We walk slowly and a little lost through the streets of Bangkok. It is our second day in the city, and we have no plan and many hours between morning and night. We see some of the places that were new to us two years ago and begin to recognize them, saying, look, there it is, or, yeah, I remember that, and then continue to walk, expecting something new to come across, to give us the element of surprise that now, revisiting what is no longer new, I realize we lack.
We find ourselves at lunchtime in the middle of the university canteen. It wasn’t a planned detour, but we got there, and we like the idea of being the only foreigners in the place, to mingle with the Thai and feel that we can join their daily lives, if even for a while. My husband brings two plates with a simple tasty meal: rice, scrambled eggs and chili, all mixed. We sit in a plastic table by the Chao Phraya river, pregnant with the rain of the season, and look at the water taxis that cross the river in all directions, and at a big cargo shipment that is pulled by one tiny boat. How can that be? I ask Ben. Objects float and move in the water without a need of a heavy tugboat, he says. I like when he clarifies things of the physical world that I don’t understand. It makes me feel protected and safe. I nod and finish my rice.
It was delicious, I say and start a conversation about Cambodian food. At that time tomorrow we will be in Cambodia, a country where none of us has been before. Ben tells me he doesn’t know their food, and I remind him that he does. I remind him of an evening, already seven years ago, in which I took a visiting friend of his and him to a French-Cambodian restaurant in Boston to celebrate that I was going to become a famous writer. A renowned Latin American writer had accepted to read my novel and I took that as a confirmation of a talent and glory I used to believe I earned at birth. I was therefore more than crushed when that writer wrote some of the most damaging words I have ever read. I cried and felt suicidal for days. That was the first of many tantrums and dramas that surrounded my struggle with writing for years to come. Ben stays silent and looks down. What? I ask. Nothing, he says, there was just so much drama back then. Everything to do with writing was so painful for you. He looks at me now and I can see in his clouded eyes how hard living with me during that time must have been. Let’s go, I say and get up from my chair. I approach him as we are walking along the river and hold his hand with a strong grip. He was there for me back then, and he continues to be. We carry on wondering with no specific aim or direction for the rest of our day, until night reaches us softly and it is time to sleep.
Cambodia! A skinny short man shouts into the hotel lounge where Ben I have been waiting to be picked up in order to start our bus journey into Siem Reap, the Cambodian town that hosts the temples of Angkor Wat. We leave our seats and enter a minibus that’s already packed. Ben takes a small seat closer to the front and I am sent to the rear bench, where three girls are already sitting. Two of them move to the left and one to the right so I am sandwiched in-between. They are good girls, I can see it in their fresh faces and perfectly combed hair and impeccably clean feet, all while travelling in South East Asia. They speak to each other over me, and I begin to feel curmudgeonly and more. I want to ask them for some RESPECT, that’s the word that keeps forming in my head, but I am also curious of their language, almost Spanish but not quite, so I let them talk and later I ask, in Spanish, what language they speak. The three girls raise their heads and exchange a proud smile. Catalan, they say, as if rehearsed. I thought it was Gallego, I say, I watched a Galician film a few days ago and they used the word parlar as well. The girls don’t acknowledge my confusion, Catalan, they say again. I offer, in a less curmudgeonly way, if they want to move so I am not in-between, but they say no and I take it as a welcoming sign, so I begin to chat. They talk a little bit about themselves and two facts, that I find alarming, come to the surface: they are in university and they still go on holidays with their parents. This is their first serious trip abroad on their own, their big adventure. I look at them more carefully now, at their virginal smooth skin, at the lack of bags under their eyes, at their lush and colorful hair, and realize that those girls are not only good girls, but they are also very very young. So you must be like twenty, I say. Twenty one, they answer, best friends from school. They look at the road in silence and while they stare and imagine the trip ahead I think of myself, now thirty six, at the age of twenty one. At that time I had just graduated from Psychology and was living with a boyfriend thirteen years older than me, and had my own car, and job, and no idea that one day, more than a decade later, I would be living in London, travelling in a small van, crossing a country in Asia on my way to a different one, with an American husband who knows things about the physical world that make me feel safe. I remain silent now, feeling the fifteen years separating us. I think of my family, who I seldom see and with whom I don’t live since I am eighteen, and about the last trip we all did together, and it all seems so far away, as if belonging to a different life.
We approach the border around 2pm and the bus comes to a halt at a restaurant. We are ushered outside, asked to take our bags and seated around a concrete table in the backyard of the establishment. Each of us is given a sticker to paste to our shirts. No one knows what’s happening. Some of us have visas to Cambodia, some don’t; some need them, some don’t. My husband leaves for a moment and when he comes back he urges me to get up. Come on, we have to go now. But where, I say. Just come on. I collect my heavy backpack and follow him. I say ciao to the Catalan girls and wonder if I will ever see them again. Ciao, they say and smile. A man who seems to be the waiter and owner of the restaurant gets me a coke and a new man, that seems to be in charge of us now, gives us a pink and green pen, a stapler and scissors. What do we do with this? I ask Ben. I don’t know, he says. Then if you don’t know why are you cutting this paper? And what do we do with these pens? Ben keeps cutting in silence. I ask too many questions, I know. I take the scissors and copy his actions. I cut the extra scraps of paper around my e-Cambodian visa and staple the piece of paper to my passport, as Ben did. The color pens never come in handy. The chauffeur-chaperon tells us to gogogo, he’s not to be asked. We gogogo, following a fifty something Russian couple that was in the bus with us. If I am going to follow someone, Ben says, it’s them. No one can deal with communist bureaucrats like Russians can. I laugh, rush my steps and follow him. We cross a bridge donated by Brits and built by Chinese, the water down there is filthy, covered by a mountain of trash. I clear the sweat from my forehead and feel rivulets forming down my back. It must be 35 degrees and the air is dusty and thick. Next to us, in the middle of the road, is a procession of trucks, half-naked dirty kids, women carrying giant carts full of produce, men driving broken motorcycles, and scattered skinny cows. We enter a small concrete building, stand in line behind the Russians, and show our passport to Thai officers. It all goes smoothly but we lose track of the Russians on the other side. Are we in Cambodia now? I ask Ben, excited and confused, expecting his knowledge of the physical world. I don’t know, he says, and we keep walking ahead. Gogogo. There is a universe of casinos now on either side of the road. Newly built, L.A. meets Stalinism kind of buildings, enormous, pompous, lacking in style. What are all those casinos doing in between two countries, I don’t want to know. We spot a young couple from the bus, we try to follow them but we can’t. Japanese go in a different line. We keep walking and sweating, while the swarm of motorcycles, half-naked children, cattle and women carrying heavy carts increases. There are also handfuls of suspicious looking men with tiny moustaches idling everywhere. We finally enter what seems like another checkpoint, in a more impoverished building, managed by Cambodian officers, and receive a stamp, which I guess means we are officially in. A stamp and we are abroad, on the other side.
A man that seems to recognize us, perhaps due to the color of our sticker, tells us to sit on some benches. There is no gogogo, but sit,sit; wait, wait. We wait without knowing what we’re waiting for. There are a couple of failed attempts to get inside a bus that will take us somewhere but then we are told again, wait, wait; sit, sit. We are finally taken to a dusty burgundy minivan where a family of four sits. All smile and mask the less vacationesque thoughts that were clearly crossing their minds. They tell us they are from Portland Oregon, on an Asian family tour, and Ben says that his sister lives in Portland Oregon, and they nod, and not much more is said. Our hopes to reach a final destination soon are broken when thirty minutes later we are dropped at an isolated soviet-looking bus station. It is giant and empty and made of concrete. Oh, you are early! A man that seems to know us, although we don’t know who he is, tells us with a snarky smile. What do you mean early?, we ask. Bus don’t leave in 3 hours, he says. Three?, we say, that’s impossible. One moment, he says and disappears. Some twenty minutes later he’s back. Gogogo, he says, bus now. We pay an extra ten dollars each and we are placed inside a different minivan. The Portland family is there, as well as three German girls, a young American couple, my husband and I. Costa Rica? Wow, the young American that monopolizes the conversation in the bus for the next three hours says. Yeah, I say, and that’s the end of that exchange. He, like so many people, has not much more to say when I tell them where I come from, and there is so much more than Wow or Yeah that I would like to share.
We start advancing deeper into Cambodia. During the first while there is silence on the bus, some people look at the floor, some look outside, some try to sleep. After some minutes the young American man that said Wow begins to talk. He has a story to tell and he wants all of us to know. The Portland family engages in the conversation and they talk and talk and talk as we cross Cambodia, with its narrow roads, and intensely green rice paddies, and wooden shacks, and half-naked children playing outside with dogs that nobody owns, and scrawny cows scraping the grass around the shacks. I look at the skin of the white people in the bus, red and irritated by the sun and the heat, at their eyes, careless and distracted, and I look at myself, feeling drawn to Costa Rica, and not to Cambodia, while observing the landscape, and a question that has been in my thoughts ever since appears. Why do we choose to travel to challenging foreign places? What is the engine that moves some of us, year after year, to pack our bags and plunge ourselves into the unknown? What are we looking for, what do we lack?
I can’t get rid of the question as I enter Siem Reap in a tuk-tuk, or remork, as they call it in Cambodia. Siem Reap is a beautiful semirural place, full of incredibly friendly and smiley people. So smiley that you almost forget that they were recent victims of a genocide committed by their own, the Khmer Rouge, and that still nowadays lots of innocent ones – children going to school, women and men plowing the fields – are blown up by the thousands of mines planted by the US, China and Vietnam during the Vietnam war years.
After settling in a beautiful hotel full of Buddhist altars and lush gardens, we head towards the center of town. First we visit the many markets, packed with colorful and tasteful handicrafts, and later on we choose a restaurant for dinner along the main road, suspiciously called Pub Street. Each restaurant terrace is exploding with tourists, Europeans, some Americans, a significant number of Asians, and only one Costa Rican, I am sure. The food is not as good as what we had in the restaurant in Boston, years ago. We are a bit disappointed, as we love good food, but our humor is quickly uplifted by the sweetness of our waiter. He is really taken by the fact that Ben is American and that breaks my heart; so innocent and forgiving of the past. He begins to measure himself and comparing his stature, which he considers to be too short in relation to Ben’s. He tries to tell us a bit about himself but the street is too loud and his English too broken, so we continue to smile to each other until it’s time to go.
The morning after, while enjoying the tropical fruit that was served for breakfast, surrounded by the lush garden that makes me feel as if I were in Costa Rica, I tell Ben that something new is happening to me, something related to the question of why we travel. I left Costa Rica eleven years ago because I didn’t feel I belonged there, because I was angry at my family and my past, because I had the illusion that I was part of something larger, a rootless world with no ties and commitments. For many years I was able to live in this illusion, running from place to place, avoiding a sense of belonging and responsibility. I chose to visit Costa Rica seldom. In the beginning I spent a lot of time travelling in Europe, but once Europe became known and more predictable, I began to reach for more distant and exotic places, and in every one of these choices there was a portion of hidden pleasure in choosing any other place in the world but Costa Rica. I tell Ben while I eat my pineapple that that motivation is gone, that I no longer feel the need to build a wall between my birthplace and I. And what does it mean?, he asks. I don’t know, I say and shrug. It is not an answer to my question of why we travel. I can just feel that that a part of my motivation is gone. I don’t feel the need to escape Costa Rica anymore. I want to be closer, for the first time in my life. What it means, I don’t know. There is just that vacant space now. That’s just it.
Ben holds my hand. He knows a major change is taking place inside me, and we both know, thank god we do, that whatever changes and whatever it takes, we will always be there for the other.
We get up and walk towards the door of the hotel. The tuk-tuk and guide that will take us to the Angkor Wat temples are waiting for us outside.
(To be continued…)