Solidarity

This week has been a strange one for us all. It is the culmination of past weeks that have been strange; it is the beginning of weeks that for many of us are about to become even stranger. I am inside at the moment, as I was yesterday and as I will be in the coming days. I have lots to say about it, and I will in due course.

For now, I want to share some images from last weekends Women’s March in Amsterdam. It is the first time I did anything for International Women’s Day. It will most certainly not be the last.

Standing on Dam Square with so many different people as we waved our signs high was the most empowering thing I have ever experienced. We all come from our own backgrounds; we all have our own set of reasons why marching is important to us. A hundred different reasons, one essential cause.

As we marched, there was a chant that kept coming back (it’s in Dutch):

“Hoe laat is het?”

“Solidari-tijd” (Solidariteit)

“Hoe laat is het?”

“Solidari-tijd”

What time is it? Time for solidarity.

Each time it popped up again and I marched on, chanting it together with the thousands of humans there with me, it gave me goosebumps.

We live in interesting times. It’s 2020 and we are (still) marching for women’s rights in all its basic shapes and forms. It’s 2020 and we have been hit with a pandemic. It is affecting our lives in ways that most of us have never experienced before.

Last week I was outside, marching proudly,  and today I’m tucked away in my home in Amsterdam. I have the luck of having company, but there’s no way around it: it is isolation. It’s cutting off, it’s choosing for solitude. And yet somehow, our collective decision to stay at home feels powerful to me. In choosing to isolate, we become a part of something so much greater than just the one self. We are, for all intents and purposes a team, fighting for, or in this case against, the same thing. We are protecting one another.

We are sharing information and calling on one another to think about others. Press conferences mention that our decisions are essential in protecting all of those who are at risk. Moment after moment that have me thinking:

This feels like solidarity.

So here’s to that solidarity living on. Here’s to the women’s march of last week and the many fighters who took to our streets. Here’s to conscientious decision-making in the face of COVID-19 and all of us: fighters. Here’s to collective fights for things that matter, which at the end of the day can all be boiled down to one thing. Seeing one another as equal humans and working towards the betterment of our shared world.

I hope we’re all making carefully considered decisions that drip in our empathy for our fellow person. Much love to all.

IMG_2907
Post-march. A collection of signs outside the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. These signs were donated to Atria: Kennisinstituut voor Emancipatie en Vrouwengeschiedenis.

 

 

S21 and Choeung Ek

The morning after I sell Jackie, I head out on a guided tour of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (or “Security Prison 21”) and Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (or “the killing fields”). With my visa running out and my friends already in Siem Reap, I have decided to spend only one day in Phnom Penh. I will spend that day learning the things I want to learn about the Khmer Rouge. There are many more things I would like to do in Phnom Penh, but I will have to come back for those.

The bus leaves the hostel early in the morning and our first stop is S21. Formerly a secondary school, S21 was one of at least 150 torture and execution centers established by the Khmer Rouge. Between 1976 and 1979, it is estimated that 20,000 people were imprisoned at S21. The real number is unknown. Now, S21 is a museum where visitors can learn about the Khmer Rouge regime and the Cambodian genocide that it caused.

I strongly believe that though visits such as these can be overwhelming, uncomfortable, “depressing”; they are important. Travel is a beautiful thing, and I have had overwhelmingly happy times during my travels, but I believe it is good to remember that travel is above all, a learning experience. It is valuable to soak up a place’s history, however good, bad or uncomfortable that may be. It is valuable to sit in our own discomfort sometimes.

Walking the halls of S21 was those things and a whole lot more. I walked and listened to various narrators describe the goings on in the prison. I looked at bare metal “beds”, some with the shackles still attached. I listened to recordings of survivors, accounts of perpetrators. And as I walked, I wrote certain things down. I have a fear of forgetting, remember?

It’s difficult to explain how it all felt, and perhaps it isn’t quite necessary. I will show you the things that I jotted down, no more no less. Then I will mention some of the things I felt. It’s up to us to fill in the blank spaces in between.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Context

  • On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge entered the city of Phnom Penh and declared that all citizens must evacuate. There was a threat of American bombing, and people were to evacuate to outside the city for a period of three days. Those three days would turn into three years; most people would not return home.
  • “The US had bombed Cambodia. About 100,000 people had died. People came to the cities, homeless and jobless. That’s why when revolutionaries arrived, they rejoiced. They thought help had come.”

Guards

• The very guards of S21 were often originally brought in as prisoners. They were usually very young, with pliable minds. They were taught to carry out the wishes of the Khmer Rouge or otherwise be killed.

• “Torture was like that. We got the answers we wanted and then killed them.” – Former S21 guard.

• “As we used to say, better to make a wrong arrest than let the enemy eat us from the outside in.” – Former S21 guard.

Prisoners

• Upon arrival at S21, prisoners were photographed and had to give detailed autobiographies of their lives. Prisoners were then taken to small or large cells and shackled.

• Most prisoners were held for two to three months, though some were held for longer. The purpose of their imprisonment was to extract information from them and reveal treasonous activities. The torture system at S21 was extensive and specifically designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they had been suspected of.

• “The purpose of interrogation was to replace the memories. By doing so, loved ones became informants to the prisoner. This proved treason so we could kill the prisoner.”

• The Khmer Rouge also made use of so called “arrest by kinship,” whereby an entire family was arrested and killed so as to ensure that they could not take revenge in the future.

Reflections

The tour takes me through the different buildings with different sized cells. S21 remains intact. It is hardly a sanitized or neutrally curated memorial. It stands as it is, its truth speaking directly to the visitor. Walking through, I see scratching on the walls,; I see dark stains that remain from pools of blood. I look at the frames of metal beds and as I am told about how prisoners were waterboarded here, I see it in my minds eye. There are rooms with assorted instruments of torture still in their original places.

I have just walked through a section of small wooden cells designed for solitary confinement when I come out into the open air hallway. I stand and look through barbed wire at today’s Phnom Penh. Straight ahead of me there is an advertisement: “Hey you! Step In. Fair Trade Handicraft.” And just like that, two worlds collide. The drastic juxtaposition between the former house of horrors I stand in and the advert for fair trade products in front of me remains ingrained in my memory.

In another section, I enter a room that displays the photographs that were taken of each prisoner upon their arrival to the prison. There are so many faces.

So many faces of grim determination. Grim acceptance of fate. Faces of fear, sadness, anger and all the many gray feelings in between. In one of the rooms I decide to look at each face individually. I feel that they deserve at least that much. I soon find, however, that this will be quite the undertaking, because just like this room, there is another. And another. And another. And for each photographed face there are hundreds of thousands of faces not pictured. I continue to walk and take it in, but am forced to press on as the tour goes on without me. I am eventually unable to look at each person individually, and as I walk past the blur of humans lost, my mind echoes a quiet “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” to the room at large.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

Context

• Along with detention centers such as S21, the Khmer Rouge made use of an extensive number of execution sites, collectively known as “the Cambodian killing fields.” The exact number of mass graves is unclear. Our tour mentions that there are over 300 killing fields in Cambodia; research I did afterwards indicated there might be very many more.

• Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is just one of these countless killing fields. Its proximity to Phnom Penh (only 17 kilometers) has made it one of the most well-known sites for visitors.

• Choeung Ek was originally a fruit orchard. Under the Khmer Rouge it was turned into a killing field. At least 20,000 people were killed there. Many of them had come from S21.

• The Khmer Rouge did not use bullets for executions; these were deemed too expensive. Instead, prisoners were lined up at the edge of a pit. Executioners used a metal pole to deliver a blow to the back of the neck.

• The Choeung Ek grave site was discovered when the Khmer Rouge regime fell. A Buddhist stupa was erected and the site now serves as a memorial.

Visit/Reflections

Arriving at Choeung Ek felt, in a way, bizarre. The grounds are peaceful. The soil is quite obviously fertile and there is beautiful green grass and an abundance of trees. There is a white stupa in the center. I follow the marked path and listen to the narrator(s) detail the events that occurred here.

I walk past sections of dirt and sections of grass and hear that though much of the human remains has been excavated to create the memorial, there is still so much that is left behind. I hear that every year, when the rainy season comes, more bone fragments and teeth come up to the surface. Nature’s own way of making sure we always remember.

The path eventually takes me to “the killing tree.” It is a tall, beautiful tree. Next to it is a small pit with a roof built over it. I press play on my audio device. The killing tree, I am told, is where infants were executed. Executioners would hold the infants by the legs and swing, their skulls cracking on the tree. The pit beside me is their grave. When killing tree was discovered after the fall of the regime, the bottom of the tree was still covered in the blood and brain matter of its victims.

I feel immediately sick.

Now, the tree is covered in bracelets. It is a rainbow of all different colored bracelets. I am feeling cracked open wide, I am feeling sadness with a newfound desperation. There is nothing I can do, so I do the only thing I can think of. I untie the bracelets I bought two days ago and attach them to the tree. I am sorry. I know that it is not enough, but it is all I can give you.

I complete my round and find my way back to the stupa. I go inside and see the remains. Perfectly cataloged and organized. Men, women, children. Different parts of the body, different causes of death.

Once I am done, I go back outside. I stand at the edge of the grass and look at the stupa. It has long windows stretching up the length of the building. Through those windows you see the bones and skulls of the deceased. The roof of the stupa is a golden yellow; like the sun, my favorite color. The trees surrounding it are in bloom. They have yellow blossoms of almost the same color as the stupa roof. It is a combination of details so desperately different yet alike. A small moment where the unthinkable past meets an ordinary future. It blossoms a small hope in my heart, and I wonder whether the roof and the flowers were at all intentional.

There will never be any right words to describe these types of things that humans do to one another. There will never, in my opinion, be any possible explanation. But history shows that it is an unfortunate element of the human condition that there can be things that separate us. That there is hurt that we cause to one another. This is something, I think, that is worth learning. It is worth remembering. Lest we forget.

***

“Let it be that the world takes notice of the evil that can happen when people do nothing. And let it be that the world decides that doing nothing is not an option.”

Robert Hamill, brother of Kerry Hamill who was killed by the Khmer Rouge.

The Very Last Ride

Step 1: Repairs

We get back to Sihanoukville at around 1:30 pm. A few of our group ended up on a separate boat, so we sit and order drinks while we wait for them. Soon we are all together, killing time before their bus. I hang around and chat but eventually I need to move. I need to go pick up Jackie, (re)assess the damage and get her into a shop as soon as possible. My hope is that I can get her fixed, spend the night in Sihanoukville and head out as early as possible in the morning. If all goes well, I will be in Phnom Penh by tomorrow night catching up with some of the girls. We say our goodbyes with promises of catch ups in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and I trudge up the hill to the city.

I check into a hostel, leave my bags and immediately head outside to Jackie. Seeing the twisted front end of the bike brings an immediate knot to my stomach. I feel like my entire body is one long sigh. But I don’t have time to sulk, it’s time to get down to business. The guy at the hostel has given me directions to a mechanic, so I unlock Jackie and start her up. At least… I try. She doesn’t start. I try again, but there is an obvious splutter. I check my gas tank and it’s empty. What the fuck. The tank definitely wasn’t empty when I left her here, and it is a locked tank. Someone must have found a way to jimmy the lock and tap my tank. For fuck’s sake. I ask for directions to a gas station and go on foot. On the way, I look for a shop where I can buy a bottle of water so I can fill it up with gas. I find it next to the station and stand there for a moment while I down the liter of water. Ugh. I fill it up and walk back, all the while marveling at the construction pit that is Sihanoukville. I have heard the stories, of course, but seeing the city is still shocking. I am surrounded by the frames of what will become countless high rise buildings; the only sound I hear is the sound of jackhammers and engines. I sit and think about what Chinese investment has done to this seaside village and its people. I can’t wait to get out of here.

Once back at the hostel, I fill Jackie up, start the engine and begin to maneuver her slowly (very slowly) down the street. The volume of her engine is softer than it’s ever been and it makes a spluttery noise. She does not sound good. She does not feel good, either. She feels as though all the power has gone out of her. I rev and instead of shooting forward as she always has, she whines and splutters. There is also a rattling sound that I do not know the origin of, though I suspect it may be the remaining broken glass in the headlight. We are in a sorry state and I am heartbroken.

I drive myself back towards the gas station. My hostel has recommended a mechanic to me that is on the same road. Afterwards, I will need to fill the rest of my tank up. I arrive at the mechanic and my heart sinks. He is a solitary man on the side of the road with a cart of tools, and maybe he is a miracle worker, but the realistic side of me foresees that he won’t be able to make all the repairs needed. I pull up to his cart and say hello. I point at my bike and make a sad face. He takes one brief look at my lopsided bike and shakes his head, pointing his finger down the road. I need to go somewhere else. Luckily I had also searched up a mechanic on Google Maps. The location is farther than I feel comfortable driving in this state, but it will have to do. I fill up the rest of my tank at the gas station and splutter, whine and rattle onward.

Fifteen minutes later I arrive at the mechanic and present him with my girl. He scratches his head and surveys the bike. He looks at me, then back at the bike, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Please don’t send me away, please don’t send me away. Finally, he nods and picks up a crow bar. He’s going to do it.

I sit on a plastic stool and chain smoke cigarettes. I feel sick as I watch him hook the crowbar into Jackie’s handlebars and pull, trying to straighten her out. He brings a hammer into the mix and I watch as he pulls and pushes and prods and hits and slowly, very slowly, the metal frame is bent back into its original position. Jackie begins to look like herself again.

I sit and smoke for about 20 minutes while he busies himself with the other repairs. I text Paul. I pace. In the end, we aren’t able to fix the dashboard, but that’s really the least of my worries. We stick it together with a bit of tape (the way it always was before I decided to be fancy and get a new one installed) and call it a day. The repairs are done. We rev her engine and the whining noise is gone. I sit on top, feeling her out; the handlebars feel better. Still slightly off center, but 100 times better. The glass of the headlight has been replaced and the rattle is gone. The electrical that was messed up gets completely rewired and things begin to work again. She is not as good as new, but she is good enough. Good enough to ride to Phnom Penh and good enough to sell for a decent price. I pay a few dollars and stammer “orkun chroeun” over and over – Khmer for “many thanks.”

I also ask if he knows of somewhere where I can have my bike washed. I want to treat Jackie right; at the very least she deserves a proper wash. I make the motion of “washing” with my hands, but he either doesn’t understand or does not know. “Orkun chroeun, orkun chroeun,” I say, and Jackie and I ride to the hostel. I park and ask there whether they know of somewhere I can get my bike washed. The men at reception laugh at me, as though the concept of washing a bike is the most absurd thing ever. “Why do you want to wash it?” they ask.

“I just want to, do you know a place?” I say.

“No, I’ve never heard of that before. Why do you want to wash it?”

I am fuming and I want to give them a speech about how you’ve got to treat your bike right, but I am aware that I will sound like a lunatic and that I will still end up without a wash, so I let it go and go instead to my room where I prepare my things for tomorrow’s ride. That night I fall into a restless sleep as I listen to the sound of the jackhammers.

Step 2: Departure, Frustration and Going a Little Bit Cuckoo

I wake up at 7:15 and hit the road at 8:00. I share my location with Paul and begin to exit Sihanoukville – the long way around the city, not the short way over the fucking-sand-pit-road-that-I-hate. Traffic is, surprise of all surprises, congested. The going is slow at best and I even though I try to be positive, my blood is at a constant simmer, and I am aware that it will not take much for it to boil. I am frustrated and I am at times incredibly angry. The handlebars are better, but they are different to before, so I have to adjust the angle of my arms slightly. The throttle is also looser than usual, and I don’t like the way it feels. It truly isn’t the end of the world, and I wonder why I am letting it get to me this much. At the same time I realize that being on this bike for such a long period of time means we have gotten into certain habits. I know this bike through and through. It is an extension of my self. And to have that extension of the self suddenly begin to feel so foreign under my own fingertips is, quite simply, perturbing.

I stop at several mechanics along the way and ask them to tighten the throttle. For whatever reason, they decline. My frustration rises because I have seen mechanics fix it before and I know it is an easy fix. I wish I knew how to do it my damn self. I ride on. The roads are at times potholed to shit, but at times they are also stunning. Beautiful asphalt stretching on into the horizon. The issue of two lanes, however, persists. Though the road is beautiful, the lack of space on the road means that I am still constantly being run off the road and into the dirt alongside it. Frustration continues to rise.

At this point I am, quite simply, over it. I am riding with an bad attitude. It is a “get the fuck out of my way I need to make it to Phnom Penh and end this” attitude. I am riding angrily. I am riding thinking only of the few people on Facebook who have already expressed an interest in buying Jackie. I think of them because in this moment, I want to get rid of her. One second after I think it, I regret the thought. That’s not your truth, Nicole. My attitude pisses me off and I become even more frustrated with myself. And so I decide to stop for lunch. I can’t deal with myself, with Jackie or with the road right now. Maybe, just maybe, I can deal with a bowl of noodles.

I order food from a nice lady alongside the road. I order a cold tea. I sit and ruminate. My bowl of noodles arrives and so do a few other customers. I begin to eat and the man sitting next to me surveys me quietly. He turns around and looks at Jackie, takes in my backpack, my helmet. He looks back at me and points to me, to the bike, then back to me. He’s asking if she’s mine. I nod and smile. I can’t help it, I always want to smile when I talk about Jackie. Even now. I point at Jackie and I point at myself. Yes, she’s mine. I point in the direction I am riding and I say “Phnom Penh.”

His eyes open wide. “Phnom Penh!” He looks at the woman with him and repeats “Phnom Penh!” and he is gesturing at Jackie, at me and at the road. He is very obviously impressed with me and he repeats “Phnom Penh” again, together with a sound that sounds like “wow.” I smile and nod, saying “chaa Phnom Penh, chaa.” (Chaa = yes). Our interaction is sweet and just the interruption I needed to quash my negative spiral. This man, impressed with my journey, reminds me that there aren’t very many foreigners riding around here, especially not foreign women. I came here for a reason. I came here for an adventure. I came here to do something on my own and to give myself something. And accidents, frustrations, setbacks are all a part of something. They do not take away from the fact that you are doing it. You’re doing the damn thing, Nicole. You’re doing it. Enjoy it, because soon it will be over.

The man leaves and we smile and nod, smile and nod, saying goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

I get back on Jackie and promise myself that we are going to enjoy this now. Okay, the roads are shitty. We’ll figure it out. Okay, Jackie feels different. That’s okay, you’re probably different too. We’ve got a long way to go. Well let’s take extra breaks. It’s the last ride, I’m sad. Okay, so take a few more.

I take a break shortly after lunch, having decided that more breaks means a longer ride which means more time with Jackie. It’s still early enough for me not to have to worry about it getting dark, so I am going to make this last as long as possible. I drink a can of coke alongside the road and have a chat with the ladies running the shop – our chat is made up entirely of gestures and smiles, of course. I watch the ice delivery man arrive with huge blocks of ice strapped to his motorbike. As he carries a block inside, the dirt around his motorbike turns into mud from the rapidly melting ice. I admire Jackie and just like that, I begin to count all of the things that I have loved.

It’s a funny phenomenon, the thing that happens to my human mind when I know that an ending is near. In particular when I know that the ending of something especially extraordinary is near. My brain goes into overdrive, trying to catalog it all. The organized person in me is working overtime, desperately trying to file away every single detail that is so precious. The smells, the sights, the sounds, the temperature. The smiles, the gestures, the sound of a foreign language in the air. I have discovered over the course of this year that I have a tremendous fear of forgetting the things that I have loved in my lifetime. Some people fear being forgotten, I fear forgetting. It is the reason I take photos, I suppose. Most importantly, however, it is the reason that I write. Even now, nine months later, I am throwing myself into the preservation of these memories with the precision and dedication of an anthropologist; historian; paleontologist. I am listening to voice memos I have made whilst riding my motorcycle, I am writing out notes I have jotted down in my phone, turning them into coherent sentences. I want to remember. And perhaps there will come a day that the memories will become blurry; where the faces, sounds and smells will become soft around the edges. And perhaps I will be okay with that. But until that time, I’ll do a little bit of cataloging. Just in case.

So I take a photo of the ice delivery man’s bike, and I type out a note in my phone.

Step 3: Just Love

I take more breaks than I cover kilometers, or at least that’s how it feels. The day stretches on and I sit on one plastic stool after the other, lounge in hammocks here, there and there. I stop to take photos of Jackie. Jackie at a temple, Jackie looking lush between the palm trees, Jackie beside a dirt road. As I ride, my left hand at times rests on the gas tank in front of me. I give her little pats from time to time. It’s a habit we’ve picked up.

I am cataloging but more than that, I am enjoying. I am having fun. I am loving myself and my bike and I am loving them hard. After all, for as much as Cambodia has put me to the test, I love this bike. I do. And I have loved this trip so much. I am riding to Phnom Penh but in my mind I am doing so much more. I am riding through memories for the hundredth time.

I am riding out of Hanoi for the first time. I am breaking down and freaking out. I am riding into the hills of Trang An with Paul, whooping and hollering. He’s revving his engine in a tunnel and I am ecstatic. I am dancing in the middle of a highway. I am having midnight drunken conversations with Paul, Maeve and Clay. I am finding shapes in rocks in underground caves. I am chatting with Phyllis and Michael over a bowl of noodles. I am making bonfires with Michael and fishing from the rocks. We are downing beers and eating dried pigeon. I am smashing bananas onto the pavement with him, cursing a mechanic. I am flying a kite with Paul and Michael and there are sunsets, oh so many sunsets. I am on an elevated highway in Ho Chi Minh City, we are breaking down at the Cu Chi Tunnels and we are oh so incredible alive. I am on this stretch of road in Cambodia and I am in a hundred other memories at once. And I am happy again.

I am making decent progress towards Phnom Penh and I decide to stop for gas. Better safe than sorry. I pull into a gas station and there is a group of five teenage Khmer boys filling up three bikes. They all look up as I come driving in. They point at my backpack and begin to chatter excitedly. It’s silly, but their excitement makes me happy and proud. I pull up alongside them and take off my helmet and jacket – it’s getting too hot. I happen to make eye contact with one of the boys when I do so, and his mouth drops open. He is still staring at me as he taps his friend on the hand, then taps him again twice – c’mon dude, look! The friend turns, and his mouth drops open in shock as well. Soon enough they are all staring at me and chatting in rapid fire Khmer to one another. They are happy and excited and it’s infectious and I’m not sure what’s going on exactly, but I think they hadn’t expected me to be a girl. Two of the boys give me a thumbs up and they all pile onto their bikes. As they ride out of the gas station, a few of them still look back a few times and smile.

Soon enough it is time for my final stop; I am almost in Phnom Penh. I don’t want the trip to end, but it is getting towards sundown. I pick a roadside stop that has hammocks. I buy a can of soda and some tamarind fruit. I eat the tamarind and it is a taste of home, a taste of my childhood. I sit on the ground, I lie in a hammock. I take photos of absolutely everything.

Then Jackie and I finish the ride. Traffic gets tighter as the highways come together and we all make our way into the city. I weave in and out of traffic, a process I have gotten so incredibly used to. I follow the prompts that Google Maps gives me and am secretly thrilled when I see that it takes me towards an elevated highway. There is something special about soaring over the city on my motorbike. As I make my way up the highway, I am grinning from ear to ear. A guy pulls up next to me, giving me yet another thumbs up. Why does this keep happening to me? I nod at him and give a thumbs up back.

With my left hand I give Jackie a pat on the gas tank. Then I hold my clutch in and I rev my engine. I do it again, because I am giddy and I am obnoxious and I feel oh so damn alive.

Step 4: Sold

I arrive at the hostel and check in. I have received a message from one of the people interested in buying my bike, asking when I would like to meet. I am feeling a sense of completion and a part of me wants to ride this wave and continue to get things done. I tell him I will meet him at his hostel in an hour.

I take to the streets to find someone who can wash Jackie. At this point she is covered in a layer of red dust, and I would like to sell her in the best possible condition. I ride in circles and am unable to find anyone. I accept defeat and take her instead to a mechanic to get the loose throttle tightened up and to recalibrate the exhaust – she’s got a little backfire going again.

I drive to the hostel and the guy that comes out to meet me is a smiling Frenchman. He seems kind. I offer him the keys so he can take her for a test ride but he confesses that he doesn’t know how to ride a manual motorbike yet. “No worries, it’s pretty easy,” I say. “I can teach you.” A distant Nicole in my brain smiles a wry smile. Oh, how far we’ve come. We go around the corner to a slightly quieter street and on the way he tells me that he plans to ride around Cambodia for a while and then into Vietnam. For that reason he is happy to have found someone selling a Vietnamese bike. This feels good.

 Once in the street, I show him the different parts of the bike. I show him how to start her up, how to shift the gears, I give him tips. I explain her strengths, I also describe her weaknesses. I want to be honest with him. I feel confident, strong, at ease, and that same little part of my brain is secretly proud. “Your turn,” I say, parking the bike and getting off. He gets on and has a few false starts before he’s able to get her moving. I speak words of encouragement as he sets off, wobbling from side to side. I walk alongside of him for a few meters and then let him go. He rides to the end of the road and makes a wide turn back to me. It’s not perfect, but he will figure it out. I was in much worse shape when I started.

“Okay, I’ll take it,” he says happily.

For a moment, I’m stunned. That almost seems too easy. “Are you sure? Don’t you want to ride her a bit more?”

“No, I know enough. I’ll take it.”

“Okay, then she’s all yours. I’ll park her at your hostel, do you want to have a beer after? This is something to celebrate.”

I ride Jackie to his hostel and park her there. I give her one last pat on the gas tank. I touch the seat. And I walk away. Just like that.

I buy us some beers at a convenience store and we make the exchange. I hand over Jackie’s registration and helmet, he hands me the money. $240, the same price I paid for her. We have broken even. We talk more about travel plans, I tell him some stories from the road. I tell him he is going to have a good time. “The bike’s name is Jackie, right?” he asks.

“Yea,” I say smiling. “I can understand if you want to change it, though.” I try to keep up the smile.

“No, I like it. I’m going to keep it. I can see that you and Jackie had a good time together.” I don’t think this man has any idea how happy he has just made me. This guy understands.

After our beers, I walk back to my hostel in a daze. It’s over. It’s really over. I am happy, I am relieved, but I am suddenly also desperately sad. This is, for lack of a better expression, the end of an era. I have ridden 2,570 kilometers in Vietnam and 529 in Cambodia. That’s 3,099 kilometers in total. 2,785 kilometers is the distance from Maine to Miami. I have ridden the length of the entire east coast of the United States of America, and then some. 3,072 kilometers is the distance from Lisbon to Budapest. I have ridden the length of that. Just like that. To think it, even now, is surreal.

I walk back and to be quite honest there are no words to describe how I feel. It is complex, it is overwhelming and it is a million things at once. And so I do the only thing I can do to ground myself and make myself feel normal again. I message Paul, Michael and Clay, and as we chat I buy myself a beer and whisper to myself: “cheers, we did not die today.”

Step 5: Fin

So that’s it, then. My motorbike trip done and dusted. It has taken me some time to write it all out. There are different reasons why, I suppose. Such as wanting to be present with the incredible souls I have met along the way, instead of spending hours behind a laptop.

Or maybe it is that processing something like this takes time – at least for me. Maybe it’s that the longer it takes me to write, the longer I get to visit and revisit my days. The longer it takes, the longer they live on.

Whatever the reasons may be, I wanted to write it all out. I wanted to write, as I’ve said, so I can remember. I write so I can suspend my joys, my fears, my excitement, in time. I write in the hope that when the memories eventually fade, the words I have written from my heart to this page will somehow bring them back to life.

Koh Rong Sanloem

I end up making the ferry to the island with just a few minutes to spare. I have chosen the fast ferry and the boat I am ushered onto is not very big. I make my way to the front of the boat, bumping into everything and everyone with my bags, helmet and other oddities. I am a mess. I sit down next to a Canadian family and the mother says to me in a shocked voice “excuse me, have you seen that your elbow is bleeding?” I look down and see that my elbow is indeed covered in blood. As I look, it drips onto the white leather cushion we are seated on. Drip, drip, drip. Crimson red on sparkling white. I mumble an apology and rummage through my things to find a tissue to clean the cushion with.

I spend the boat right enjoying pleasant conversation with the Canadian family. They ask, of course, what happened and as I explain I am sure to say “it’s not a big deal” repeatedly. I’m not sure who I am trying to convince; me or them. They are fascinated and ask lots of questions, trying to figure out how I, a young woman from abroad, ended up in Cambodia alone on a motorbike. Their daughter is talkative and she mentions that there is one thing currently stressing her out at school. Her teachers are pushing her to start the International Baccalaureate program but she is not sure she is capable. I mention that I am an IB alumna and she is quick to pepper me with questions about work load, extracurricular activities and community service hours. I answer gladly and patiently and as I catch her parents discreetly eavesdropping it strikes me as funny that I am covered in dirt, sand and blood and yet serve as a role model to this young teenage girl. The more I think about it, the more the whole fall begins to become a little bit funny. I am happy for it. Humor always takes the sting out of things.

We arrive at Koh Rong Sanloem and I step off the ferry with the Canadian family. “Thank you for talking to her,” the father says to me in a moment alone. “I can tell she really looks up to you. It was beautiful to see her light up like that. Thank you.” He speaks quietly and has barely finished saying it when his daughter comes bounding up to us, saying her goodbyes to me. He trails off, giving me a look that says: I don’t want her to know I just said that. My eyes reply: Shhh, it’s a secret between you and me. I smile at them both and say my goodbyes. The last thing I repeat to her is: “don’t forget, you are capable of a whole lot more than you give yourself credit for. No matter what you do, I’m sure you’ll be just fine, just make sure you do it for you. And whether you do IB or not, remember to enjoy your time in high school, okay? Life is short, and it’s yours.”

We turn away from each other and I grab my phone, looking at Google Maps. The blue location dot jumps around a bit, finally settling in one place and I realize I have messed up. I have gotten out at the wrong bay. I am standing on the dock watching the boat putter off into the distance, still waving happy goodbyes to the family, and realizing that I am on the wrong part of the island. Oops. I rush to the only other boat on the dock and ask if they happen to be headed to M’Pai Bay. Thankfully they are, and they agree to let me hitch a ride.

I (finally) reach M’Pai Bay and breathe a sigh of relief. I drag myself and my things through the sand to my hostel, The Wildflower. The owners are lovely and there are two puppies – I think I’m going to like it here. First order of business is a shower and a visit with my First Aid kit. I find that the cut on my elbow really isn’t all that big, and I wrap it up to keep the sand out. Next up, I go find my friends.

I find that M’Pai Bay is a small community. There is a row of restaurants, cafes and hostels along the beachfront and it does not take me long to find my friends. Soon enough, I am settling in with a drink and we are catching up on the goings on of the past few days (or in the case of my friend from Laos: months).

In M’Pai Bay our days are slow and easy. We watch games of beach volleyball, float in the ocean and play with the island dogs. Our nights, on the other hand, are a wild blur as we spend them partying at Yellow Moon Hostel (that’s right, the sister hostel to Yellow Sun in Kampot). There is thumping music, hourly deals on alcohol and a blackboard titled “Joss Shot for Your Country.”

We’ll sidestep here so I can explain what “joss” is. “Extra Joss” is an energy powder. It is basically a very concentrated form of an energy drink – in powder form. A joss shot is a shot of vodka which you pour the joss into. It fizzes into a yellow monstrosity and you down it. Alternatively, you can pour the sachet of joss directly into your mouth and then wash it down with the shot of vodka. Your pick. It bears noting that Extra Joss is illegal everywhere except for Indonesia, The Philippines and Cambodia. It is obviously terrible for you. Now let’s continue…

Yellow Moon also has fire shows, a live music night, and various themed nights. It is, quite simply, designed to get people doing things like dancing on the bar. And we do. Every night. It is a drastic change for me, coming from Yellow Sun to here, but for the moment it is fun to engage in the backpacker cliché of getting drunk on an island. And so I laugh, make new friends, and take a Joss shot for my country. Ha! If the Canadians could see me now. 

The waters of M’Pai Bay have bioluminescent plankton, so often at the end of the night, someone will scream “let’s go see the plankton!” and off we will go. The moon is high and bright so there is too much light, but each time I go, I am mesmerized. I splash the water around me; I swirl my fingertips over the surface to create ripples. I wiggle my legs underwater and all the while I giggle in awe at the hundreds of specks of light I create. It is, quite simply, magic.

After a few days I begin to feel a stiffness in my limbs and my bruises begin to appear. It seems I am a little bit more beaten up from my fall than I thought, but I still consider myself very lucky. I limit my complaints and I continue to do my best to keep my elbow clean.

The days have flown by and we begin to discuss whether we are going to stay or go. None of us are keen to say goodbye to our group of friends and so every day we end up saying the words “one more night.” Hostel stays are extended and we slowly run out of money. There is no ATM on the island, but there is a hostel manager who has cash that he gets from the mainland which he will sell to you – for a 25% commission fee. Ouch. The alternative, however, is taking a ferry to the island (which will cost +/- $24 and a couple hours of time). So I log into my PayPal and go to the manager to take out some cash. Laziness comes at a price, folks.

Our drunken debacles are fun, but at a certain point I find myself easing up. There is only so much drinking and silly dancing I can do. Instead of painting myself with neon for the full moon party, I find myself going home early to sleep. Instead of cocktails, I drink water. It is obviously becoming time to go. My friends, it seems, are on the same boat. We have had a great time on our hideaway island of fun, but it’s time to rejoin the mainland.

In addition to our exhaustion, we have all acquired an assortment of cuts and scrapes. As hygiene on the island is incredibly lacking, those cuts and scrapes have turned into infections that have begun to cause us trouble. People are hobbling around on infected legs and feet, throat infections abound and my elbow has been oozing for days. Most of us have visas that are running out and travel plans that await. And so we decide on “one more night” and we book our ferry off the island the next day. We will all leave together.

This means, of course, that I have to start thinking about Jackie again. I have one week left on my visa. I need to get Jackie repaired, drive her to Phnom Penh, sell her, visit the places I want to visit in Phnom Penh and go to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat before flying out to Singapore on March 31st. Even writing it now makes me feel tired. I have put up a Facebook ad already, secretly hoping that I can sell her in Sihanoukville. I use photos from before our accident, hoping that I will be able to get her fixed up before anyone expresses interest. No one does.

I am desperate. My friends are all heading to Phnom Penh together and then some of them are going to Siem Reap. It would be so much easier to just hop on a bus with them and not have to deal with a damaged motorbike and a 230 kilometer drive over potholed roads to Phnom Penh. I spend days agonizing over what to do. I even consider leaving Jackie in Sihanoukville or gifting her to a friend.

On the 25th of March, after 9 days on the island, we pack up and head out as a team. I sit on the boat with my newfound friends and as I watch the waves swelling around me I am suddenly decided and determined. What was I doing, thinking about leaving Jackie behind? A few days on an island and I’ve somehow gone soft? Have I seriously forgotten the rules of the road? No one left behind.

It’s funny, really, how you can feel a connection to an inanimate object. There are some people who will understand it without skipping a beat. There are others who will call me crazy. Maybe both are a little bit right, but in truth, I don’t really care. All I know is that the past months on the road have given me more personal growth than I ever would have imagined. This growth is inextricably linked to these two motorbikes that I have sat upon; it is intimately connected to these two “inanimate objects.”

I have loved this bike and I have cared for her. She has driven alongside me with Michael and Paul, she has driven with me alone. I have gotten her repaired, oiled and washed. I have taken more photos of her than I can count. I love this bike and I owe it to her. We started this together and we will finish it together, and so I am suddenly dead-set in my plans.

I don’t care how, but I am getting Jackie up to Phnom Penh. We will have our last ride together and make it count. And I will find someone who will care for her and who will take her home to Vietnam. I watch the waves and repeat it to myself:

I will find someone who will take you home.

Tumble

March 16

I leave Yellow Sun on a Saturday afternoon, much later than intended. Between some final quick repairs on Jackie and errands in town, I am back at the hostel by lunch time. I delay my goodbye to the family as much as I can but then I really need to go. It is almost 1 pm and I need to ride 104 kilometers to get to Sihanoukville. The map says it will take around 3 hours. On the one hand it seems excessive, but on the other, I have seen the state of Cambodian roads so there might be something to it. Either way, I need to get moving. The last ferry is at 4:30 pm, and once I arrive in Sihanoukville I will need to find a safe place to park my bike for a few days. The schedule, I will admit, is tight. Damn you, woman.

The ride starts off well enough, and I am enjoying the uniquely Cambodian landscape. I reach the highway and notice that it only has one lane going each way. It strikes me as curious that a national highway wouldn’t have more lanes, and I absentmindedly wonder whether there might be a bigger, better highway that caters to heavier traffic.

The further I get from Kampot, the worse the road becomes. The highway is littered with potholes, and I am constantly swerving and slowing to avoid them. Each time I build up speed, I am slowing down again to avoid crashing straight through another hole. At one point I do the math and notice that I am averaging 30 kilometers an hour. That’s right. Thirty. At this rate I will be 90 years old before I arrive anywhere.

I double check the map for an alternate route and find that there isn’t one. This is the only (completed) highway and as the traffic gets heavier, cars and trucks rule the road. They claim their space, pushing all smaller vehicles (such as myself) off the road and onto dirt tracks. It is, quite honestly, maddening.

My progress is slow and I begin to get stressed out. If I don’t get a move on, I will miss the ferry and have to spend the night in Sihanoukville. This is, of course, not a life or death situation, but Sihanoukville (lovingly referred to as “shit-ville” by backpackers) is not a place I need to spend the night in. I would much rather have had another night with my family at Yellow Sun. I push the thoughts from my mind and keep riding, telling myself that whatever is meant to happen, will happen.

I am fifteen minutes outside the city when it happens. Google Maps directs me off the highway and onto a side road. It appears to be a shortcut, and I am grateful, because it means I will bypass the now incredibly congested traffic into the city. I am racing down the road when I reach the next turn and what I see makes me stop. It is a long stretch of road made entirely up of sand. Not dirt, but sand. Grains fine enough to be at home in the desert. And I immediately think of Paul and of one of the things he said to me repeatedly: “on these bikes, our two biggest enemies are gravel and sand.” Sand. Fuck.

My brain goes into overdrive, wondering why the map would send me this way, and what the alternate route would be. I look it up and find that it would mean doubling back, and looping all around the outskirts of the city to then enter it from the other side. It would mean that I would most definitely miss the ferry.

I decide that the only way to go is forward. I’ll just go slow and steady. It will be fine.

(This is the part where the narrator would let you know that it would not, in fact, “be  fine.” It would not be fine at all).

With immense difficulty, I get about 100 meters down the road. The sand is so fine that my tires cannot get any traction, and I am not so much riding as I am simply sliding down the road. Jackie is rocking heavily left and right. I am gripping her handlebars and have my feet on the ground for extra support, trying my best to keep her upright. But it’s pointless. I hit a ridge of tire tracks in the sand and down we go.

We tumble down and I end up with one leg stuck under the bike, the other dangling awkwardly in the air. The throttle has gotten stuck in the sand so the tires keep spinning as the engine roars. Trucks carrying construction supplies still slowly rumble past and I realize that I need to get up quickly. They’re massive and you are both tiny and too low down. If they don’t see you, they’ll run you right over. I dislodge my arm and reach for the key so I can shut the engine off. I somehow lift a part of the bike up and throw it off me. The whole ordeal lasts less than a minute, and soon I am standing up and dragging the bike to the side of the road so that the trucks can continue to rumble past. No one stops.

Okay you’re fine, shake it off. You don’t know how bad it is yet.

I do a quick spot check to see if I’m hurt, but it doesn’t feel that way. Aha, but that would be the adrenaline, my love. I check again. Definitely nothing broken, I’m fine. Jackie, on the other hand, is in far worse shape than I. The headlight and dashboard that I just spent days getting repaired in Ho Chi Minh City, are entirely smashed. What’s worse, however, is the state of her handlebars. The entire frame of the handlebars has been bent at an odd angle. Simply driving forward means that I now need to lean forward and place my body at an almost 45 degree angle rather than sitting straight. Navigation is going to be tough.

It is 4:10 now and the ferry is in 20 minutes. I want now, more than ever, to get on the fucking ferry and see my friends. Screw Sihanoukville and its sand pit road, get me out of here. With tears stinging my eyes, I try turning around but find that between the sand and the harsh tilt in my handlebars, it’s impossible. The bike is way too heavy and we are both sliding way too much. There is nowhere to go but forward. So that’s what I do. I climb back onto the bike and start it, staring down the barrel of that fucking-sand-pit-road, hoping that it is not as long as it looks.

I keep my tires firmly within the tracks of other cars, as the sand will be at least a tiny bit firmer there. The road turns out to be a little over a kilometer, and I clear it in about 10 minutes. I hit paved roads again and race into Sihanoukville like a wild woman. I am practically sitting sideways on my bike and I am covered in sand from head to toe. I catch people staring and if I wasn’t so shaken and so pissed off, it would actually be quite hilarious.

I make it to a hostel my friend recommended to me and I race inside. “Hello would I be able to park my bike outside just for a few days while I go to the island?” The man behind the counter has barely said yes and I am racing back outside and putting a bike lock on Jackie’s wheel. The devil on my shoulder sneers at me, saying “well now that you’ve ruined her, why would anyone want to steal her anyway?” Fuck you, I reply.

In about a minute flat, I have my backpacks on, my helmet in my hand, and I am racing down the hill to buy a ferry ticket. I will deal with the rest of this shit show later.