My faithful followers know back in mid November I was in Valencia, Spain eating paella by the sea shore. These days I’m 12,700 km to the east having a bite taken out of me by monkeys in Ubud, Indonesia. How did the roles reverse? Where did the in-betweens go? Did I savor them all to myself like a greedy six year old with a pack of Oreos? Writers block? Magic? Did my self-guided miss-steps lead me to the twilight zone where I popped out on another continent? All no. I’ve hit the lottery… in life.
I consider myself extremely fortunate because I know exactly what I want to be now that I’ve “grown up.” People often ask, “why do you want to be a writer?” The answer is simple. There is NOTHING else I can picture myself doing that would bring me more happiness. Even if my yellow brick road to becoming a writing wiz is paved with odd jobs, hardships (I already lost my one pair of slippers,) fools gold, and foil-wrapped chocolate coins, I’m okay with that. It helps that my friends, family, and many of the savvy, courageous characters I’ve met along my way have heartfeltly reassured me I’m not half bad it.
When I start writing the words come out in droves, rivaling the rains of a September hurricane. Great! But as the Grateful Dead said, “every silver lining has a touch of grey,” like a storm drain, my thoughts run off in different directions. Dam! Once I put on my thinking cap on, it morphs into a mad hat that takes me down a rabbit hole of imagination and hare-brained google searches. I have begun many posts, but once the music is rocking and the puns are rolling, my fingers are dancing. Along the keys, twisting out poems and kicking up sparkles of ideas that I hope to one day see illuminated on the silver screen. I often feel like my mind has four TVs on at once, watching and reacting to all of them. I try to turn three off, but you know kids and their technology…
I have more Spanish adventures to tell but I’m in Asia, life is moving forward, and I want to write about the present(ish.) I’ve always preferred stories that have a non-linear plot anyway, so prepare to puddle jump over continents, boomerang across time zones, and sway along hemispheres. I will try not to give y’all whip lash, but buckle up it may be a bumpy ride.
Take your protein pills, put your helmet on, and prepare for some intergalactic turbulence because I am major spacey today. Fun fact, I am the lead character starring in the movie that is my life. Like Jerry on Seinfeld,* I am a fictional character of myself. When I think about my memories, world views, and other facets of me, I think as if I am having a conversation with a Jimmy Fallonesqu host and I am a guest on a late night talk show. I’ve been doing this since I was old enough to zone out while driving.
Riding the wavelength that my life is a movie, a favorite of mine is Point Break. Basically one of the single greatest things to come out of the nineties… right up there with me of course. A quick plot summary: Patrick Swayze and a sup dude band of SoCal surfers rob banks masked as US presidents. They do so in “executive” order to fund winter time, worldly travels to far out tropical locations. Aka live the endless summer.
College ruled, but after graduating I made like a leaf and loosely planned my eight month itinerary. Although My Back Pages were mostly blank, I knew one thing for certain, I was going to live the endless summer. I’m happy to say the sun has set on my dream… many, many, many times.
Y’all know, day destroys the night… and night divides the day, buuut just how did I break on through to the other side? Trust me there is much Morrison to this story than just Jimmying the lock.
Time flies when you’re flying internationally… or maybe it crawls time zone math is difficult for the left brain challenged. It was 36 hours between the time I entered Madrid-Barajas airport and was released from Phnom Penh International. That’s right, I spent a day and a half in the life existing in no man’s land, slowly being reduced to a primal state, pouncing on outlets and dashing to gates along side fellow travelers. I’m fairly certain that’s why we passengers get fed so much on transcontinental flights, to keep us subdued and unable to tailspin into an uproar.
Alternating between airports and cylindrical feeding troughs, I was herded from Madrid to Istanbul, then corralled to Bangkok and finally delivered to Phnom Penh. Those who follow me on Snapchat know airports heighten my wildly humorous side, because with every layover sanity shrinks… partly due to a reduced feeling of being sanitary. Wandering through the duty free zone is like being in a petting zoo, sales people offer free samples of beauty products and perfume, which I eagerly jumped at.
Although Bernice is carry on size, she was over the 8kg weight limit so I had to check her. Turns out it was free to check a bag so I used those nickels and dimes on yet another cup of coffee. Not nearly enough hours later, I realized, “damn I don’t have my toothbrush.. Great, not only will I emerge with the hair of a lion but my breath will smell rancid as well.” However, luck interviened with a simple twist of fate. If anyone has the opportunity to fly Turkish airlines, do it. On the flight they gave every passenger a little black bag. In it contained; slippers, socks, earplugs, an eye mask, and… wait for it… a toothbrush and toothpaste! In that moment I felt like I had the whole world in my hands. One of the most invaluable lessons backpacking has taught me is to want for less and be appreciative of the smallest of gestures. In my state of sleep-deprived, dazed delirium, I could have cried happy tears as I clutched that bag.
Between site-seeing, spontaneous adventuring, and vibing with people from around the world, I feel like I’m getting more than 24 hours worth of life everyday. So I figure giving up 1.5 boxes on the calendar (and a bit of humanity) every few months is simply the backpackers tax.
This year I had a lot to be thankful for, my parents traded turkey and stuffing for tapas and sangria to spend a week with me in Spain. The day before they arrived, I emailed a bunch of workaway opportunities in Cambodia and Laos. In my emails I mentioned I could work between November 28th and February. On Thanksgiving day I received a follow up email from one based in Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia. The email read, “we would love to have you stay Nov 28-Dec 2 confirm and we will send you more details.” As my parents were on the brink of bed the following conversation ensued:
Me: “Hey can I have my passport?”
Me: “I think I might buy a plane ticket to Cambodia.”
Mom: “Oh okay.”
So much for sweet dreams right? No, actually I have to hand it to my parents they have adjusted quite well to my “flying by the seat of my shorts fashion.” I tailored this expression because I actually do a little research before jetting off to a new location.
My friend Sombath, the maverick I explored Madrid with, family is from Cambodia and she herself has visited. While we sipped margaritas she told me the Khmer people are incredibly friendly, but still being a poor nation healing from the genocidal wounds inflicted by Pol Pot in the late 70’s, petty crime is an issue. For example, don’t walk around phone in hand, eyes glued to google maps, because you run the risk of someone on a motor bike riding by and grabbing it. Overall there is no need to worry, just always be aware of your surroundings. I kept her words in mind as a googled, “single female traveling Cambodia” and other key phrases. I read a lot of personal accounts and the vast majority agreed not to be weary about traveling through Cambodia or specifically Phnom Penh as a single female. However, one girl wrote she was robbed by her tuck tuk driver coming from the airport and while traveling to Siem Reap the bus flipped over and responders were less than satisfactory. I pondered her experience for a while, and I admit I had the thought, “why did I think it would it be a good idea to visit SE Asia for the first time by myself?” As my finger hovered over, “confirm airline ticket” I had a second thought, “no matter where I begin in Asia I will have a feeling of apprehension, I might as well rip off the band aid off.” Without stopping to give my second thought some thought, I clicked confirm and emailed the workaway, “I’m in!”… Turns out the “band aid” was a bit bigger than I thought.
As I continue to ramble on down the road, I’m realizing (being told) I’m not quite like everyone else. Who knew? And I thought everyone traveling was a pittakionophobic who couldn’t wink…
Time out: No that mass conglomeration of letters is not a spelling error (for once.) Gather round because I have a confession; Hi.. My name is Rita, and… I’m afraid of stickers. Yes stickers. It is time to peel back the sheet and shed some light on this phobia. For as long as I can remember stickers have given me intense anxiety, especially the ones on fruits… they say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but for me an apple a day might just push me into therapy. There are untold hundreds (probably not thousands just hundreds) of others out there like me.
In preschool when all of the other half pints would happily plaster stickers on their clothes, arms, faces (mine contorts into an accurate impression of The Scream just thinking about this) I refused. My teacher actually made me a special book that she would put all my good job and gold star stickers in because I wouldn’t touch them. To all of y’all who are afraid of heights, clowns, dogs, etc consider yourselves lucky. Y’all have strength in numbers, you can easily stick together. Your irrational fears aren’t thought of as fictional. I’m currently sitting in a cafe, but can’t turn left. Why? Unlike Derek Zoolander, I am an ambi-turner. But! There is a half peeled sticker loosely adhered to the table next to me. If I look at for too long (mere seconds) I will come unglued because this struggle is actually real. Nobody believes my bizarre aversion at first. My Dutch boys learned my claim to suffer from pittakionophobia is not a tacky cry for attention. Let’s say (non-hypothetically) I am laying in a hammock, reading, calmly minding my own business, and someome puts a sticker on me. I will jump up, hyperventilate, and to do a weird contortive dance until I free myself from its clingy clutches. Generally the grotesque bastard sticks to my fingers, which spurs flagrant jazz hands that put the whole Bring It On squad to shame. This is followed by crouching and dry heaving in a corner if I can’t shake it off swift enough.
So now that y’all know my deepest, darkest fear, I believe I speak for everyone when I say, okayyyy…
Reason number two I’m not normal, I can’t wink. What can I say, my 20/20 sea greens are a match set. I attribute the sole reason I’m single to the fact that I can’t wink at a guy across the bar… Because I’m sure it has nothing to do with any of my other oddities. On a totally unrelated side note to any possible suitors reading this, a stroll down the produce aisle is not my ideal first date.
Finally, reason number three, and the point of this self-deprecating diatribe: Cambodia is not the jumping in point where people typically begin their Asian travels. I’ve learned most people start in Bangkok, travel through Thailand, slow boat over to Laos, then make their way through Vietnam, and finally to Cambodia. (Like I said I am a fan of non-linear plots, probably because I have a problem getting straight to the point.)
Seasoned SE Asian wanderers as well as a few people living in Phnom Penh have told me, “first time traveling alone, and in Asia, and you started in Cambodia? Wow you’re brave.” Well kiddos I didn’t realize I was being brave. If anything I was going on a little blind faith, but that was it…. Fun tid bit of information that will be news to my parents. As I entered the Madrid airport on Sunday morning, I actually had no idea where I was going once I got to Cambodia. At that point my workaway hosts had not emailed me back with the details, specifically an address. So I sent another email along the lines of, “heyyy don’t know if y’all got my last email, but I bought a plane ticket sooo I’m on the way see ya in 36 hours.” I checked hostel world, saw Phnom Penh was teeming with them, and reasoned if I still haven’t heard back by the time I landed in Phnom Penh, I would just go to a hostel. I concede a lot of people would probably like to have a firm destination before jetting off to a new continent, but where’s the fun in that?
By the time I landed in Istanbul I received an email saying, “sorry for the late reply, at a music festival and here is the address.” Like the beginning of the Immigrant Song, the piercing thought, “Ahhh, ahh… I think I’m going to like this place” was planted in my mind.
After hours of traveling, uncomfortable sleep, and time zone changes my last plane finally landed. By that point my body had no idea if it should be sleepy? Hungry? Wide awake? Merp da-derp? So dazed and confused it was. I half floated on auto pilot through the airport, but before I could be let loose I had to be visa-approved. As a US citizen you can get a visa upon arrival. The whole process is quite simple. You just fill out a form at the airport, include a passport sized photo, and pay $30. The only kicker, you need to have the photo with you before getting to the airport. Unfortunately my extra passport photos were in my backpack which was cruising round and round the baggage claim inconvienently located juuust outside of the visa-approval zone.
With a stroke of sheer dumb luck I had my English railcard on me. I was able to peel off the laminate, not rip the photo underneath, and only gag minimally as the sticky underside touched my skin. I told myself I just traveled 36 hours, and I’d be damned if I let fear hold me back… not sure what it says about me that I’m unruffled about the idea of flying a quarter of the way around the world with no idea where I’m going, but the thought of touching a sticker makes me break a sweat. I’m an odd bird I know.
Even though I look like a proper felon in my photo, ya girl was Cambodian approved.
I took this photo immediately after my JFK to Manchester flight. Which brings me to a fact of life: don’t trust anyone who looks like a million bucks after they step off a long flight. If they do, sorcery is definitively involved.
I entered Madrid-Barajas with two bags, but I left with four; Bernice, my front pack, and one under each eye, but finally Rita was a free soul once again. Upon stepping through the automatic door, I was greeted by a rush of warm night air and a hoard of drivers shouting, “Taxi? Taxi? Bus? Tuk tuk? Taxi? Tuk tuk?” I was snapped right awake. I hopped in a tuk tuk** and I was off, that first ride dazzled my senses. The city seemed to run on a splendid kinetic energy. Motorbikes, cars, and tuk tuks buzzed past. I could feel my eyes widening trying to take it all in, every road side food stand, parks done up with neon lights, grand monuments… all marked this tremendous moment in my life. Like a small child who wakes before the rest of the house on Christmas morning, I simply could not wait to see what this country had in store for me.
Throughout the entire month I was here I never felt unsafe or endangered. In fact, it’s with with glittering words I tell people, “Oh! I loved Cambodia,” it now shines as a brilliant memory in my mental bank.
All the billboards say, “Welcome to the Kingdom of Wonder.” For me, Cambodia was nothing short of wonderful due in large part to my welcome. The workaway where I spent my first week is Artshram. Began in 2015 by a couple by the names of Stephie and Raj, Artshram is a collaborative art space to share, create, and inspire through means of art, music, food, dance, yoga, meditation and more.
And inspired I was. Under refurbished wine bottle lights, I was able to uncork my creativity, and allow the poetic ramblings swirling in my mind to pour out.
Halfway to Cambodia I finally knew where I was going, but with any geographical relocation, I had no idea what to expect. I walked in Artshram’s front door, right into a meeting. As it turns out, that music festival was an event organized by Artsharm. As I sat there listening to talk about the festival they put on, my mind was singing, “wow through all the good times, bad times I am so thankful the culmination of my life has led me here.” I am a firm believer that some things are just meant to be because there was a bit of a communication breakdown, in my initial email. My hosts thought I was already in Cambodia and that I could only work between Nov 28th and Dec 2nd which was why I was invited to stay those days. It came as a little bit of a surprise when I said that I had just arrived (less than fresh) from Madrid.
In addition to giving me a place to rest my head, these kind souls opened my mind to the possibility of living in another country. (You know after I pop back over to the US in June.) I was introduced to a community of artists and free spirits with travelers hearts who aren’t just breezing through town. Instead they are all living, working, thriving, giving back to a community all while still rejoicing in the beauty of life. The Artshram community offered me a more solid footing as I began my path through Asia than any hostel ever could. More importantly they planted the idea that I too could live and work somewhere in the eastern hemisphere while I relentlessly climb the latter to the stars in my aim to be a writer. I saw the next rung I wanted to climb on after these eight months.
https://www.facebook.com/artshramPP/ <– Check out Artshram on Facebook and feel inspired
The second reason why Cambodia will be a bright spot in my voyage is because in a not so weird way Cambodia reminds me of home. My fellow North Carolinians: close your eyes and flip the calendar pages ahead five months. It’s June. The muggy heat socks you in the face from the moment you open your sleep-encrusted eyes. Even if the day is spent motionless, sweat rolls down your face in salty drops. The inescapable humidity makes you feel like a mushy carrot floating in an atmospheric soup. Harper Lee’s words constantly scrolled through my mind, “Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” Ahh nightfall, an orchestra of cicadas and other summertime insects serenade you to sleep with their melodic buzz and hum. Cambodia in December is North Carolina in June.
For me North Carolina is not just a place, it is my home, and until recently my world. By the time I arrived in Phnom Penh I had not walked NC’s ground in two months. I was now 12 hours and 14,600 km away from home, but in a sense I never felt closer. I had not only achieved my quest to live the endless summer, but I was able to do so with a wave of nostalgia.
Alright as my boy Oscar Wilde said, “conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative,” so with that crash course in Cambodian climate I will end this post.
Now you know I made the Eurasia leap from Madrid to Phnom Penh. There more to the chain of events connecting Valencia to Ubud, but I’ll get y’all LinkedIn in later.
*I realize a lot of this was a post about nothing so cheers to being meta
**Tuk Tuk it’s like a cross between a cab and a street legal golf cart and the cheapest way to get around Cambodia
TBV Travel Tips
1. Workaway is a great way to get to know the culture of a city/ country from a more local perspective. It’s also a great way to travel on a budget and give back to a community. There are endless possibilities for the type of work you can do. Bonus they’re workaway opportunities practically everywhere in the world. https://www.workaway.info/
2. You do “need to know” where you are going before you get to another country. When flying internationally you will get an arrival card to fill out on the plane. This card generally asks where you will be staying in the country. If you haven’t booked any accommodation yet it is okay, but know the street address and phone number of a potential hostel you can write down.
3. Speaking of arrival cards they normally ask your occupation. Unfortunately “world traveler” isn’t considered an occupation. Do as I do and (blissfully) write, “unemployed.”