Cambodia diary, Days 1-4

9:29 a.m. EST | 6:29 a.m. PST | 5-5-16

I spy the Colorado

It is still blue-black ink

For now.

I wonder how long it will stay –

Like me.

2:10 p.m. EST | 11:10 a.m. PST | 5-5-16

We are waiting in LAX after our 6:44 a.m. EST flight landed (on time!) in Los Angeles. Shelby and I arrived at Columbus International Airport promptly at 4:39 a.m. local time. And then we time-traveled with our friends Charlee, Adar, and Eben to the Golden State.

The weather is gloomy in L.A. today – maybe it’s the summer smog coming in? The mountains of Colorado, Arizona, and California were stunning in their untouchable-ness. We as a nation haven’t figured out a way to level their majesties – yet. So for now I will love them, just like my fleeting family time these days; I will love them when I see them, and try to remember only fond memories in my heart.

Only things I forgot (so far): an empty water bottle – my own mistake – and a pen … this one is borrowed from Eben. I owe him a meal or something.

Otherwise I am doing well, trying to stay hydrated, and snack often.

I returned emails and wrote poetry in our ensuing wait for Shanghai – our longest leg of the journey. I’m stowing toilet paper in my bag for the next 14+ hours .. our flight leaves in an hour or so – 12:30 p.m. local time (3:30 p.m. back in Ohio).

“Things are looking up here in Duloc.”

3:50 a.m. EST | local time UNKOWN | 5-6-16

1.32 hours remaining in our flight to Shanghai. It has been a blur of sleep and restless spirits. Eating only occasionally. With the windows all closed – at the request of our spritely staff – I know not at what hour local time or where we are in the world. Every time I sneak a peek outside, I see only mountains! How is this geographically or topographically possible? I know not, for I am just along for the ride. The relative rumbling on the plane, and the seemingly unpredictable turbulence – at all hours! – makes this whole ordeal feel more like a bumpy train ride. And maybe it all is – for I cannot see the ground … or listen to/watch my own music and movies. Or, at least that’s what I believe I’m being told.

I remember watching “Wild” and “The Martian” somewhere along the way – and being fed a still-warm tin bowl of spaghetti and roasted vegetables. In that moment, nothing else looked so good. Honest.

My legs are cramping – and the cabin climate changes from comfortable to chilling in what seems hourly intervals. But I wouldn’t trade this experience in (yet!) for anything.

I’m embarking on a destination completely unknown and alone, virtually. It’s high time I explore a little of this big bright beautiful world.

Mother still looks up at me from her lotus petal ring that I wear on my left index finger. Of this I comforted.

If only I could listen to my own music …

9:17 a.m. EST | 9:17 p.m. local time | 5-6-16

~3.40 hours until I finally land in Phnom Penh. This is my third flight in the past 24+ hours – each time has been a window seat on the right side of the plane. Coincidence? (I think not.) I’m drinking coffee just to keep the blood flowing through my stomach warm; but I know it’s keeping me awake. I need to be alert when we finally arrive in the capital city, though. We are so close!

Standing on the ground in between airports feels more like I’m standing on a swaying ship. I am like a bird who has finally learned how to fly and feels uneasy about ground travel.

My passport has yet to be stamped … I thought for sure we would receive some sort of validation of authenticity upon arrival in Shanghai; not so. The airport was dark, bare bones, and dingy – much like the outside air that accompanied Shanghai. The stories of China are all true, mostly: the air was so smoggy that I could barely see 30 ft. in front of me as we boarded the plane outside (?) on the tarmac. I pity the pilot who has to navigate China’s city smog every day – I’m just grateful we got up in the air without colliding into another ongoing jet. The only device safeguarding us was a red, flashing light. Edison, my life is indebted to you.

And of course, the Shanghai flight attendants do not understand the words “meat” or “vegetarian” – and I didn’t get a dinner. It’s okay, that’s why I packed probably 5 lbs. of raisins and almonds in my backpack: breakfast and supper.

I can’t even think about the journey my checked-on bag has witnessed today. I just wish it will be there, waiting for me, in Phnom Penh.

9:42 p.m. EST | 8:42 a.m. local time | 5-7-16

Good morning, from Cambodia. We checked into our first hotel last night (this morning?) at 12:15 a.m. We encountered HEAT as soon as we left the airport: 88 degrees F (not accounting for humidity) at midnight. Today is rumored to be a high of 111 degrees F. I am already sweating off my first round of makeup; I’m hoping my skin looks fresh and not just shiny.

Me, Eben, and Adar had breakfast outside on the terrace – oatmeal, fresh fruit, pineapple juice and coffee. Couldn’t have asked for better nourishment.

The showers last night was perhaps the most blessed of all encounters. Cold water after 27 hours of stale air on airplanes was heaven on Earth. Happy to be in my own body, happy to be standing in foreign soil, happy to be in Cambodia at last.

Breakfast with Charlee, Shelby, Kat, Emily, and Maddy. (Until this afternoon…)

We are going on a market adventure until we check out of our hotel at 11 a.m. local time. Wi-Fi has been spotty, but I’m forcing myself to break the habit of my phone in these next 2 weeks – reaching instead for my journal or my camera. While I am anxious to check in with my family, I hope they know I am surrounded by people I know exploring the other side of the world.

My fingers are starting to stick to the pads of paper I write on. In case you’re reading this wondering, I’m still sweating.

P.S. – A tiny miracle noted: all of our baggage made it from Columbus/Chicago to L.A. to Shanghai to Phnom Penh. Thank you St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers (and Aunt Karen for the medallion).

4:18 a.m. EST | 3:18 p.m. local time | 5-7-16

This morning, after a delicious breakfast (real food in 48 hours!) the traveling troupe aforementioned walked the street to 2 local boutiques. I bought a pair of purple elephant pants for $5 along with Shelby and Maddy. I’d probably pay 4x that price back in the States. It’s insane the amount of cheap “stuff” there is for sale here.

Speaking of “stuff for sale,” we traveled with Dr. Stewart and his wife Penny to the Russian indoor market after checking in at the Khmer Surin (see picture above). A claustrophobic T.J. Maxx (with fish for sale in some parts) was how Maddy and I described it. So many vendors in so little space! Out of the blazing southeast Asian sun, but sweltering nonetheless. I didn’t buy anything at this market, but am still planning on all of the perfect gifts for my family back in Ohio. I’ve got time!

Then we ventured over (via tuk tuk, my first ever) to Lot 369 for lunch. Dr. Stewart promised it would be a vegan-lover’s paradise, and his hype-up did not disappoint! I got the “Buddha Bowl” with tempeh, roasted veggies (carrot, squash, and cauliflower), homemade hummus, roasted spinach, and black rice. Though I couldn’t stomach the rice – too many onions – I savored every bite of that bowl.

Now we’re back at Khmer Surin. After splashing water over my sweating brow (and re-applying concealer for a third time), I’m now sitting on the C Floor balcony – catching a humid breeze now and then but failing miserably to stay cool. I already feel another coat of my skin cells slipping off the corners of my nose. They told me it was hot – I didn’t prepare for how humid it would be.

Moved back inside under a fan and sitting on a chaise lounge in the C Floor lobby.

The city continues to mystify me. It reminds me of a conglomerate of other metropolises dressed into one outfit, but of different times and places. The streets are alive with Lexus SUVs, motor bikes of all colors and shapes (and number of people crammed on to the backseat), like I’ve seen in pictures of India. The “houses” are all stacked on top of one another, each room its own home, but with the same view. There are storefronts along every alley and alleyway, like you would see in 1950s America – and each one selling wares you can find again on the other side of the block, which reminds me of the parked vendors in D.C.

It is noisy, it is bustling, it is vibrant, and it hums like a motor bike. Yet people smile, people greet me like I’m either a friend or an exotic transplant – but could I be both?

I am always thirsty, yet I am still dehydrated (my pee says so). If I could only swallow an ocean – or the whole Mekong River – I would do so, and gladly.

3:28 a.m. EST | 2:38 p.m. local time | 5-8-16

It’s been such a rush in these last 24 hours. I feel like I’ve been sucked into a southeast Asian time bomb. It’s everything and nothing like I thought it would be. There are some stereotypes and there are some rule-breakers – benders, we’ll say.

The rest of our GLC troupe arrived late afternoon yesterday. We sat around and swapped travel horror stories (you know, like all world travelers do) – and then got our “surprise” meal funds (thanks Dr. Stewart!) for the remainder of the trip.

Before dinner, me and a gaggle of girls (and Joey) went back to the Anise (our first hotel) where I ordered my first “legal” alcoholic beverage, aside from church wine and the red my father brings out for holiday cheers: passion fruit margarita. (Remember, Cambodia’s drinking age is different than it is in the U.S.) The sprinkled salt around the edges made it both sweet and salty in one mouthful. My stomach handled it better than I thought, considering I didn’t have much to eat in the afternoon. A headache started after dinner; couldn’t tell if it was the drink, dehydration, hunger (dinner was late) – but it was probably all that plus jetlag.

Dinner at the Khmer Surin (hotel) second floor balcony was picturesque to say the least. We sat around low wooden tables yoga-style in candlelight. A light breeze and the relative stress release from our cocktails put my mind at ease. I ordered the spring rolls (Uymeng’s were better, actually) and steamed brown rice. A cold shower and the fan blowing in my room rounded out the evening.

I hardly slept through the night – kept waking up to pee and still had a tired headache. Restless abandon (and still SE Asia jetlag) had all the girls up at 4 a.m. – though most of us stayed separated in our rooms.

For breakfast, I ordered a yogurt/oat/fruit dish – broke my vegan oath for the first time knowingly – and finished a fresh mango smoothie (from Kat). Two cups of coffee, freshly pressed, and a couple mini bananas complemented the meal.

Then it was off to our morning cooking class – but first to the market. I was warned in advance about the level of discomfort I might experience at the market, and I almost stayed behind to wait for my classmates. But something pulled me forward – recklessness? pride? curiosity? – and I jumped (okay, more like saddled up) on to a tuk tuk and headed off to the local Phnom Penh market. I wasn’t prepared for what I would experience. The smells: an awful stench of carcass, human sweat, and pungent sweetness. The sights: whole legs of animals dangling from strings in the stall ceiling, butcher knives hacking at raw flesh, human fingers massaging their prospective purchases, fishes flopping in buckets, blood trickling from cuts of unidentifiable meats, children lying in their mothers’ shadows watching YouTube videos next to their wares.

It was overpowering, overwhelming, and overstimulating. I couldn’t think to gag because it was all swarming around my senses too fast; I couldn’t keep up. Even now, it still feels like a dream of an adventure. The only sound that was anchoring me to the present moment was the sound of the machete knife slamming into wooden chopping blocks.

We toured the market for our supplies in such a blur – but it really didn’t take long. 5 min.? 10 min.? 30 min.? I was too shell-shocked to know, just numb and utterly fascinated in my daze. These Cambodian people have a vastly different relationship with their food. They eat it. They sell it. They touch it. They inhale it. They comb it. They butcher it. They lie next to it. They breathe it.

In a way, they are it. But aren’t we all really what we eat?

10:52 a.m EST | 9:52 p.m. local time | 5-8-16

After shopping for supplies at the market, we went back to a garage door-covered kitchen – completely modernized, by the way, with seating for guests included – to cook traditional Cambodian foods. I couldn’t even tell you what kinds: a curry made of tofu/pepper mixture and a mango/carrot/basil salad with peanuts and onions; jelly (gelatin) banana “soup” with sugar for dessert. The cooking class, taught by an amazing young woman, lasted close to 3 hours. In one, hot, non-AC room, with dicing, slicing, and stirring of fish and chicken bits (over a stove-top!) I was overwhelmed again. After exiting and re-entering the room 2.5 hours in, I was almost knocked to the floor by the stench. It was the closest I can recall to blacking out in a while, to tell the truth. That’s the thing Charlee (room-mate) and I have determined about Cambodia: The smells are what makes it notorious. The fish, the raw meat, even the fruit, can be hard to stomach. Everything is just so crammed here, it’s hard to distinguish one person’s sweat from the other odors surrounding. I couldn’t even stomach the meal we all sweated and slaved over – too spicy (red pepper), too mango-y (had a smoothie already that morning), too sweet (boiled gelatin? talk about sugar shock). Had to come back to the room and lie down under a breezy fan for a few – and eat some plain white rice.

For the remainder of the afternoon/evening, my team-mates (Quintin and Evan) and I attempted to meet up with our client, but instead hopped on tuk tuks to the riverside for a night market adventure.

Our group of 13 – led by an Aussie woman expat – stopped to take a peek at the city sprawl from one of the tallest rooftop lounges in all of Phnom Penh. Sipping on a mixed fruit smoothie, I scanned the massive cityscape in the lingering (yet still burning) sun. I never knew the city expanded as far as it did, considering how narrow and scrunched everything – and I mean everything – is in the streets. I kept whirling around and gazing along the horizon line: construction, buildings, and compacted apartment complexes, as far as I could see in the haze.

Three rivers – the Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers – converge along Cambodia’s river-front. It reminded me of ‘Gahanna,’ which in the original Native American tongue means “3 rivers into one.” How coincidental. Then, we shuttled on down to the night market, where we talked, skirted, and dodged our way through another cramped row of stalls. More meat, more fruits, more rice, more sweat. We joined up with Ducky’s “mates” for a lentil/fruit/coconut milk ice cream of sorts for a light dessert (vegan rule break #2). Just the right amount of sweetness this time. Then we stopped to pick up crickets and pork rinds to eat at a local Cambodian barbecue – those I did not try, straight up. But watching my fellow classmates pop in, grind around, and tongue-taste fried insects reminded me of popcorn munching at a movie theater; the grimaces and smiles on their faces told a different story. At the open-air restaurant – most places are open-air around here – I dined on rice (again!) and cooked vegetables, vegan-friendly assured. The mushrooms in the “special flavor” sauce were just the perfect filler for a long, hot, sweaty, market-filled day.

For the dinner, Ducky invited our 3 tuk tuk drivers to eat with us. I sat next to one of the drivers and was able to extract some of his story (the ex-journalist in me on default).

“You are so lucky to have grown up in America,” he said with emphasis. “You can do anything you want, go wherever you want, be whoever you want.”

The longing in his eyes betrayed me. How could I disagree?

“You have to work for it, most of the time,” I countered, remembering my own parents’ rise from lower-middle class to upper-middle class in a single generation.

“Yeah, but not like here,” he replied, glumly. “I work all day; but I am not free like you.”

Maybe you’ll make it to America one day, I offered. Maybe your government will one day soon be led by elected officials “for the people” – people who are still demanding for change, less corruption.

“Maybe,” was his only response.

This man, born in a small village on the East side of Cambodia, oddly reminded me of my father. They had both grown up in a small village – “full of old people and children” – and both had moved to the city to find reliable work and more opportunities. But unlike my father – one of the “many educated” people in the States – my driver friend lacked basic education. He said he only learned English from his smartphone, his other driver friends, and American movies. This man was working multiple 12+-hour day jobs just to keep living in a city full of people, pollution, and tuk tuks.

What did he save for? What were his goals? They seemed to have evaporated somewhere along the way – along with all of the perspiration on my brow.

His wistfulness and my ensuing market adventures today made me angry, for 2 reasons. After coming back to the Khmer Surin for a much-needed shower and yoga stretch, I unpacked these 2 reasons along with a thin stream of frustration tears.

1.     America isn’t all that it seems on the outside. Even though we are a land of blessed freedoms and opportunities, there are still poor people struggling to live in our cities, scraping by without healthcare or technological advancements commonly thought of as ‘universal American’ entities on the fringes. This man’s dream of America is in some ways just a dream – false advertising, misreading the fine print. But how am I supposed to explain that to this man, who only dreams of America through “Rocky” movies and through the stories of his passengers? Who am I to invalidate one man’s fantasy?

2.     The need to become “like America” is slowly killing off global diversity for the sake of this ‘dream.’ I’m sitting outside on my room’s private balcony in Khmer Surin – which rumor has it will be sold for a million-dollar condo transaction – staring not at the sunset, not at the riverside, but at a 30+-story building under construction.

Our driver partly defined American success by “all of your skyscrapers,” which I thought was grossly inaccurate. Just by association, big buildings have become synonymous with big success. So all of the world’s developing countries feel the need to build bigger, better buildings to prove their international worthiness on the big stage. Thereby destroying more grassroots operations, like the Khmer Surin, into bricks and rubble.

Somehow all of that anger built up inside of me made me want to change something about this cycle of misconception, deception, and conformity. Why must we always strive to be better than we already are? Why are we compelled to change, but why are we often changing for the “wrong” reasons?

Whose reasons are really “right” anyway?

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