The first time

It’s been almost ten years now, the memories are blurry. But that feeling won’t let itself be forgotten. 

Maybe not all of us have been through this particular roller-coaster of emotions, so imagine : in the morning, you pack your bags. Two backpacks, a big and a small one, with all the essentials to get by for six months in a foreign country. Six months. No big deal. Your parents drive you to the airport, where your whole family is assembled to say goodbye. Because you’re leaving for Asia, for a six-month internship in an NGO. You’re twenty-two years old, fresh off an Erasmus in Spain, in the middle of your Master’s degree. This is not an academically-approved internship. Nobody seems to care, least of all you. 

You hug and kiss everyone goodbye at the gate. Sister and brother-in-law, dad, mom. You hug your grandma a little longer. You don’t know this yet, but saying goodbye to these people will never get easier. Every time you do it, it gets a little bit harder. Eventually, you won’t want to leave anymore. But it’s only the second time in your life you’re doing this, and you can’t wait to get out of here. Spread your broken wings and learn to fly.

If I remember correctly, the layover is in Mumbai. You only have dollars on you and everything is in rupees. You take out a new notebook, a beautifully ornate one. You already had a thing for notebooks. You write some heartfelt drivel inside it about goodbyes and adventure. I know now: you weren’t scared enough. You had no way to prepare, to know what was to come, but that much is clear to me now : a twenty-two year old should have been much more afraid to move to the other side of the world, where they didn’t know anyone and the imposing shadow of their older sibling would follow them everywhere.

Anyway. Plane rides are plane rides. You hate flying, but you enjoy the opportunity to watch blockbusters. Another layover in Bangkok. You know that airport by heart now, isn’t it funny? You thought nothing of it back then.

The plane ride to Phnom Penh is still, to this day, the worst, scariest plane ride of your life. But at this point, you’ve been awake for over twenty hours, who cares if you crash? Not you. The plane sinks into an air pocket, you screw your eyes shut. When you open them and glance outside the window, there it is. The outskirts of the capital during the rainy season : lakes of brown and green, flooded rice fields and dirt roads, tiny tin houses. An ugly mess. It doesn’t look at all like the postcards and the pictures in the Lonely Planet. 

You’re disappointed, a little bit. You know nothing.

Defying all expectations, the plane lands safely in Pochentong airport. Well, this is it. No going back now. 

The air, outside on the tarmac. The air is hot and liquid, moving around you, dragging against your skin, permeating your hair with the smell of dust, of sun, of sticky rice and rotting waste and gasoline. You’ve been outside for fifteen seconds and you’re sweating in your striped red and white t-shirt. Welcome to the rest of your life. 

An enthusiastic tuk-tuk driver takes you on, yes yes, he knows the guesthouse you’re telling him to go to, yes. Okay Guesthouse, sure, but listen, there’s another guesthouse, right next to it, cheaper, much better. He’ll take you there, okay? You should be arguing with the enthusiastic tuk-tuk driver, but you’re a twenty-two year old baby alone in a foreign country and you’ve been awake for close to thirty hours and it’s the middle of a hot, humid August afternoon. You’ve survived a very eventful plane ride: you just want a bed. The tuk-tuk driver kicks his moto to life. You go along, clutching your bag to your chest. 

This is the very first time you get to experience this : the busy streets of Phnom Penh after it rained, in the middle of the afternoon. The chaos of traffic, minivans, motodops and bicycles, street vendors, beggars, temples and boulevards, squares, parks, the Royal Palace and the riverside. Trash, plastic bags littering every corner of the city, the heat over rapidly fading puddles, potholes, strident music and kids playing on narrow sidewalks. 

Chaos. An absolute nightmare. A total mess. So much unbridled life. You’re exhausted and your eyes are drinking in as much as they can and your heart is fit to burst. You know, right then and there. This wasn’t a mistake. This place is made for you, or you are made for it, or you were both made for each other. It doesn’t really matter, the only thing that matters is this : you were looking for a place to call home for a while, a place where your soul vibrates, where you belong. A mess for a mess. And you know this will be hard, of course it will. But you’ve found it. This is where you get to grow.

Our house in the middle of our street

There was a white two story house in the village behind the NGO I worked at. There was a little paved yard in front of it where we parked the motos, and a concrete outside staircase that lead to the second floor. We painted the walls inside, blue frescas against a white background. My bedroom door had a red and black Dalek on it. My roommate’s had a grey and white cubist face. The kitchen was sparse and no matter how much I tried to keep it livable, the bathroom was always Satan’s domain. In the height of summer, we had no running water. 

A meager stream went around the house, so there was a little bridge that would lead to the yard gate. Once on a drunken night, a friend’s moto missed the bridge and drowned in the stream. A traditional monument to the ancestors stood proud and golden in the yard. There was probably a Cambodian yiey buried there some years before. 

We lived in this house, three white people obsessed with each other, playing house, pretending we were functional adults. The house was right in the margin of the village where most of the kids from our NGO lived with their families. The whole village knew when the white people would leave and enter the house, who they were with, and what was happening inside. We were sort of privileged zoo animals. Sometimes on the weekend, they would bring us soup and rice to eat. I guess we looked pitiful. 

For a while we had a cat, Katoy, who was not our cat but we didn’t know that. There were parties at the house, and people we didn’t know sleeping over, and boyfriends coming to stay and never leaving. There was a distinct lack of cleaning going on. There was a sad girl who spent an impressive amount of time watching TV shows in her room. There was a dude who didn’t have a door (or a fourth wall) to his bedroom and who would bring girls over. There was a separate kitchen and living room and life going on upstairs. 

There was always someone staying over. There was a lot of crappy music being danced to and Disney movie nights. There was a mold creature hatching and growing in the rice cooker, and trash accumulating in the yard, unpicked, unburned.

We were obsessed with each other, the three barangs in their white house. Sometimes we were merciless to each other. A distinct lack of empathy and the same fucked-up loneliness. It was a surreal experience, to live with my best friends, my soul-siblings, my family away from home, the people I loved most in the whole of Cambodia, and be so disconnected from them, more so every day that passed. When we all decided to move out and live separately, it was such a sad, disheartening, obvious conclusion. We were not obsessed with each other anymore.

But even all those years later, this time when we decided to move in together, to fix up the house and clean and paint and make it habitable, this time when we moved all our stuff in with a single tuk tuk and tried to make the house beautiful, this time where our hands and clothes were coated in blue paint and I flew to town on my motorbike to buy bread and Nutella so that we could have a late breakfast on the outside staircase, all those times I stole the white boy’s kramas and hoodies to wear on chilly evenings and all the drunken conversations on the porch and the regenerative face masks in front of a movie on a hungover Sunday afternoon, the times when we would come home from work and find a crowd already there, ready to offer us a beer or a hug or a game of cards… even though it wasn’t easy and we eventually grew apart, these are moments I cherish. 

These people, these three twenty-something idiots who thought they had all of love and friendship figured out because they had each other : I love them. I wish they could have been better to each other.

Cambodia – day 00

I got up at 4am with surprising ease. It’s really easy to get out of bed to go on holiday. On a work day I’ll be damned if I wake up before 8am. Anyway. Taxi, flight from Brussels to London, the memories are blurry, it feels like another life already. British Airways, the flight attendants kept calling me “my love”, I’ve never felt so validated and cared for in my entire life.

Heathrow. So British. Polite, posh, busy. Impractical and cold. Santa Claus is strolling through Chanel and Dior, the queue at Starbucks is… well, like any queue at any Starbucks anywhere in the world, really. I read a book on my tablet but I have trouble keeping my eyes open.

It’s Christmas: I watch Frozen. I mouth along with the songs and giggle at Olaf. Dudes who did the concept art on that guy were clearly high.

Finally, it’s time. The flight is… okay, since we didn’t crash. I still hate it, hate flying. My right knee hurts. I try and try and try and try to fall asleep. I watch a horrid HORRID movie: Me before you. You can tell the actors are trying, but the book it is based on really fucking sucks. Anyway. Still 8 hours to go. An hour later, still 7 hours and 59 minutes to go. Time is frozen still and I might explode.

We’re here. Bangkok. I like Suvarnabhumi, I know it well, better than any other airport. I had some memorable times at this airport. They were mostly spent between the library and the Burger King counter. As soon as we get off the plane… it’s a whole, really, an atmosphere. The heat, the humidity, like the air is this liquid thing you have to wade through. It smells like dust and stale aircon and cooked sticky rice. It feels like home.

Usually I stop and change here, get my bearings back, but this time I race to catch the free shuttle to the other airport, Don Mueng. My flight is at 2pm, I have time, theoretically, but. I mean, this is Thailand. Better safe than sorry. The shuttle is this old bus full of tourists where the aircon works only when the bus is still. We race along the freeway. Bangkok is right there, skyscrapers of all shapes, giant pictures of the dead king blown up on buildings, the river full and bustling. Small houses left to roast under the sun. This city is a civil engineer’s nightmare.

Halfway in, the shuttle stops at a paystop. Never starts again. The smiling, nervous driver keeps trying the ignition, says “ten minit ten minit!” to anyone who asks. The employees of the freeway take it in stride, they must be used to this kind of thing. Taxis pass us by, mocking us. “Twenty kilometar to airpor’!” Ah ah yeah, fuck you dude. I hang around the side door, enjoying the slight breeze and the smell of exhaust gas. It’s so hot. I can’t help my smile. I am home.

After about 30 minutes, another bus rescues us. Half the tourists left and took taxis already. Quitters. We get there on time, and I didn’t even have to murder anybody. Don Mueng airport is a nightmare of endless queues. At the end of it, I spot a Starbucks. Time to enjoy the typical Thai meal of a spinach danish and a tall latte.

Who cares? It’s Christmas. Derek Hale’s birthday. I made it to the airport, in a few hours I’ll be where I was always meant to be. Hot and sweaty and tired and frustrated and scared and emotional. Home.

Give me

Give me back the unbearable heat of weekday mornings, when my bike wouldn’t start at first kick and I’d have to kick it to life over and over again until I was sweaty and breathless and thoroughly annoyed. Give me the locals gaping at me as they drove by. Give me the red dust of the dirt and the acrid smell of the burning waste on the side of the road.

Give me kids without helmets driving way too fast in their school uniforms, give me orange-decked monks smoking cigarettes and laughing at the back of ancient Korean moto-taxis. Give me an eardrum-piercingly loud wedding that blocks up an entire road for two days, give me a traffic jam in front of the market at noon on a Friday and the smell of fish and steam-cooked corn mingling sweetly.

Give me nosy gas vendors who only sell tiny cans of Coke and banana fritters for breakfast. Driving one-handed while eating breakfast with only one eye open and missing a flip-flop when it is just too early to go to work. Driving through flooded streets, unable to avoid potholes and falling on my ass in muddy waters.

Give me late night rides by the river when the moon is just too beautiful to let go. Give me tingling arms after driving for hours in the afternoon sun. Give me itching knees and drying pants while driving home from swimming at the dam. Give me back all my shitty bikes: Rocco, Alejandro, Baby and Scott. Give me one more afternoon with a bike under the Cambodian sky. But then, give me something to come home to.

Phnom Penh

Sur la route, juste avant Phnom Penh et les usines de textile dont se déverse toute la population du monde à 5h du soir. Il y a des maisons de pêcheurs au bord du lac. En saison sèche il n’y a pas de lac, seulement des rizières d’un vert profond en contre-bas des étangs d’élevage, et des maisons très très haut perchées sur leur pilotis.

Il y a les grandes villas en béton qui dominent les cabanes en bois et en tôle ondulée, des perches de bois si fines qu’on se dit que le Grand Méchant Loup n’aurait qu’à pêter un coup pour les faire s’envoler.

Ils construisent une autoroute à la lisière des maisons. La route à été remplacée par… rien. Les baraques sont isolées dans de grands monceaux de terre, recouvertes de poussière rouge. Certaines ont déjà été abandonnées et se tiennent à moitié éventrées, solitaires et misérables comme l’antre d’un ogre.

Les grands pans de route dammée sont bourrés d’enfants qui jouent au foot. Ils dévalent les pentes de terre à toute vitesse sur des vélos précaires. Les familles se rassemblent autour d’un feu sur un amas boueux plus ou moins plat pour le dîner. Il faut traverser la rizière et escalader 4 à 5 mètres de pilotis pour rentrer dormir chez soi. Parfois il est plus simple de vivre dehors.

On passe une mosquée ensevelie sous les caillous de la route. Le soleil couchant se reflète rouge sur les rizières grises. Tout est étrangement ralenti, presque figé, alors que nous frôlons les motos à toute allure.

Plus loin le gros ventre grouillant de la ville nous attend.