(A Collection of Short Stories)
(From my Trip to Cambodia)
In the Siem Reap Hostel
Why must people always pretend like packing is such a laborious, time-consuming task? We ask each other “have you packed yet?!”, as if setting aside a significant chunk of time to assemble our belongings is paramount to leaving for one’s trip. We ask each other “what are you packing?!”, as if bringing the wrong number of t-shirts or bras is going to spoil our whole vacation. Packing for a short trip never takes me more than 30 minutes. And yet when it comes time for me to sort out my belongings for a weeklong or weekend getaway, I am inevitably duped by all the hype around packing.
Which is why, with my 5-day trip to Cambodia looming overhead, I convinced myself that it was necessary to set my alarm for 5:30 am on Thursday morning, the day of my departure. Though I had already packed most of my clothing and gear the night before (“Of course I’ve packed! 4 t-shirts, 1 bra and 3 sports bras!”), I was concerned because really the whole process had only taken me 20 minutes, including the time I’d spent creating a packing playlist in anticipation of the big event. I must have forgotten some things. So I sprung out of bed at 5:31am on Thursday, already feeling crunched for time. Within 5 minutes my backpack was zipped, buckled, and cinched. I spent the next three hours performing my morning routine in super slow motion until I could finally leave for my 9:00am class.
Which is why, after attending 2 classes, rushing home to grab my bags, traveling to the airport, boarding our flight to Siem Reap, procuring a Cambodian visa, and checking into my hostel at 10:30pm that evening, I was understandably quite exhausted. It’s highly abnormal for me to begin my day before the sun is up, and obviously this kind of fissure in anyone’s routine could have serious repercussions. Now that I’m thinking about it, there is probably some kind of proven neurological process that disrupts the chemicals in one’s brain if they have a weird morning.
Which is why, when I barged into the bunkroom of The Siem Reap Hostel (despite what you’re about to read, I really would recommend it!) at 10:30pm, it seemed like a brilliant idea to flick on the light switch and throw open the curtain to our sleeping quarters. My friends tried in vain to stop me, but I was probably just too fatigued from the whole packing debacle to pay any heed to their insistence that “people are definitely sleeping in there!” Instead I proclaimed “why would backpackers be sleeping at this time of night?!” and decided it was best to take matters into my own hands. So I turned on the lights and confidently hoisted my backpack into the bunkroom. At the same time, what looked like 25 robots (but was probably 5 humans) shot up from their beds and squinted at me, hardening their gaze until it was apparent that they were summoning lasers to shoot out of their eyes and kill me. I yelped “Sorry!!! So Sorry!! My Bad!!!” turned off the light, and scampered into the hallway.
For the next few hours I felt uneasy roaming around Siem Reap’s “Pub Street”, convinced that one of the robots was going to defect from their bed and come find me at a bar. Luckily I was able to ditch my paranoia for a bit in order to dance on a table with a Cambodian man wearing a cowboy hat and a shirt that read “Kiss me I’m Irish”. When I tiptoed back into the bunkroom that evening, I didn’t even use the flashlight app on my phone for fear that the robots would recognize my freckles glowing in the dark as I ascended bunk number 11. Perhaps my poor capacity for spatial awareness in the pitch black and also my bad luck in getting assigned a top bunk can account for what happened next.
After being told at least 27 horror stories about people being robbed in Cambodia in the week prior to my departure, I decided that I would lug my giant backpack onto my bunk, where I could sleep with it safely resting on my feet. Silently, I settled into bunk 11 and laid rigid on my back for the next 20 minutes, listening to the curious sounds of robots breathing, until it seemed safe to shift into a more comfortable sleeping position. It was then, at approximately 2:00am, that my right foot nudged the backpack, propelling it off the bed and onto the hostel floor with a deafening thud.
The robots were stirring. I saw my life flash before my eyes. And then – I listened as the robot in bunk 9 claimed responsibility for the thud. It seemed that in a fit of sleepy confusion she thought it was actually her bag that had fallen. Consequently, she erupted in a stream of British expletives and then profuse apologies, all the while requesting that someone hand up her bag. I let the entire ordeal unfold without breathing a word, even though I knew it was going to be impossible to find her bag on the ground, because I am a terrible person who is scared of robots.
I spent the next 2 hours in that restless state somewhere between sleep and crippling anxiety (you know the one!). It was a major relief to hear the chime of my alarm at 4:30 am, at which time I happily vacated bunk 11 and dragged my unruly backpack into the hallway with me. Despite my lack of sleep, I was eager to prepare for a day of sightseeing around the temples of Angkor, beginning with a sunrise viewing of Angkor Wat. Now my only problem was that I hadn’t packed enough temple-appropriate clothing. I had to borrow Molly’s t-shirt, which I immediately soaked through with sweat, leaving her white t-shirt-less for the remainder of the trip. Packing can be such a pain.
On the Night Bus
Recently, I read a book about people who live inside whales. The premise was that all kinds of whales (including, inexplicably, orca whales, which we all know are technically dolphins) actually contain mechanical vessels instead of internal organs. Of course I wholly bought into this work of fiction, even going so far as to re-examine my own iPhoto images of Orcas in the San Juan Islands from two summers ago with a newly skeptical eye. Thus, lying atop a cold, hard surface on Friday night, rocking violently back and forth as water pounded against the windowpane next to me, it was not difficult to imagine that I was trying to fall sleep inside of a whale.
I had boarded the 12-hour “sleeper bus” from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville earlier that evening keen on finally getting some shut eye after two long sleepless days. Touring the largest religious monument in the world during Cambodia’s “hot” season had left me spiritually fulfilled, of course, but physically drained. My friends and I had already experienced our fair share of daytime and overnight bus rides this semester, and like seasoned bussers we arrived at the bus stop armed with makeshift pillows, fully charged i-pods, and motion sickness pills. Veterans though we were, none of us could have predicted what happened next.
The first sign that something was different arose as we handed our tickets to a man standing next to the steering wheel. In exchange for our ticket, the man handed each of us a plastic bag and gestured toward our feet. I should have known then, because who ever heard of taking off your shoes while boarding a bus? But I’ve never been very good at picking up on signs, and besides, I’ve been asked to take my shoes off in loads of places in Thailand. I just figured that since Cambodia is a Buddhist country too, it would have its own set of practices and policies associated with feet (the lowest, rudest, dirtiest part of the body) too.
Clutching my shoes in their little pink plastic bag, I filed onto the bus behind Zoe, who now seemed strangely panicky. As my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, I began to realize that the bus was filled with tiny bunk beds. This was exciting! I would have my own bed! On a bus! Then I looked to my left, and noticed that two larger men were sitting across from one another in the same tiny bed. This seemed like a weird choice, but I figured they were probably about to play cards, because that’s what people do on night buses right?
As I scanned the aisle for what I thought was my seat number, but now realized was actually my bed number, it occurred to me that each bunk was labeled with not just one but two different numbers. And then I understood why Zoe was now gesturing wildly at the bus attendant and why those two men had been sitting atop the same bed. It appeared that tonight, we were sleeping with strangers.
Because there were five of us traveling together, it happened that only one (the only boy) would eventually be volunteered to share his less-than-twin size bed with a stranger. I settled into my cozy spot between a metal railing and Molly, and fell asleep immediately. When I woke up three hours later, Molly dragged me out into the Cambodian darkness so we could use the toilets at rest stop that might have also been a brothel. It was there that she informed me we were on a “harrowing journey”. I hadn’t noticed this fact, because I was sleeping.
Despite being awakened to the harrowing nature of our bus, I was still able to sleep, albeit fitfully, for the remainder of the journey. It began to storm in Cambodia that night, so I witnessed rain for my second time in Southeast Asia. I also experienced the odd sensation of being cold, owing to the extreme gusts of air conditioning being funneled onto my feet. And amid all these anomalies in weather patterns, there was a great deal of tipping and bumping and crunching against fatally unpaved roads. So yes, periodically I would wake up and feel like I was inside of a whale, but don’t we all feel that way sometimes?
At the Beach
As a child, I hated the beach. As an adult, I am learning not to hate the beach. Last weekend I spent two days in Southern Cambodia, learning not to hate the beach. The first day I was quite nervous about whether I would last for 2 whole days on the beach, but I pretended not to be. Instead, I mimicked the actions of people who seem to love the beach. I applied my SPF 50 sunscreen and promptly lay down, facing the sun, on a chair. Then I went swimming. Then I returned to my chair. Then I went for a walk. Then I went swimming. Then I had to sit in the shade for the rest of the day because I think I had heat stroke.
On the second day, I was sunburnt, and my gig was up. I announced to my group of friends that I needed to do an activity. I could no longer pretend to be someone I am not. I am not a low-key, relaxed person who enjoys finding sand between her toes weeks after being at the beach. I hate finding sand between my toes. It grosses me out. So my friend Jack handed me a little flyer he had received from man earlier that morning which read (something like) “Boat Trip! $10! Meet at some bar down the road! At 10am!” The rest of my group was rather indifferent about doing an activity, as most seemed content to remain on the beautiful, clean, crowd-less beach where we were staying in a cute hostel called Wish You Were Here (again, I would totally recommend it!)
At 9:58am I marched down the beach to find the man with the flyers. He was right where he said he would be, at the bar, drinking at 9:59am. Beside him was another man, an activity-seeker just like me. He and I waited and chatted while the flyer guy professed to “making calls” and “checking with the boat captain” and finally, asking if we could wait until tomorrow. Neither of us could wait until tomorrow! I had to go back to school! Jackson (my new Australian friend) was going to another island! Finally, I gave up on the boat trip and retreated to my chair on the beach. Since I had no more patience for learning not to hate the beach, I dragged my chair under an umbrella and started doing my homework. That made me feel better.
Just as I was getting into my article about the AIDs crisis in Thailand, a very large shadow was cast over my chair. I looked up to see Jackson (he’s pretty tall), who informed me that he hadn’t given up on finding an activity, and in fact, had already paid for a boat to take him and two other guys to an island for the day. They were leaving now, and would my friends and I like to come with for free? I leaped off my chair and ran into the ocean. Then I had to turn around because I was running toward the wrong boat.
I had a glorious day on Koh Ta Kiev with friends old and new. There were only a couple of boats anchored near the island, and very few people on the shore. I marveled at the beauty of the thick jungle beyond the sand and the warmth of the turquoise waters. We truly had our own slice of paradise for the day, and for the first time in my life I didn’t have to pretend like I was enjoying it. I loved that beach, and I loved that my pursuit for an activity had paid off. The moral of this story is that you should always be yourself.