Cambodia diary, Days 18-19

4:33 a.m. EST | 3:34 p.m. local time | 5-22-16

Brown Coffee it is.

I’ve already had quite a whirlwind of a day today … but first! Let me unpack yesterday.

After scrambling back to the Khmer Surin for a 2 p.m. architecture tour, I hopped in another van and headed off for a view of the city’s 1950s-60s architecture. A university architecture, Cambodian student was our faithful tour guide. Despite the sweat accumulating on my brow in the heat of the afternoon, I plowed ahead (with my arm still strung up in a scarf-crafted sling) with a handful of other GLC class-mates.

Described as the “golden age” of Cambodian architecture, the 1950s-60s era inspired not only Phnom Penh’s underlying infrastructure, but also its music, its culture, and its art. (Then the Khmer Rouge stamped out all of the creative juices and left the city for bare bones.)

We toured the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), as well as the “100 houses” block of living quarters, and the Olympic Stadium! Busing around a city I barely knew 2 weeks ago felt like peeling back the layers of an onion. Phnom Penh on its surface is overwhelming; but Phnom Penh on its inner surface is still complicated but intentional.

The Olympic Stadium was perhaps my favorite of the three stops. Built with natural air-flow and audience capacity in mind, it’s a marvel in the heart of a construction-plagued city. Despite its name, the Stadium has never actually hosted the Olympics, but instead was built for the 1963 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games (that was eventually cancelled due to political reasons). It also was the inaugural site of the short-lived GANEFO games for “emerging” or non-aligned nations.

With such a fascinating history, the Stadium now serves as a multi-purpose national recreation center. When we visited in the early hours of the evening on Saturday, there was a basketball game and a soccer game in full swing. Cambodian teenagers skirted around the edges of the Olympic-sized pool, daring one another to jump off the high towers. There was no lifeguard in sight.

After snacking on roasted peanuts on the bus ride “home,” I stopped in the Khmer Surin restaurant and ordered one last plate of steamed brown rice – my favorite for its simplicity and filling-ness. Dr. Stewart and Penny joined me for (what I believe was) fish and roasted veggies before all 3 of us hopped on a waiting tuk tuk for one last Cambodian Living Arts dance recital.

Initially, I wasn’t planning on going out on my final night in Phnom Penh; I was still exhausted from the evening before and was still carrying my arm in a make-shift sling. But, I thought, why not? I’m here, in Cambodia, on the other side of the world (still can’t believe I made it here, honestly). Why would I not jump on this opportunity, as a dancer myself, to see this recital?

In the end, I’m so pleased I attended. Just an hour was all that was needed to represent a variety of Cambodian ethnic communities in song and dance. And the performance was held at an outside stage location, making the miraculously cool breeze an unexpected treat. It was also really special to see the fruition of Arn Chorn-Pond’s vision for Cambodia’s art resurgence on the stage.

On the way home, our tuk tuk driver (at the insistence of Dr. Stewart) gave us a tour of “Diamond Island” – a kind of Kings Island amusement park on steroids. I mean, there were neon lights and street-food vendors for as far as the eye could see! It was like the man-made island was constructed out of cotton candy and teenager sweet-hearts, all nestled close together on the river-side boardwalk. Not a tourist could be found, for this part of Phnom Penh was nearly completely occupied by Cambodians. And that’s the way I think it should stay. A city people deserve their own parcel of land, every once in a while – an area that hasn’t been commercialized for the sake of local culture. It felt like Diamond Island was claimed for Cambodians.

I went to bed with my arm propped up on a pillow and no encouragement from the Sandman.

Morning.

Stiff as a board, my arm didn’t appear to be getting any better from my ice-skating fall the morning before. Any worse? I couldn’t tell. Plucking my clothes off the floor and re-preparing my pack for travel was about the most excruciating pain one could ask for on her last day in a foreign city. Get me home, my arm screamed.

Breakfast at the Anise was followed by a morning indoors (and in reliable A/C). After check-out at 12 p.m., Charlee, Maddy, Shelby and I (the second-round ‘Cbus Flying Crew’) made our way to the Aeon Mall (again) for lunch and to meet up with their AUPP team-mates. After wandering the corridors and settling on The Pizza Company for lunch, our troupe filled up on food before our long-ass flight journey begins this evening.

But I still needed to buy gifts at the Russian Market for my family.

I knew that I would regret not purchasing gifts last week, when everyone else thought it was cool and “trendy” to visit the market every day, but I didn’t realize how much my GLC class-mates would be averse to wandering through the stalls one more time. I get it – the stench is revolting. If I wasn’t so determined, I wouldn’t be going back either.

Yet I was alone. So, with a bold move, I headed to the Russian Market solo. Nervous and apprehensive emotions pounded through my gum-chewing jaws, but I was determined to get there. The city is still foreign to me, but not incomprehensible. I plucked a few street numbers out of my memory to direct the tuk tuk driver (who totally ripped me off, by the way – but I was desperate) and we were off. Glancing at another white woman, herself an older adult, in a passing tuk tuk gave me strength. Help me get to where I’m going!! I sent the message with my eyes. I don’t know if she ever sent a reply.

After a breathless 5-or-so minutes, I saw the corner of the market in my vision. YES. I breathed relief. I quickly paid the tuk tuk driver and plunged into the market madness.

You see, I wasn’t just determined to go to the Russian Market – I was determined to find the same saleswoman at the Russian Market from a week ago. Typing (remember, my arm) that goal of mine at this coffee-comfy moment sounds ridiculous. Ludicrous. Unthinkable. If I couldn’t even remember the exact “street address” of the Russian Market, how in the world was I going to find one stall in this maze of hundreds?

Breathe, I said to myself. Let your senses guide you.

Was I a monk in meditation? No, I was a little-lost (but still determined!) market shopper.

After circling the same stall for a good 5 minutes, I paused to recollect my thoughts. Panic will not serve you, I found myself thinking. You can only find yourself in moments of calm.

I still had over an hour and a half before my S.O.S. time limit – when my GLC class-mates would come looking for me. At 4:00 p.m. I was to be back at the Brown Coffeeshop across the street from the Anise and Khmer Surin. The countdown became a challenge.

Find it. Find it. Find it.

Why was I so particular about this one saleswoman? Because, when I visited this woman last week with Quintin and Max, she displayed these amazing pieces of canvas art that could be packaged up into tight little tubes for ease of travel-transport. Quintin bought a couple for his family back home; I declined in that moment, but after thinking about how much the arts of Cambodia had spoken to me during my time here, I wanted to go back for one myself. Selfish greed drove me onwards.

And, if my memory served me correctly, her stall also included several other trinkets and scarfs to complete my family gift list. I had it all planned out in my head – the stars just needed to align, again, for me to make my dream a reality.

Meanwhile, I striped off my tank-top-tourniquet in the tuk tuk on the way to the market. Looking helpless and lost was not going to serve me well. I needed to stride confidently into the market (even if I walked confidently in circles) until I would find the woman in my mind.

Breathe. Let your senses guide you.

I closed my eyes for a millisecond. Calm. I turned left. I walked 10 more steps. I found my saleswoman.

“Hello!” I nearly shouted. “Remember me? I stood under your fan with my friends a week ago!”

I saw the confusion transcend into a smile of recognition – or what I perceived to be recognition. Maybe she just faked it for me, but in that moment there was no other woman in the world whom I was more elated to see. Her sister peered out from the adjoining stall, probably just as confused as the next stall-seller appeared to be.

Right away, I started pointing at the wares. “I would like one of these scarfs, and the red elephant pants,” I whipped back around to the trinkets on the table at my knees, “and I’ll take the three of these monkeys and one of the Buddha trinkets, please.”

The woman and her sister followed my every move.

“And I would like one of these paintings,” I ended, still flustered at finding the correct stall. The crumpled list in my hand was shaping up to be completed.

“What size painting?” the woman asked me, smiling from my enthusiasm (and the fact that I was, indeed, going to be making a sizable purchase from her – just her).

“I don’t know,” I answered truthfully. “Can you show me some of your favorites?”

She started pulling back rows and rows of canvas art from her shop about as large as my family’s downstairs half-bathroom. Black-and-white, temple paintings, sunset images – it was all too much for my still-tingling senses. Panicking, I started to wonder: Would I ever be able to make a decision, after all this time pining for a painting?

“Wow,” I breathed, struck by the beauty found in one of the saleswoman’s various procured options. Set in the Cambodian countryside, with deep greens and oranges to depict a coming sunset, the painting was truly breathtaking. This one, a small voice somewhere inside me had the courage to speak.

How could I deny such intuition?

All in all, I purchased 7 gifts – with an 8th thrown in because I was a “special customer.” The price? $22.50.

I unwrapped my bills and looked at my purchases, packaged in neat little newspaper: This is almost unfair. Back in the States, this wouldn’t even cover the cost of a new pair of athletic leggings from Old Navy. And I’ve just purchased a painting, 4 stone-carved trinkets, a scarf, some elephant pants, and a magnet for less than $25? Welcome to a developing country.

Plunging back out into the afternoon rush of people, and hailing a tuk tuk driver to the meeting point of Khmer Surin, I had moved confidently in the direction of my dreams. And I had won.

Sitting here in Brown, with a wonderfully delicious Americano (a little sweeter than the acidic house blend drip-coffee from yesterday), I look back on my adventure today and shake my head. A smile is pressed stupidly on my lips. I AM INSANE!

But maybe I’m not. I’m a foreigner with a destination; I’m an independent woman in Cambodia. I can do anything I set my mind to, including a market adventure and deftly re-packing my backpack – for the third time today – in a small corner of a coffeeshop.

Now, I’m ready for a last dinner at the Anise and our final Cambodian destination: The airport. The least of my worries right now is 12 hours in L.A. If I can conquer 12 hours in Phnom Penh, I can conquer any city in the States (where I’m able to use my credit card!).

P.S. – My arm is feeling more mobile this afternoon. Maybe it was the obnoxiously large bag of ice the staffers at Anise gave me this morning. Maybe it was the rush of adrenaline from this afternoon. Or maybe my muscles are just beginning to relax. Regardless, the thought of 12 hours in L.A. does not sound unbearable, anymore.

8:04 p.m. EST | 8:05 a.m. local time | 5-23-16

It’s tomorrow already?

After chowing down on a final Cambodian dinner of rice and vegetables at the Anise – and to re-collect our luggage from a day of exploration – the Cbus Flying Crew Round 2 made our way to the Phnom Penh international airport.

We thought we were so good, arriving at 7:30 p.m. on the dot for our 12:10 a.m. flight out to Shanghai … only to discover upon arrival (and the exiting of our taxi) that we were not allowed to claim our tickets or check our luggage until 2 hours prior to the flight. That meant an extra 2.5 hours of sitting and waiting just for the chance to pass inspection, go through security, and wait some more to board the plane.

But we did it. Sometimes, with grins on our faces. Other times, blankly staring at our phones, praying to the Hindu gods for reliable Wi-Fi.

The first leg of the trip – 4 hours to Shanghai – went smoothly, despite the early hours of the morning etched on to everyone’s faces. I slept a little bit, here and there, waking up to nibble on a mysterious almond crumbly-bar and a bread-roll with what we believe was some kind of filling on the inside. I picked around the edges, just to be safe.

Now, we have 8 hours in Shanghai.

But it’s not as bad as our first wait in the Shanghai complex. Two weeks ago, we were sentenced to wait in a bottomless pit of a basement, with no windows and no available seating for a couple hours in grey solitary confinement. This time around, after breezing through the same security check-points as before, we are seated in an airy, glass-walled open floor plan, with access to a suitable bathroom, a Starbucks (in Mandarin, though), and a refillable water bottle station. What more can a traveling girl ask for?!?

Maddy, Charlee, and Shelby are all a-snooze on the four-corner benches surrounding me. We staked out a quadrant of “charging point” seats as soon as we entered the gate. We’ve got 4 hours to board until our next plane, which leaves (hopefully) at 1:00 p.m. sharp.

This upcoming stint is the nastiest leg of the trip, by far. I think all of us could gaily grumble through to get to Cambodia, but I’m absolutely dreading the immobility and boredom of the next 12 hours and 50 minutes. At least it’s not 14 hours again – tail-wind, am I right?!

I’ve already set my phone clock to Los Angeles local time, in anticipation of our arrival sometime “tomorrow” morning (it’s still 5:18 p.m. on Sunday in the Golden State). We still have 12 hours to spare there without a plan or a clue, but we’re all counting down the hours until we can switch on roaming LTE. #FirstWorldProbz

Because China Eastern Airlines will most likely scold me for trying to sneak my phone on the plane (it’s on airplane mode, for crying out loud!), I bought another book at the Phnom Penh airport to keep me occupied: Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”

I think I’m going to start it now. I have time (without Wi-Fi) anyway.

8:15 p.m. EST | 5:15 p.m. local time | 5-23-16

I am finally in the same AM/PM interval as the rest of my United States friends!

Sitting in our final airport terminal – I’d say we’re all pretty much TSA security experts, by now – the anticipation of comfort and home is oh-so tantalizingly close. All that I have pulling me forward are the entire 3 seasons of Avatar (the original) on my phone and the prospect of a nap on this next flight from LAX to Columbus International Airport.

The amount of time that I spent checking what time it was in Shanghai could have amounted to its own flight. The hours swiveled around my Garmin wrist-watch so slowly, it felt like we were trapped in a vortex of grim defeat narrated by an obnoxious Mandarin loudspeaker. Our gate was crowded with other destination-goers: Tokyo, Paris, Toronto. I kept wondering about all of the stories and people sitting in the seats next to me. Where were they going? Where had they been? For how long? Was this next destination a pit-stop or a landing point – or was it just a fresh start?

FINALLY our flight was pushed to the “Boarding” yellow-colored screen. I lunged forward with my awkward two carry-ons and shuffled on down to my last voluntary China Eastern Airlines experience of 12+ hours. I had it all planned out: the first 4-or-so hours I would take “sleeping medicine” to indulge in a nap, attempting to align my body with a U.S. circadian rhythm. Then, I would binge-watch all 4 “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies on-demand – CEA’s only saving grace, at this point.

My plan actually panned out very similarly in real time; the only minor differences I did not account for in my prior calculations were that the “Pirates” movies are all longer than 2 hours. Go figure. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed re-watching the first 2 movies (and the first half of the third installment), especially in sequence with one another.

This afternoon, upon arriving in Los Angeles and depositing our bodies and our backpacks on the Venice Beach sands, I stared out longingly at the ocean and considered myself a ‘modern pirate.’ Those same Pacific waters I had just crossed, albeit in the air, were now crashing in waves at my feet on the other side of the shore. How strange and exciting, I thought, for modern humans to consciously lift themselves from one side of familiarity to another, unknown world – wherever the horizon line meets the shores again.

Venice Beach was absolutely spectacular. It felt like a welcoming party that the United States of America had thrown together, just for me. The air was crisp and breezy, with help from the salty waves, and the notorious Los Angeles smog was nowhere to be seen. Though the air was still probably polluted, it was, after living in Phnom Penh for 2 weeks (and being rooted in Shanghai for almost a full day), totally and undeniably refreshing. The space surrounding the beach – wide open white sand, mountains etched into the distance, ocean-goers spread out over the dunes, the Pacific extending for miles and miles of unthinkable blue-ness – felt almost luxurious. This was the most space I had been allowed to breathe, move, and feel in for almost 3 weeks. How much have I taken for granted all of the open grasslands and horizon lines in the distance that are embedded in my everyday Ohio existence, into the DNA etched into my core?

Comparing sunburn scars with Shelby in the 3 remaining hours until boarding our FINAL flight, I honestly can’t believe I got more sun in the last 3 hours than I did in southeast Asia for 2 whole weeks! Guess pain doesn’t always equal gain, because my sweat in Cambodia didn’t surmount to sun-tanned gorgeous skin.

The detectable creature-comforts of America are welcome reminders of the country I call home. Transporting yourself into another culture, and really remaining vigilant and humble about engaging with the local people as I attempted to do in Cambodia, can be rather exhausting on the mental psyche. I don’t know how I’ll re-adapt to my life in Ohio, but I know that I have ‘flown away’ with a new perspective on growing up in a modernized, materialized America.

Now, I am more aware of cost relativity and fully accept that the price amount is not always equivalent to the product worth. Now, I am more aware of the power of positivity – especially in traveling – and can attest to how negative complaining, pining for material comforts, and self-absorption can distract from an enriching, cultural experience in a whole, new world.

I learned much about myself – my self-confidence, my ever-expanding curiosity, my need to decompress and digest – but also through reflections and observations of my travel companions. I learned, by example and by experiment, more about my true self and who I often present myself to be in public settings. The façade is falling slowly, and I’m loving myself more every day.

On a closing note: thank you for embarking on this journey with me. Thank you for reading, following, listening, and asking questions. Thank you for supporting me – monetarily, spiritually, emotionally – as I conquered my first international experience in Cambodia during this last month of May 2016. And, above all, thank you for loving me for me and for appreciating my commentary – a writer always needs an audience, or she risks talking blankly to walls. Or to a crowd-less corner of the World Wide Web.

Signing off,

-bnb

This post also appears on labellamemoir.turmblr.com