Play me first
Our wandering Cambodian family has separated and everyone’s going off on their own paths again, pulled by different cities, islands, and towns in different counties. The end of another era.
I ride a bus back from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh with my Argentinian friend Magdalena. We travel together one last time. We only had a couple days in the city together and wanted nothing more than to swim in the pool of our hostel, lay out under the scorching sun, recuperate from the week of partying in Koh Rong, and heal the constellations of sand flea bites we got from the island. I feel comfortable with her. We share this calming energy towards each other. At some point we flag a tuktuk down because we were craving Indonesian food. Later on we discover that it’s closed so we find a healthy vegetarian cafe instead. As Magdalena and I wait for our food she tells me about her father and how he calls her “Errante Eterno”, The Eternal Wanderer. Then she tells me the story. When she was in New Zealand she sent her dad an email saying how joyful she was and how happy she was where she lived. She told him that she found her place, that she couldn’t see herself anywhere else and didn’t want to be anywhere else either because she was fully content and happy. She felt that she was in symphony with the universe, as the universe was with her. Then when her dad went to Google Earth and looked for the place she lived in, he mentioned something that was lost in her memories. The place that she lived in reminded her father of a place in Argentina called Esquel, they went there together when she was 10 or 11. He said it was so much like it, that he could picture her in those streets. Then she remembered, she could also see herself walking there. Her dad had gone to work and she was in this hostel so she went for a walk. She walked the whole day and she recalled a football team called “Boca Juniors” winning a match and the people were celebrating in the streets. She remembered passing by a market where there was a rock climbing wall. She wished she had more money so she could climb but with the very little money she had, she bought colorful clips for her hair. She called her mom and asked her what she was doing and mentioned that she went for a walk while her dad was away. Her mom got worried and told her to go back to the hostel. Yet she remembered being so free, happy, and safe. Then she had that feeling of contentment again. All these years she hadn’t thought about that day until her dad mentioned it to her. Until her memories came flooding back.
She reveled in the thought that we can find ourselves in different places, ones that we’ve never been before. About how we seek for all of this travel, the desire to throw ourselves out there in the world and how badly we need it. We find these places and let it find us. We feel good about it, we find happiness and comfort in the search of the unknown. You’re walking down a random street, in a random place and you know it’s where you’re supposed to be. And you’re washed with that feeling over and over again.
I took the 7am bus from Phnom Penh to the border crossing, then a boat to a little island right by the Mekong River called Don Det. I woke up at 5:30AM, packed my bags half asleep and half awake. The hostel is quiet. The Khmer staff are sleeping on the couches, an Irish man is on one of the tables Skyping with his loved ones. I finish packing my smaller backpack and say goodbye to sweet Magdalena. She is half asleep as we part as well, I hug her and tell her to let me know when she has arrived in New Zealand. I step down from the bed and right before I close the door to leave I give her my besos. My last glimpse of her is in the dark with a little light that peaked through the doorway cracks. I love catching last glimpses of people before goodbyes. Because in that moment you are looking at the last bits of who they are in this time, in this place, at this chapter of your lives. And you know that in a way, they won’t ever be exactly the same again. People change all the time, whether they know it or not. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I find complete beauty in it as I hold this image of them in my head to keep. I do this stealthily, like they don’t know that I have preserved them in my mind. As if I had collected an object I loved dearly and have grown too enamored by it to put away so I keep it in a safe place. I do this with former lovers. With my best friends. With my family. Strangers I have connected with, even for just a fleeting moment. Preservation of goodbyes is my way of paying homage to these people in these pages of our lives. They may change over the years or they may not. Our relationship over the years may change or it may not. They are in a box tucked away in my mind. Untouched, unchangeable, and frozen in time. Yet my memory of them in that era is still warm, still thriving with life.
The driver arrives at my hostel in Phnom Penh. He drives us to the bus station where we make it right on time, the bus was ready to leave. My seat was next to a round Khmer who was already dozing off. To my left and a seat down is an adorable little Khmer baby in the arms of her mama. Her mother is beautiful with a perfect slope of a nose and fair, porcelain skin. I put my earphones on, lose myself in the music and drift to sleep. When I opened my eyes I’d watch villages, cars, and trucks fly through the window. The world is a blur and I find comfort in it, like a baby being rocked to sleep. Several hours later we finally make it to the border. The sky is changing colors and turning everything into gold again. My favorite hour. The bus driver takes our passports and heads to immigration. I wait with the others and watch the sky. I’m in my quiet mode, observing everything and everyone around me. The attractive French man sitting behind me, intently looking at his phone. The three younger guys sitting in silence and staring at the sky. The French couple and a blonde French guy are mingling and laughing. The quirky Kiwi man is hugging his Chinese girlfriend, the one with hair that turns into lilac whenever the sun shines on it. The Khmer man guarding the toilets and charging 2000 Riehl has his adorable little girl is on his motorbike sitting by herself and I wave and say hello. She laughs and giggles, amused by the stranger talking to her. My heart melts.
Dusk arrives. We get back on the bus and make it to Laos. The driver drops us off in the middle of nowhere. It’s dark now. A “taxi” is waiting for us, which was more like a truck with seats on the back, in true Asian fashion. We drive. Everyone is quiet and tired. The bus drives is to the pier and we walk down to the river to get to a shed. Locusts are swarming all over the fluorescent lights. As we hop in the boat, I look up and the stars are bright. The French guy in front is using his headlight to see what’s all around us. Big trees with big roots all over the islands and through the distance we see lights. He follows the lights and drops us off the island. I wander through the darkness and look for a place to rest my head. Eventually I find a cheap bungalow available for the night. I was exhausted and I thought I could just find the bungalow Magdalena told me about the next morning so I dropped my bags, found a place to eat, shower then dozed off. I wake up and lay on the hammock of my balcony overlooking the river. Boats keep passing by, the trees are huge. I felt like I was in the Amazon of Asia. I wander around and eventually found Mamas and Papas, the bungalow that Magdalena recommended to me. Mama is a sweet, kindhearted lady with a soothing energy. She showed me to my bungalow, right by the river with golden light peeking through the woven bamboo walls, a big, cozy bed with netting around it and two hammocks outside on my balcony. It was the perfect temporary home that I was looking for. For the next few days, I embraced the nothingness and relish every moment of solitude. I caught up and worked on my laptop, wrote endlessly on my journal and stuffed my face with Indian food almost every meal. I would go to the same restaurant everyday because the owner made the best green sauce and Malai Kofta I have ever had in my life. I’d meet characters during my meals there. Like the American writer with gray dreadlocks who was living and teaching in Japan.
“Humans are such interesting animals,” he said. He gets writing material by simply observing them and everything that they do.
“Writers are the biggest thieves. We steal anything. The way a person sits, talks, walks, gestures, and all their little quirks,” he says as his gaze drifts off the distance.
I knew exactly what he meant. The writing never stops. Even when we’re not writing we’re writing. Everything around us is a story. Everything has beauty, down to the last spec of dust. The narration in our head never stops. We were born this way.
The day of New Year’s Eve came. I rent a bicycle and sped through the rice fields of Don Det, exploring the island and pausing to watch the sunset on the bridge. I had dinner at my favorite restaurant again. A Dutch guy starts talking to me and we have dinner together. He was smart, had a nice smile and warm energy. He was a TV broadcaster from Holland. We talk about television, journalism, our travels and our ambitions. Then I called it an early night and went back to my little temporary home. All I truly wanted to do for New Years Eve was to spend it by myself in my bungalow, meditating into the new year. So I did just that. I hop on the hammock and meditated on the bright moon rising. I gaze up at the stars and sent love and gratitude to the world. I sent it to everyone and everything I have ever known. I fall deeper and deeper into the portal. Then I feel home again. Tears fill up my eyes and I feel nothing but love and gratitude, utterly thankful just to be alive. Time melts away. It felt like infinity and one second at the same time. I was elated and revitalized by the electricity of the cosmos. I write and write and write until I fall asleep with the pen in my hands and my head on the pages. Then I woke up to the golden sunbeams shining through the cracks.
Later in the afternoon I went on a sunset boat ride with the hostel next to my bungalow owned by these extremely friendly French men with a lovely aura. I wrapped my camera and purse around me and walked to the communal area.
“Are you a photographer?” says a deep voice with an accent that sounded Swiss. I say yes and he smiles and mentions that he’s a photographer too. He gives me his card and it was an incredible shot of a monk with soft ethereal light shining from behind him. He’s a photojournalist who was traveling around Nepal and now he’s wandering around Laos with his friends from Switzerland. He keeps eagerly asking me questions about photography and my travels, I share my stories for a bit. He’s just barely skimming the surface.
We make it to a bare island and wade through the shallow waters to get to the lovely little gardening island next to it. I walk past a beautiful Lao Mama and her little girl gardening, in the distance I could see the silhouette of a fisherman. I watch the golden sun slowly making its way down the horizon. I keep taking pictures and revel in the fleeting moments in between. I take pictures of the little Lao girl then approach her mother. We don’t speak more than two words of each other’s language. I try to tell them that they are both beautiful but she doesn’t understand so I show them the photos I took on my camera and she gets this priceless look on her face. She nods and giggles shyly. They both keep laughing as they look through their pictures. It’s contagious, so I laugh with them. There is no such thing as a language barrier when there is kindness and laughter thrown so freely in the air.
The next day I bike to the bigger island called Don Kong. I cross over the bridge and almost steer off because the trees and river views had me. I whistle and bike through the dirt roads to a get to a secluded river beach. I have it all to myself now. I meet some boatmen, we try to communicate. We have no idea what we’re trying to say to each other so we all end up laughing at each other instead. Then I bike to a wild, raging waterfall. It’s the biggest and widest one in Asia. I find my edge. I sit, swallow it all up and stay for a while. On my bike ride home I dodge cows, goats, and a snake. I listen and sing to the Temper Trap as I watch the sunset.
The day after that I kayak through the Mekong river with good company. We pass by tiny islands of trees and sleeping water buffaloes. My kayaking date is an ultra flamboyant, gay, hilarious Lao man who likes to call the dolphins by saying “Hello dolphins! Hello. Hello! Helloooooo! Dolphins! Hello? Hello! There! You see them? There! Oh! Gone! Hello? Hello dolphins? Helloooo!” repeatedly. At one point, as I am humming a song, he flails and screams right before he falls off the kayak and I ty to keep balance so I don’t fall with him. I couldn’t help but laugh before I muster up an “Are you okay?!” then he resurfaces. He starts laughing and yelling things in Lao. He takes out his cellphone and it is drenched. He turns it on and it still works, then he screams in triumph. I still can’t stop laughing. We find our way back home. I have a shower, wrap my scarf around me, and stuff my face with more Indian food. The owner laughs at me because it’s my millionth time in his restaurant this week and I’m still burning with spice but I love it. I walk back to my bungalow under the moonlight. I look up at the glimmering night sky and it fills my bones with euphoria.
Then I left the river islands. I would have stayed longer, hell I would have stayed there until my visa expired. But there was too many things to see, so I started heading north.
The tourists took their pictures and left. I walked around saying Sabaidy to the elders and I come across her hut. She looked serious and tough, a kind of woman not to mess with. So I gave her a smile. She grins back, showing off her black teeth. I gesture to ask if it’s alright if I take pictures with my camera and she smiles and nods. She gives me this curious look and motions for me to sit with her. I show her the images, we look at each other and start giggling. She talks to me in Lao, I repeat what she said and she breaks out into a boisterous hearty laugh. I start cracking up. She offers me her peanuts, I crack it open and eat it and she pats my back. She grabs my hand and squeezes it and says more things I can’t understand but I just repeat it. Her girlfriends keep laughing with us. The laugh riot goes on for a while, I’m almost in tears from laughing and couldn’t breathe. Her vibrant energy was so contagious. The van was leaving and so I held her hand bowed and said “Khop Chai!” and motioned that I had to head back.
More tourists come and take pictures from the distance. I said goodbye to the ladies and start walking. I look back and she’s looking right back at me. She waves and gives me another teethy grin. I grin back and quietly thank her for her light.
In Vang Vieng, I happily reunite with one of my dearest friends Philip. He’s the Thelma to my Louise. We’ve set up camp here. Created a routine for ourselves. Our days are mellow. For a few days we did absolutely nothing but coop ourselves up inside cocoons of blankets. This is the longest we’ve ever traveled long term so we’re both at a point when we find some stillness after moving constantly we hold on to it.
One night Philip and I head to the Irish bar to meet up with my friend Torrin who I rock climbed with Emma and Adi with back in Thailand. Scenes start slowing down and I can feel the alcohol spreading through my veins. Someone asks us if Philip and I are staying in a private room together and if we’re having “fun”. We look at each other and burst out laughing. Then they said “What are you not into each other?”
I laugh and say he’s not my type and I’m not his type either. The guy is oblivious to Philip’s sexual orientation and he asks me “Well what is your type?”
“Straight, mostly.” I said with a laugh.
Our new friends chase free drinks in bars. We follow them. I lost track of how many I had after the “bartender” apparently gave me a cup full of whiskey and I was at the point when anything tastes like water. Then next think I knew I was throwing up in the corner of the bar and Philip was holding my hair up. I felt like a teenager again. I paid for the damage the next day.
Then one day Phillip and I rent out bikes and ride for several kilometers to get to the Blue Lagoon. The roads are dusty and rocky, surrounded by statues of limestones that drew the sky. Eventually we stop to explore a cave. A local man kindly led us through the cave, later we laugh and find out that the cheeky Laos man tricked us into paying him as our tour guide. He leads us through the dark and tight openings of the cave where we had to crawl and climb our way through. Eventually we reached the end and our headlights revealed a cave pool. It was brown and had a stench that made us cough. I felt like I was inhaling powder.
I hear Philip say, “Wanna jump in?”
“Uhhh, I don’t know man.” I said. A silent hesitation fills us for a few seconds. Then we look at each other, say “Fuck it,” and dive into the 100-foot deep cold, muddy cave pool. It looked like a scene from a horror film except that there was no blood and no creatures grabbing us from whatever the hell was down there. Only mud. Thank goodness. It still felt damn good to jump in.
After the caves we kept riding through the villages as I watch the misty fog slowly creep through the limestone mountains in the distance. It was like a dream, yet we are the chasers living it. We get to the beautiful lagoon that’s buzzing with tourists. We stuffed our faces with food as we watch strangers swing and jump into the blue water. Then we climbed the big tree together to jump into the water.
“We’re gonna countdown for each other when we jump okay? It’s better that way. We’ll just focus on the numbers so there won’t be any room for hesitation.” said Philip.
“Okay. Let’s do it.”
I rise back up in exhilaration. Adrenaline is fueling me at this point and I can feel it pumping heavily through my veins. I smile and laugh and swim until I get to the other side where it was quiet and I was alone. I floated in water world for a while. I look up at the trees and the branches and I forgot who I am again. I live for millions of moments where there’s no gravity and I’m simply a floating vessel. I close my eyes and let that stunning notion take over my entity.
Then on another day we decided we needed to try tubing at least once. We are in Vang Vieng, after all. Philip and I launch off on the first deck and start making our way down the river. They would throw bottles with rope around it to reel us into their bars. People were drunk and playing basketball and volleyball, some people would jump off the deck into the shallow water. Music would blast through the river. I’d lay on my tube and watched everything around me. The sky, the trees, the limestone mountains towering over us. Phillip would yell things from the distance, I couldn’t hear him, I was lost in my own world.
Some people told me to avoid this place. I can kind of see why, but Vang Vieng is beautiful and there’s so much more to it than tubing and partying. The more I explore the more I learn that most of the time, someone’s experience of a place has more to do with their state of mind than the actual place. Our perception of it creates our reality. How much goodness we choose to let in is what’s available to us. As it is with everything else in life. Sometimes we wholeheartedly connect to it, sometimes we don’t at all for whatever reason. If we keep our senses free and open we will find a certain magic to it. In some places it may be a lot harder to find. But still, it’s there, if we choose to see it.
After Vang Vieng, Philip had to start making his way down south to the 4,000 islands and I needed to make my way up north to Luang Prabang. We hug each other one last time before I leave. This would be the last time I’d see him for a while.
“I’ll miss my partner in crime,” I said as I gave him a big hug.
Yet I knew we’d reunite in Australia, or back in America, or somewhere down the road. We’ll never know where it takes us but we know we’ll get there.
Then I rode the bus to Luang Prabang. The driver parked on the side of the road for a pee stop where I found myself wide-eyed, standing on the edge and staring into this.
One day I went to the most amazing waterfalls I’ve ever been to. Swam in the perfectly blue waters with new friends. Hiked all the way to the top and explored the streams. Climbed up to the temple on the hill and watched the sun set into the hazy purple mountains of Luang Prabang. Breezed through my favorite night market. Grilled food in a buffet restaurant and stuffed our faces with yummy goodness. Grabbed some brews at Utopia. Strangers turn into friends. Everything turns into a spinning slow motion. Took a tuktuk to the bowling alley full of intoxicated backpackers laughing and dancing and singing and bowling badly. Ended my night hanging on the back of the tuktuk and dancing with the wild wind.
And here I am, in my element.
During one of my days in Laos, I was sitting at the top edge of one of the waterfalls in The Bolaven Plateau, listening to Blue Ridge Mountain, one of my favorite songs in the world. It was perfect. It was Satori. I was deep in the moment, everything felt surreal. I thought about how badly I’ve always wanted to live this life and I felt so grateful, tears flooded my eyes. I thought of everything I had gone through in the past years, all the shitty times, the struggles, when I hit rock bottom, surviving, learning how to truly live, evolving and learning how to become a better human being, and how it led me to where I am. Here. Sitting on the fringes of a somewhere in Laos, swimming in bliss.
Living the life you truly want can’t be acquired by being stagnant and waiting for the right circumstances. It’s about making sacrifices and priorities to become the person you need to be in order to live it. Exactly three years ago I was having a chat with my inspiring friend Jordan, which became one of the most life changing talks of my life. He laid it out simply for me, as if it were written on the night sky. “What are your dreams? And what are your fears that’s holding you back from your dreams?” I told him I wanted to travel and pursue photography. He said “Alright great, what’s holding you back?”, then I started dictating all the excuses: “But I can’t because I just bought a new car, I need to finish my degree, I have debt, I’m too scared to travel on my own, I don’t have enough money and it’s too expensive, etc.” When I heard myself saying the excuses, deep down I knew that all of it was bullshit. And suddenly everything became clear to me. I wanted to let it all go, make sacrifices, and I could start working toward the life I have always dreamt of. Ever since then, I kept working towards my dreams. I never looked back.
It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t simple. It took time. I had to continue working crappy jobs, just doing what I love on the side. Saving money for travel. Coming back home broke. Finding a new job and a place to live again. Working and dreaming about traveling again. Trying to make ends meet with writing and photography despite the struggles and rejections. But it’s worth it. For dreams, it’s always worth it. Now I’m able to work and do what I love on the road. Still making sacrifices, but breathing and living a dream that was just a fantasy a few years back. And happy. Really fucking happy just to be alive.
You owe it to yourself and the world to live a life you love. It won’t come easy. You’ll have to sacrifice the things you’ve grown accustomed to, you’ll have to re-evaluate your priorities. You’ll have to cut ties with people who bring you down and let go of things that weigh you down. You’d have to face your inner fears and demons. But I promise you, it will be worth it. Because a life isn’t worth living if it’s not one you love.
Here’s to living a loved life, to chasing dreams, to chasing fringes. Whatever and wherever they may be.