Crimson Tundra

Amy Benson is a writer, wanderer and woodworker. She lives in Brooklyn.

The First Moments We Were Alone

If you know me you know, and if you don’t I am informing you, that I very recently became a member of a U.S. government-sponsored organization called the Peace Corps. What this means most immediately for me is that two months ago I moved out of my apartment in New York City and in with a 78-year-old African woman called Eunice.

Four days ago I hugged Eunice, repacked the two duffel bags that constitute everything I own, climbed into a stranger’s pick-up truck and drove nine hours to what will be my home for a further two years. It’s a sparsely populated village in Sub Saharan Africa called Sese. You can’t find it on a map but you can find a speck of a town called Jwaneng, Botswana and imagine me 20 kilometers south of it. That one they documented because of the diamonds they haul out of a crater there. I wrote the following the day after the pick-up truck drove away and I was finally alone.

**********

I wanted to begin writing in this state to document it. I know that my memory of this will smear when I adapt and normalize, and that the truth of these first moments will be lost.

**********

The land changed on the drive from Serowe. It became lush and then it became bolderous and then it became raised swaths of earth, capped by enormous plateaus. Mountains that never peak. Then it became sand and we were there. We drove farther into the sand, snaked around tin shacks and plots of land, ownership asserted by fences of tree branch and wire. In the dark, I collected a stove and lifted it into the truck, surprised by my ability to lift it. I saw great holes in the ground surrounded by mounds and wondered what lives inside of them.

We pulled up alongside a woman and inquired as to where the teacher whose name I knew lived. The teacher who knew where my house was. We were told to count six houses ahead and hers would be that one. I knocked on the door alone and was grateful for the recognition in the woman’s face when I said my greeting and my name in Setswana. She was enormous on top and small on the bottom and holding a four month old baby, whom she handed to me so that she could collect keys. I worried that she was too old to gracefully get into the truck’s high cab but she was practiced and limber and directed us to the house as I held her daughter’s child.

The house is much, much nicer than the shacks around it. The floor is tiled, the door is wooden, there is a ceiling, there are walls of concrete and they are painted light blue and the rooms are large. There are two tables, three chairs, a chest with drawers terminally off their tracks and a bed. I’d been told to expect nothing.

The truck pulls away and I am left using the light from my Nokia to locate candles. I light six of them, in different rooms. In a cabinet I find an ancient candle holder that delights me and I enjoy carrying it from room to room. I remove my mattress from the front bedroom and drag it to the back where there is a curtain, being careful to avoid the candles on the ground. The sky burns intermittently with lightning. I have purchased tomatoes and crackers on the drive and I sit in the corner of the room watching the lightning through the windows, eating off the one tin plate I purchased in anticipation of this moment. I’m unable to wash the tomatoes because the little water I was able to get from the tap I’m afraid not to save for drinking. I don’t know when there will be more. I walk the perimeter of the house in the lightning storm and look for a standpipe with the light from my Nokia, but am unable to locate one. I collapse, still thirsty, onto the mattress and sleep for 9 hours.

My alarm at 6 a.m. confuses me. I wake up and pace. I’ve given myself 30 minutes to prepare to leave for the school. I hope I remember the way through the sand. I need more sleep.

I scrounge through a pile of semi-dirty clothes that I haven’t yet been able to unpack. The least wrinkled item, something that covers my tattoos. I’m able to get an inch or so of water out of the tap and into a bucket to wash my face and teeth.

I trudge through the sand, unable to keep my normal pace, clumsy strides and working calves. I meet my neighbor for the first time. She exits her 6 by 6 tin enclosure wearing a blue jumpsuit and we meet at the fence. I stare into the desert that exists beyond her plot. She asks me if Saturday I will pay her to clean mine. My Setswana is terrible so at first I think she’s thanking me for cleaning the yard but then I concentrate harder and her real aim becomes clear. I look around me not able to comprehend what about my plot is not clean, as the abandoned one next to mine is full of empty beer bottles and dumped, dead brush. I tell her no thank you, I will do it.

I follow the children, dressed also in blue trousers and shirts. They – both the children and the clothes – are stained red in parts from the sand. We squint, they scare me. I try to remember they are just children. I think they want something from me. I decide I don’t know what I’m doing. That I have no skills, no incisive questions. Children walk around me and near me and close behind me, gawking. Asking for money. Not being able to hold my gaze. Looking at me with just as much amazement at my existence as I have at theirs.

The school head and I speak for an hour. The HIV rate is high because of the diamond mine nearby. A shiftless existence, workers coming, going. Men and women away from their families. Everyone drinking too much. I’m told they ignore their children.

A student of about eight years is marched in front of me and it takes me a moment to register the gash on the left side of his bald head that’s actively leaking blood in a trickle down his cheek and off his chin into the sand. I squint at him and at the boy who has evidently caused it. A thrown rock. I’m told this is what happens because the parents aren’t parenting. I’m told that when the kids stop coming to school – kids no older than 12 – it’s often because the mother is sick, dying of AIDS and the child must run the home. I stare at the bloodied child, not fully able to focus on him. His eyes won’t meet anybody’s and he stifles small sobs that are evident only in his hiccuping chest and streaming tears. His eyes register nothing. I want to feel something for this boy, but I don’t. I think only that I will write something down about it and I wonder if I’ll have the capacity to feel anything for anyone while I’m here and if that will matter. I don’t know exactly why I’m here but I know I hoped to feel something. One of many self-involved reasons for coming.

The school head says I must meet the chief so that he can tell the villagers that they have a visitor and that I must be left alone. I must be taken to the clinic, I must be taken to the homes of the children who no longer come. It can be done tomorrow. She tells me to go home, to rest.

I’m home, staring now out of my window watching donkey carts go by commanded by men in blue jump suits. Almost everyone I saw this morning was wearing a blue jumpsuit – men and women both. Men and women from the mines.

I pace, not knowing what to do. My brain will not normalize to this. Not yet. I sit on the porch, I eat a banana. Then cashews. Then an orange. I keep my mouth and hands busy so that I won’t have to be alone with my brain. Two years here. Can I be here for two years? I can feel the heat of the day coming, bursting into the slight kindness of the breezy morning and the absolute nothingness of my view. One of the men steering a donkey cart, he’s gone by twice now and I have confirmed it, is wearing a Santa hat. It’s October.

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Notes on Coming Home Again

Identifying the exact moment in time when my mind no longer belonged to the self-loathing and lapsed space that chiefly defined my depression is not a thing I’ve been able to do with any success whatsoever. Still now, a year and a half after the fact, the start of the thing is the only part I feel any lucidity about. These were the days, and eventually months, that followed my return home from half a year in Asia. I came back to my apartment in Brooklyn on a day in December, and it is this time and place that you and I will agree to refer to as the beginning.

I flew into Newark after paying $800 I didn’t have for a new ticket so that I could stay in Thailand for four extra days. My original flight left Bangkok on December 14 at 9:10pm. I was 950 kilometers away from the airport at the time.

I had been traveling for nearly four months with a man I loved, but after too much time on the road together no longer liked, and, finally, I found myself without him on a small island in Southern Thailand. There was an Italian man who was nine years older than I was and the second day I knew him, I climbed barefoot onto the back of his motorbike so we could find the southern tip of the island where he was sure “his beach” was. When we found it, we ate glass noodle salad on the sand next to free-roaming elephants and watched the sun set over the Andaman Sea. I was dressed in only a bathing suit and sarong and he drove me back with one hand while rubbing my legs warm with the other.

On our third morning – what was to be my last – I woke on the hardwood floor of the damp bungalow we’d come to share to a mess of melted candle wax and limbs, and pages from his Australia Lonely Planet book and our quiet talk about making our way together. There was no mention of the airport and when the time for my bus came and went we wandered outside to the beach and laid down in the sand where Pablo wrapped me in a sheet and called me his American girl with strawberry hair.

I would have stayed longer had I not promised my mother I would be home for Christmas.

When I finally did go home, it was to my old loft in Bushwick. The ride from the airport was cold but I opened the windows to the cab and let the air burn my face, not wanting to miss what I had anticipated would be an impactful moment. I’d invented a cocktail of two ambien and some unknown quantity of Jim Beam on the plane in a futile attempt at sleep, though, so whatever moment may have occurred was lost on my sleepless, boozy brain and instead I rolled into my neighborhood without a cogent thought in my head and hauled my backpack up three flights of stairs to an apartment where the paint peeled back from the walls, the ceilings poured rain and the floors sloped to one side. Mice skirted around the exposed wiring in the fuse box.

I had turned 29 during the trip, a fact that presented itself unsolicited to my consciousness as I stared stupidly at my bed, the legs of which sat in dishes of five-month old cooking oil and were surrounded by a powdered poison – souvenirs from a bout of bed bugs before I’d left. It was there that I made another attempt at sleep, trying to unthink the facts of my present existence, namely that I had no job, a mountain of bills and the knowledge that I wasn’t capable of going back to the work that had sustained me through my 20s.

Some time later – twenty minutes or seven hours – I woke to the sound of the boyfriend I’d parted ways with in Bangkok pounding on my door. After we had both discerned that I was in fact alive, he left me in a puddle of tears on the poison powder-encircled bed and I slept in fits of sweat and Jim Beam and jet lag for two days.

In the weeks that followed, thinking of myself as a writer and grasping for some way to define my newly rootless self, I would daily trudge to my local coffee shop and attempt to write. The depression growing inside of me seemed inexplicable and made even this small event a problem for my ego. There was no way to reconcile the hopes I’d had for this period with the smallness of how I felt, and I tried to teach people to unsee me by avoiding eye contact and wearing giant sweatshirts that robbed me of any hints of sexuality I might have otherwise possessed.

The first in a string of odd jobs was a bartending gig at a drag queen cabaret in the East Village. Two of the specialties here were a Paulina’s Pink Pussy and a Jessabel’s Poo Tang, neither of which I could competently make and, though this period of underemployment could wholeheartedly be categorized as a disaster, I did, as a small bright point, receive makeup and general beauty advice from the queens I was working the bar with, some of which I still employ.

I can only assume that the breakdown that occurred six months or so after my return happened then because logistical necessities were sorted enough that they could no longer shield me from the central fact that I was failing at reintegrating into my life. Post-trip blues exploded into the quiet withdrawal of basic abilities. I remember telling a friend that I was scared, but not being able to name the fear. I only knew that things like hygiene, nutrition, lucidity, speaking weren’t the reflexive components of life they once were and that the foreign nature of the brain I was now working with was more terrifying to me than anything tangible I could imagine then or now.

The symptom I was most aware of for some reason was that seasons genuinely surprised me. The rest of the world seemed to be able to predict their comings and goings with ease, whereas I’d walk into a 90 degree day in June with a coat across my shoulders without being able to comprehend who had alerted all of the other pedestrians to the passage of time. I was still dealing with February. Wasn’t February enough to deal with? How had people found the mental space to acquire shorts? Where had I been?

I don’t know what the breakdown looked like from the outside. I have a close friend who recently told me that I was “learning to have fun again.” I imagine this means the lack of joy in my life was clear, but I’m not sure in what ways. I know that to live it was to live with two basic notions, namely that my friends’ reactions to my lame attempts at describing what was happening (when I finally realized that there was an ‘it’ and, secondarily realized that it was necessary to discuss it) made clear the fact that they had not experienced the kind of abstract dread I was trying to describe. A thing that is its own brand of loneliness piled on top of loneliness. The second was the withdrawal of my basic belief in the dignity and value of my existence.

My mind would snap to the moment I was conscious, reminding me of all the ways in which I had failed it and making waking up in the middle of the night to pee a ridiculous exercise in meditation. Trying to quiet my mind enough so that I could go back to sleep. This is when I decided that peeing in a bucket next to my bed was perfectly acceptable behavior. The less time my mind had to gallop into the loops, the easier it was for me to fall back asleep.

The trip was intended to be a new beginning for me but the end of the trip was the real critical event in this case.

This would have been a very peculiar idea to me two years ago.

Some of the Soldiers, They Were Naughty

[Also featured on The Matador Network]

It took me a long time and five continents to learn what I know about the men you can trust and the ones you can’t, and my gut told me I could trust this man. Still. He was a man and I barely knew him so I fingered the six-inch gurkha knife I had tucked into my pants before I climbed onto the back of his motorbike. “The restaurant is not in town,” is all he would reveal.

John*, who had just returned to Burma following a more than two-decade exile, was excited. When we arrived at the stilted teak pier and shack that constituted the restaurant, I realized there was an air about him – one that hadn’t been there earlier in the day – of just barely suppressed intensity, like a person who had recently eaten a chili pepper. Time, I had discovered during the previous two weeks, was an extraordinarily flexible concept in Burma, yet he had arrived at my guesthouse precisely at 7 p.m. as we had discussed, wearing ironed blue jeans and a white blazer. I wondered if he thought we were on a date.

Earlier as we exited the gate from Nyaung Shwe, a substantial fishing village southeast of Mandalay, he drove clumsily and pointed to an unimpressive pagoda. “That’s where they changed my life,” he had said. Twenty-four years earlier, he had been the leader of the uprising that both brought Aung San Suu Kyi forth as a national icon and led to the public slaughtering of thousands of Burmese civilians.

I’d spent the afternoon watching him do business. He plucked me from a wrongheaded walk through the countryside outside of Nyaung Shwe and spoke to me in an English that, though fluent, was spiced with isms I didn’t recognize. He said things like, “up the spout” and “no good, lah?”

Having been on bicycle, he disembarked so that we could talk and, wheeling it between us, led the way to a small village. He was more carefully groomed than most Burmese I had encountered: His teeth were white and straight and his clothes were western, a polo shirt tucked into belted cargo shorts. He spoke of visiting Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan, even the States.

His frankness was unusual. In my experience, most Burmese were reserved around foreigners, while John freely offered up the fact that he was in the country “unofficially,” that he thought the recent change in government had a 50/50 shot at working, that it was all dependent on which of Burma’s current leaders lived and which died.

The business of the day, as it turned out, was something John called cut rice. A mixture of two kinds that are soaked, ground, cut into strips, dried and fried. John was in the village to negotiate a deal to buy wholesale and secure the exclusive rights to sell bags of these things one town over. He insisted that I sit on a log and drink tea while he made his case to the shirtless proprietor. The business meeting involved all present, including the 7-year-old kid who had showed us the way to the correct hut after demanding both money and candy and me (on my log), munching on cut rice and sitting in a semi-circle in a field around the proprietor’s sizable wife, who was actively frying in an enormous wok over an open flame. Cut rice had been this family’s business for three generations and I left clutching an enormous bag of it, a gift.

During dinner, John became more animated and excitable with each sip of beer. His giddiness was childlike and he picked up previously absent traits like running his hands back through his hair and laughing at his own jokes. Having become mildly alarmed at his newly manic behavior, I barely spoke except to steer his story telling from time to time. I sipped my beer slowly and tried and failed to formulate a plan for making sure he drank enough to keep talking, but not so much that he couldn’t drive me back. The night was black and still and empty and I didn’t know where we were.

Years before, when John was 16, his family had drained its savings and commissioned a forged passport that enabled his relocation to Malaysia. He had been wanted and hunted by the military junta that levied its brutal wrath against the people of Burma for nearly 50 years.

This was 1988. If December 2010 could be called the beginning of the Arab Spring, March of ’88 was the beginning of Burma’s. There had been a transfer of power within the military-run government that resulted in the devaluing of currency notes, a blow of particular significance to students, and to John and his brother specifically, because it wiped out the funds their family had been saving for tuition. Years of diligence and hopeful study were nullified instantly and something snapped within the country’s collective psyche. Normally obedient citizens protested. Riots followed. It was in response to these events that Aung San Suu Kyi took a microphone and a stage. Years later, after she’d missed her husband’s death and her children’s childhoods, she would ask of the rest of the world, “use your liberty to promote ours.”

In 1988, John lived in the same village where we met that afternoon and it was here that the unrest that had mounted since March of that year peaked and crashed. John and his brother had been the ones to open a parcel shipped to their local college from student protestors at the University of Rangoon. Its contents were women’s underwear – specifically, bras – and a note asking not politely if their decision not to protest was perhaps a result of latent female tendencies. In essence, they were calling them pussies and a flood of bravado ensued. They marched – John and his brother the de facto leaders – and the military reacted by clubbing many of them to death and raping others. Some of those who were captured were forced at gunpoint to walk arm in arm through minefields until someone set one off.

John admitted to his terror: “I wanted to be brave but I wasn’t, I ran.”

That night two military officers approached his home to inform his father that his sons were marked. Risking their own lives, the soldiers had come to warn the family. His father had been well respected in the village, his sons well liked. In John’s words, “some of the soldiers, they were naughty.” If they weren’t gone in 12 hours, they would be back to shoot. He and his brother hid in a field where they slept and ate and pissed in shifts while the necessary bribes were made to secure passports.

When he arrived in Malaysia, there was an arrangement through an immigrant service – he slept on the floor of a couple’s block apartment and was given a demolition job. He didn’t know how to handle an axe but each day he was charged with tunneling through the walls of condemned buildings. In Burma he had been an educated boy from a good family, a college student, a young man with prospects. His second week there, as he used the apartment’s wash bin to bathe, he discovered the woman’s wedding ring and returned it. In gratitude, the couple, who as yet had barely spoken to him, took John to dinner where he confessed how he came to be in Malaysia. Immediately they went to the night market and bought for him clothes, a mattress, sheets. He remained living with the couple for a further two years.

Having eventually installed himself in his own apartment and having saved all of his wages for this purpose, in 1992 he began sending for them. They came one at a time. He sent the money to his father – cash hidden in parcels of packaged food – and passports were arranged. Cousins, nephews, neighbors were sent. Each spent half a year living on his floor, finding jobs, learning English. They dispersed.

John says that he doesn’t know of any that returned to Burma. He estimates that over the course of ten years he and his father were responsible for the illegal transplanting of 17 young Burmese citizens. Many they never heard from again but rumors would surface that they’d ended up in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Thailand.

When his father died, John didn’t receive word of it for over a year. Finally, a letter. He crossed overland from northern Thailand by foot. He wore a longyi – the folded sheet of cloth that almost all Burmese men wear instead of pants – and carried the cash that would be necessary for bribes if he were caught. He went to his father’s burial site and saw his mother for the first time in more than 20 years.

When we finally left the restaurant – more than three hours after we had arrived – John asked if I wanted to drive. Perhaps he sensed my apprehensions or perhaps he was just drunk. As he directed me back into town I felt a tinge of shame about the knife in my pants. I could feel it pressing against my leg and in that moment I knew it had been unnecessary.

As we passed the pagoda where, as a child, he confronted the soldiers, I asked him what he thought his life would be like if none of it had happened. He replied that he would probably be a very rich man but that he wouldn’t have as much knowledge.

*Note: Name has been changed.

Choosing Your Cambodia

There is an island off the coast of Cambodia called Koh Rong. This is a place where miles of white sand meet turquoise waters dotted with virgin coral and saturated with snorkel-worthy schools of tropical fish. It is a place where a few intrepid entrepreneurs have built modern bungalows scattered amid the lush jungle that sits behind the sands. Guide books use phrases like “sheer brilliance” and “quintessential paradise” to describe the island’s collection of untouched beaches.

I have never been to Koh Rong.

I spent nearly a month in Cambodia doing what I thought of as earning that island.

I collapsed into Phnom Penh after a 40-hour, non-stop journey from a city called Bagan in central Burma, the last place I’d slept since two days prior being the moth-ridden floor of a temple in Yangoon where I fell asleep with a nail-studded stick in my hand because it was 3 a.m. and the pack of feral dogs circling the pagoda did not seem fond of me. In Phnom Penh I shared a bed with a stranger I’d met at the airport. We took a cab to the hostel she’d booked. I, of course, had no booking and they had no rooms. She had a double, which we took to mean a room with two beds. When we saw just the one, we were both too tired to argue and spent the night huddled firmly on our respective sides.

I bussed it halfway to Laos and ambled through the apocalyptic streets of Kratie. I boarded a packed mini-van that was headed further north that was somehow, astonishingly, never full according to the driver. Five minutes after the other two foreigners in the van and I exchanged looks that said, “surely, surely that is the last person we can possibly stop to pick up” the driver welcomed onto our laps a family of four and the two bamboo baskets stuffed with live chickens that comprised their luggage. He stopped a couple more times after that.

In Ban Lung, a town in the far northeast corner of Cambodia, I studied a map of the country and decided that in no way was I to be confined to this idea that one has to backtrack south by bus to transfer to another bus that goes to Siem Reap – the tourist trap of a town that you have no choice but to house yourself in if you want to see the temples of Angkor. And, by the way, you do want to see the temples of Angkor.

This notion might require a bit of explaining about my family. My brother and I spent the majority of our childhood being bounced from one overseas military base to another, while my father pursued his naval career. This upbringing, for better or worse, bestowed upon us a powerful sense of entitlement and independence. By the time we settled back down in the states it was too late for us – we didn’t belong anywhere and certainly didn’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else. This, coupled with my father’s philosophy that with the correct set of words and corresponding number of American greenbacks anything is possible, prompted me to do what I always do when I need to find someone to do something stupid with me: I put on a skirt and went to the bar. Within fifteen minutes I had a Khmer co-conspirator and the next day we were set to drive his motorcycle directly across Cambodia’s northern territories. His explanation, “I think there’s a dirt road now, if not, I know my way through the jungle,” was good enough for me.

For the entirety of the trip, he held my backpack between his knees and reached around it to grip the handle bars. I didn’t quite fit on the remaining portion of the seat so half of my ass hung off the back of the bike as we careened across the country. When we stopped for gas on the way out of Ban Lung, the woman who poured it didn’t believe that we were going to Siem Reap. She laughed and gave a backward flip of her hand as if to say, “whatever.” The guide book I carried describes the province where we spent our second night, Preah Vihear, as “extremely remote” and “genuine Cambodian outback.” It’s stunningly beautiful.

When we got to Siem Reap, I walked into a guest house and the owners stopped what they were doing and spoke a single english word: “wow.” I was covered in dust and mud. My hair and face were orange and what had once been a white shirt was now brown.

In Siem Reap I did, indeed, visit the temples of Angkor. I also came down with heat exhaustion. I decided that the best thing to do the day after recovering from heat exhaustion was to board an open-air boat that would take me eight hours south to a colonial town near the Thai border. I had not considered that it would be hot or that I would need much water. Five hours in I stared stupefied at the river, not enjoying a single aspect of the trip, begrudging the driver for driving slowly so that people could take pictures, and thinking that my misfortune was not my fault in any way, it had been completely unavoidable, an act of fate. I lamely and, incomprehensibly to me now, stole water from a fellow passenger who had gone to the back of the boat for a change of scenery. Wouldn’t he have just given it to me if I had asked? That night I trembled in my bed and considered going to the hospital. The next morning I was okay.

When I arrived at the coast a few days later after a 13-hour bus ride, in my opinion, I had goddamn well earned that island. I’d stay a few days on Otres Beach on the mainland and then go.

I found an Italian-run guest house and rented a bungalow right on the beach. For two days I drank good wine, I ate lobster ravioli. I booked my passage to Koh Rong.

On the third day I took a walk down the beach. I think I walked two or three miles and just before I came to a channel I couldn’t cross – it was too deep to wade through and I had a camera with me so I could not swim – I came to a collection of huts constructed of nothing more than a few boards that served as platforms and tipi-shaped roofs made of bundles of thick, dried weeds. Soon I was consumed with watching Khmer children play amid the huts. A toddler stumbled around, trying out his newly-discovered legs, falling often and harmlessly in the soft sand. I’d find out later that his name is Johnny.

I had the best hut in the place. Do doubt about it. I was perhaps 15 feet from where the water laps at high tide – the only one that near – and my hut was the only one with its own, exclusive hammock. Ox, the owner, winked when he handed me the padlock for hut six and said that he was giving it to me because I was alone. This, by the way, is a great and unthinkable tragedy in the eyes of Cambodian men. When they find out that you are also 30 and unmarried, they are so thoroughly horrified that they react physically to the news. They wince and shake their heads and either selflessly offer up their services or soberly inform you that they hope you find a husband soon.

There were six of us. That first night I sat at the bar drinking with Ox and watching two young Austrian guys playing cards. Ox lit the place up with candles and if you walked toward the water you could look left and then right and not see a thing apart from palm trees and stars. A British traveler had taken over music duties and American blues from the 40s was softly echoing out of two unnecessarily large speakers. Dinner was fish and rice. We all ate together – Ox, his family and the six of us. Heaping plates for each of fish that had been barbecued whole with the eyes and scales still in place. If you asked what kind it was you were told “from the sea.” Ox had caught it earlier that day.

In the morning I picked ants out of my toothbrush and stood near the water brushing my teeth and watching Johnny’s mother, Ox’s wife, swing the tiny boy in a hammock.

Otres is a fine beach. There is sand, there is water, there is sunshine, hammocks are freely available. There are also flies and a little bit of garbage that wades in and cows roaming around doing what cows do. I was supposed to leave for the paradise that is Koh Rong later that afternoon. For the briefest of moments I considered that I would just stay one more night with Ox and his family. I’d go to Koh Rong tomorrow.

It’s seven days later now. Ox has told me all about how he made the money to build his huts. No matter what time of day he encounters me he greets me with an exuberant, “good evening!” There are still ants in my toothbrush every morning.

Fifteen Minutes with the Gods

(This blog post is dedicated to Colin Lockard for reasons he well knows.)

For five U.S. dollars, you can be the only human soul alive or dead atop the largest religious structure ever realized by mankind. You can watch the guard tuck the $5 into his wallet and stretch back the gate just enough for you to get your legs over it and you can climb 55 meters skyward at dusk and you can be entirely alone with the gods.

And you can perch yourself atop the highest stone of the right-hand tower of Angkor Wat and if you don’t believe in anything anymore, you will believe in this. And if you are emotionally bankrupt, this will fill you up. Your demons will surrender and your mind will be still. For just a moment. And because life exists only in impermanent moments, in this one, your life will be perfect.

And you can stroll the ancient corridors in the day’s lingering light – the sun’s gift to you after it has already gone. And you can take off your hat and your shoes and lift the cloth of your shirt to expose your back and lay flat on the stone that still holds the day’s heat and let 900 years of faith and fury and ambition and humanity touch your skin and seep into your blood. And here you can have a small conversation with your heart and it will whisper to you the secrets of its resilience.

And when it’s almost too dark to see your feet, you can give the stones a kiss and climb down and three armed guards will escort you through the maze of corridors and down the sandstone causeway. And when it’s entirely too dark to see and you can hear only your footsteps and the screeching of bats overhead, you will think that the guards are going to pull out flashlights but instead they’ll pull out iPhones and you’ll walk out of Angkor Wat flanked by the legacies of two great men: King Suryavarman II and Steve Jobs.

And when they ask where your driver is and you tell them you walked to the temple in the morning before sunrise and don’t have one, they won’t believe you but no matter. One of the guards will offer you a ride. And you’ll watch him retrieve his motorbike from a bit of jungle near the mighty outer wall and as you snake eastward and drive away, you’ll peer backward and watch the soaring pillars disappear into a moonless, deep blue night.

And you’ll fly and fly and weave through tuk tuks and cars helmet-less and it will all be okay because for just a moment, for just a little while longer, nothing can touch you.

When you go to Thailand

(Also featured on the Matador Network)

When you go to Thailand, go North.

When you get to Chiang Mai, rent a motorbike from an Englishman named Tony. He’ll tell you to bring it back any time. He’ll use the words, “when you’ve had your fill.”

Commence readying your bike for your trip. It has gears, naturally, but by no means is the thing the last word in motorcycle excellence. It’s a scooter and you must resign yourself to this.

If you like, you can test the elasticity of your tie-downs or the perkiness of the brakes or make sure it has gas in it or walk in a circle around it pretending to be looking into its road-worthiness.

When you’re ready to start, drive up highway 107 to get out of town. Soon, you will become soaked, cold, and blinded by rain. Find a thatch-roofed restaurant in the middle of nowhere and decide that you have located paradise itself. The waitress is so friendly! The dishware so attractive! The small buddha statue in the corner is virtually the greatest work in all of Thailand!

At some point, the skies will clear. Pull onto highway 1095 and keep going north.

Before you reach Pai, congratulate yourself on your chosen mode of travel. Become entirely wrapped up in your superiority to other travelers and their buses and their clean faces and their inferior photo opportunities. You are privileged. You are forging your own path. You are really beginning to understand Thai culture in a meaningful manner, despite having been here for only two days.

You are almost hit by a pick-up truck while rounding a mountain corner. You are a lonely, arrogant moron.

Drive to six guesthouses in Pai looking for a room. Notice the horde of tents pitched on the other side of the river and reevaluate your accommodation search strategy. Park your bike, cross the bamboo bridge away from the center of town, and find a platform and a thatch roof for rent for 50 baht a night.

Drink tea. Sleep.

When you’ve woken, attempt to do yoga on your platform. Ten minutes into the session, while settling into a downward facing dog stance, shove your foot through the wood and create a giant hole. Confess the deed to the proprietor. He’ll think you’re an asshole but will tell you his son can fix it.

Once he does, keep going north. Drive your motorbike 40 kilometers more to Soppong. Find yourself in a small market town and see only one other tourist. Rent a cabin from a Thai woman and her German husband. Eat streusel cake.

When you go to Thailand, ensure you have timed your travels such that when you wake the next day, it will be the king’s birthday. You’ll be informed that gas stations are always closed on the king’s birthday and that everyone knows this.

Use the last of your gas to follow a Swiss traveler 17 kilometers through the mountains to a small town where there may be some fuel.

Ask him before you leave where the gas is in case you get separated. He’ll reply that it’s “at the store in town.” Ask him which one. He’ll reply that there is only one store in town.

Fill up your bike.

Because of the manner in which you’ve come to be where you are — you’ve rented a motorized vehicle with no credentials whatsoever other than Tony asking you if you can handle yourself, you’ve driven for days on narrow highways and through villages without seeing even a hint of something that might suggest a speed limit — it’s easy to become convinced of a certain lawlessness to this place. You will begin to think of yourself and your backpack and your bike and your rain jacket as its own republic, with its own customs and laws and disposition.

Your republic could be accused of being socialist. It welcomes immigrants but does ask that they fill out a bit of paperwork first. It places a premium on areas of the land where petrol can be obtained. It stops anywhere a hot sweet potato is being roasted on the roadside.

When you go to Thailand, meet an Australian named John. Stay in his guesthouse and meet his Thai wife and their one-year-old grandchild. John will tell you about the time he came to Thailand when he was 22 and didn’t leave for 30 years. He’ll tell you about trekking in the north during the ’80s and watching Burmese villagers flee across the border with their belongings perched on their heads. He’ll tell you about the time the Thai government accused him of murder.

When you go to Thailand, drive as far northwest as you can. Drive until a Burmese soldier tells you not to anymore. Spend the night in Mae Hong Son. Spend another one. Drive on to Mae Chaem and wonder, on getting there, why it is that you have done this.

Begin attempting to speak English in a way that you believe even people who don’t speak English will understand. Use sentences like, “you give bed” and “I take food.” This won’t work, but, unfortunately, that fact won’t stop you.

You will begin to be defined by movement, your destinations merely excuses for a progression through the terrain. Stay anywhere too long and you will have to move on. You will have no real concept of the next town, but you’ll be driven by an intense need to get on the road. It’s what you do.

Passing the last evidence of towndom each morning, into the unknown of the mountains, you’ll be overcome by a sense of reverence for the road. At the end of each day, you’ll hope for a town that believes in the liberal dispensing of electricity. The most satisfying entrances will be made at dusk, when you can still see the road without your headlight but when the lights of the town are visible from the road before you get there. You’ll wonder if they sell cold beer there. If someone will make food for you.

As you make your approach to the most remote villages, you’ll be met with immediate acceptance. They will smile curiously at your otherness, your patience and skill at getting there an automatic ticket of entry into their town.

For the night, you will be a resident. You’ll walk the main street and peruse the market looking at fruit. Later, you’ll go to the “bar,” if there is such a place. You’ll listen to conversations you can’t understand. You’ll look into people’s faces and try to understand them that way instead.

Early in the morning, you will put the belongings you’ve unpacked back into your drybag and strap it to the basket on the front of your bike. You’ll put your money pouch and camera around your neck, two layers of pants on your legs, and your backpack on your back. You’ll sneak out of town before too many people are on the streets.

One morning, you’ll end up back in Chiang Mai.

In Nepal, We Have to be Perfect

About two hours before I was draped over his chair with my back exposed, letting him put a tattoo on it, I met Manish. He’s from Kathmandu proper.

I liked and trusted Manish almost immediately and it wasn’t until half an hour had gone by that I noticed how young he was. I asked his age and found out he was 20. He had been working as a tattoo artist since he was 15, starting in his craft early because, in his words, “in Nepal, we have to be perfect.”

The population density of New York City is just over 10,000 people per square kilometer. Even if you’ve never been there, you probably have some understanding that NYC is crowded, competitive and generally irritating. And that’s with all the benefits of being a city in a first world country with, like, electricity that usually stays on. Halfway through the two hours he spent stabbing me in the back with a needle, the power to the city went out and Manish excused himself, reappeared a few minutes later and hooked up an ancient car battery to his lamp and whatever the torturous thing that sticks the needle into your skin while you’re getting a tattoo is called. We carried on that way and he thought nothing of it so I pretended like I didn’t either.

Anyway, the population density of Kathmandu is nearly double that of NYC at 19,500 people per square kilometer. Double. That means that Kathmandu is twice as crowded, competitive and irritating. Also, Nepal doesn’t currently have a functioning government. I heard some echo of this from every single Nepali person I spoke with during my month there, but the most poignant example I can give, I witnessed myself. I had to witness it. It was on the corner of of the traffic circle in Kathmandu’s Thamel neighborhood and there was no way to get back to my hotel each night without walking by it. It was the fact that in that particular area of town, like in every other, there is no garbage collection and, instead, during the day everybody who lives within some particular radius of this spot brings their garbage to the curb and leaves it. At the end of each day, this results in a fairly massive pile of garbage. It’s probably two feet high, sticks out maybe eight feet from the curb and is about five feet wide. It’s already sort of gross that this mound of stinking food and litter piles up every day, but later in the night is when the cows come in to play. The Nepali are largely Hindu and this means that cows can basically do whatever they like. They wander the streets, they aren’t to be harmed and, as I learned night after night, they’re well fed. They’re herded up and brought to this garbage pile so that they can eat it. And they do. It’s not an appetizing thing to watch.

Ironically, however, if Manish doesn’t make enough money to eat, there isn’t any such thing as food stamps or unemployment benefits or large piles of free food to fall back on. It’s on him, and it has been since he was the age that most American kids are sophomores in high school.

This is at least partly due to Nepal’s lack of a governing body. Ten years ago, on a Friday in June, the heir to the Nepali throne murdered nine other members of the royal family and then turned an AK-47 on himself. Those he murdered included his father, mother, brother, sister and several aunts. It was a massacre. The most amazing part of this story, however, is that the heir didn’t die. He was in a coma for three days and during those three days – because he had killed his father – he was the king of Nepal. They proclaimed him king after he murdered his entire family in the royal palace and while he was entirely unconscious. On the fourth day, however, he finally did die and since that day until now, Nepal has basically been ungoverned.

This may sound great to some of the Libertarians I know, but it has had some ugly consequences.

For one, hospitals.

In order to tell you what I know about public hospitals in Nepal, I have to first inform you of the fact that the concept of a line is entirely foreign to Nepali people. They reject it as a theory or plan or system for waiting. As an alternative, they form a large human gaggle, press their bodies directly into the backs of the people in front of them, throw elbows and shoulders to try to gain ground and all the while continue on with their respective conversations in louder voices so as to be heard over the other loud voices. It’s chaos and it’s how it goes absolutely everywhere you go. Airports, restaurants, bathrooms, food carts. Everywhere.

This method for waiting was most poignantly exhibited to us while fully participating in the insanity outside of a doctor’s office in a hospital in Pokhara. Being not really that amused at the time and thinking my travel companion, Michael, might die of a mysterious lung disease, we held on tight to his chest x-ray and used our bodies as human shields to guard our places in the “line.” The one fortunate aspect of our situation at the time was that the Nepali are generally short and we were able to stick our noses above the din of the coughing, spitting, breathing, potentially contagious crowd.

We were seen by a doctor relatively quickly, which surprised me, given that there were nearly fifty locals sitting in chairs, on ledges or on the ground around the door that led to the one doctor in the hospital. They had looks on their faces that suggested they had been there a long time and many of them looked very, very sick. After asking a few questions of expats later that day, I found out that we were seen so quickly because we were white and because Nepal is very dependent on tourism dollars (or rupees). Basically, they don’t want foreigners dying on vacation. If you’re Nepalese, though, you wait forever. There’s one doctor. You have to pay after each service you receive. After you get an x-ray, you go to the payment counter. Before you see the doctor, you go to the payment counter. After someone takes your blood, you go to the payment counter. And most people can’t afford all that so, with no hope of government assistance, they don’t go to the hospital at all. It’s a mess to be really sick and Nepalese.

Buses.

It’s a smaller mess to need to get somewhere that you consider to be too far to walk to, but it’s still a mess. The buses are run by corrupt drivers, they’re pretty much never serviced and they’re packed to a dangerous and uncomfortable degree.

One morning I awoke in Pokhara – where we spent almost a week doing very little while Michael recovered from bronchitis – and decided to explore the countryside alone by motorcycle for the day. I announced my intentions to Michael, who in turn announced that that would not be happening. After a somewhat embarrassing public disagreement over this matter, he stormed off in the direction of town and I stormed off in the direction of the motorcycle rental lot. Five minutes later I had a bike and a helmet and was driving off the lot to the sounds of the rental guy yelling at me to get on the left side of the road. About ten minutes following this ungraceful start, the right-hand side mirror to the bike flew off, hit me in the face and was disorienting long enough for me to hit and slide underneath one of these overcrowded buses. It could have been bad, but it wasn’t and I got up fast, for obvious reasons.

Chaos ensued shockingly immediately.

Everyone wanted a piece of this accident. The bus stopped. Everyone on bicycle, motorcycle and car who was in the general vicinity stopped to stare or yell. I was standing next to the bus lifting my bike from the ground and looked up to see that half of the thirty Nepali people riding the bus I had hit were sticking their heads out of the window hollering at me in Nepalese. The driver came out and was pointing to the completely fabricated “scratch” I had left on the bus (I had hit the tire) and was clearly demanding money. A man helped me to lift the bike and move it to the side of the road and then he demanded money. I held on tight to my backpack and stood there trying to ignore both the driver and the man I had thought was just being kind, and looked out at the street that refused to return to order. It didn’t take much consideration to decide that I needed to leave the scene absolutely immediately so I checked to see if the bike would start, got back on it and drove away despite the three pairs of hands trying to physically prevent me.

I had managed to hold on to the side mirror and thirty minutes after leaving, I sat down next to Michael at the cafe I knew he would be inhabiting and slid the mirror in front of him. He took in my bloody leg and dirty clothes, and started cleaning my wounds and berating me at the same time.

Anyway, the transportation system there is not perfect.

The education system isn’t much better. Kids go to school until they’re around 11, unless they’re very lucky or very brave. I met one such kid whose family owned a small row boat and who was trying to make money by offering to row people around Phewa Lake. I didn’t have anything better to do with my time or my money, so I gave it to him. Normally it takes thirty minutes to row around the lake, but he asked me if I was in a hurry, I realized I wasn’t and I got to spend the next two hours talking with him about his life. He came from a family of seven, who all lived in a house with three rooms, one of them the bathroom. He was 19 and had been working either in restaurants or rowing the boat since he was 10. His english was good because he wanted very much to be an english teacher some day so that he could get out of Nepal. He worked to feed his family – his older brother was ill, his father was elderly and his mother and sisters were his responsibility. But he also worked to pay for his own schooling. At one point we passed some Nepali kids his age in another boat who were drinking beers and jumping in the water. He started talking to them in Nepalese and told me they were his friends. They got to spend their day playing, but he had to work every single day, he said. He had to be perfect.

I asked him why he wanted to leave his country and he echoed what I’d heard before. His words were “Nepal is fucked up.” I heard the same phrase from a doctor, guides, shop owners, Manish. Unfortunately, it was one of the last things I heard while in Nepal. On October 19, I put my backpack in a trunk and got into a cab that I directed to the airport. The cab driver had some english and the only thing he wanted to discuss was Nepal’s problems. At the time I had a couple of my own – I didn’t think I had enough money to pay for the cab and I was afraid I was going to miss my flight, so I wasn’t very talkative. Finally, he ended with “Nepal is fucked up” and gave up trying to talk to me. I gave him every rupee I had when we got to the airport. Despite whatever problems he had so ardently wanted to discuss, he smiled and told me it was enough.