Travelogues, Ten Years On
It was the summer of 2004.
I don’t remember things like seasons before 2018 (I did not live somewhere with real seasons until 3 years ago). Unless they had to do with travel. In 2004, I was a college freshman in a school in Singapore that was also the only one at the time which followed American semesters, terminology, and that conferred you with things like summa cum laude when you graduated. Accordingly, we were also the only school that used things like, “summer”, “spring”, “fall”, “winter”.
Summer of every year in college was glorious. I knew it at the time, probably, but maybe didn’t know exactly: all four summers would be the best days of my life. Just endless amounts of time to not-study, for I was not a very good student (my undiagnosed autism and ADHD then made it very difficult for me to stay engaged)), and unlimited amounts of time to really just do whatever the hell I wanted.
Like many students in Singapore, it had always been an ambition of mine to study abroad. I wanted to live and study somewhere with… seasons. In hindsight, I probably just wanted the space and bandwidth to figure out things like ‘am I gay’, ’can I do certain things recreationally’, ‘is there a path beyond let’s marry some man at 25 and have babies and live in a HDB flat’, and I probably wanted those things more than I wanted to study abroad.
The realities of a middle class life in Singapore set in quite quickly. The deal I struck with my folks was: ”If I stay and study in Singapore (the economically sensible thing), I guess I can… travel… regionally… with the tens of thousands of dollars that you’d be saving?” (They said yes, but that I still had to pay for those things myself. Years of studying amongst real-life Crazy Rich Asians did not leave me with a reasonable understanding of money.)
Much later, some family friends remarked at Chinese New Year: Mr and Mrs Tan, isn’t it marvelous that you allowed your daughter the space to go out and see the world? To which, they laughed: there is no allowing or disallowing with her. She’s so strong-willed, our options with her have always been: ok do what you think is best. Just remember to tell us about it. As soon as you can.
(Thanks mum, dad! If you’re familiar at all with Singapore, you’ll know that that’s… exceedingly rare. I feel extraordinarily lucky.)
And so I worked two to three jobs all through college in order to fund that life. It helped that I loved a good deal so I made it my goal to get the best prices on everything. If I had $100 in my bank account that was me going off to a nearby country for two weeks. It also helped that I was fine with—perhaps even saw it as a teaching moment, or a story to be written about ten years later—that I really wasn’t bothered by things like creature comforts. I was also not bothered by creatures. $2 rooms in Kolkata and $5 beds in Bangkok. Those felt more free than the small bedroom in a high-rise building I grew up in. Now that I’m a little older, I know those felt liberating because those were different from the comforts I grew up with, that I could always return to. They were novelties. They were stories to tell.
I hope I have better stories to tell now.
In the summer of 2004, I woke up every morning and I got into a little boat. I paddled aimlessly. I tried not to knock my head with the oar. My ex, bless her soul, did most of the paddling. We walked around from bed to beach to estuary lazily with all the time in the world. Of college kids who had April to August to do whatever they wanted. Most of our peers were doing internships, chasing good jobs: I wanted to row boats badly and wear not too much clothing for as long as I could.
The plan was hazy. We would get up from bed a few days from now, whenever we felt like it, and head for Cambodia. We would take several modes of transportation from the beach towards the mainland, where we would board a minibus for a town named Trat. Then we would find a motorbike taxi, and we would tell them to head to the border. There, we would disembark from the motorbike taxi, and then we would find a car, any car, headed for Phnom Penh. That trip involved an overnight stay in a small Cambodian town. We weren’t fazed by it, but we weren’t prepared either. Especially not with the minimal clothing that was the ethos of my travel at the time.
On arriving in this small Cambodian border town, we checked in to a room in a wooden structure that had seen better days. Our budget was $2, so we couldn’t complain. As with all such huts in Southeast Asia, the highlight of the room was the dirty and dusty mosquito net. It’ll only be one night, I told myself.
As we walked around the small Cambodian town the main people we saw who were not working in the hotels, who were not pedaling autorickshaws, were older men from a certain continent with clear persuasions of the nature that would lead them into criminal trouble back home. Being as sheltered as we were, we felt relatively carefree and perhaps even safe. After all, we were… almost 20. We were expired goods for the men who came to this town.
As a person on the spectrum, the true nature of the things that I saw and the sticky situations that I may have been in only revealed themselves later when I was already detached from that moment. Ah, so that’s… what it was. I mention this because I have been frequently guilty of saying that I never ran into any trouble traveling solo; perhaps I was truly lucky. Perhaps I, as an autistic person who has a complete inability to read new social situations, just didn’t see what was right there. This episode comes back to me sometimes as I think of the leering men who said things to me like, I can no longer be with western women, they don’t know how to treat men and they are not attractive. At that time, I simply did not have the context. I certainly found it weird and strange, but today I would have the tools and the experience to have found… disgust, perhaps.
That night was over relatively quickly. The next morning, we climbed into an old Toyota Camry that was bound for Phnom-Penh.
Five other people climbed in.
[To be continued..]