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Ten Ordinary Moments Away From Home

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In whatever dream I was having there’s a crash above me, and my body jumps and wakes me up. It’s pitch dark. Philip said there are monkeys that play on the roof at night. The generator must have gone off because my fan is dead and it’s sweltering inside. I’m being bitten all over, so I fumble for my keychain LED and click it on. To my horror the mosquito net is untucked and I’m exposed. I must have forgotten when I went to the bathroom earlier. I tuck it back in and scan around me with the flashlight. I’m sitting in a cone of white mosquito netting and in the faint light I notice the inside is dotted with hundreds of mosquitoes, all fat with my blood. For an hour and a half I stay up, scanning with my tiny light, until I’m sure I’ve killed every single one.


The sun is gone by the time we start rolling out of the station. I’ll be sleeping on the upper bunk. The train picks up speed and I’m watching the big buildings of the inner city give way to apartments, markets, parks and temples, and finally shanty houses. They’re built out of corrugated steel, and they back right onto the tracks, most of them open to my view. They shoot past me by the dozen and I can see figures moving in them. Mattresses. Decorations. Kids. A few of them are illuminated by a lamp bulb somewhere inside. The train is clipping along now and these little lightbox dioramas are flashing by me, several families per second.


Eight of us are sitting on our boards and the first set hasn’t come in, but nobody’s getting impatient. It’s probably not even 6am yet, there isn’t a lick of wind, and the east horizon is beginning to glow. The water is so warm it feels like the air. Normally we chat out here between sets, but talking right now would be absurd. I lay back on my nine-footer and I’m surprised to see the stars haven’t quite disappeared yet.


Three hours ago I didn’t know a soul in the whole country, and now I’m perched on the back of an Israeli girl’s motorbike, gripping the seat behind me with both hands as a pack of twelve of us tear through the Old Town. Large stretches of the town are closed up and dark. It’s raining a bit but it feels awesome. I don’t remember where they said we’re going, but I’ve been assured it’s not in the guidebook.


All fifty-three kilometers are behind me now and when I get to the famous congratulatory sign at the end, I feel nothing. I’m not disappointed, just numb and exhausted and I don’t know what to do with myself. I enter the conservation hut, sit on a bench, and even though I’m not hungry I eat my last bit of food: a piece of Dutch pumpernickel with peanut butter. Angie comes in and I say well done and she says it back to me. We have two hours before the boat gets here. She lingers a minute and goes down to the pier. Once she’s gone I take a picture of myself in front of the door, and then head down too.


I’m a good head taller than everyone around me on the sidewalk and I still have not seen another Westerner since getting here. I think I’m handling the scrutiny pretty well when some kids start screaming behind me, like they’ve seen a snake or something. But when I turn around, they’re pointing at me. “Fa-rang! Fa-rang!” one of them shouts, and they both run screaming and hide behind a pillar. The second one pokes his head out and shouts, “Hello!” as if he’s shouting “No!” So I say “Hello” back, and they both squeal and run away.


Tourist season is long dead and I have the sensation that I’m alone out on the peninsula. I passed another human being maybe an hour ago, when I pulled over to let him squeeze by in his tractor. After that I crested the hill and felt like humanity was now totally behind me, then I drove more. The car is way back at the bridge and I walked from there. The ocean came into view again, across a little pasture and that’s where I’m stopped now. A black and white cow is grazing by herself. It feels like the end of the world.


Stay awake. That’s all I have to do. The open-air station is all but abandoned at this hour, but I can hear the odd night person shuffling behind me and I’m getting paranoid. I’ve got a bag looped around my left arm and my pack around my right leg. It’s 3am and nothing will be open for at least four hours. The only thing to do is wait here on this bare steel bench until the sun rises, and start wandering the city. A military-looking guy (a guard?) keeps walking into my periphery on my right, stopping to stare at me and disappearing again.


“So if the population is officially 95% Buddhist does that mean they all practice meditation, they all live the eightfold path and all that?” I ask the professor. “Because the way they drive their motorbikes… uh, doesn’t seem like it.”

He shakes his head and lights his cigarette. “No,” he says, looking over the balcony. “It’s like Christians in America — they have a concept. Everyone grows up with a concept, of who they are and what they’re supposed to do. Nobody really chooses what they call themselves. They do what they know.” He gestures with his head. A skinny novice monk in orange robes, maybe sixteen, is walking across from us, carrying a Red Bull and listening to headphones. “Merit for his mother, that’s why this kid’s doing it.”


Everyone’s laughing about something when my hostel rolls into view again and suddenly I feel sad. Martin pulls over. It’s quiet for a few seconds. I shake hands with Stefan and Dave, and step out with my bag. Martin gets out and gives me a big hug, and the rain is starting again. Katie runs around from the passenger side and gives me a hug too. “See you when you come to Germany,” she says. I say see you later, and I believe this is true.


All photos by David Cain

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