Southeast Asia

The journey up the coast of southern Vietnam was inspiring in its beauty, unique to the rest of Asia I had seen, though still hectically riddled with travelers making their ways north or south, as there are only two directions to go along the narrow country. Despite the throbbing, infected wound that was reminiscent of cheese pizza and had my foot swollen to the size of an eggplant, I hobbled my way happily from beach to beach, glad to be traveling in the company of old friends. I had spent too many months making and leaving half-loves, memorable yet ephemeral as two hands parting in opposite directions; fingers slowly sliding from palm to tip and knowing the space filling the void of the connection could only grow wider with time. It was a comfort of which I didn’t realize the necessity to see the faces of people I knew I would see again after we parted. And so despite the fact that I had grown to much prefer the freedom of traveling alone, I was thankful each day to see the faces I was scared before I was beginning to forget, or who were maybe beginning to forget me.

Barbara on the Mui Ne Dunes

Marina jumping for the Nah Trang Floating Bar

From one city, one beach, to the next, from the first bowl of spectacularly authentic pho in Saigon, through the magnificent sand dunes at Mui Ne, the country treated us well. Though we shared a wide disappointment that there is such a thing as a bad bowl of pho in Vietnam, we continued our journey northward. But once we boarded the bus from Hoi An to Halong, past the DMZ, and into a land that had been so brutally and needlessly devastated by the American military just forty years ago, our luck accordingly changed.

Believing we were to be on a twenty-two hour bus straight from Hoi An to Halong Bay, we were immediately jolted from the fanciful reverie of a luxurious sleeper bus throwing celebratory fistfuls of Valium in the air like confetti. The first three hours were spent in a cramped minibus with the backpacks of the traveling Westerners stuffed in the aisles as high as our shoulders. Once we were herded onto the large sleeper bus, it tumbled only further downhill. As the bus rolled on early into the night, I had a ten pack of Valium at the ready to drown out the horrific shrill of the Vietnamese ballads and constant horn honking as the bus overtakes another into precariously close oncoming traffic. The awful consistency of these two sounds offend the senses on every Vietnamese bus without exception. Just as I was about to swallow the pill that would lay my body blissfully limp, the one thing you can expect to happen if I am on any moving vehicle happened: we crashed. Though it was only a minor run-in with the car ahead, the bus and the car pulled into the nearest restaurant to work out the terms of the negotiation. As you can expect, in Vietnam, this is not an exchange of insurance information. As Barbara, Marina, and I sat eating yet another disappointing bowl of pho, our eyes wandered around the strange establishment. A glass case full of men’s underwear displayed in cardboard boxes printed with tanned, western men in tighty-whities lined one wall beneath a rack of what appeared to be second-hand shirts. Another held a case of various toiletries: shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, and the like, and a smaller shelf on the opposite wall kept a minimal selection of cheap local vodkas. Well, at least if we were going to be stuck somewhere, we were provided with everything we might need.

As we waited in resigned curiosity, seven Vietnamese men sat at a table covered in food they weren’t eating in an unsettling haze of cigarette smoke. If I didn’t know better I would have assumed they were planning an assault on American tourists, or doing some high stakes gambling, or just playing a friendly game of Russian Roulette. Then again, who’s to say they weren’t. After passing three hours in the restaurant/underwear/convenience store/internet cafe, we finally boarded the bus again and got back on our way. Handing out Valium like candy to the equally exhausted travelers around me, we settled in for the stone sleep the miracle drug provides.

When we awoke, groggy with the haze of cramped traveling unconsciousness, and looped on Valium, we wandered aimlessly around the bus station in Hanoi like escaped mental patients too drugged up to know where to run. We were supposed to be taken to Halong Bay, but the night bus was four hours late and there wasn’t another bus for ten more hours. There was an Irishman (yes, I know, yet another Irishman) whose path I had been trying to cross who was to be in Hanoi that night, so I transparently voted that we stay the night in Hanoi and head out to the bay the next day. But since we had already paid literally twice as much for our bus ticket as everyone else with the promise of going straight to Halong, we put up no verbal fight as an uncomfortably pushy Vietnamese man shoved us onto a random bus as we attempted to confirm where it was going. “Halong Bay? Halong Bay?” was all we could say, and with no verbal confirmation we were thrown on the near empty bus and attempted to fall back to sleep. We were jolted awake just over an hour from Hanoi. A man grabbed my arm and pulled me from my seat as we were pushed off the bus. “Halong Bay????” we asked again and again in desperation. It was raining, and there was no bay in sight. No signs at the small and relatively empty bus station, no tuk tuk drivers crowding around the bus that exist in any and every tourist destination in Southeast Asia. Something was wrong. This couldn’t be Halong City, but the man forced us from the bus regardless and left us with our bags as the rain started to soak through what little clothing we had. Back in the south there was always at least a helpful soul, someone who spoke enough English you could trust to get you to where you were going. But the disdain we felt here as helpless Americans was palpable, and I thought for a moment glad I was too hungover to visit the war museum back in Saigon, that I might understand too well why they hated us as much as if we three girls had been fighting the war ourselves.

After fifteen minutes of getting on and off the bus, soaked with the rain being screamed at in Vietnamese and screaming back in English in an exasperated fantod of miscommunication, a young boy with decent English made his way on the bus we were insisting take us to Halong. This was not the bus to Halong. It never was. We were only about seventy kilometers from Halong though and this nice young lad was willing to take us in his taxi for five hundred thousand dong. After paying thirty dollars for a fifteen dollar bus ticket that took us twenty hours north, we adamantly rejected his offer to swindle another twenty five bucks for an hours drive. But this was the scam, this was the way, and everyone there, including us, knew that we had no choice but to get into that fucking taxi. We negotiated it down to four hundred and fifty thousand, and collapsed into the backseat of the suspiciously friendly boy’s cab, beaten, exhausted, drenched, and grasping to the last bit of hope that this guy might actually take us where we we had been trying to go for more than thirty hours.

As the rain continued to drown the Vietnamese highway, our cabbie threw on a CD of nineties pop hits and for the first time in too long we curled into the comfort of a smile and a laugh at the ridiculous disaster as we sang along to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Eventually, through the foot of water that swirled halfway up the tires of the motos pushing through the flood, we made it to Halong City. Of course upon getting out of the cab the driver began to demand more money claiming it was further than he thought, but you could not have shaved a sliver of patience or a single dong from any of us. We gave the man the money we told him we would pay him and left him complaining in the sharp staccato stabs of Vietnamese as we walked into the nearest guest house.

Exhausted and annoyed, we knew the stress of the last two days was not going anywhere until we were on a boat in the bay that is told to be the most beautiful place in Vietnam. But Halong only continued the frustration as no one seemed to speak or understand any English. Though I find it incredibly hard to believe the owner of a guest house that books boat tours in one of the most popular tourist spots in the country literally doesn’t know the English word for boat. As we wandered from place to place with Barbara’s notepad bearing a picture of a boat sailing across the sharp points of choppy sea you learn to draw in kindergarten we were told again and again that boats do not go when it’s raining. When they said to come back in the morning and see how the weather is, we took our pad of paper, drew a pizza on it (props to Barbara), and went to find the minor comfort of some greasy western food and watch a movie in the room as the rain continued to fall.

As close as we could get to pizza in Halong...

Thankfully, as we woke the next morning, the sharp blue of freshly cleared skies excited us from bed and we actually managed to book a boat tour. Provided it didn’t start to rain of course. After we had some pho for breakfast (yet another bowl of relatively tasteless oil), and as always, a beer for me, we made our way to the marina to finally board the vessel. The short five hour trip twisting through the mountainous bay promised to return us to the harbor in time to catch the last bus to Hanoi at seven PM. We were actually on a motherfucking boat. It was almost unbelievable, so close we were to giving up and heading to Hanoi having never seen the bay, unwilling to waste time getting ripped off in the tiny harbor city that offers little to nothing in the way of food, courtesy, or nightlife. But we made it. The wide marina opening up to the bay of more than three thousand limestone islands, millions of years in the making, was crowded with hundreds of Vietnamese boats, most of them seemingly identical. And as the boat adjacent to ours began to pull out into the jade waters, we watched in disbelief as the side of the ironically named junk boat crashed through our windows and thin, sharp, shards littered the dark wooden floor in front of us. You have got to be fucking kidding me. Laughing and silently hoping that this accident would not end with us watching a boat full of Vietnamese men argumentatively smoking cigarettes as they castigated each other, we were thankful when the crew simply swept up the glass and we pulled away into the magnificent bay.

Feeling as though we had finally been through the worst we enjoyed a perfect day in the constantly breathtaking waters. Around each towering bolt of limestone lay hundreds more in every direction and we marveled happily in the warm sun, sure that our luck had turned. As the boat returned to the harbor while the sun was setting (and we realized they had actually skipped two promised destinations on our tour), we knew our window to catch the last bus was limited. But when we arrived at the deserted bus terminal just after the sun had made its exit, there were no buses or employees to be found. Only locals insisting that there was no last bus to Hanoi and we would have to pay for a taxi for a two hour journey. Of course none of this was translated in English, only in pictures of buses and adamantly shaking heads followed by the hundreds of thousands of dong they were willing to make the journey for. We were stranded. Again. There was not a single piece of me that was going back to Halong City to spend another night, but another fifty dollars for a taxi was ridiculous, considering the bus is less than three bucks a person. We continued to draw pictures of buses over and over again just pointing and writing the time and insisting that one was to come for us. We walked away from our final offer of three hundred thousand into Hanoi City waiting for them to follow us and accept. But they didn’t. When we walked back yet again we learned it was only to a suburb outside Hanoi and now, knowing our desperation, they had us. The next offer we got was one million dong. The sun had abandoned us long ago and we wanted to cry, hungry and stranded in the frightening uneasiness of the eagerly darkening parking lot.

As we stood with our bags, speaking a list of options we didn’t have, a bus driving by stopped briefly outside the terminal and locals began to unload the unmarked packages that mysteriously fill the luggage compartments of every local bus. And then Barbara saw it: Hanoi. Written on the side of the bus in huge yellow letters, we grabbed our bags and fled tantivy out to the street and onto the bus before it had the chance to pull away. Fifty thousand dong a piece and we squeezed ourselves into the last seats with our backpacks stacked high in the aisle. As the bus driver tried to short us out of about twenty dollars in change, Barbara’s anger had given in to pleading and she could only beg for him to please just not rip us off again. The three starved and defeated American girls had lost their last semblance of fire or determination. We just wanted to get to fucking Hanoi. Settling for him to steal about nine dollars from us instead, I popped a few Valium and swore to leave Vietnam the next day. After one night in Hanoi, I hugged the closest friends I had seen in six months, closer now for the trials we had been through, and told them I hoped to see them again soon. As I walked away we all knew it probably wouldn’t be for years. With that I was back to traveling on my own, on yet another twenty four hour bus, this time to the Laotian capital of Vientiane. I got out of Vietnam without looking back and wondered with a mischievous smile just who would be the next to stumble in and out of my life in another tiny disaster.


In the month since I left the party scene on Koh Phi Phi, swarming with English teenagers making their way through the Southeast Asian party circuit, I had yearned for solitude. Malaysia was so peaceful, full of traveling souls on journeys I understood. And arriving on the Thai island full of obnoxious, obstreperous drunks searching for their next one night stand to the blaring pulse of shitty electronic dance music on the beach, I was already ready to leave. The fact that just about everything I had of value was stolen on that first night only provided the perfect excuse. While I was glad to find the comfort of a good friend in Phnom Penh, my need to truly get away from it all remained. When I headed down to Sihanoukville, a small beach town on the southern coast of Cambodia, I was quickly overwhelmed again. The dirty town was packed with backpackers and western-run bars and I found a job working for free food, free accomodation, and all the booze I could handle, so long as I was behind the bar. It was too good to pass up and so I planned to make a home in this hectic hostel to save some money and pass the time before Barbara and I were to leave for Vietnam. But something still wasn’t right. Despite my self-proclaimed alcoholism, I much prefer taking my drinks in the good company of friends and honest strangers, getting to know one another through good conversation and laughter more boisterous as the night and the drinks pour on. Sihanoukville was simply another Koh Phi Phi, only instead of young tourists getting wasted on holiday these folks were six, seven, ten months deep into the endless stream of tequila induced random sex, everyone fucking everyone like a poorly written teenage drama. By midnight on the first night there were five-way make out sessions and boys half stripping on the bar, grunting animalistically and “woo-woo”-ing in some esoteric mating call that was most certainly lost on my ears. By my third night at Utopia I sat at the bar quietly enjoying a glass of bourbon, forced to consistently protest the incessant pressure from random strangers that I get absolutely obliterated. On the fourth day, I headed back to Phnom Penh.

As soon as I got back I began making travel plans to Ratanakiri. One of the most remote provinces in Cambodia, I yearned strangely for the utter isolation I would find in such a forgotten place. The trip to the Northeastern-most province is a long one from the southern situated capital and I decided to break up what I had been told was a two day journey by spending a night in Kratie. Arriving just as the sun had grown tired of hanging high in the sky, it began its restful dip down to the horizon of the great Mekong River.

Crepuscular Mekong

A small provincial town centered around its large market and famous for its riverside sunsets, each of the seven muddy streets extend only two blocks from the riverfront lined with food stalls before disappearing into the endless, pastoral landscape. Lying on a strip nestled tightly between the banks of the expansive Mekong, is the island of Koh Trong. Still feeling a piece of the desolation that had incapacitated me from Phuket to Phnom Penh, I felt overwhelmed even in the bustling, though still small provincial market in Kratie. The short ferry trip was a world away. The “ferry” of course is nothing a small wooden boat with an outboard motor that seats six or seven people and runs near constantly between the undeveloped island and the provincial capital. The dirt road that circumnavigates the shores of the island is populated only with the square single room shacks on stilts that define rural cambodian living.

Khmer Life

As I pressed the tires of my rented bicycle on down the dirt track with the Mekong to my right and the almost toxicly electric green of rice paddies to my left; it came back: that elusive joy, the curious excitement that had fueled my travels for so long. As I cycled easily on, children and adults greeted me with the one English word every Khmer knows and loves to say: “helllooooooooo!” It chimed from the voices of each and every house I passed as children came running out to greet me. The smiles, honest and unassuming, asking for nothing but a smile in return, brought me back to life.

I Heart Cambodian Babies

She fixed her scarf and hat so I could take the photo...

The unrelenting heat of the stifling afternoon suddenly gave way to a brisk, formidable wind that I struggled to pedal against. I saw the rains enveloping the opposite side of the river like a deep, swarm of slate. Unconcerned for the wind and thankful for the cooling breeze, I continued the loop around the island stopping to play with children and photograph the rice paddies littered with adults and children alike, working in the ancient struggle for survival.

Road through the Rice Paddies

When I made my way back to the town center, I knew I was ready to head out into the country. Despite the charms of the small island village, I still craved the remote, where the market and the internet and the pharmacy are more then just a thousand riel ferry ride away. Though i didn’t know what to expect in Ratanakiri, I knew I was ready for it.

Finally arriving in the mystical province, I accepted the offer of a moto driver to take me to the Tree Top Lodge. Living up to its name, the restaurant and deck of the guest house overlooked the tall hills, lush in vegetation, dipping deep into an untouched valley and climbing high on the other side, speckled only with a few small guest houses in the distance. After spending my first day in the sweet silence of my own thoughts, riding an elephant through the jungle and visiting a few local waterfalls, I headed back to the lodge to enjoy a beer and a book overlooking the stunning view.

View from Tree Top Lodge

I was happy again, the overwhelming beauty of nature barely brushed by human development is something that I have voraciously sought since Africa. And here it was again. But it wasn’t long before my sweet silence was interrupted by a small group of French guys arriving on the guest house balcony. Instantly chatting with me about the town and the waterfalls, I was more than happy to entertain their inquisitions.

The three of them were as charming as they were handsome, and in the same order. Attracted immediately to the unspoiled sweetness of Hugo’s kind blue eyes, I silently reconfirmed my vow of celibacy upon learning he had a girlfriend back in Paris. As it was, they were all good company and I was quick to accept their offer to accompany them into the sparsely traversed roads of the mountainous Ratanakiri countryside. On three motorbikes they had hired in Phnom Penh we made our way down the red clay roads, feeling as if the world had just begun here. On our way into the isolated farmlands of the forgotten tribes, we searched for an elusive river and a chance to interact with these tribes we knew nothing about. Pushing themselves hard down the intermittent stretches of firm, dry road the boys sped ever faster, passing each other again and again at increasing speeds.

The Adrenaline Push

I was both scared and thrilled and was sure the bikes were fueled on testosterone and adrenaline alone. But as the rocky dirt road turned to thick, slippery clay, the bikes struggled and slid in endless resistance to the will of the malleable mud. I felt akin to each of them, to their unbridled sense of adventure, and their insistence on doing and exploring everything on their own. As it was, I held on tight as the boys maneuvered exhausted through the wet rutted tracks, carved with scars of the heavy rains that pulled the soft mud into minute canyons again and again. Each time the tires lost traction, I pressed my hands harder into Adrien’s waist, my legs clenching each side of his as I dreaded what I thought at the time was the inevitable fall. And inevitable it was.

The first slip from which he was unable to recover landed us in the tall, soft grass lining the sienna clay road. Both of us unscathed by the incident and glad to have avoided being covered in the thick mud, we pushed the bike from the waist high grass and continued on. As the narrow provincial road narrowed further, manageable tracks were harder and harder to find through the deep mud, slipping uncontrollably as if driving on ice. Still riding with Hugo’s brother Adrien, the second fall covered the right side of our bodies in the terra cotta clay that stains your skins for days. Glad to have at least avoided a second painful exhaust pipe burn, we decided I should go with Hugo instead, a slightly more experienced driver. But the unsteady weight of a second body proved too much for Hugo as well and trying to press quickly through the deeper canyons attempting to find some semblance of traction backfired and we skidded hard against the thin, rocky ridge at the peak of the gashed road. My leg stung and blood became visible through the second layer of caked-on mud. The skin on the top of my left foot was, for the most part, missing, and I sat in a simultaneously sharp , hot, and throbbing pain. After a few moments, Hugo gave me his hand and helped me to my feet, my leg still shaking in shock and pain. But nothing was broken or sprained and so i poured some water on the filthy abrasions and got back on the bike, happy to wrap my arms around his hard and reassuring body.

Je suis tres desole...

Hugo was the kind of guy whose good looks go unnoticed by no one. His soft face exudes an innocent charm that is immediately and immeasurably endearing. His pale, periwinkle eyes make it all the harder to not to stare at him with longing schoolgirl naivete. I knew from the beginning that Hugo had a girlfriend, but having already loved a married man who soon left his wife for me (and then for another woman after the most tumultuous year of my life) I am under no illusions about the fidelity of men who are not truly happy in their lives. So I held him tightly, suggestively, and pressed my chest hard and arched into his back as he maneuvered down the long winding ribbon of dirt, at times more a river than a road.

Never taking for granted the overwhelming, indescribably breathtaking country that yawned and stretched in vibrant greens for every direction, this was the real Cambodia. This was the beauty and adventure for which my soul had been begging and though the sharp wind from the ride stung my leg in acid burn, I smiled finally feeling the void in my chest fill once again with wonder. Still scared at times of another crash, Hugo turned his irresistible eyes toward me each time he felt my legs grip him especially tight. And each time he promised in his soft French accent, and smile that could get you to forgive anything, that we would not crash again. And then we did. The fourth crash, not as damaging as the third, dug the rocky mud into my open wounds, and the heavy bike landed hard on my hip. Every part of me was convulsing in shock and pain and when the boys rushed to my aid, asking with honest sympathy if i was alright, I couldn’t hide the tears I attempted to shield in the secrecy of my helmet. If my tolerance for adventure and danger are abnormally high, my threshold for pain is ironically low. And so we made the decision to head back. Fifty kilometers into the countryside before reaching the elusive tribal villages, the road was seeming only to get worse and we agreed we were lucky to have only minor scratches to show for our quartet of crashes. Slow and steady, and walking through the more difficult streches to navigate, we made it back to the small town center of Ban Lung without another incident. Hugo spent the remainder of the ride back apologizing with a genuine sorrow for breaking his last promise that I wanted nothing more than to soothe. If ever there was a schoolgirl crush, this was it. And despite the fact that this youthful, clean cut accountant was a far cry from the standard broke, dirty, artist to whom I am usually attracted, I found myself dreamily smitten. That being said, I am well aware of my tendencies to want those men that I know will be nothing but trouble.

Club Foot: Take Three

Once my leg was cleaned and bandaged, the boys took me out to lunch and we headed back to Lumkot Lake, the large, volcanic crater lake surrounded by the kind of ancient vegetation, lazy in its verdant draping, that reminded me so overwhelmingly of Africa. I spent three days in Ratanakiri with the three French boys and each day we found ourselves back at the paradisical lake.

Backflipping in Paradise

Twilight on the Lake

On the second night, as an apology for the temporary loss of yet another foot, they took me out to dinner at a charming French restaurant incongruous with the muddy streets stalls that define this provincial town.

We drank wine and whiskey into the early hours of the morning and one by one, as everyone found their respective beds, Hugo and I sat alone on the tree top deck of our majestic guest house. I am no stranger to flirtation and I know the glances and conversation that he and I shared throughout the night were far from meaningless. We spoke of his life back in Paris, with his steady job, inspiring only ennui, and the steady girlfriend of four years that goes along with such a predictable life. I shared with him my similar story of my rut in love and work back in North Carolina and the string of events that led me to leave it all behind. He looked at me then as I was lying long across the broad, wooden table and with an earnestness in his eyes I can’t help but believe was genuine, told me he should leave it all behind and come explore the world with me instead. Naturally, I accepted his offer, still jaded by a string of disappointing boys since I had left Malaysia. And then I saw the glint. The best glint you can ever see, and always, immediately, recognize; he was going to kiss me. Despite my private vow of celibacy until I returned to New Zealand (who was I kidding) I let his head bend down to mine, and reveled in the first whisper of lip to lip. Cupping my hand to the side of his face, my thumb to his temple, fingers in his hair, he kissed me. He really kissed me. I won’t be so harsh as to say the last time a kiss made it to the back of my knees, but this one was it. At time teasing and tentative, others unbridled with the shared knowledge of what we knew we both wanted, we made out. There is just no other word for such an epic session of lip and tongue and hand and arching bodies. In a sweet and brief pause he confessed to me that in four years he had never kissed another woman. Simultaneously puzzled and flattered, I inquired as to why it was me, why it was now. But his only response was to say “Je’n sais pas…” and kiss me again, both softer and with more fervor than before. As it was, that night, I did not break my vow of celibacy, but only quietly hoped I might have the chance before we parted.

My last night in Ratanakiri I could think of almost nothing else. As the large group of us sat around the same large table that Hugo and I had laid upon the night before, he discreetly traced his finger along my exposed thigh, hidden in the shadows under the table, now indelible in my memory of Cambodia. Occasionally he laced his fingers in mine and when I brought my eyes to his we knew it became obvious to the rest of the table just exactly what we were thinking. But the desire I knew was unfolding in both of us would never be fulfilled. Once again, as the night found its quiet end, he kissed me slowly, and with care. This was not the reckless passion that had shook us both the night before. Each kiss of his was a small, silent apology. He had already told his girlfriend back home about me, about our kiss, about his sole infidelity in four years, to which she replied, “Je te deteste et je la deteste aussi!” But for all the anger she felt at the time, we both knew in resigned desire that he would go home to her. His minor transgression would be forgiven and the unexpected spark, the epic kiss, and the flame that burned as fast as it did bright, would drift from our histories as easily as the ash it would inevitably leave behind.

My father used to call me his absent-minded professor. Just like your papa, he’d say. One love called me his little calamity, and was wrong only in magnitude. The married love of mine quoted Fitzgerald, and smiled, each time my infinite carelessness ended with a signature of tiny disasters. The Beautiful and Damned is right. The poet still addresses his letters to Little Lady Trouble and most recently a friend coined T.Rex the Train Wreck, saying it was a miracle I wasn’t extinct. I don’t doubt it.

A cell phone floats down the sewers of Columbia Heights, another makes a muffled call for help from the backseat of a North Carolina taxi, just two in a long line of brethren fallen. The camera under the seat of a bus in Arusha belongs to someone poorer now, and only a week passed before its twin left me for the Indian Ocean. A glass of milk, a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, all murder weapons of the various valuables in my life. Five cars were totaled before I learned to give up on the highway. My fourth iPod in two years finally forced me to be silent, and brought my mind back to paper. After all, they are only just things: little lessons in impermanence and patience, to help recall those things that truly matter. And with each minor loss came a brief mourning for whatever small joy it brought me, whatever minor hassle its loss entailed, and a smile as I thought of the one on the married man’s face if he could only see me now.

But something was different this time. A square, black journal, sharp in its youth, the red thread laced through the inner binding already beginning to fray, could never be replaced. Malaysia stole a thousand ringgit and the use of my right foot for a month. And along with that journal, my first day in Thailand cost me five thousand baht, a new wallet, all of my debit cards, my very last iPod, and my much-loved spectacles. Struggling to find a way to stay in Thailand with no access to money, and struggling harder to cope with the loss of my words, the fever hit. On the third day tossing through sweat in the heat of dreams somehow both vivid and cloudy, I lost the poet too. Overwhelmed by all that was gone from me, for the first time I felt a part of myself giving up. The girl who never did, the stupid romantic who would love a bullet in her heart if it gleaned the right way from the barrel, finally walked away from the man with the gun. But in that same pitch of hopeless fever, a soft Irishman came instead. He sang the songs whose chords I thought had vanished when I left him: the fragile movement of his wrists, each soft note less apprehensive than the last, glances darting quickly downward, awkward and guilty with wanting. I’m not quite sure how, but in the third dazed day of dreaming fever, he saved me.

Still disoriented, but on my way, words flowed faster than thoughts to every scrap of paper I could find, as I pressed my way on to Phnom Penh. I at least had a friend there, and a place to stay while I pasted the remaining shreds of my life together. The journey was as exhausting as the fever itself. I was ripped off twice more in the desperation to get to somewhere that every bus-ticket-selling Thai could smell from a mile away. But when the fever cleared and the sweet faces of Cambodia smiled each place I went, I felt a happiness again beginning to settle in me. And then the last five thousand baht I had hidden was stolen as well. I shook in disbelief. It hadn’t been a week since the first robbery. I couldn’t even pay for my room at the guest house in Siem Reap. I could feel the last remnants of resolve inside me unraveling. With the help of a somewhat stranger, I made it to Phnom Penh with $1.50 and a friend my only assets, weakly struggling to find the self I used to know through yet another knot in this long string of calamities I call my life.

From the first day in Phnom Penh, I felt like an apparition in the busy capital city. The smile on my face a pale shadow of the one that used to stretch through every limb as I discovered a new part of the world. As it was, Barbara and I explored and enjoyed the sweaty streets, she an easy distraction from the precarious sorrow that burrowed itself quietly inside. Knowing all along that one last card would topple my shaky tower, I took careful care to keep it standing, my breath ever baited, afraid to blow it all down. And when the laptop, with every word I had written since I left, inexplicably died, I was hopeless to stop the tumble. For the first time in a long time, I gave up, and gave in to the tears that had been waiting for their turn to fall.

At four in the morning on the bare tiled floor that night, I sat. Next to the poorly padded mat that had been my bed for weeks, legs to my chest, eyes staring towards something they know they can’t see, I asked for the Irishman. Wiry and unsure, as thin and frail as his words, but stronger so for his honesty, I needed him now. I asked him to tell me what I wanted so badly here, what I was supposed to find in the romance of these ancient kingdoms. But instead of his reassuring voice, only unanswered questions coursed through my mind in the hot, empty room. Instead of peace, my guts turned over in me, cramping in inexplicable pain as they had been for two days. And instead of darkness, a tiny red blip flashed from the failed attempt at saving my now deceased laptop, nonchalant in its inconsistency, as if taunting me with the fact that it was never coming back. My back ached from the unforgiving floor and I felt a feeling to which I am wholly unaccustomed. I wanted to go home. But I knew all too well I had no home to go to. I felt as if Asia was kicking me out. As if I wasn’t supposed to be here now, but then where was I supposed to be? So accustomed to these tiny mishaps slipping from my shoulders in happily resigned laughter, so used to a decade of cheerfully careless calamities, now I could barely breathe under the weight of this avalanche. And in that moment of pre-dawn desperation, I wrote. I wrote every desperate thought that had been chewing my limbs to pieces. Just before the sunrise, I closed Barbara’s laptop and let myself give into one more thing: sleep.

I awoke the next morning understandably exhausted. The urge to find some silent and unknown solitude had been slowly pulling on me since that train to Bangkok. And after my failed attempt to let the ocean revive me in Sihanoukville, a dirty, overwhelming party town on Cambodia’s southern beaches, I knew I needed to head out on own again. But every part of me still felt defeated. I left my paperweight of a laptop at home and went to the internet cafe to find a friend to lay my troubles on. I found Iva.

For eight years, Iva has been stern and unyielding in her advice. Sometimes harsh to hear, cutting and even hurtful, she is as reliable and unforgiving as the sea. I put everything I have bared here onto her and asked her what I was supposed to do. I cried in a self-pity that led me only to self-loathing and told her for the first time I didn’t think I could do it anymore. In the lofty melodrama of a writer’s ways I told her there wasn’t anything left anyone could take from me.Trying to offer solace and encouragement in any way possible, she told me the one thing I guess I needed to hear: “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re the toughest girl I know.” Such a strange thing when you are weak, and frightened. Crying for no reason other than you don’t know what else to do. Afraid of nothing, and everything, and longing for comfort in a place with no comforts to offer, but she was right. I hated myself enough just for feeling this way, and giving up would only distill the regret in my bones. The pride that stopped me from leaving, that foolish hubris that kept a broken traveler from turning around, from finding a home, wasn’t foolish at all, it was me. I have always been scared. Through every journey, listening to the words of family and strangers calling me brave, I never understood it. It was never courage, it was a frightened, secretly shy girl still trying to prove to herself and the world that she could do it. Petrified of falling into another rut, and running as fast as she could away from anything that might make her feel small and stuck again, the next foot just kept falling in front of the other, a thousand times again. It wasn’t courage, there simply wasn’t anyway I couldn’t do it.

And so the tears dried tight on my cheeks and I started to write. To write everything I had felt and everything that had helped me get out of it. Finally now I am left with the sly, weightless smile that blooms familiar in the pit of my gut as my next adventure awaits. Finally, I feel like myself again. So, perhaps this post offers not the thrill of danger, nor exotic adventure, or sordid love story. Perhaps this self-indulgent ramble isn’t something anyone even cares to read. I have struggled enough in the past few weeks with where my writing will ever go, and who it is really for other than myself, so if you have come this far and feel disappointed, my apologies. Who knows, maybe I will find love with a long lost Khmer Rouge rebel guerrilla who kidnaps me in the hidden jungles of Ratanakiri next week, but I make no promises. Today, these words are for me: a much-needed exercise in catharsis. And maybe also for anyone who thinks it takes some mythical courage to do the things you want to do, or the things you are scared of, or the things that seem impossible from the easy comfort and structure of everything that is familiar. Because trust me, it doesn’t. You just do it, and it works because there isn’t any other way. Because even the girl who never spoke, simultaneously praying to be noticed and not, staring at her feet as she shuffled through the hallways of her youth, closed her eyes and jumped, and left it all behind.

That I could sit, silent, in the dingy yellows
of lanky grass, frail and translucent

as my grandfather’s hands. And the way each
blade moves just as he does. Full of care and

always to the same places. That I could follow
the single ant marching adamant through

the drought-hardened canyons of my heel. His
seemingly random procession an infantry,

a victory parade for the strongest creature
on earth. And that my nanometers of nerve

endings will never register this glory until
he reaches the fragile dunes and plains

of ankle and calf. And while he charges blindly
into unknown lands, the first salty solider

of my own treks cowardly in the minute valley
of my nape, afraid to find resistance even

on a path smooth with wear, and aims to settle
in the shadowy foxhole peeking above the elastic

at my hips. That he does not know I saved his life
when I lifted the light cotton from my skin to let him

pass into the promised land. But this is a train
to Bangkok, and solitude is not a city. From this maudlin

vinyl, it is dust suspended in sunlight precisely
divisioned by four steel bars. The vapor

of dream that dissipates further with each moment
once you wake. That leaves you nothing but

a void and a grasp and the ineluctable realization
you can’t ever get that precious sliver back.

Eyes open in weak defiance, fingers arched
against the dirty glass clawing their way to a place

they can’t recall and when they dropped limp like
broken bones or hearts my solitude starved to loneliness.

After thousands of miles and thirty straight days of rain, I had finally reached the sun-glinted waters of the South China Sea. In electric, unapologetic blues I thought of nothing but forgetting myself in those tropical waters, as yet untouched by my eager toes. With plans to relax and write on the beach for a few days before heading north towards Thailand, I watched with simple delight as the ferry approached the dark, verdant mountains stretching out lazily from the sea. As we disembarked, I decided arbitrarily to turn right from the jetty onto the small sidewalk that passed for Ayer Bitang’s only road. Wide enough only for a single motorbike with a sidecar to pass, the small children driving them yell “beep beep! beep beep!” as they come up behind you. Smiling at the kids, barely ten years old with their infant siblings perched happily on their laps as they giggled and drove past, I knew I was going to like it here. As I continued south down the narrow sidewalk the wretched stench of garbage overwhelmed my senses in the stagnant heat. Though I had read about the lack of any orderly waste disposal system, I was flooded with shock, curiosity, and nausea as I passed the burning pile of rubbish, which was conquered and conquered again by ten different monkeys in their own subsequent coup d’états. Oblivious to the rancid smoke wafting through the trees, they stared in territorial possession of their kingdom of rubbish, tightly clenching their half-rotted watermelons like priceless gems. I walked cautiously past and tentatively snapped a few photos, knowing just how aggressive they could be.

King of the Landfill

After exhausting every guest house on the southern side of the jetty, I turned around and headed back past where I began. The island was packed on this Saturday afternoon, as it was a Malaysian family holiday weekend, and I was relieved to find a chalet for twenty five ringgit just on the other side of the jetty.

The Jetty

Growing slowly accustomed to pressing my way through the tropical humidity with all of my gear, I threw my pack down on the bed unfazed and headed back towards the sandy beach I had found at the southern most point of ABC. The sun was just beginning to set as I walked in refreshed excitement, and the sky lent itself to my soul in dusky blues and golds.

First South China Sunset

Coming up to the aptly named Sunset Corner, I ordered the happy hour special of three beers for ten ringgit: duty free and pleasantly cheaper than booze on the mainland. I chugged the first beer near instantaneously, set free a massive belch, tore off my dress, and ran into the sea like a crazed religious nut into the promised land. I opened my eyes under the water, clear as glass, and let the salt soak into my skin with ineffable relief. Since I was too young to understand it, I have needed and adored the ocean in a way that is beyond words, even to a rambling writer like me. As I collapsed salty and reborn onto the pleasantly busy beach, I noticed a group of six or seven travelers from scattered nations laughing over beers just a few feet away. I walked up with my second cold beer, the sea still pouring down my body from the long, wet mop on my head, and asked if I could join them. Immediately greeted by a young, blonde, Scot who looked more like a California surferboy than a Scotsman; we sank easily into travelers’ introductions and the questions you find yourself happily asking and answering in each new place you stumble upon. There are some kinds of loves in life that take only moments to recognize. Danny, my fair-haired Scot was one of these. Contented through every electrified molecule in me, I was instantly at home with the friendly crew and ready to drink straight through to dawn, everyone eagerly awaiting the 2:30 A.M. World Cup match between the US and England.

By the time the sunset had found the other side of the world, Tioman sat shrouded in pre-dawn darkness, and I found myself drunkenly stumbling into to the sea for a night swim. The solitude of the ocean at night calls to me again and again, like an undeniable sorrow aching to be soothed. The horizon of inky water indistinguishable from where it meets the sky envelopes me, and floating alone in the great darkness punctuated only by stars, I barely even exist. But on this night, the tide was as low and far as it goes, and I found my inebriated feet stumbling over sharp corals, begging to find water deep enough to swim. Finally floating in my secret solitude I reveled in the powerful majesty of the universe that never fails to overwhelm my tiny soul until I heard the cheers for the game in the distance calling me back to shore. Struggling as much to exit the water as I had to enter, I tread as lightly as possible on the dead shards of coral and made my way back to dry land. But with the first ounce of pressure on my right foot, a nerve tensing pain shot straight up my leg. As I hobbled back to the bar to inspect the damage, six black spots smaller than the period at the end of this sentence arched their way across the ball of my already swollen foot. I had stepped on a sea urchin. Immediately, every nearby local began offering me the necessary home remedies, which are to beat the painful calcium barbs very hard with a piece of wood for an extended period of time, soak it in vinegar and lime juice, and of course, pee on it. Taking care of all but the last suggestion for the time being, I returned to my new found friends and watched the USA-England match in drunken, oblivious camaraderie.

I awakened the next morning with the familiar wrenching of hangover wringing my guts. Stepping out of bed to find the greasiest food possible, I had forgotten entirely about my foot, and stumbled still half-drunk into the wall with a hint of pressure on the useless appendage. As I slowly made my way to the restaurant of the guest house, just steps from my door, it quickly sank in exactly how much this sea urchin had changed my plans. Tioman is a mountainous island; its beaches connected by long and often difficult treks through the jungle, snaking yourself up and down barely marked paths and fallen power lines to reach the next bay. My plans for my few days here involved doing almost all of these treks, up to Monkey Bay and Salang, across to Juara on the eastern coast and down to the less-inhabited southern side of the island to the supposedly stunning Asah Waterfalls. With my foot as it was, I was painfully aware that I could do none of those things. And with plans after Tioman consisting of hiking around the tea plantations and strawberry farms in the Cameron Highlands, and jungle trekking through the ancient rainforests of Taman Negara, I resigned myself to remaining beached until my club foot returned to its normal size. I smiled silently over my breakfast as I realized there are certainly worse places to be stuck in the world.

Clubfoot's Prison Paradise

As if confirming that very thought, my sweet Scot happened upon my greasy breakfast for one, and sat down to join me. I quickly realized it’s hard not to run into people when there is only one road. Danny and I found each other’s company in rare form: easy like old friends, but not without the subtle, tingling thrill of possibility. My first five days on Tioman we were nearly inseparable as each morning he would stumble upon my daily hangover necessity: western breakfast, and we would spend the rest of the day lying on the beach, doing the limited amount of exploring I was capable of, most certainly drinking and having a laugh, and through it all, learning each other. Danny was easy, and without pretense, and I find myself now struggling to articulate just exactly what (and the abundance of that what) Tioman gave me in the short time I was there.

I have labored through many drafts and variations in figuring how to relay this imparted gift, this intangible souvenir. Even the word souvenir seems to cheapen it, almost by definition a magnet or t-shirt or some other kitschy knick-knack to be forgotten as soon as it’s given. Except perhaps, that the word comes from the French memory, and I will certainly never forget what I took from Tioman. The drama of my consistent and failed efforts to describe this lack only in the romance of their arduous frustrations in that there is no graveyard of crumpled pages surrounding the wire-rimmed trash can in the corner, only remnants of paragraphs that will never be used, and a backspace button that may wear out on me soon. But from my weeks on this island, and the people I know I will not forget, here is the best I can do.

After a long night of local rum with friends, watching a lightning storm crash its way in purple flashes across the expansive sea, I stumbled my way back to my room. With the light on I lie on the bed letting pen float over paper until something came to me. Instead of words, that thing was Veronica. A sunset haired Norwegian, I don’t believe there is a person on this planet who could claim she had done them wrong. And if they did, I wouldn’t believe them. This sweet girl of a woman knocked on my door, and when I opened it, I saw the tears in her eyes. I had seen a glimpse of a drunken argument between her and her Malaysian boyfriend, but as it is with those things you tend to turn away and mind your own. But as this somewhat stranger sat on my bed and choked words and tears from her throat as if there was no room for air, she stripped herself down to bone. Her boyfriend had struck her that night. Swung a drunken fist at her freckled porcelain face and threatened her with a knife. There was no use for a single word in English, or in any other language. I held her tightly. As if I could squeeze the pain from her chest out to her arms and through her fingertips, I held her. For more than an hour she poured her story, their story, into me. We passed two hours, and three joints, and though sometimes hard to understand through her accent and her tears, we occasionally enjoyed those priceless laughs that come through unstoppable tears and remind you it won’t always be that way. And I thought. It had been fewer than two weeks since I had arrived on Tioman. In any other world, Veronica would be a perfect stranger. But here, on my bed, smoking joints in our underwear, we knew each other for ages. And though there was a tragedy here that brought Veronica and I closer that night, I realized the more important piece: there are no boundaries to keep any of us apart.

A week had passed since Danny and Gilly left. I missed my best friend, my partner in crime, my half romance that didn’t get a proper chance. And Gilly. She was a spunky, well-humored, and admirably honest woman who understood me from the moment we met. Always good for a laugh, she could give and take shit with the best of them in the true Scottish tradition. One moment she’ll say she loves you, and in the next, tell you to go fook yourself, all with the same sly, devious smile edged in the corners of her hard-lined lips. Once they were gone, and Veronica found herself bed-ridden with a debilitating infection,Tioman was just me and Helen. My sweet, cheeky Brit was my soulmate on this island. At only twenty-two she understood years ago some things I had only just figured out. She knew the things really mattered in the world, the things that didn’t, and had the courage to leave the latter behind. The course of her journey not around the world, but within herself was so similar to mine, she so aware of everything that pulsed within her, and as ever smiling as I am, I couldn’t help but love her. We spent our days at the dive shop, completing my three day open water course in six lovely, lazy days. We enjoyed three hour lunches, and rainy days off watching movies in bed. And each day we spent together, another little corner of our histories was discovered.

The thing about traveling to remote places, far removed from the plethora of overwhelmingly unnecessary western conveniences, is that instead of being busy driving places and calling people on your way to meeting other people, making plans for next week, next month, next year, all you do is talk to each other. So perhaps back in D.C. it takes months to know a person: to pull them out of the structured comfort of their familiar, to infiltrate a circle of friends that is longer and stronger than you, to learn those little details that matter more than the big ones. But when you are a traveler, and to be honest I’m not exactly sure when I became one, these connections are easy, and strong, and slowly transcend any other experiences as the ones that define you.

We each come to these places indelibly tattooed with our families and educations, our loves, tragedies, and disappointments, which are simultaneously the chains that weighted us to the ground back home and the gusts that blew us away. We struggle to grow against it all, while knowing that without these things we couldn’t have been. And so you learn these little caverns in your loves. You try to navigate your way through their hearts, the same as your own, and in those explorations between open souls, as narrow and cobwebbed as they can be, is where we find love with another person. So thank you, Tioman, terima kasih for reminding me what it, what everything, is all about: love.

After four easy days couchsurfing in KL, I abruptly wore out my welcome with an awkwardly denied sexual advance from my host. As it was, I was beyond relieved to find myself en route to my next destination. Though the bus to catch the ferry to Tioman was sold out, I settled to head a few hours south to Melaka for a day or two before I made my way east for my first dip in the South China Sea. My once tanned skin had paled in the maudlin Wellington May and begged for the ocean, and for the sun. Clouds had continued to hover above my cheerful head from New Zealand to Kuala Lumpur and I was happy to be battered and abused by the equatorial star when I arrived in Melaka. After a brief connection with a Dutch couple at Melaka Sentral, I found myself on Jalan Melaka Raya, a quaint commercial road on the outskirts of the small city center. I parted ways with the friendly Dutchies as they found a hostel a bit above my price range and wandered into Shirah’s Guest House, just around the corner. The façade of the building was as promising as any on this unknown road: a skinny cement staircase tempting passersby with nothing but a gate and a pile of shoes.

Little did I know...

I made my way up the sweltering promise in search of a bed for the night. As with the last failed attempt at a room, when I arrived, the place was silent and still as the heat. I peeked my head cautiously around the corner as if I had broken in and uttered a tentative ‘hello?’ After a minute or two, a deep sienna-skinned man with a proper pot of a belly made a half-naked appearance. Clad only in a white towel around his waist, he proceeded to check me in as we both pretended he was fully clothed. As he showed me to the modest single room, I liberated my shoulders from the weight of my pack, and rubbed hot hands into the reddened imprints the straps had left. The overly eager owner, Esam, struggled to explain to me in gestured fragments of phrases the conditions of the room and hostel, and I obligingly nodded in feigned understanding. All I knew is that the room was fifteen ringgit, and I saw an ashtray and two beers on the table in the kitchen-slash-hallway-slash-toilet-slash-reception desk. In a small Muslim town, a cheap room where I could drink and smoke was more than I could ask for.

Fifteen ringgit and a fan

For eight sweaty hours from the apex of midday sun into the still heavy cloak of nightfall, I wandered the streets of an unfamiliar city in that favorite way of mine, with wide wonder for eyes and rhythmic curiosity for feet. Constantly smiling and letting the energy of the city sink into my skin with the sun, I quickly realized there wasn’t much to see in the tourist-infested historical center of Malaysia. Two days of history, museums, and aimless wandering would be more than enough, and with that decision I picked up a few overpriced beers and made my way back to the hostel. Despite the crumbling façade and untrustworthy lock on my even less trustworthy door, the rooftop deck of the narrow cement sliver of a building was a welcome retreat. I took my three beers up the shaky spiral of twisted metal that passed for stairs and sat down to write a letter. One of my favorite pastimes as a solo traveler, I revel in clipping and taping the small scraps from my journey into cards, notes, and envelopes. As I sat surround by chopped up maps and torn bus tickets, the owner came up to the deck accompanied by a younger Malaysian guy. Despite my desire to continue, I put away my little craft project and engaged the two locals in a difficult and broken conversation. Through the limitations of our languages we discussed the city and our respective cultures over beers, saved from the night’s heat by the soft, sporadic breeze.

As we exhausted the last of our beer, Esam’s friend Zam got a call from their mutual boss. He insisted they bring me and a few Italian girls from their sister hostel out to his nightclub, just around the corner. Excited for a taste of local flavor, I nodded my head affirmatively and Esam and I made our way to the bar while Zam went to pick up and escort the Italian ladies. The immediate gesture to take my arm in his seemed a friendly one, but I remained unconvinced of the nature of such actions for the remainder of the night. Traveling alone as a woman has a definitive uncertainty that never truly leaves, there is a drop of doubt ever in your gut that can course itself through you, wringing every muscle to tension quicker than a glance. A level of skepticism of any man, most notably foreign ones, that offers to do anything for you is necessary. And while most of the time, these friendly strangers are harmless, uncomfortable advances are not something with which I am unfamiliar. As it was, we walked arm in arm for two short blocks to the local club, Ginza. As we entered, the pulse of the music vibrated my limbs and I smiled as I noticed the colored lights reflecting off of Esam’s bald, sweaty head. I followed him to some couches and a table on the edge of the dance floor and the overly excited man ordered us a bucket of beers. Already a bit uncomfortable and wondering when Zam and the Italian girls were to arrived, I listened to the live local music and watched the girls dancing what appeared to be a standard Malaysian dance, in sync with one other and the powerful voice of the singer. Esam explained to me that first the girls would dance alone, and then it would time for the couples to dance. Ever fascinated by cultural differences, I watched the pattern in which the girls moved their hips and feet and let the simple movement sink into my memory. When it came time for the boys to join the girls, I humored Esam and took his hand to the dance floor. Little did I know that the male/female section more closely resembled the slow hands-on-shoulders back and forth swaying that is most widely performed in America by nervous, pre-pubescent sixth graders. As we moved slowly with the sentimental music, the unwashed stench of Esam suffocated my senses, and as he pulled me closer to him I maintained pressure to keep him at a distance. Once he rested his wet, glistening head on my shoulder, the uncomfortable dance lost its novelty and I broke free from his awkward hold to find the relative comfort of the couch. I was unaware at this time just how much I would pay for the seemingly innocent encounter. As the cold beers sweated their way to warm, I continued to look around anxiously for the rest of our party. It was now past one in the morning and with one beer for each of us left in the bucket, I was ready to go home, ever more skeptical of the intentions of a pushy and unappealing man. Tipping the last sip of beer into my mouth I told Esam I was ready to go back, forced to insist against his tiring protests.

I awoke the next morning to knocking on my door so incessant I thought there was a crew of people hanging pictures in the hallway. It was not yet ten and Esam was already calling to me, “Liti, liti…monin, liti.” After ignoring him for over an hour I was finally annoyed to the point of getting out of bed and answering. “Yeah, hi, good morning, what do you want, Esam?” I asked with irritation punctuating each word. Without an answer, Esam offered to make me some tea and I accepted, with sleep still crusted in my groggy eyes. The imposition of a man brought the delicious tea into my room and sat himself uninvited on my floor while I slowly let the hot beverage wake my body. As he started to ramble somewhat incoherently about how much he liked me, and attempted to begin kissing my shoulder, I realized the shit I had gotten myself into. I asked him to leave as I needed to shower and head out for the day, and just moments after he left, knocked on the door and professed his love for me, “Liti, I love you, I love you, liti!” Disregarding his awkward confessions, I left the hostel with the speed and discretion of an escaped convict. Planning on catching the night bus from Melaka to Mersing I stepped out into the day to explore Chinatown, a smaller, more authentic version than I had found back in KL. By the end of my wandering I went to purchase my bus ticket. The last night bus was sold out. Go figure. The next available bus was at eight the following morning. Too exhausted to pack and move all of my gear to change rooms for just ten hours, I headed back to the hostel with the plan to lock myself in my cell of a room and write until I fell asleep.

As I sat with my laptop on the bed and my door as locked as it got, I wrote until my eyelids dropped their now weighty curtains. And just moments later I heard my phone chime loudly with a text message. Excited, as I rarely receive messages from back home, I got up and dug my phone out of my bag. Shock and disgust dripped with the sweat down my face, pulling my mouth to frown. It was Esam. After giving him my number so he could book my bus ticket (which he failed to do), I could only have expected him to use it to perv on me as well. “Liti, we kan injuy, im nao sexcewaal desayr?” Taking a moment to decipher the struggling English, I choked a bit as the thought of his proposition lodged itself in my throat, and did my best to swallow. Another moment later, and there was a knock on my door. Knowing exactly who it was, as we were the only two people in the guest house that night, I ignored the shadowy figure casting itself through the slats. When he refused to give up, I gave in to the incessant knocking once more and asked him what he wanted in a frustrated grunt. “Please, liti, come to door.” Opening the door enough for him to see my face I sternly informed him that I was going to bed, it was late, and I had to catch an early bus in the morning. Apparently this made absolutely no difference to him as he proceeded to offer me a foot massage and ask if I got his text and if I understood what his “sexcewaal desayr” was. My tone turned to stone and as my rejection stabbed through the air in harsh staccato, he finally nodded his head in understanding and I closed the door in his still sweaty, and now repulsive, face.

As soon as the door clicked shut and I pushed in the sorry excuse for a lock, I stripped back down to my underwear and tank top and sprawled out on the tiny single bed. I reveled in the momentary relief from the heat as the fan oscillated its way from my bare, outstretched legs, to the back of my neck. As my breathing began to sink and slow in sleepy rhythms, my ringing phone jostled me to alertness. No one ever called this number. Knowing who it was, but scared to confirm, I picked the phone up off the nightstand. It was him. Something had to be done. No level of stern warning or steady insistence was going to deter this balding perv from my doorstep. I was scared, and nervous, and unsure of how harmless he really was. With each insistent advance that crawled over my limbs like a nightmare I grew more and more cautious. This time, I screamed. “Leave me the fuck alone! I need to get some sleep so stop fucking calling me, or texting me, or knocking on my door, I want absolutely nothing to do with you ever again!” I knew he wouldn’t understand half of the English that spit from my mouth in fiery indignation, but there isn’t a single person on this planet that doesn’t understand a woman screaming her pretty little head off.

Satisfied that the creep would not attempt another proposal, I once again shut my eyes, but found them fluttering nervously open with each and every creak of the aged building. Then in a loud, sudden burst, the TV upstairs came on at full volume. The sound boomed through the window at the top of my towering ceiling, presumably leading to the small lounge on the second floor. It took me only a moment to realize what Esam was watching. “Ohhh, ughhhh, yessss, ughhh, ughhhhhh, ohhhhh….come at the same time baby, come at the same time!” My stomach did a backflip. The dirty old man was watching porn upstairs that shook the walls of my room with each laughable convulsion of the textbook orgasm. Putting in my headphones I tried to drown out the slutty screams ringing through the hostel. After several unsuccessful attempts at willful ignorance, I screamed to the ceiling for him to turn off the fucking porn. After another minute or two the hostel fell into an even more disturbing silence. The comedic and somewhat irritated disgust I originally felt had congealed into a cornering fear. My body sat stiff in the bed as my eyes watched the shadows, barely perceptible in the eerie green light from the window above. Wearing nothing but a thong and a tank top, I felt beyond naked. The curtain on the window looking directly over my bed was hung from the opposite side, and I swore I saw his figure shifting the thin fabric. There was no blanket on the bed to cover me, and I intently stared at the window in exposed, violated fear. Afraid my bare, sleeping ass would be the next porno this forty-something creep would rub one out to, I texted the poet and told him I wish I had listened to his sole piece of advice before I left: to buy a knife. Not that I would ever be able to use one on another human being, but just the thought that I had some way to defend myself was a more than appealing daydream. It was now past midnight. The drop of doubt in my gut had bloomed into limb-stiffening fear. I lay in my bed, texting any and every person I could think to text trying to keep myself awake until I could tell whether or not the awkward sexual predator had gone to bed.

I awoke the next morning thankfully unharmed and ready to get the fuck out of Melaka. As I looked at the phone still clutched by my right hand under my pillow, I jolted up as if on springs. 7:47. My bus from Melaka Sentral was departing in thirteen minutes and apparently dejected from my unapologetic rejection, Esam decided not to honor the wakeup call he had promised the day before. With my bag already packed I threw on the clothes I had thoughtfully laid out the night before. Running down the already unbearably hot streets I searched for a cab. The local bus would take at least twenty minutes and at this point I was willing to pay almost anything to be en route to Mersing. Catching a cab a few minutes from the hostel, I threw my shit in the back and told him we had seven minutes to catch this bus. An experienced local he told me to get my ticket in my hand and be ready, because he was going to chase it down, flag it to stop and I was to get out running and waving my ticket at the driver. Skeptical of the idea, I didn’t have much of a choice, and as the cab caught up to the already moving bus, I jumped out and ran ahead waving my ticket like I had surrendered the war. As I collapsed in exhausted relief onto the cool air conditioned seat at the back of the bus I wondered just exactly where this crazy journey was going to land me next.

I arrived at the Changi Airport in Singapore at seven p.m. local time on Friday night after forty-one hours living in four different airports. Maybe if the unthinkable stint hadn’t begun at six in the morning after an eighteen hour session of boozing and no sleep, it would have been manageable. Needless to say, I was exhausted. I made my way through the fantastically modernized airport with the taste of cheap wine in my mouth, and the taste for a cigarette even stronger. I had heard horror stories of Singapore, and the strict enforcement of any and every law from jay walking to littering, including mandatory public hanging of anyone caught with any illegal substance. (Luckily I had remembered to toss the half a joint worth of pot that I had been carrying around when I got to Auckland.) I heard that smoking cigarettes was not allowed in public or in any covered places, but as far as I could figure, that pretty much meant anywhere. Then, a small, secret relief relaxed the exhausted tension in my face. Just minutes away from my arriving gate I found an outdoor smoking area. I quickly headed up the stairs and out onto the patio-bar into my first taste of the palpable Singapore heat. I threw my carry-on bag down to spark a beyond-needed cigarette after four hours, two beers, and two mini-bottles of wine on the last leg of my journey from Wellington. As I sucked the first, sweet drag in ineffable relief I let the awareness of my surroundings permeate my already sweat-covered skin.

While Changi Airport was a marvel of futuristic convenience, streamlining hollow-faced strangers to their next consumer-driven destination, the nervous flutter in my gut wasn’t fooled. The next three months that lay ahead began to trace themselves through me in uncertain vines. I was more alone on this bench in this sweater of Asian humidity, in this most foreign of places, than I had ever been before in my life. I had no travel guide, no ideas, no plans, no friends, no phone, and no connection to anything I know other than whatever internet café I may stumble upon along the way. I had with me thirteen kilograms of backpack and clothes, a laptop, a few travel suggestions from friends, and enough money to travel on about forty New Zealand dollars a day for the next three months. As excited as I had been in the weeks leading up to this adventure, two tired days in lonely airports had only served to dig my solitary sense of self deeper. As it was, my cigarette was finished and it was time to make my way towards the one reservation I had: a hostel in the heart of Chinatown.

Singapore is a canvas splatter-painted with language and simultaneously married, and competing cultures. Standing next to my rucksack on the crowded metro rail as I made my way into the city’s heartbeat, I noticed the four official languages posted on every sign. The faces lining the endlessly long train blended from Chinese to Indian to Malay and every shade in between. With tourist tattooed across my curious Western face, I took out my camera to snap a photo of the snaking train, whose rail cars slowly shrunk and disappeared into the infinity of distance as the near silent train breezed effortlessly down the curving track.

Goes on for days...

Before I knew it, it was time to alight at my stop (as the soft voice of the metro requests). As I stepped out on to the crowded streets of Chinatown, with hawker stalls lining the road-less alley as far as I could see, the humidity, again, swallowed me whole. Luckily, the hostel’s website was no lie and the entrance was literally footsteps away from the MRT stop. After almost two straight days spent in airports, lugging too many bags of oversized gear on my weak and tiny frame, I checked in, threw my bags into the packed twelve person dorm room, and collapsed onto the bed in utter, humid, lost, sweaty, tropical, traveling exhaustion. My excursion around Southeast Asia had officially begun.

I awoke early the next morning, planning to absorb as much of the city as possible before heading north into Peninsular Malaysia. I didn’t know much about Singapore, but I knew that the tiny city-state was over-populated, over-developed, and over-regulated. Even from the quaint and busy authenticity of Chinatown, the flagstaffs of twentieth century industry peeked above the carved roofs of ancient temples.

Past and Future

Why is there a surfboard on top of those buildings?

Singapore River

Miracles of modern engineering leapt from the horizon in daring postures, challenging one another to battles of modernity and design. With over five million people living on the island city-state of Singapore it is the second most densely populated country in the world, after Monaco, and it shows. The streets are a constant push and pull, hurried faces and cell phones pressed to cheeks like lovers. Making my way along the river that cuts through the heart of the city, I strolled silent and slow down towards the Marina, reading of the city’s history on statues and monuments as I walked. Past the Marina I came across the Ritz Carlton, and remembered there is a free art tour through the hotel’s SGD$5 million collection. I wandered up the steep driveway of the luxurious hotel and lost myself in a momentary daydream of king size beds with thousand thread count sheets and champagne breakfast room service. “Are you a guest of the hotel, miss?” The concierge’s question snapped me briskly from my reverie. “I wish,” I replied, and exchanged my passport to the desk for an iPod to tour the famed collection of contemporary art. Singapore is easily the most expensive city in Southeast Asia, and considering the New Zealand dollar is even weaker than the Singapore dollar, I was hard pressed to find free activities in the racing metropolis. Even the TIME Magazine article that recommended this tour to me had “plastic surgery” listed as the fourth best thing to do in twenty-four hours. As it was, I sauntered slowly through the miraculous structure, gazing in awe at the various pieces of art, and enjoying the sweet relief from the humid air outside, bloated with rain just aching to fall.

Lobby at the Ritz

Frank Stella's Moby Dick

By the time I finished wandering around the Ritz, the sky could no longer take the pressure, and warm rain began to drench the city. There is no drizzling in Singapore and as buckets pissed down on me, I hurried to find shelter.

when it rains it fucking pours

If there is one thing I learned about Singapore, the closest shelter is always a mall. Of the four MRT stops I saw, three of them were in malls. The bus station is in a mall, there is a mall dedicated to sporting goods, another for designer gear, another for electronics, and plenty for everything. If there isn’t a Louis Vuitton bag on your arm, then there better be a Gucci. The city is obsessed with shopping, and I found myself for the first time in my life untempted by material goods. There was a time when I would have sold my soul for a pair of Jimmy Choos. When I racked up more than fifteen thousand dollars in credit card debt, most of which fueled the oversized wardrobe I was faced with as I left my life in North Carolina behind. After donating an entire Jeep Cherokee full of clothes to a Family Crisis Ministry, after giving away endless amounts to friends and family, when I left DC for New Zealand, I still had suitcases and garbage bags full of tops and dresses, skirts and sweaters. I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume I had accumulated over the years. As I attempted to unwind the ties these possessions twisted round me, I found myself all the more happy to be liberated. In my thrift store button down and dirty ten dollar shorts, a calm smile sneaked across my face in the swamp of materialism that is the Singapore streets. Every inch of me knew at that moment what really matters in the world, what really matters to me, and that I would never get caught in that trap again. And at thirteen Singapore dollars a beer, I also knew it was time to get out of this city.

Traveler’s Note: Despite the city’s obsession with shopping, there is one thing they do right: food. Don’t leave the city without heading to Tan Quee Lan Street for some Chinese Steamboat. Choose your broth, meat, organs, seafood, vegetables, and noodles and prepare yourself for a marathon of eating. Somewhere between soup and Chinese fondue, Steamboat (or Hot Pot) is a must to complete any visit. Just make sure you go hungry, and bring lots of friends.

Five Plates Deep into the Singapore Steamboat