Posts Tagged 'moving'

Jogging Where Tanks Once Rolled

Aerobic dancing at Olympic Stadium

3pm, barefoot in the dim room, whirling fans and headphones on, staring at the screen. It’s my first trip back to the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, where I spent hours last spring, trolling through their archives of documentaries and newsreels and scanned photographs of the old Phnom Penh, before the war—which, it seems to me today, doesn’t look so different from the Phnom Penh outside the open-air terrace, just minus the new cars and sidewalks. Sometimes.

I’m back to refresh myself. I’m working on editing my second Glimpse piece. I wrote it over the summer and haven’t looked at it in months, so when I got Sarah’s comments, it all felt vague and faraway. I knew I needed something to kickstart me.

To be honest, I haven’t been thinking much about my project, or the Khmer Rouge, or any of it. Last time I’d arrived, it’d been on my mind constantly, a lens I saw everything through: everyone over 35 was a survivor. I couldn’t turn it off, and I’d hit the ground running, dove right in to the research and writing, the quest to understand.

And it’s not like I’ve forgotten all that—I can feel it, sitting there, off to the side and waiting, in the corner of the room when I can’t sleep at night—but my focus has been elsewhere. Getting an apartment. Buying all the crap I need—dishes and towels and non-neon-plastic chairs and Western bedsheets (really effing hard to find, btw). Reconnecting with the friends I’ve got left, and making new ones. Getting a phone and internet and finding a good laundry place and all that very unglamorous day-to-day stuff that’s part of life, part of living somewhere.

So I’ve pushed it all aside, knowing that it was waiting and that I’d come to it when I was ready (and, really, I’ve only been back two weeks). So it was with a little hesitation that I went to Bophana, took off my shoes and climbed the steps, climbed back in to The Reason I Came, and the thick-as-mud emotional difficulty of it all.

Most of the newsreels are in French, and I watch ones from the Thai refugee camps, 79-80; I watch the same newscaster in different suits, and fish out token words of French: “famine,” “guerre,” “mort.” Mostly I look at the faces, which are shell-shocked and gaunt.

I scroll down, down, down the list of archives, never-ending, thinking how long it would take someone to watch it all. I see “Rediscovered Propaganda Films” and click on it. There’s an English dubbed version, which is exciting. I watch and listen.

They show short films produced during the Khmer Rouge and narrate. They show staged shots from the camps, aerials of people like ants, carrying hoes and buckets, balanced on a stick over their shoulders, the way the soup ladies at the market do. They show close-ups of carefully selected workers smiling; they point out child workers and how to tell who was a New Person and who was an Old Person. They show clips of a poorly acted film Pol Pot directed, shortly before the regime fell—men reenact the defeat of Lon Nol’s army, twitching on the ground with arrows arranged around their bodies. The film was never made, and the shots I see now, in the dim viewing room, were assembled from found reels. I imagine them on a dirty floor somewhere, curled and brown.

The narrator points out inconsistencies: no one was supposed to have bourgeois personal items like watches or eyeglasses. But here’s Pol Pot, that smiling cult leader face, wearing a watch, and here’s Brother Number Three, wearing glasses, and here’s the regional leader Brother Number Two snubs, who’s later deemed a traitor and tortured and destroyed, along with his family. They freeze the frame on him, and he’s smiling, smiling.

This scene is at a party meeting; women with Soviet semi-automatic weapons march, and US artillery tanks roll past, left over from Lon Nol’s time. The setting looks vaguely familiar, and the narrator says: “The meeting took place in the otherwise empty Phnom Penh, at the Olympic Stadium.”

Holy shit, I think. Olympic Stadium is in the city center, near the guesthouse I stayed at when I arrived. Every dawn and dusk, they do aerobic dancing there, and people run and powerwalk and swing their limbs around; food vendors set up carts and plastic stools, and men play soccer in the dirt lot outside.

It’s my favorite place to go running in the city. In fact, I’m planning on going for a jog there tonight.

I squint at the screen and it’s all there: the steps I run, the contour of the stone tiers, the spires of the Royal Palace rising in the background. It’s newer and cleaner and nicer in the footage, but it’s the same place.

I don’t know what to do with that.

I walk back to my apartment with a funny little feeling in my stomach, like I’ve seen a ghost—like I’ve gotten up in the middle of night and everything familiar looks strange and different, and the thing that was sitting there waiting for me isn’t in the corner anymore but is moving across the room.

I put on my running shoes and spray some more mosquito repellent on, grab a water and go back downstairs, to the street to catch a motorbike over to the stadium.

It’s surreal when I get there. I walk past the rows of motorbikes and cars, the tuk-tuks covered in ads for the new Twilight movie. Teenage boys stare at me as I walk past their soccer game, say “Hello, hello!”

I walk beside the arena, which is locked and closed, my own face in the tinted windows. It was where the meeting had been, in the newsreel. I walk past where the shot of Pol Pot wearing a watch was, where Brother Number Two and Brother Number Three had trailed behind him, wearing eyeglasses and giving silent death sentences to smiling men.

A young boy carries a sack on his shoulder. He picks a plastic bottle out of the trash.

He walks closer to me, his eyes scouring the ground of recyclables.

I say hello, in Khmer, hand him my empty water bottle.

He smiles and puts it in his sack.

I say thank you, and walk towards the track, to jog where the tanks once rolled.

Arriving Back in My New Home: Anti-Culture Shock and A Broken Necklace

In the shower this morning, rinsing the dried sweat of night chills from my dehydrated, gasping body, I noticed it: my necklace was gone.

When I came out of the bathroom, I saw it there, tangled and delicate, next to the pillow, the sheets that had stayed miraculously white during my 2-day readjustment sickness. It wasn’t my favorite necklace, an innocuous dangle of silver that clung close to the skin. At some point over the years, it’d become my traveling necklace—I’d put it on one of the first days of a trip, then just leave it, forget about until I’d noticed myself absently fingering the chain, digging the tip of the winged heart under my nails.

I picked it up. The chain had broken.

I smiled. If this were a novel, it’d be a metaphor.

I arrived in Phnom Penh nearly a week ago—flew in, which I hadn’t done before, but even at the airport, that familiar smell of mildew and cooking rice, overripe fruit and a faint whiff of urine underlying it all. I took a taxi (when’s the next time I’ll be in a car?), and we rumbled over pitted roads exploded with smoking meat, food stalls, cell phone shops, baskets of fruit, motorbikes and bodies, bodies everywhere. It didn’t seem insane or lawless or overwhelming—it just felt really good.

I dumped my bags at the guesthouse—the first one I’d gone to, back in February, which made it feel like I was coming full circle—and went out for an early evening stroll. My feet knew the way, my feet remembered how to traverse the traffic, how to cross the street (slow and steady and smooth), my feet took me to the pharmacy and a corner market and a street stall where I sat on a plastic stool and ate soup for $1. I went down the block to the sticky rice stall; I bought bananas for the next morning. I bought a giant fucking coconut, and the little lady hacked it open with a machete and stuck a straw in it and I took my first sip and, after 4+ months of $3 Vita Coco, a long sigh was unleashed in me.

Which is all basically to say I’ve been experiencing an extreme and bizarre lack of culture shock. I had more culture shock entering Albania from Italy, or any time I’ve reentered the US after traveling. What is about this place? How did it come to feel like home, after only a couple months last Spring?

I’ve spent the last few days hitting up my favorite cafes and street stalls and going to meetings and jogging at Olympic Stadium and trolling the town for For Rent signs (and getting one of those requisite, paralyzing stomach flus that gives you chills in 90 degree weather, that leave you sleek and lean and mean after, ready to take over the town). And all the while, I’ve kind of been looking over my shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I’d expected my arrival back to be something like the final scene of The Graduate. All this effort and stress and energy and hullabaloo, goodbyes and good riddances, and then a month+ of traveling, cruising around the planet in the most unprepared and overpacked of fashions. I’d been kind of delaying it, you know, worried that I’d get back here and it’d be like that moment at the back of bus when Elaine looks over at Ben and he just stares forward and you see them both thinking—“Well now what the fuck?”

And I suppose there’s still time for that. Plenty of time, and I suppose there’ll be moments of that. But so far, all I’ve had is this feeling of being, not home, but somewhere close to home. I’d been doubting myself right up to the very end, right up till my Air Asia plane hit the tarmac. But more than ever, I keep having this feeling that I’ve made the right decision, that I’m in the right place.

I’m here. Really here. I’m not traveling anymore—just look at the necklace.

A Totally Normal Pre-Departure Freak-Out

So. It was bound to happen: I had my first pre-departure freak-out today.

Actually, I’m kind of still having it, in the midst of it, as I’m writing this. I’m sitting here, on one of the most goddamn beautiful days we’ve had in a shitty/foggy anti-summer, surrounded by trash bags filled with the various components that compose my life. I’m nauseous and hazy feeling and I can’t really cry anymore and I don’t know what to do with myself. So I’m writing a blog post about how I had a freak-out, and I’m writing about it in the past tense, because it’s easier to pretend it’s over and done with, passed like a nasty little storm cloud on an otherwise perfect, Indian Summer day.

It started with money. It always starts with money. There isn’t enough of it. Not ever and especially now. Maybe if I had a trust fund or a nest egg or a looming inheritance, but I’ve got none of that. I’ve got about half the money I wanted to have, and it’s entirely possible that I’ll land in Phnom Penh with only a couple hundred bucks to my name.

Yes, far less capable people with far fewer skills than I have landed in a similar situation and done just fine. (This is what I keep telling myself at least.) But I’ve always had a job, always had a reliable source of income, and I’m about to give that up for a very long time.

I keep recounting, obsessively adding sums and subtracting costs, best-cases and worst-cases and most-probable projections. They’re all fucked, I decided this morning. And I’m fucked with them.

And then I got to thinking about all there is to do. It’s a lot. Moving out of an apartment, going to the dump, going to the Goodwill, dismantling a life. There’s tons of people to see, appointments to keep, loose ends to tie up—disputes over medical bills to resolve and a car to sell. There’s goodbyes to orchestrate, a wedding to go to.

I don’t want to do any of it.

I want to cancel everything and curl up on my soggy-soft mattress, thin old sheets over blood stains, and stare out the window and do fucking none of it. I want to be Vicodin-floaty, detached, numb, not here.

But that’s the addict in me, who always wants to escape. And I don’t think that addict will ever go away, just kind of live inside me, flare up sometimes—times like this—but usually just more subdued, in the corner, a quiet but insistent whisper.

Of course, I know I’m going to do it all, take care of it. And of course I won’t be dropped on my ass and of course I’ll find a way to scrape together enough money and be okay. Of course it’s normal, I suppose, to freak out a bit before a huge transition—I’d be a little suspect if I didn’t freak out. Of course the sadness and the anxiety and the feeling, not of panic but of monumental, mind-wracking, gut-wrenching worry, in the face of a big blank unknown—of course all this is totally normal, right?

Right?

Swallowing My Pride and Seeking Funding: Bones In The Dirt on IndieGoGo

You can all blame Emily.

I sat on the sofa of my brother’s living room. It was a few weeks ago; his wife Emily was still pregnant (Ethan John was born August 20th!). We were drinking tea and chatting, talking about my Big Move. They were asking me the questions people ask: logistics, money, “How will you support yourself?” I was running through my litany of answers, a hustle that involves waiting tables five days a week, saving, scrounging, selling off my worldly possessions, and generally be stressed as shit.

“Why don’t you fundraise?” Emily asked simply.

My shoulders raised as every muscle in me cringed. “You mean like, ‘I’m running a marathon for charity, please donate’?”

“Yeah.”

“Well,” I took a deep breath and tried to articulate the crunch in my stomach. “I’m not doing anything for a particular cause. I mean, I’m moving to Phnom Penh to write a book, but it’s not like a charity cause where money is going to a particular place.”

Emily shrugged, unconvinced.

“And,” I admitted, “I hate asking for money. I hate asking for help in general.”

“But you don’t have to think of that way. There are lots of people who’d love to help you pursue your dream.”

I looked down, embarrassed, though I wasn’t sure why. “Like who?”

“Like me!” she exclaimed. “People that will never get a chance to do what you’re doing.” She looked down at her monumental belly and smiled back up at me.

So the seed was planted. So I’m swallowing my pride and my shame and my general co-dependence, and letting people support me. If they want.

I launched a campaign today on the fundraising site IndieGoGo. Here’s the link, and here’s how it works:

IndieGoGo allows people to create campaigns and generate funding. You create giving levels and rewards, as well as a goal amount and timeline. They take a small cut, the percentage of which depends on whether you reach your funding goal or not.

I liked the idea of IndieGoGo because it’s a relatively non-intrusive way of fundraising. The idea of actually asking for support directly makes me recoil, but this feels somehow less smarmy.

Because really, it’s not about the money. (I mean it is, but not my hesitations.) It’s about asking for support, and letting people give it. My imminent move abroad has already pushed me into all sorts of uncomfortable positions. I, the girl who hasn’t had a birthday party in over a decade, is having a going-away BBQ. I’m having an official last day at work—another first—and actually letting people know about it. And, instead of working myself into the ground so I can scrimp and save and scrape my pennies together, I’m reaching out. I’m scaling back on work so that I can do what feels more important: spending time with my friends and family, soaking in my sweet-ass life here.

I refuse to take responsibility for this leap of faith or this new-found semblance of humility. Instead, I blame Emily.

Phnom Penh Timelapse

A Phnom Penh friend posted this video on Facebook. I’ve watched it a few times through; amidst the deluge of moving anxiety dreams and before-I-go to-do’s, it’s been a nice way to pause—a kind of moment of stillness, a stand-in for the meditation I’ve been entirely too busy to do.

So of course it’s a terribly idealized depiction of the city. (“What did they did with all the rubbish?” one person commented.) But I have to say that there were moments there that kind of felt like this—riding in a tuk-tuk at night, when the city was still, half-asleep with a cool breeze off the river, and it felt magical and precious and like home in a way you couldn’t quite explain.

It’s good to be reminded of that, even if the moments were fleeting and only one side of what it felt like to be there, live there—good because the move is getting close and I’m starting to stress.

I’ve been waking up unrested, unsettled from tangles of intense dreams, catastrophes that prohibit me moving: car accidents, robberies, deaths, pregnancy. In my waking mind, I don’t feel that worried, am still consumed with the day-to-day’s of a life that doesn’t feel like it’s ending. Except that I’ve started to stress about money. Money’s an easy thing to stress about—it’s measurable, tangible, far easier to stress about than the big blank horizon of unknowns.

“You’re still so young,” a friend told me over dinner. “Even if you go out there and it all falls through, and you have to come back and start over in a year, you still won’t be 30 yet.”

“I know,” I replied, nodding. I’d given myself the same rationalization.

“But,” she smiled, “I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”

I sighed. “Me neither. And that’s what really scares me.”

Expatifying: Becoming Real and Not Having to Justify

So now that it’s all out in the open—now that I’ve told my roommates, my parents, my managers at work and you all—my move to Cambodia has become a helluva a lot more real.

You know, it’s one thing to think it, to talk hushedly about it to your close friends, your confidantes. It’s even one thing to have one-way tickets (yes, plural, more on that later). But when it becomes known, brought up in casual conversation—when I run into people and they say, “Oh, when are you leaving?” or “I heard…”—well, that’s when it feels real.

And the thing I’m most struck by is how damn supportive everyone is.

Part of me wonders if it’s some hair-brained, quick-fix scheme, like applying a shock jumpers to your life: “Now I have purpose; I’m moving to Cambodia!” Part of me wonders if I’m not just isolating, running away, distancing myself from Real Life. (Part of me wonders what the fuck Real Life is anyway.)

It all very well could be. But, as I’ve explained to people, I’ve got a few tangibles to go on…

1. A project
So I went to Phnom Penh to do the Glimpse thing. And now I’ve got the overwhelming feeling that my work there isn’t done. (Imagine me saying that in a super hero cape, it helps.) I want to write a book/memoir/collection of essays, and I’ll have more than enough material to do it. I just need the time, and the immersion.

2. It’s cheap and easy, AKA: I could support myself writing
In Phnom Penh, I could live a comfortably modest lifestyle on $500-600 a month. Which means that, if I hustle and step up my game, I could potentially support myself writing. Which, by the most generous estimates, I’m 5-10 years away from in the Bay Area. If ever.

I’ve wanted to move abroad since my first trip—almost always, I must admit now, in an escapist way, in a way that was a diversion from my life instead of an extension of it. This actually feels like the most realistic manifestation of that fantasy I’ve carried with me.

3. It’s cheap and easy, AKA: Not the Schengen Zone
Them: “Oh, so you really must have fallen in love with Cambodia…”

Me: “Ah, well, I wouldn’t say that exactly…”

We’d all love to live in Paris in the 20s. (See the new Woody Allen movie.) But those days are gone. And the beautiful thing about Cambodia is that there’s no such thing as residency visas, work permits, nada. You show up, get a business visa, pay someone enough money, get a year-long extension. (There’s a bit more to it, but in a nutshell…) I personally haven’t been to other countries where it’s that simple to just show up and live.

4. This Period Is Ending
I’m old enough now that I can view my adult life in little chunks, 2-5 year periods characterized by where I living/working, who I was dating, how I spent my time. This last little chunk has been really good—living at G, working at B/P, getting my freelancing going (being single). But it’s ending. Like that first crisp autumn breeze, or like that scene in that William Carlos Williams poem when the roots of the flowers buckle down against the icy earth, I can feel the change a’coming.

5. The Calm Certainty
More than anything else, more than any other good reason/justification, the thing I keep coming back to is this feeling I’ve got in my gut. “It just seems like the right move,” I keep hearing myself say.

And goddamn if it’s not the truth.

And goddamn if there aren’t a hundred blogs out there by people who “packed up, sold everything, quit the corporate job, left to travel the world.” In most of them there’s this edge that’s always turned me off—self-congratulatory, which seems like a thin veil for justification. As though they’re trying to explain to all the nay-sayers why they did it.

Which I haven’t had to do at all.

Maybe the nay-sayers are just keeping their mouths shut (which I thank them for). But everyone, everyone, I’ve talked to has been massively supportive. No one’s given me the crazy eye, the you’re-going-WHAT?!?!? eye, nor have they waxed romantic about how exotic and brave it is.

“Congratulations!” “That’s great!” “We’ll miss you, but we’re happy for you.” Or, the one that made me tear up, from my manager, “I have total confidence in your ability to go out there and make it with your writing.” (Jesus.)

I guess you could say I’ve surrounded myself with some quality fucking people, who might know me better and have more confidence in me than I do.

It makes it more bittersweet, but a lot less scary.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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