charging admission to see them.
February 16, 2008, lunchtime in Phnom Penh
Jackfruit smoothie and tofu amok on the way. Yum. I’m so hungry.
I felt like some sort of princess on the way here, all dressed in summer white and chauffeured to this fancy restaurant in the big rickshaw instead of the back of a moto. On the one hand, it was nice and comfortable, but on the other hand, ick. I wish so much that I could somehow blend in, but that ain’t going to happen. So here I am, odd as usual.
I guess I’ll leave tomorrow. I like it here, but I think by the end of today I’ll have done everything I wanted to here. It’s funny, I don’t usually do the two-days-in-a-place-then-travel-on schedule. But I haven’t really wanted to stay anywhere more than a couple days. I hope I find someplace I really like on the coast, with people I really like.
I could use some chocolate right about now.
I’m excited to have a family to go to the Cambodian classical dance performance with tonight. A Norwegian couple and their two kids. They seem really nice.
I wish I’d remembered my book, I was excited to hang out at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club this afternoon and work on the hardcopy. Oh, well. I think I’ll just walk across town today and try to end up at Wat Phnom to see the temple the city is named after.
I was thinking this morning about a person’s life energy, and what we do with it, and what I want to do with mine that is useful in making things better in the world, that I enjoy, and that doesn’t get me too confined. I think I have some fears of getting entrenched in another big project that depends on me and being stuck with it, like I have been so often in the past. But what is the alternative, never taking on big projects? No, I’m going to jump into the Come Out and Play! Directory when I get back. I think a guide on how to get involved in creating positive change in SF and beyond will be really useful, and a really inspiring project for me. Yesterday, at the Friends nonprofit downtown that helps street kids, I had the idea to visit as many projects like that as I can while I travel, and write about them in an international section of the directory. Maybe that’ll be the basis for my next travels, researching overseas organizations that need support. Cambodia seems to have a lot of them.
Yesterday was such a full day! That headache kicked my ass. But I checked out Friends and gave them a donation, popped into the FCC, explored downtown, found a café with excellent chocolate truffles, and saw the National Museum and Silver Pagoda. It was really nice to meditate in the pagoda, despite the crowd. I’ve never been in a place with so much silver and gold before. And the Emerald Buddha was really special. I never thought an emerald could be so big.
But the best part of the day was tracking down that monastery. I felt like some sort of secret agent in a movie, carrying a package I hadn’t seen the contents of, armed with only the name of a monk somewhere in the capital city of Cambodia. I stopped at a fancy air-conditioned café on a downtown corner, ordered some overpriced European-style coffee and dessert, and pulled out the map. I had glanced at it earlier but hadn’t seen the name of the wat (monastery) that was printed neatly on the envelope: Wat Unalom. But I had a feeling if I studied the map a bit more, I’d find a clue. So I laid it out on the fancy table next to my truffles, and it was only a matter of minutes before the answer became apparent: it was a simple misspelling. Wat Ounalom jumped right out at me. I looked for the cross street of my current location, and was surprised to see that the monastery was only three blocks away. This might be easier than I thought. But would I be able to find Mouen? Would he be able to talk to me? I’d been wanting to talk with some of the monks I’ve seen all over the place in their saffron-colored robes, but I never did because I read that they weren’t supposed to talk with women. But I’d been curious about their perspectives and their lives in the monasteries. Maybe this was my chance.
I walked down the road and across six lanes of traffic insanely merging at a triangular intersection, and into the front courtyard of the huge monastery compound, where a basketball game was taking place. There were no women in sight, and I hesitated to talk to anyone. But a monk standing on the side of the courtyard greeted me with a friendly hello. I guess talking was ok.
“I’m looking for Mouen,” I said to him shyly. “My friend asked me to give him this package.”
“Oh, yes,” he said, taking the package from me for a closer look, “I know Mouen, but I don’t know where he lives… Oh, but it says room 137, that’s over here. Follow me.”
We walked past the basketball game to another building in the complex, but when we arrived at room 137, no one was there. The helpful monk asked around in Khmer, then turned back to me.
“He moved, but someone has gone to get him for you.”
Moments later a young man appeared. “You are Josh’s friend?” he asked me comfortably in English.
“Yes. He asked me to bring you this package.” I handed it to him.
“Thank you! Welcome! A friend of Josh is a friend of mine. Would you like a soda?” Another young man had just appeared with two drinks.
And so we sat down and talked for almost two hours on the little table in the courtyard. He asked about Josh and my life in the United States, and I asked about his life in the monastery.
I learned a lot from him. I hadn’t realized that the monks’ families have to pay for them to be there. It was interesting to hear his story: He’d been there since he was fifteen, eight years now. Once he almost had to leave because his family had a crisis and he couldn’t raise the funds to live there. He thinks it’s a good life, but he expects to leave one day to earn money. He’s curious about sex, but has learned through meditation how to curb sexual impulses. I was a bit uncomfortable when he brought this topic up, since apparently even talking to women is scandalous in some monasteries, let alone talking to women about sex, but he seemed comfortable with it and the conversation moved on without getting too awkward. He’s curious about the world, he told me, and would like to travel some. He likes to talk with people from other places.
Finally I realized than the sun was long set and light was fading, so we exchanged email addresses and I headed out of the compound to track down some dinner.
It was a good day.
Still Feb. 16, at dinner on the lakeside
What a crazy synchronicity with Cody and Ernie. First, I run into them on 16th St. in San Francisco a few days before leaving, Luka introduces us, and we figure out that although we’re flying on different airlines, we’re both on 12 o’clock flights from SF to Bangkok on Jan. 29. Then I check email today and there’s an email from Cody saying that he is in Phnom Penh now, too, and plans to go to Sihanoukeville tomorrow, just like me! And then I walk to the big grocery store, not someplace I’d planned on going today but was really happy to stumble upon, and I run into Ernie in the produce aisle! What are the chances of that? In a city of a million people, I run into Ernie by the lychees. Crazy. I hope they’re on the same bus as me tomorrow, it’d be nice to have someone to talk to this time.
I got my chocolate, three different bars of European darks, plus goat’s milk yogurt and snacks for the trip, and a soursop for breakfast! Score! I love soursop.
There are two kids in a boat, gliding up to our deck every ten minutes to ask if anyone wants a ride on the lake. Even here, on the back deck of a guesthouse restaurant, someone’s finding us to try to make a few dollars. I wonder if there’s anyplace in this city where someone isn’t trying to sell something.
Feb. 17, Sunday
Oh, boy. Bleeding day and bus travel day, two of my favorite things at once. Ouch.
Today the idea of going back to SF next month and working on the Directory feels really right. Cambodia is strong inspiration to do something to make the world better. The harsh reality here is pulling me out of my “I need a comfy house” mode and reminding me that I need very little except to give to the world and be with friends. I’ll take that comfy house gratefully when it’s offered to me, of course, but focusing on myself and my wants seems very trivial right now. This trip is reminding me how little I really need, and reminding me of just how bad things can get, and how important it is that all of us who can and want to make it better do so. Of course working on oneself is a necessary prerequisite to making a better world-it prevents you from being a drain on others-but it’s not enough. Cambodia has a lot of the same problems at the U.S. or Europe-corruption, war, disparity of wealth, lack of social services, pollution-but it illustrates what it looks like taken further. It shows how imperative it is that we not let ourselves slide any further in that direction, while continuing to work toward better solutions for everybody.
I haven’t seen a truly blue sky since I got here. They’re gray. I wonder if young people here even know what a clear sky is supposed to look like. Even on the island, the sky was a hazy blue-gray on a sunny day. Maybe it’s better during other times of the year, but with everybody burning their trash and no emissions controls on cars or industry, it obviously can’t just be blamed on the weather. People walk down the street with masks on, like a scene out of an old apocalyptic sci-fi movie. I wonder what the asthma rates are.
still Feb. 17, Sunday, lunchtime
OK, all packed up and read to go. I like that feeling. I’m getting good at packing quickly. I hope today’s bus ride goes better than the last ones. I don’t really believe it’ll be three hours. Seems like you have to add on a couple hours onto whatever they say.
I just ordered three lunches. That’s really funny! I just wanted to try all of them! Besides, it’ll be really nice to have leftovers on the bus, and not have another hungry travel day. They’ll probably stop at a restaurant, though, even though that’s ridiculous for a “3 ½ hour” bus ride, because the bus company will have some sort of arrangement with a restaurant to get a cut of the profits. All the businesses here are interconnected to extract every possible cent out of everyone.
I’m actually liking this mode of travel, seeing and doing a lot in a short amount of time. It’s not my usual style, where I sink into a place and get to know people and the culture, usually skipping the tourist sights.
Monday, February 18
I dreamed last night of things lost in the past, of love lost in the past. Not a specific love; it was a dream of many things loved and lost. I guess these are typical dreams for me this time of the month. The feeling circumvents all the logical reality of a situation and just hones in on that feeling of love and connection and belonging that I so lack in my day-to-day life out here. In my dreams I would follow that feeling anywhere. I’d follow it over a cliff if it led me there.
At least the feeling of loss is not painful, like it used to be. Now it’s just a menstrual melancholy.
Still Monday, February 18, after yoga
I just had a really nice yoga session. I saw really clearly that this is how it’s supposed to be, because this is how it is; and how important it is that I recall my energy home from thoughts of the past. I need that energy here, to manifest what I want out of the here and now. Sending it anywhere else, or to people who offer no reception, is a dead-end road. The energy is only a burden there; I need it to be in the Here and Now where there is reception for it. So my mediation for today, once again, is “This is exactly how it’s supposed to be.” All of it-gray-skied dusty Cambodia, life here, me traveling solo in Sihanoukeville, the crappy corporate hotel I might stay in tonight, my odd roommate, all of it. Because that’s the only thought that’s functional. From here, and only Here, we are empowered to create, to change, to really be alive. Not from anywhere else.
Still Monday, February 18, a few hours later
Yay! I found a nice cheap $6 bungalow all to myself in a little guesthouse at Serendipity Beach. What a difference it makes to have my homebase all settled! And it was so easy today, when it was so difficult last night. I walked right into the place and they had a room for a good price, after trying a dozen places yesterday. And my laundry’s dropped off, and lunch is on the way. Now I’m excited to be here and go explore this place. Funny to watch the difference in my thoughts rested and settled vs. tired and uncertain like last night. It’s amazing how the same place can look completely different depending on one’s state of mind.
I’m getting better at being here in Asia. Better at getting around, knowing what to look for, how to get what I want.
Tuesday, February 19
My nice early-morning schedule is slowly creeping later. Last night was crazy. Did a mouse really run across my feet? It sounded like they were everywhere, and they got my chocolate cookie. And was that actually rain on the roof?
Yesterday evening was so nice, having dinner by the ocean, watching the waves and passers-by, and talking to the very cute waiter with the sparkle in his eyes. It’s a lot nicer here at night. The daytime is oppressive-gray and hot and dirty and chaotic. But nighttime on the beach is calm and peaceful, nice music, perfect temperature, friendly. I had a beer with dinner, my first alcohol in a month, but it was so small and watery I didn’t even feel it.
I’m tired today. I’d planned a beach day today and I wanted to be there by 10am, but that’s now and I haven’t done a thing except filter the drinking water. When my energy is down like this I start wishing I were in SF, but that’s a useless thought. I’ll be there next month. Now I’m here.
Reading about Vietnam didn’t get me excited to go there. If I had standby tickets, would I go home now?
No, but it’s tempting at times. No, I have two more countries to glance at. My trip is half-over already. It’s going fast. I can’t believe I haven’t made friends yet, except Annika for three days. Why has this been such a solo voyage? Maybe I should take her up on her offer to visit her in Hanoi. Maybe I should get off this bed and do some yoga.
Tuesday, February 19, random notes during yoga
Why is it that every song about death I have on my ipod is suddenly playing consecutively, right after I started thinking about dying? I didn’t even realize I had so many. Maybe next time I have a long boring bus ride I should write a will. It’s interesting to think of what I would give to whom. There are a few letters I’d need to write. Give away some cash with interesting and fun instructions. Makes me think about how much I love everyone.
Maybe that’s my lesson for the day: Remember how much I love the world, remember I’m going to die, so do what I can for her now. Maybe these are the things I’m sitting here alone in Cambodia to remember.
I really do love the world. And humankind. It’s a love affair that continues on, wherever I go. Even in places like this. I’m enamored by the smiling, curious kids who say hi to me on the street, by the stylish waiter who seems a little extra alive, by the flowers growing in the crevices, by the dogs that always come lay at my feet, invited or not.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s the wisest love affair-it’s often unrequited, sometimes abusive, more often simply unseen or unappreciated. But like any unconditional love, it burns on undeterred, and it keeps me wandering on, trying to get to know every part of the world like a person trying to know every part of her lover’s body.
Does the world know how much I love her? Often, no, she doesn’t appear to know or care. But just when I start to give up hope, I seem to get a wink and a smile. A little piece of magic to keep me inspired. A bit of kindness from a random stranger. A dog following me home for no apparent reason. The moon, I’m sure she feels my love as she struggles to be seen in the smoggy Asian night sky. And I know the ocean always feels it, whatever her mood. I read it in the emails from friends that get me through the lonely moments. I saw it in the way the legless man at the beach smiled at me even after I’d said no to his request for money. Did he know I really didn’t have any left? I doubt it.
No, I can’t stay mad at the world for long. And I’ll always love her.
Wed. February 20
I had disturbed dreams last night, kind-of like life right now. At one point during the night I was dreaming about not being able to sleep, until I woke up and realized I had been asleep. I haven’t been sleeping well here. The mice didn’t bother me last night but I woke up a lot. One time my elbow was itching and I thought the rash had come back, but this morning I feel fine, no bumps.
I wonder if that doxycycline I bought yesterday was real? It cost $1 for a 10-day supply. There was another brand that was $2, maybe I should’ve gotten that one? But the pharmacist assured me they were exactly the same, only that one was made in France and the other in Indonesia, so why spent the extra dollar? Maybe the better question would have been, why not spend the extra dollar? Well, if the bumps come back I’ll switch to the $2 brand. If it really does cost that little to manufacture, even in France, it really pisses me off that it’s so expensive in the States. I wonder how much health care would actually cost without pharmaceutical and insurance companies skimming off mountains of profits? Anyway, if I go someplace with a higher malaria risk, I should start taking the Malarone again, since I can’t be sure about the doxycycline’s authenticity. I’m a bit tired of all this do-it-yourself medical care.
I don’t like it here. There’s so much pollution that I don’t want to go in the water. The sky is brown, the ocean’s brown, you can’t sit at the beach without a solicitation every three minutes, traffic’s crazy, even walking down the street is a constant mantra of “no, thank you” to the moto drivers. I wake up to the choking smell of burning trash and the sound of construction. There’s nothing relaxing about this place. The air, the hot sun through the smog, the crowded dirty streets-everything about it is oppressive to me.
I think I need to work on my attitude, though. Thinking like this is not going to bring me to good places. I can’t wait to get out of Cambodia. But still, maybe I should make a list of the things I appreciate (I write, as the smell of toxic smoke in my room gets thicker). This place desperately needs an environmental movement. And it reminds me how fiercely we need to hold on to and expand ours. I’ve seen too clearly just where things go without environmental regulation, and it’s ugly.
Maybe I should leave for Kampot today. I wanted to be here for the beach, but it’s so polluted I don’t even want to swim here. Maybe I’m sick of traveling and I could just sit on Phu Quoc Island and write and edit for two weeks, then fly to Hanoi for a week. Maybe I’ll just skip Laos and all the long bus rides. I wish I’d gone to Laos instead of Cambodia.
I really do need to let go of this “everything’s wrong” feeling. It doesn’t serve me. I’m getting caught up in the struggle-energy of this place. I’ve given up on making friends-for some reason I just don’t seem to be able to find my tribe. It’s strange.
Maybe I’ll just stay here and sit down and work, at least then I’ll have something to show for this time.
An hour later
This is hilarious. I’m being kicked out of the guesthouse. When does that ever happen? They seem to have someone who wants to stay a while and is willing to pay more than me. It’s “wrong” on their part but I have a feeling it’s exactly right. I could argue with them but the truth is I really need to get out of here. I don’t like it, but I would have stayed simply because I didn’t feel like dealing with getting somewhere else. If I go to the Vietnam consulate as soon as they reopen after lunch and get my visa, I can catch a shared taxi to Kampot and cut two hours off my trip to Phu Quoc. And get to be somewhere tonight that’s not here.
I didn’t really consider this as an option, probably out of laziness and inertia. I had a place to sleep and didn’t want to be bothered to move for a night, since the border closes at 5pm and I couldn’t get all the way to Vietnam today anyway.
I think laziness is my biggest nemesis here, and maybe in general. Wise use of energy is one thing, but when it crosses the line into “why bother?” or “this is easier,” it’s trouble. I think it’s also interesting that they brought me two teabags in my pot, something that’s never happened before here. Like the Universe is saying, “Do something, Asha! Get off your ass!”
Good, good. Keep me moving. I don’t need to stay in one place to work on my edits or write. I should just make a point to write at least an hour every day before bed. I’m glad I’m starting to get over my aversion to that tiny keyboard.
Thursday, February 21
Well, that turned out to be a great day! I think I have two nemeses: laziness and shyness. I need to just talk to everyone. Everything turned 180 degrees around because I started one conversation with a random stranger.
I’m not even sure what made me ask. I overheard part of a conversation at Starfish Café about hiring a driver, so when the woman walked over to the bookshelf near my table, I just asked if they happened to be going to Kampot. And they were. And they had one empty seat.
And now my travel plans have changed completely. They just traveled all across Vietnam and Laos and told me all about it, and now I know that I want to go to Phu Quoc and Hoi An in Vietnam, and then get to Laos. Laos sounds like the best part; I can’t believe I almost skipped it. And airplanes. After hearing all their hellish bus and ferry stories and looking at how little time I really have, I decided I’m going to break my usual rules and take some flights.
I had such a good time hanging out with Mylee and Andy in Kampot. It was so nice to really connect with people! I really enjoyed sharing thoughts on the world and life and southeast Asia. And it was fun to have company in exploring Kampot and going out for dinner. I’d gotten so used to always being alone.
It’s funny that as soon as I wrote that I was giving up on meeting anyone I could really relate to, I met four in one day. Cody showed up at my guesthouse as I was having lunch. After traveling parallel paths for most of this journey but never actually meeting, we find each other just an hour before he heads north and I head south, in a place called Serendipity Beach! I was really nice to hear him articulate a lot of what I’ve been feeling: having trouble connecting with people, hating Sihanoukeville, feeling lonely. It made me feel a little more sane.
I really like Kampot. I wish I’d come straight here and skipped Sihanoukeville. But S-ville is probably what’s making me appreciate it so much here. It’s quiet, no one’s asking me if I want to buy things, and it’s so much more relaxed. It was easy to find a really nice, inexpensive place to stay. You can walk everywhere. I love this pretty riverside street. If I had more time I’d go see the caves and the hill station. I’m really glad my last day in Cambodia is in a place I like.
They brought two teabags in my pot again. Yay. Welcome back, Caffeine, my old friend.
I had an interesting experience today during yoga. I realized how often when I think about something, my brain goes straight to preparing for whatever struggle it may entail. That thinking has the possible benefit that I might be more prepared for potentially challenging situations, which is occasionally the case. But it also might mean that I manifest more struggle. So I followed the thought today with an intention for Easy. No struggle. Ready for anything but manifesting the best, that’s my intention.
The whole experience with the Starfish Café was pretty magical.
First, when I picked up the guidebook back in San Francisco almost a year ago and randomly opened to a page, the first thing I saw was Serendipity Beach and the Starfish Café: a nonprofit project to provide resources and job training to Cambodians with disabilities. It sounded nice, situated on a quiet side street downtown, serving sandwiches, juices, smoothies and milkshakes, and housing a little fair trade shop. I even mentioned it randomly in an email to someone who wanted to go to Cambodia.
Once I arrived in Sihanoukeville and founds that it was a loud, dirty city of 200,000 instead of the quiet beach town I’d envisioned, Starfish Café became my refuge. Once through the gate into its shaded garden courtyard, I found the street noises fading and the peaceful energy of the place calming me. A watermelon lime juice followed by an Asian pear and cinnamon drink eased my dehydration, and the impending headache began to retreat. Everything on the menu looked delicious. A friendly woman at a nearby table returned my smile.
I stayed for two hours and then came back the next day. When I got to the Vietnamese consulate yesterday at 1pm and found that it would be closed for another hour, the tuk-tuk driver suggested waiting at Starfish (which surprised me, because the previous driver had never heard of it). I wholeheartedly agreed.
And that was when two magical things happened.
First, I followed an instinct to talk to a stranger about a ride to Kampot and it changed the entire course of my trip as well as marked the end of the solo voyaging.
Second, I looked down onto my table and saw a single copy of a little booklet called Stay Another Day-Cambodia. This was synchronistic beyond the fact that I had just decided to stay one more day in Cambodia before going to Vietnam. I opened it and it was exactly the Cambodian equivalent of the project I was envisioning starting for San Francisco: a listing of all the organizations working to create positive change in the area, sorted by location and category.
It made me happy. There were a lot of them. It gave me hope and refocused my attention on the positive ways in which people were working to improve life for each other and heal from the violent recent history. I wanted to go around to every group and give them a hug and say “Thank you! Your work is so needed!”
And finding that booklet so conspicuously and improbably sitting on my table, and only my table, also reminded me of magic. She’d felt as far away on this journey as my friends in San Francisco. I knew she was still there, but she’d become an elusive friend, only lurking in the shadows and never letting me catch much of a glimpse of her. I started to wonder if she’d only ever existed in my imagination. Places like Cambodia can do that to you.
But here she was, without a doubt, sitting at my table, celebrating the end of the darker part of my travels with a magnificent reappearance in all her usual mysterious glamour. And she stuck around after that.
Friday, Feb. 22, early evening at a beach restaurant on Phu Quoc Island
Well, that turned out to be a much longer travel day than I expected! I really should have had breakfast. It wasn’t a bad travel day, though, except that my thighs are too sore to sit on the back of a moto for awhile. That was three long moto rides in 24 hours-first from Kampot to the border and into Ha Tien for the night, then at 8:15am to catch the “ferry” to Phu Quoc, then from the port at An Thoi to my guesthouse on the beach just south of Duong Dong.
I liked Ha Tien a lot-very few tourists, and all the little kids said hello to me. It was so cute! And it made me feel welcome. I wonder if they’ll do that all across Vietnam. What a difference between a country with a middle class and one without. After sunset people of all ages were cruising the main strip-teenagers on motos, parents with kids, old folks. In Cambodia everyone seemed to work til bedtime.
Suddenly I’m meeting people everywhere. I had a nice dinner with a French woman named Cecile last night, and really enjoyed talking to Kam and Julian on that crazy boat adventure. My god, that was badass. I really thought we were going to do the whole four hour voyage out to sea on that little boat, 12 inches off the water. I just kept thinking, Hell, they made it to Hawaii in canoes, right? Although I bet the canoes were bigger.
It was so funny when the moto driver dropped me off at the “ferry port” and there was only a shack on the side of the road with a handful of people waiting; no ocean in sight. I walked right up to the two other Westerners and they were as confused as I was. No one could really explain so we just waited to see what would happen. Eventually we were loaded onto a little boat on the small river that ran behind the shack, and I began to understand why the Lonely Planet Guide had said that boats here were “dangerous and not recommended.” But what was I going to do? Take a bus three hours north to the port that was actually further away from Phu Quoc? It didn’t seem to make sense that there wasn’t a feasible way to get there from here, especially since they opened the new border crossing near Ha Tien last year. So I ignored their advice, but was half regretting it by the time the river spilled out onto the open ocean. I say half regretting it, because the other half of me loved it. It was so much more fun than a regular old ferry. Good thing it’s a calm day, I thought, imagining that we’d be swallowed by even a moderate ocean swell.
The mystery was solved when we pulled up alongside a bigger wooden boat and scrambled over its edge into the little cabin, which wasn’t even tall enough to sit up straight in. And the front hull of the boat was filled with pigs! Big, pink, round, live pigs! They occasionally let out a loud chorus of snorting in some sort of scuffle, but aside form that they didn’t seem to mind the crowded transport. One of the boat guys occasionally hosed them down, while another worked the big wooden steering wheel. The whole scene was incredible.
So the travels haven’t actually gotten any easier, they’ve just gotten a lot more interesting, and less lonely, and I’m happy now. And I felt so free climbing onto the backs of those motos with my bags, taking off across the countryside to unknown foreign borders. Felt like the world was very big and wide-open and I was right at home exploring it.
Speaking of that, I’d better ask for my bill and go explore this town before it gets dark.
Wow, this beach is really gorgeous. And this soursop smoothie is delicious. And it sure was nice to have a plate of greens. I actually asked for rice when they didn’t bring it. Instead of getting sick of it, I’m starting to feel like it isn’t a meal without some. Funny.
Saturday, February 23
I spent hours today doing very little. I think I needed it. I must have gotten overheated or dehydrated or something yesterday. I think maybe I’m doing that a lot lately.
I got really depressed yesterday when I walked into the Vietnam Airlines office and got the double bad news that the forecast calls for thunderstorms all week, and I can’t fly from here to Hoi An. How can it be that you can book a flight to the island, but all the flights off are booked for the next three weeks?
So instead of making the rest of the trip easy by flying, it seems I’ll get a four hour ferry ride, then a 24-hour bus ride if I want to go to Hoi An. Is it worth it? And will it even be possible to take a ferry in a thunderstorm? Mylee had a horrible story of taking a ferry in bad weather and everybody vomiting everywhere. I’d rather just sit right here on this island, thank you. I can’t believe I finally get to this beautiful isolated tropical island and the forecast calls for rain.
But the sea is calm now, maybe I won’t get stuck here.
It’s so peaceful here. Great food, calm ocean for swimming, the only persistent solicitors are the women asking me if I want a massage on the beach. I can deal with that. I should take them up on it one of these days. And I have a sweet spot for the next few days. The first two guesthouses I went to were full, as the inexpensive ones often are, and the woman at the third didn’t actually have a room either, but she got the moto driver to help her haul a mattress upstairs, pulled in a fan from the common area, and gave me the big empty room for $5. That’s probably half of what a similar room would go for here, and it’s fine with me. I don’t need furniture.
I shouldn’t dread travel days so much. The last three have been fine. Kampot to Ha Tien to Phu Quoc were some of my favorite days on the trip so far. I really like the not-so-touristy towns where the kids say hello and nobody tries to sell me anything.
Yes, this is nice. I’d have to be pretty fucked up to not appreciate this. Clean white sand, perfect swimming, 85 degrees, people bringing me gourmet food for $2 a plate. Clear skies so far.
I think I’ll go talk to that guy on the computer back there.
Sunday, February 24, 2008
The days of the week mean so little here.
This place is gorgeous. I love sitting at these little cafés on the beach, having breakfast and watching the ocean. I’m excited to go explore the markets with Damien today. I want to go try all those crazy-looking fruits, and the veggie restaurant next to the monastery where the locals eat.
Yesterday was really nice. Yoga, meditation, writing, swimming, meeting Damien. I’m so glad I went and talked to him. What a beautiful night. Long walk on the beach, getting to know each other, looking for a good veggie restaurant, scooping up phosphorescent sea creatures from the ocean. Getting caught in that brilliant thunderstorm, playing pool, drinking bad whiskey sours, conversations that went below the surface. Could have been a scene out of a romance movie, except minus the romance. Just a nice real-life night on a tropical island, somewhere in the south of Vietnam.
Tuesday, February 26
I just had to go back and change the dates on my entries for the past couple weeks. Somehow I’d gotten three days behind! How funny! I thought it was the 23rd!
I’m glad yesterday’s over. I guess it wasn’t that bad as far as being sick goes-my stomach was just off all day and I was completely exhausted. Probably a bit of fever. Getting out of the room felt like climbing a mountain. Half of what made it bad, though, was that I know there are so many serious diseases around here, so as soon as I start feeling sick I worry that it’s only the beginning of something really dangerous and awful. I jumped right back onto those antibiotics quick! If they are actually antibiotics! They could be sugar pills for all I know. It’s disconcerting to not be able to trust the pharmacies.
But mostly I think I was sad because I had been excited about a day of exploring the island on a moto with Damien. Well, we can do that today and I’m excited that we’re traveling the same route and are going to make the journey to Saigon and Hoi An together.
Oh, good, the food’s here. They’re so quick with the breakfast at this place. Mmm, and these veggies are good. Sun’s out and the ocean’s calm, I think I’ll go for a swim after breakfast.
I like my new habit of striking up conversations with everyone and anyone. Being here really forced me into that. I should hold onto that when I get back to San Francisco, it’s a good habit. Yet another of the many reasons traveling is so good for me. That, along with being without my creature comforts, navigating new things, getting stronger and tougher, physically and internally, and enduring and getting comfortable with the hassles. I need to do a trip like this every year, not necessarily because it’s fun, but because it makes me a better person. Reminds me what the larger world is like, and puts all my little troubles into perspective.
Wed. February 27, city of Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam
Good morning! Strange that I was fast asleep until 9:15! I must’ve been tired. I hope we get to Hoi An today.
Thurs. February 28, trying to draw pictures on the bus from Can Tho to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Can’t really draw on a moving bus… it didn’t really come out the way I wanted…
I wanted to draw a single flower that stretches toward the sun and shines in perfect beauty,
regardless of whether any eyes ever rest on it, regardless of whether and bees or butterflies want to come make love with it, regardless of any outside circumstance,
the flower stands brightly in all her perfect natural beauty,
and that is enough.
It doesn’t matter if no one sees us, we still need to just be the flowers we are, expressing all our inherent beauty.
Her and Leon are the two paintings I’d like to make right now, if I could make paintings here.
Friday, February 29
So cool that it’s a leap year. I feel like I won an extra day in Asia. Eleven more days til I fly to Bangkok. So soon. Too soon. I’d like to stay another month. Waking up in this morning in a cold room and having to put socks and a fleece on before getting out of bed really reminded me of SF, and not in a good way.
Ooo, we’re having a power outage, fun!
Anyway, I would have liked to have had a lot more time to explore around here, and in Laos, too. Time sped up a bit hanging out with Damien. I’m so grateful for him in my life this past week. By myself I never would have rented the scooter and seen all the little towns on the island and gotten to that perfect deserted beach, or explored the market so much, or tried the coffee, or crashed the fancy resort pool. And the trip to Can Tho and through Saigon were a thousand times better with a buddy. Completely painless, when it would have been so tedious alone. It’s funny how I don’t mind uncertainty when I have a friend by my side. And how awesome that he made those travel arrangements for us from Can Tho. It worked out great, despite Vietnam Airlines’ bizarre standby system. Making us wait outside til a half hour before take-off, then sending us to a somewhat shorter line with “Last-Minute Passenger” stickers on our chests to check bags and go through security, then I think they may have delayed take-off for a bit to wait for us all. Or maybe we really did make it through all that in a half hour, and they just knew that was exactly how long it would take.
I’m eating gnocchi for brunch and it’s so great. I’m actually starting to get a bit tired of Asian veggies dishes. Didn’t think that was possible.
I kind-of want to dye my hair black and have it braided. It’s only $20 here. I feel like every trip like this to a different part of the world changes me, and I want to come home looking different to reflect that. Besides, I’m pretty boring-looking these days. I wouldn’t catch my attention.
I really like Hoi An. Really nice to be someplace that escaped all the bombing, and still has well-kept old buildings. It’s funny how every second shop is a tailor, and they’ll make anything you can imagine in 24 hours, in any material, custom fit, for really low prices. I might actually buy some clothes. I usually don’t buy new clothes because I don’t want to support sweatshops, but here I’m buying it directly from the people who make it, and no fossil fuels are being burned to ship it anywhere. Fair-trade. And I need something warm.
Saturday, March 1
That little man was so interesting! Tiny, frail, maybe a bit on his own planet, but with such a spirit of independence and endurance, he shuffled along with his ancient scale trying to get us to give him a dollar to stand on it for a measurement. I don’t give a shit what my weight is, and I wouldn’t really know what it meant in kilograms anyway, but I really just wanted to give him something, and I knew not many other people would. He had such enthusiasm. It was beautiful.
And then comes the man with the leg disability and the newspaper. We had such a nice exchange.
Now we’re at four solicitations before my food’s even arrived.
I got my flight to Luang Prabong. It’s nice that I have five days here, there’s so much I want to do. And then Laos. And no bus in between. Sweet way to end the trip.
Sunday, March 2
The lack of sleep last night is finally catching up with me. I feel almost like I’m on drugs or a little drunk or something. But I don’t want to go to sleep. I want to continue basking in the good feeling of the day and the energy of last night.
It was so great to meet Lawrence. We had such a great time. And he’s going to Laos. It’s so bizarre how the first half of the trip was so lonely, and then from that moment at the Starfish Café in Serendipity Beach on, I have great company the whole rest of the way.
And it was also really cool how Flower, the woman at the tailor shop, took me out to dinner at her sister’s pho restaurant. Not another tourist in sight there. And then back to her house to meet her family. What a nice experience.
Monday, March 3
I’m tired of shopping. I don’t think a single place has gotten my clothes right the first time. But they all do free alterations cheerfully, after a brief attempt to convince me the clothes are perfect the way they are. I’m getting the hang of the way business is done here.
Maybe I’ll spend the day reading by the river, or at the beach. It’s warm enough, finally. I’m not interested in running around seeing the ruins. Did that in Cambodia. The war tunnels would have been interesting, but they’re far away, and I’m over being in vehicles of any sort. Maybe I’ll finally go get that massage. And I’d like to wander in the farmers’ market a bit. And get a Vietnamese coffee, they’ve really grown on me. Thanks, Damien.
Lawrence is off to Laos. I’m looking forward to meeting him there.
It’s a funny existence, running around buying things all day. Meals, clothes, fruit, gifts, shopping, shopping. Funny to think there are people whose real lives are like this. How boring. It’s fun for a few days, but odd. An odd existence.
Vietnam is SO capitalistic. It’s so ironic that they won the war to be communists. This might be the most capitalist place I’ve ever been. Life here is so much more capitalistic than in the States. Every interaction here seems to contain a component of looking for a way to get some business in, or help your brother to. Even with the kids. Of course I’ll always see that because I’m a tourist, but I get the impression that it extends beyond that. I have the impression it’s an intrinsic part of the way of life, where in some places I feel like people are just like that with me, but not with each other. This is all just my impressions, of course-I could be completely wrong. And it might be different in the north.
Tuesday, March 4
Yay! I made it here in time for eggs benedict! This café is so nice. Not perfect, but there’s something about it. It’s probably that it looks like it was plucked straight out of San Francisco or New York or Berlin, and that’s comfortable to me. Well, after a month and a half of strange places, there’s nothing wrong with basking in something familiar here and there.
Last day in Hoi An. I have a lot of errands to run. I’m in a good mood. I’ve been really enjoying myself most all the time since I left Sihanoukeville, really.
It’s interesting how disturbed Vietnamese usually look when I tell them my age. I’m sure part of it is just surprise because they think I look younger, but I also suspect they feel there’s something wrong with a thirty-four year-old woman unmarried and traveling alone. They can understand it with twenty year-olds, but why would someone my age want to be doing this instead of raising kids and being with family? I think they don’t understand it, so it worries them. Especially when they already like me, sometimes they look like I’ve suddenly told them I eat small children for breakfast or something.
The people at the next table are going to the beach. What a good idea. Today would be a great day for the beach. It is my last chance, after all. Fun how an overheard snippet of a conversation at the next table just changed my plans for the day.
I’m really going to miss the juices in Asia. This watermelon juice is amazing. And all the mango lassis. My favorite is the passion fruit. It’s so sad what people back home have come to think of as juice-that boxed sugar crap.
Wow. And this lotus-root salad is really delicious.
This week has been all about indulgence-new clothes, chocolate mousse for breakfast, daily desserts, massage, good food. It’s an odd existence. Doesn’t feel real. Because it isn’t. This week is straight up vacation. I’m not working on my book at all.
I am learning about Vietnam, though. Despite my tourist bubble, I am getting glimpses of day-to-day life and culture here. It’s nice that I’ve been hanging out with Vietnamese people, instead of just other travelers. It’s been especially interesting hanging out with the teen-agers at the river. Listening to them joke about sex, talk about their dreams, make fun of each other.
Wed. March 5
There are seven of us on this flight! Fifty-seven empty seats! And not one Vietnamese or Lao person. They didn’t even bother doing the announcements in any language other than English.
Oh, cool, this is a propeller plane, with wings above the cabin. I’ve never seen a propeller plane for an international flight.
Monday, March 10
Looks like it’s been five days since I wrote anything, eh?
What a great week. Lawrence and his aunt brought me along on their excursion through the mountains to visit hill tribe villages. What a fascinating experience. I really got to see a side of Laos that I never would have found on my own. We had a van, a driver and a guide who told us all about the culture and history of the different villages we visited. He explained all the little things we wouldn’t have figured out on our own, like why they pulled us over at a checkpoint and sprayed the van down with disinfectant before they’d let us proceed (bird flu quarantine area; we also couldn’t eat eggs in that region). I got extremely tired of the tedious long drives through the mountains on bumpy dirt roads, but it was worth it.
It was disturbing to see what’s been done to the land. In the few areas where the land was left alone, it was absolutely beautiful: lush tropical rainforest with snaking vines climbing into the wild canopy. But in most places the land was victim to slash-and-burn agriculture. Every dry season farmers set fire to everything they can, clearing the land and providing fertilizer for the crops. The air is filled with smoke for months. Sustainable methods of farming are more expensive and labor intensive, and people are already struggling. So I can’t blame the farmers, but something has to change-this is clearly devastating. Once again, I saw smoggy gray skies every day, even in the mountains. The effect that has on the climate affects all of us, regardless of what side of the world we’re on. Of course I can’t offer solutions without learning more about the situation, but it seems that subsidies are needed to implement sustainable alternatives, and outside organizations for additional resources. I wonder if there are groups working on it.
It was also disturbing at times to visit the villages. Not always-sometimes it felt fine, like I was a welcome visitor, and bringing a bit of outside income to the village by buying their handwoven scarves or jewelry. People were friendly and not too pushy when trying to sell crafts, the kids were curious but soon went back to whatever they were doing, and life seemed ok. I found out later those were the villages that traditionally farmed opium, so they had some steady income.
But in other villages it felt terrible, like I was a complete intruder, walking through someone’s backyard without their approval. The kids would come running to us, desperately trying to sell things or beg, practically knocking each other down to reach us, while the adults looked away. In one village the kids knew we were coming, and raced out to meet the van, expecting handouts. One good-intentioned woman in our group had wanted to bring something to offer the kids, so she had bought sugary snacks in bright red cellophane wrappers at the previous stop. The kids knew what was going on immediately and mobbed her, grabbing at the bags, pushing smaller kids out of the way, and stuffing the snacks into their shirts so they could get more. It was ugly. And when it was over the cellophane wrappers glistened brightly on the sun-lit ground, where they probably still are today.
I felt like a monster parading through those villages, teaching the kids that other people, not them, have lots of nice things that they will likely never see. And since we obviously had to say no to the majority of the bombardment of requests, including a couple of requests for medical help, we were probably also teaching them that outsiders are selfish and cruel, and don’t care about them. We must seem so unimaginably rich to those kids, and yet most of the time we won’t even give them a dollar. There’s no way they could understand why we say no. And even if we say yes, the dollar doesn’t last long, and the damage is still done. And everyone who didn’t get one looks even more desperate. In those villages I wished the government would send some social services and not another tourist would ever come wandering through their homes.
But despite all that, I was enormously grateful for the week. I learned so much, and saw a side of Laos many travelers don’t. And really enjoyed the time with Lawrence and his aunt.
And now I’m in Luang Prabong. I love this town! It’s so relaxed, people are so friendly, and it’s beautiful. I really don’t want to leave. It’s hard to even remember how I felt a month ago when I wanted to go home. I feel like I could stay here a long time, and in some ways I’m not looking forward to SF (in other ways I am, of course). In San Francisco, I always feel like I need to do something productive, while now I feel like just being here is productive enough. I wish I could just stay here as long as I wanted. I finally feel like I could sit down and work on the book, which I haven’t done at all so far on this trip. And it’s so easy to meet people here; I don’t feel like I’d ever be lonely. This café even has wifi, and makes such good chocolate croissants. If I stayed here I could eat mango lassis and have massages every day, and find that woman with the amazing coconut cream/berry juice again. Try out that beautiful Paradise Garden Café, learn some Lao phrases aside from “hello” and “no, thank you.” Find that river moss dish that’s supposed to be a local specialty. Try Lao coffee.
No, I’m not ready to go yet.
Tuesday, March 11
I woke up a lot last night, but I slept well and am not as tired as I thought I might be, considering I had to get up at 6 am. I like small airports. So quick and easy.
I have a bit of residual fear about going home. I’m thinking of all the times I went home after a long trip to find things fucked up. My first housemate Ned, I came home after India to find him angry at me for having left. I never understood it but it ended our friendship. At the Peace and Justice Center, I came home to Heather wrecking all sorts of havoc in our community. After South America Luke had a new girlfriend and my heart was broken like I never thought possible. The apartment in the Sunset fell apart while I was in Hawaii. After Eastern Europe Amanda was mad at me for… uh, what was it again? Maybe I never really knew.
People just stop thinking of you when you go away. If they have any issues, they only grow with distance, sometimes into monsters that don’t resemble anything that existed previously. Coming home is scary. I never know what I’ll find.
Besides, I’ve re-acclimatized to life on the road. I like it here.
It was really cool that they did the whole basaaii ceremony last night. I was only expecting a traditional Lao dance performance, and when I read they would be opening it with the ceremony, again I expected some sort of performance, not a real ceremony. But no, they came around and put the white strings around all of out wrists, with the traditional chants, and to my surprise, I actually felt it. That was real magic they were doing, not just some tourist show. And the timing was perfect-it’s traditionally done before travel, the arrival of guests, major life transitions, or other challenging times, to bring back protective spirits and keep them close to us through the journey. We’re supposed to wear the strings for three days, then untie them, not cut them. It’s nice to see them on my wrists today as I fly to Bangkok. It’s nice to feel like I have extra protective spirits with me as I go.
Still Tuesday, March 11, in Bangkok now
Funny, I’m sleeping in a cell to avoid paying anything extra for housing, but I’ll buy myself anything I want off the menu. My room really is a cell. But, whatever-I’m leaving at 3 am.
I’m drinking rosella juice, whatever that is. This restaurant is beautiful, all glass windows with green everywhere outside. I think it’s really funny that in my search for Thai food on my one day in Bangkok, I ended up at a Japanese restaurant. Oh, well. I’ll get my Thom Kah and Pad Thai for dinner. It’s kind-of nice having a day here, despite how much I hated it last time. I get the feeling it’s one of those cities that gets better the more you know it. Newbies end up in the Rambuttri Village Inn, but returning travelers know how to find the good places. It’s kind-of a mark of my progress how I can meld with this insane place and feel comfortable here in a way I couldn’t six weeks ago.
I’ve made so many mistakes today: not having an address for the KS House to give the first taxi driver, not finding out ahead of time whether I’m supposed to pay the road tolls or whether the driver is, forgetting the “across the canal” part of the directions, spilling tea all over myself on the plane, when I’d noticed the tray was broken, not making sure I was really being dropped off at my hotel. I should know by now that taxi drivers, on the frequent occasions when they have no idea where your destination is, will simply tell you you’re there to get you out of the cab, and leave you on the curb to figure it out for yourself.
It’s kind-of nice being alone-there’s no one else to see my mistakes, so they’re not a big deal. I just learn and move on.
I never knew you could eat young pumpkin leaves. They’re good. I should try them at home sometime.
Wed. March 12, 2008, the longest day in the world
What good magic yesterday! First, Mylee and Andy’s friend shows up on the flight to Bangkok with me, and is standing in line right behind me through customs! Great to talk with her, thank her for all the good advice that shaped my itinerary, and tell her how meeting them that day in the Starfish Café marked the turning point of my trip.
Then that afternoon, walking down the street in Bangkok, city of nine million people where I know no one, I hear “Asha!” from somewhere in the crowd behind me. I turn around and it’s Mylee and Andy, walking down the street running perpendicular to mine and arriving at the corner at almost the exact moment I did! Then they proceed to tell me how much I had inspired them! And that they’d just been talking about me the day before! I, of course, proceeded to tell them how their information about Vietnam and Laos changed my entire journey for the better, how much more enthusiastic I felt about my travels after hanging out with them, and how much I enjoyed that day we all hung out in Cambodia. Then I realized that the reason I was walking down that particular street at that moment was because I’d been checking out a hotel (just to be ready next time I land here) that they had recommended!! Crazy! Maybe there’s something to the name Serendipity Beach after all.
Still Wed. March 12
I slept so well from Bangkok to Tokyo. Can’t remember the last time I slept so solidly on a flight. Woke up for meals and that was it.
This was a great trip. It turned out to be everything I could have hoped for. I didn’t work on my book, but that’s ok.
Things to Remember Next Time I’m In Bangkok
1) Exchange money at the airport. Unlike most cities, the rate is just as good there as anywhere else.
2) If it’s daytime, look for the shuttle into town. It’s much cheaper. If it’s late-night, go to the taxi stand outside and find out if it’s the meter amount plus 50 baht plus tolls, or if tolls are included. Trip ended up being about 400 plus tolls. Insist on the meter. Have the exact address of my destination and a map of how to get there, and don’t get out of the taxi until I’m 100% sure I’m actually at the hotel. Remember taxi drivers sometimes can’t read English script.
3) The info stand at the airport has free maps.
4) Arrive with a photocopy of the Lonely Planet’s Bangkok pages so I don’t have to lug the whole book around town.
5) Check out the swimming pool on the top floor of the K & K hotel on Kao San.
It’s funny how much easier everything feels now. Navigating Bangkok, sleeping on the plane, making friends… even my bags seem lighter, even though they’re twice as heavy. And what did it was the ten-hour hellish jeep rides on winding dirt roads, the illnesses, wake-up calls at absurd hours, the nonstop bustle and hassle, and all the precious moments of tranquility and love and luxury in between. And all the friends along the way, whether they’re friends for a day or a week or a lifetime or just the hour while we wait for a flight, like the woman I just hung out with in the Tokyo airport. In a way, I value the half-hour friendships almost as much as the ones that last for years. They’re what make the journey worthwhile, and they’re perfect for what they are. And they remind me of the love and connection I feel deep down for everyone on this crazy planet, regardless of how well I know them.
Not to underemphasize the value I put on thick-or-thin friendships that hold true over years and differences, of course. They are the most precious gifts in the world.
Anyway, I want to remember how I feel right now: strong, flexible, free out in the world, needing little but appreciating a lot, eyes on the horizon and ready for the next adventure.
I also don’t want to forget the environmental and economic justice crises I witnessed, or to watch for what I can do about it.
It is March 12, again
How weird is this: I woke up on March 12 at 3 am, packed, and walked down to Khao San Road to flag a taxi. I rode to the airport, did yoga, and flew to Tokyo. Then I met Emily and the cute college student, hung out with them a while, did a bit more yoga, finished reading one book and started another. Then I flew across the Pacific Ocean reading, writing, and watching half of Bonnie and Clyde, only to arrive in San Francisco bright and early at 9 am, still on March 12. Time is so weird. And somehow I feel awake and alert and ready to start the day, and this next chapter in my life.
I think I’ll go grocery shopping on the way home, then catch up with my parents, and then I have a class this evening. What a crazy shift of realities.
The sky is so blue here on the SF peninsula, and the air is so mild and gentle! I haven’t seen a blue sky like this in almost two months.
Finally Thursday, March 13
It’s weird, I kind-of don’t want to go home to the city. I always forget about culture shock. It’s such a weird phenomenon, and it always catches me by surprise. It doesn’t make any sense, the way it manifests. I kind-of want to hide, and I feel like my basic conversation skills are a bit off. I keep having ridiculous thoughts that nobody cares that I’m back, which I know isn’t true. It’s me who’s hiding in San Carlos. I know this feeling will pass-I’m premenstrual, jet-lagged and exhausted, fighting off a sore throat, and culture shocked. I can’t expect to be cheery and happy. I just need to make sure not to take my silly negative thoughts too seriously. All considering, I think I’m doing all right with it. I need to just focus on re-grounding and taking care of myself.
Friday, March 14
I just can’t seem to stay healthy here. More than anything else, that’s what makes me want to leave. How can it be that my lungs healed up fine in the smog of southeast Asia, but the day I get back to this beautiful clean air I immediately have a bronchial infection? It made me want to get right back onto a plane west. I wonder if coming back was a mistake. I don’t really want to be here. Basic things seem like so much effort, like housing and being healthy. I feel disconnected from my friends. I’m really not ready for the action tomorrow. Part of me just wants to give up on everything and stay in bed. But I think that might make me feel worse. What I could use is a good healer, but I think they all moved to Marin and charge $300 an hour.
This is not the come-back I wanted. I wanted to come back filled with all the strength I built in myself on the road, bringing all the excitement and energy and inspiration with me. I really should have stayed in Luang Prabong two more weeks and done all my writing. I feel like people have forgotten about me here. Nobody’s called, and nobody’s written much lately.
Less than an hour later
Good timing with the phone call, Laura.
Wow, that conversation made me feel so much better. Again, I have to remind myself that this is what sleep deprivation and culture shock and physical illness do to the mind, and I shouldn’t take my thoughts too seriously. This will pass within a few days. I always forget how hard coming back can be. I never expect it. I always underestimate the effects of being adjusted to a completely different way of life. It doesn’t seem like readjusting to life at home should be as difficult as readjusting to life on the road, but it is. Maybe it’s even harder.
Sunday, March 17
Saturday was great. It was so good to see everyone, and I had so much fun! I woke up in the morning feeling completely sick, and wanting nothing more than to climb back into bed and stay there forever. But it was the day of the Chevron action and I committed to being there, so I drank four cups of strong black tea, popped a couple Exederin, and forced myself to Richmond, and it was so good! The action was successful, but mostly it was just great to see everyone I love and have missed so much, all in one place with the BLO playing and the sun shining (until it rained, that is!). And I had a great time afterward, too, sitting around singing songs with the crew. Yay. I’m home!
My habit of plucking myself out of one culture and dropping into another has led me to some introspection on the concept of belonging. I was really reminded that a sense of belonging has to come from within. We ALL belong, innately and unconditionally, and we can’t ever depend on what anyone around us might say or do for that, because each of us will experience rejection in lots of ways on a regular basis. When that internal feeling of belonging is strong, we tend to situate ourselves in environments that reflect it, and beyond that, we can feel at home regardless of environment. But it has to go that way-internal to external. If we start looking to the external-i.e. acceptance or reliance on the approval of others-to feel it, then it will never be strong, and will always waver when the winds shift. But when we trust that we all belong, innately and unconditionally, and we are all loved by Existence, innately and unconditionally, then everyplace is home.
I slept great last night. I think I’m starting to get over the jetlag already. My cough has stopped in its tracks and the sore throat is gone, and although I still feel a bit awkward at times, I think the worst of the culture shock has passed. Yesterday just snapped me right out of it. It’s really good to be back in the city. It’s a bit overwhelming thinking about how much there is to do and the scope of the projects I’m embarking on, but it’s exciting, too. I don’t know where I’m going to live, but the Universe has always put a good pillow under my head at night so far, so I have no reason not to trust it. I just need to continue on and do what I’m here to do.
And so the adventure continues…
- Feb. 10, 2008: Polka-dotted in Thailand
- Elections? Again?