We left Bangkok at five, waking to the sound of an English couple arguing.
“Sit down. Sit down, for god’s sake,” a man implored through the wall. Giggling nervously, we shouldered our packs and were down the stairs and out into the sweet, hot morning, rubbing our eyes, before his girlfriend could respond. There was a taxi waiting, driver up against the fender in the dark, dragging on a cigarette. We slid into the smoky cab, hands touching across vinyl. Wearily, Dan lamented the lack of coffee. I’d heard it all before; noted it in my journal months back. Between more meaningful entries, the notebook was stuffed with hastily jotted email addresses for travellers I’d never contact, hotel phone numbers, packing lists. Toothbrush, mosquito net, rum. I feared the personal failures these notations seemed to predict.
The sun was just starting to come up. Traffic was already bad. Though we were only five minutes from where we had just lain under sheets, I felt an exhilarating sense of possibility: the road. I would have liked to wind down my window, scream something to the wind.
We crossed the Thai boarder on foot. Policemen strolled the sidewalk, scattering beggar-kids. An Asian Huck Fin – grubby overalls – glanced back over his shoulder, darting away, grinning, brandishing my Baht. There were more children begging on the Cambodian side, near naked. They gazed at us, extending their filthy hands.
It was all I could do to shuffle past, thinking, Why did I pack so much? Why did I pack so much? How I hated myself.
White-knuckled in the back of a ute, Dan beside me, towel over my face mold-damp from months of travel, I hacked and spluttered as we came into Siem Reap. A city veiled in dust. Should have stayed in Australia, taken up a pack-a-day habit. Lungs would have feared better.
That first day we went to Angkor Wat. The temples were beautiful as promised; more than beautiful, in their age and size and crumbling grandeur they were impossible to comprehend. I became preoccupied by how the ancient Khmers had built the place, aware that I was focused on the wrong aspect of the experience, wasting my time. I didn’t remember having read that they had invented the crane. I made copious, illegible notes, trying to capture the stones, scarred by age, in words, despising my attempts for their obvious ineffectuality. After that, I spent a long time watching an old donkey, muzzle in dust, mounted as a prop for photos, tourist after tourist posing in a worn cowboy hat. We climbed a hill, then climbed the temple at its peak. Looking back toward Siem Reap at the scrub and the red dirt and the dust, it was almost as though we were home.
After dinner, I wanted to take our leftovers to the beggars near the market, where I had watched two small children, siblings, bagging cold morsels at a restaurant while the waitress had her back turned. As though handling a piece of cloth, the smaller girl folded a steamed fish to fit the bag her sister carried. The act touched me; I couldn’t stop seeing the care with which the child handled what would otherwise be tossed. Our waiter carried off the remains of our dinner, returning with them in plastic bags done up the way aquariums prepare fish for transport, airtight. It seemed such a pitifully small amount of food.
Dan said, “You know what they say. Beggars. Choosers.”
The sisters had vanished, so we passed the scraps to the first people we saw: a man with one leg, a woman cradling a baby in her lap. Without a pen, I tried hard to commit their details to memory: the gloss on the child’s skin, its sweat. They tore open the bags immediately and did not seem unhappy. It was enough.
We went into a bar called Angkor What? In the window, a sign reading: Full and part-time workers wanted. I spoke to the owner about the job, high with the notion that we could stay if we wanted to, get a house, learn Khmer. We could give blood, get up early, drink homemade juice. How beautiful, meaningful, our lives here would be. Sculling beer, we talked excitedly for several hours, fleshing-out the future. Then, as the night wound down and the bar emptied, we sobered, sensing but not acknowledging the ways in which we would come to disappoint one another: our inability to alter the course of our lives in any meaningful way.
Back in our room we watched cable TV, luxuriating in the numbing wash of sound and colour. Dan sprawled naked on the bed, fan shifting warm air like breath. We saw the news: another school shooting. Some child had killed his grandparents before opening fire on his class. We couldn’t understand how this could happen, what was going on in the world. Dan kept flicking the channels to get more information, but I knew no program would tell me what I wanted to know: what the act meant. Was it connected in some way to what we were seeing outside? I longed to find a link between the bullets fired by a boy in America and the huts with walls of plastic, the ragged children on bikes. But I couldn’t write about it, not yet, understanding that I would get nowhere until I did; I’ve never been able to attain clarity until I’ve read my thoughts in writing. Still, I hopelessly attempted to assemble a coherent picture of the world.
I wasn’t sure if this trip – which was beginning to feel sullied, a voyeuristic little secret I couldn’t justify to myself – was connected to the shooting, or to the beer girls on the banks of the Mekong saying, “Come back! Come back!” or to the beggars at the border, or to the girls with the fish. We had set out to gain some knowledge of ourselves, the world, but I understood in that moment that things would only become more complicated, muddied, the further on we went. This realisation was really part of some other fundamental instinct, deeply buried, about why we had left Melbourne. But I hadn’t yet gained enough distance from our lives there, made the right number of entries in my notebook, to articulate to myself why we had needed to escape.
Dan and I played cards. Towards the end of the game I thought he was going to beat me, though he failed. When I told him he could have easily won he got angry; I decided he must be sad about being away from home so long. I scrawled this idea, sentimental with drink, on the back of a receipt from my pocket and stuck it in my moneybelt. Swaying drunk, we lay on the bed smoking cheap, clove fags and talking frankly about everyone we knew. I was suddenly stricken, face hot and wet.
Dan wrapped me in his arms and whispered comforting things into my ear, “Don’t worry, it’s okay.”
I heaved, dampening his collar, staring through the triangle made by the angle of his neck against his shoulder and the pillow. How beautiful, painful, impossible to depict, the world felt then. I wondered how it made Dan feel when I cried for no real reason. I dithered over whether to ask, not understanding that this was only the very beginning of our trip.
Alice Robinson is a lecturer in creative writing at Melbourne’s NMIT. She has a PhD in creative writing from Victoria University and her work has been published widely. Her debut novel, Anchor Point, has just been published by Affirm Press.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.