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Monthly Archives: October 2008

who are these people? 

all these new faces, new relationships, new “hello, how are you?”s, new names on my “contact list” on my cheap little nokia phone, new.

there’s a melting pot here. i arrived from the world’s largest cauldron of different races, religions, backgrounds and cultures to this tiny little spot on the map in the middle of southeast asia to introduce myself to a little microcosmic hot-pot of different cultures and races all mixed up and swimming in the humid, steamy soup of siem reap, cambodia. 

my dear friend, maree, MIA this fall. she’s back home in australia, visiting her daughters and grandchildren, lolling about surely in the pre-summer sunshine and detoxing from her year-long experience as a volunteer at “friends without borders” hospital as the PR maven extraordinaire. “i am coming back in january,” maree emailed me the other day. “i’m finding my life is really there, not here.” holding back from whooping it up out load, i silently celebrated the idea that my partner in wanderlusting crime and glasses of wine at 4 in the afternoon and long conversations about everything and nothing would be parking herself back here in our little home-away-from-home, siem reap.

and then there’s siri. she bopped into my store at the opening gala, and we’ve been pals since. tall, red-headed, stunningly beautiful, dead ringer for molly ringwald in her john hughes heyday, 27 or so, funny as hell, adventurous, spirited, norweigen by birth but raised in berlin, here as a volunteer for 3 months. working at love cards, a fellow norweigen’s home-grown NGO– having children from an orphanage paint–gorgeously, i may add–panoramic postcards for sale to tourists. (for $2 you get a little piece of naive and astounding artwork and an international stamp for mailing. and the dough goes back to the kids for art supplies.) genius. and of course, they’re now sold at wanderlust, and quite briskly, i may add. if siri and i don’t see each other every day, we always greet with “omg! i’ve missed you!” and she’s bought a lot of my clothes at wanderlust, and i can’t think of anyone better–not naomi, christy, shalom, linda, hana, caroline trentini, hilary rhodes, coco…NONE of these super-human supermodels–who would make my clothes look so gorgeous, so deluxe, so absolutely flawless. 

kristen. oh thank god for this dynamo, this wise and wonderful woman from norway. owner of the soria moria boutique hotel, my chic and minimal and clean and wonderful home all summer. she’s so savvy and so bright, i’m in awe of her all the time. she’s managed to get her hotel bustling and busy and one of the “in” places to be in less than a year by coming up with nightly events at the hotel–the place to go. a destination. tuesday night is “girls night” and you find all of us perched at the tables, sipping champagne, laughing and gossiping and sharing tales of expat woes. i marveled at the truth that she met her boyfriend, ken, here in siem reap. another norweigen transplant. and she met him here? in siem reap, cambodia???? i said, “something about you gorgeous scandinavian girls… what is it? what’s your secret?” ken is actually half japanese, half norweigen, and it reminds me of how amazing people look when two very very different cultures come together and join in making a child. kristen swears he looks more japanese than scandinavian, but his fair skin and dirty blond-ish hair makes me visualize him in a chalet up in the north of norway, milking cows or something. an incredible blend. anyway, it is ken who started love cards, and these little magical pieces of artwork are also for sale in tokyo.

tom is my roommate of sorts. he is young and eager and grew up out in the village on a rice paddy, farming with his parents. no electricity. no running water. and somehow, dine met him–the details i’ve long forgotten–and was struck by tom’s drive and desire to get beyond rice farming and improve his future. so this summer, we hired tom to help us with the deconstruction of this messy 1920s french colonial house in the middle of town. and he did so willingly and helpfully. so now he lives on the floor of the store at night, nestled under a mosquito net and acts as “security”. during the day, tom goes to english class at the pagoda, and i pay the $3 a month tuition, and we go over his homework together and he tries his hardest to communicate with me. he’s got a tom-cruise smile–the most perfect, beautiful, straightest whitest teeth east of LA. i think tom understands a lot more than he lets on, but with most cambodians, he is shy and he’s intimidated to speak up and speak loudly. i tell him constantly that mistakes are good, they are learning tools, and we need to make them in order to move and grow and go forward. he’s trying more now. 

dr bob: god, i don’t really know how to explain dr. bob except to say i admire him for being brave. he was a radiologist in vermont–ugg, vermont! of all fucking places!–and after a life-threatening car accident, was forced into retirement. he stuck his head into my store the first day he arrived here as a volunteer at “friends without borders” and announced himself and hasn’t stopped talking since. it wouldn’t be a regular day if i didn’t see dr bob. i turned him onto patrick’s restaurant across the way, and dr bob eats there every single night, claiming the food to be way, way better than per se in the time warner center in nyc. dr bob is married, has 3 grown children, one of whom is on his way here to take a dad-and-son trip through laos. dr bob calls me “the mayor of siem reap”. 

dr nick is dr bob’s constant sidekick, and they couldn’t be more different, but that’s what living in a foreign country does to you–it forces you to find allegiances with people you probably wouldn’t give a mere glance to in your hometown, and you suddenly find that you actually like this person you wouldn’t even notice before. dr nick is a medical student from london, and is on a 3 month rotation here as a volunteer at “friends without borders” as part of his medical school requirements. he’s fun and game for anything, and we went to the pagoda together the other night to meditate and then he examined my dear vanny (my monk who calls me “mom”) who’s been experiencing some serious sinus headaches recently. 

then there’s brian/mr magoo. mr magoo also appeared in my store one day and announced himself, wanting to meet the proprieter of this new shop, wanderlust. mr magoo–self named–is american, truly embodies the word and the meaning of “wanderlust”, shamefully from texas (and apologizes for it), and has been living all over the world his entire adult life. i’d guess mr magoo is about 55 or so, although from his spirit and his hilarious curmudgeonly, are-you-sure-you’re-not-from-new-york? attitude, i would think inside he’s probably around 35. he pops in every once in a while to kill me with his hysterical stories and observations from living here, egypt, saudi arabia, vietnam..i ask him to come around more often, because undoubtedly, i will be on the floor guffawing with laughter, begging for mercy. he’ll be the first to tell you that he’s a non-stop partyer, unmarried because he doesn’t believe in monogamy, and a throw-back from the 60s/70s. he’s weird and crazy and beyond bonkers, and i love his “living large” energy.

sandra is my newest friend. she, too, came to my opening party and we talked talked talked and she came the next day and we kept on going. she and her husband have lived all over the world in developing countries; he works for huge international NGOs. they’re dutch, but haven’t lived home in years and years and have no plans to. they have a gorgeous daughter who came over the other day with sandra and played in the store and tried on shoes too big for her, and wore all the jewelry at once. sandra works for an NGO here called samose, and they’re training women in the villages to make baskets and straw bags and amazingly gorgeous sandals that you would see in barney’s for $200 or at a fancy pants spa. sandra and i spent sunday sitting in the garden brainstorming new ideas for samose to bring them up in terms of international fashion trends. so we’re collaborating together and i want to carry the samose collection at wanderlust.

peter is the writer who wrote my piece in the phnom penh post; he is the bureau chief here having landed in siem reap after 7 years in burma as a reporter there (“mental, i tell you, elizabeth, absolutely mental” was how he described it to me in his rough-hewn, way too many cigarettes and lagers aussie accent) he’s one of mr magoo’s drinking mates. peter is another throwback from times gone by, and is full of crazy stories and endless tales of alcohol-infused journeys and adventures. he worked at playboy at it’s influential peak in the 70s; hunter s thompson was his “best mate til the day he died”. i think knowing that illuminated everything about peter. he’s like a character straight from a movie where you’d think “no one is really like that!” but guess what? they are.

and then there’s my monks and “monk boys”–the guys who live at the pagoda and pay $1 a month to sleep on the floor–whom i teach in my spare time: mr vanny (my “kid”, who invited me to visit his “homeland” in april with him), mr blue (who’s now studying “english literature” at university, which, when i asked what literature they are reading, he showed my an english as a second language text book. there goes my idea of him reading dickens or hemingway), mr right (who is incredibly, stunningly, drop dead, oh my god gorgeous…and 22 years old), mr big (who speaks nearly perfect english, constantly asks me to explain slang–“eliza, what does “OMG” and “LOL” mean?” and then never fails to use them the very next day), mr smile (always happy, has a glass eye, earnest in his studies, mastering the english language will be hard for him, but i appreciate his attempts and efforts), mr smart (he is a monk, but i must say, he’s devasatingly handsome and while that sounds creepy, because he is a man of the saffron cloth,  i am still human and notice these things) and the new addition of mr skinny (worrisomely skinny. i brought him candy the other day) and mr 24 hours (a monk boy who works at my local convienance store). obviously, i named all of them and they LOVE these names and now call each other these nom de plumes. 

new. new and beautiful and funny and bizarre and strange and odd and lifelines and human pillows and my world now.

“wow, you are brave.”

my customers, the travelers and tourists and expats that sweep through my store, barefoot and dusty, as they all remove their shoes upon entering, although there’s no reason they should…they all say this when they see me and hear me. 

“you are brave to just do this. to just pick up and do this. and move from new york. from new york to cambodia!?” and they often shake their heads and marvel at this thought, this idea. and they most likely go home and tell their friends or their reflection in the mirror or their travel journal or their blogs or no one or a tuk tuk driver or whomever that they met this girl, this girl from new york who wears pom poms in her hair and wears inappropriate outfits and has lots of tattoos and blue eyes and white skin, well, gosh, there’s this girl in siem reap who ditched her cool life in new york and drove off the corporate express lane to hell and swerved into cambodia and parked herself there. my, isn’t she brave?

brave? brave? 

is it brave to be consumed by fear? is it brave to be laying on a mattress on the floor of a dark room, under a tin roof, listening to the thump-thump-thump of raindrops echoing, and asking the darkness and the silence and the ceiling fans and the gekkos and the mosquitoes and the horn blowers and the restaurant workers sweeping their sidewalks, “what the hell am i doing? i am scared out of my mind.”

i am not scared to walk down 11th avenue at 2AM after a few drinks with my purse swinging wildly from my shoulder, probably with the zipper wide open, displaying my LV wallet and keys to the hookers and trannies and other drunkards zigzagging down the avenue. the N/R train after midnight? easy–grab the crumpled new york times from my tote and lose myself in the op-ed pages and look up and see i’m at my stop just seconds before the doors close and we move again and jettison through the rapidly shutting doors. tattoos from artists who don’t speak english and flu shots and innoculations from dr greaney and bikini waxes and ferris wheels over the parks of paris and skiing black diamond runs in new mexico by accident and driving a snowmobile 100mph over a frozen lake and eating tarantulas from a bus stop in the southeast asian countryside? these things i am not afraid of. 

but doing this? wracked with fear.

how is it different? why is this any more frightening than facing the vertical drop of a mountain 3 months after i first strapped skis on? 

because this isn’t about me. it’s about every one and every thing and my past and my mother and my long lost dead sister and failure and bankruptcy and being broken. 

if i fail, i fail all of them, everyone. no one would care or pass judgement or comment if i sucked at getting down that danger!-experts only! slope in taos. they would laugh that i had to bump down it on my bruised butt and warm myself in the lodge for 2 hours with watery hot chocolate and 10 cigarettes. it would become fodder for jokes and laughs. i would make it fodder. i would create it and laugh with myself about my stupid decision to take a left off the gondola instead of a right. 

but there’d be no laughing if this left turn i made to cambodia turns out to be a bumpy, ass-hurting experience down a too-high mountain. i would’ve let dine and his family and his soon-to-be-born-but-already-western-named-son-austin down; my mom, who faced a zero bank account and terrible odds and closed doors and piles of rotting peaches to become a success in spite of having 4 kids who were entrenched in upper middle class daydreams; my sister, ann, who if given the chance to live for one more day probably would choose something safe and surround herself with friends and siblings and charlie and lizzie and doug and kevin and french fries and homemade tollhouse cookies and movies-on-demand and new york times delivery service. and here i am, sort of thumbing my nose at what should be the path i am on, the one of quiet familiar harmony and corporate expense accounts and 16 days of paid vacation and blue cross/blue shield cards and 401k accounts and sunday brunch plans and maybe even match.com.

am i out of my fucking mind? what the hell am i doing?  

i am so scared. so so scared! i watch the rain from my window, perched at my counter, and say, “it’s rainy season, high season will be here soon. i will make it. won’t i? i will, right? it’s going to happen, isn’t it? this will be the life i wanted, won’t it?” 

and staring back at me is my reflection in the puddle by the potted bouganville outside my front door, and it doesn’t answer me back. it looks back at me with the same quizzical, i-have-no-fucking-clue look on its face, unable and unwilling to answer the question. 

and i remember at these times that there is fear in the unknown, and yet there’s fear in the familiar, too. i just didn’t see it. one minute, i was walking down the aisle to the verve’s version of “bittersweet symphony”, thinking and understanding that my life was now in the safety lane. (“oh! how amazing it feels to be safe and surrounded by this human pillow who’s standing at the end of this runway!”) and what seemed like moments later, i was crossing the double yellow line into head-on traffic, all the dreams and plans and hopes just being crushed and destroyed by a thousand 18 wheelers. (“does anyone have a stretcher handy?”)

i am scared of what i can’t see. i want a headlamp, a miner’s cap, something to illuminate the looming dark corners and byways and alleys and the calendar days that have nothing on them.

this is the first time in my life i don’t know where i am going. i am just moving, moving through the day, living in the moments, the minutes, the seconds.

people ask me, “how long will you be in cambodia?” and i am stumped, at a loss for words.

i am not sure, i have no plan, nothing is guiding me, there is no one who i really need to answer to, i don’t need permission. there are no schedules to cross reference, no holidays to plan, no one here, there or anywhere that is directly tied to me and my future and my decisions or my indecisions. it doesn’t really matter. 

i am not suggesting that there are not people in my life–there are hordes and hordes of people, actually, that i love and worship and care deeply and greatly about, they are there, they are here, they are all over the place–but these people have people, my family has their own families now. 

i am independent. my choices are mine. and that’s weird and scary and liberating and burdensome. it’s my world, my future to make. and fuck, that’s enormous.

i am not young anymore. i meet all these free-wheelers here, cute girls on year-long sabbaticals from making choices after college, trying to find the right choice looking out the window on the train or in the market or in the bottom of their overstuffed duffles. young guys just trying to discover the road to their careers while drinking a cold beer on a steamy cambodian evening, surrounded by mosquitoes. couples backpacking through asia for the hell of it until they go back to their homeland–europe, the US, australia–to get busy with their futures. getting busy with their futures. 

i guess i am here getting busy with the moments. trying to get back in touch with the seconds, the minutes, the hours and days that make up a life. i met a girl the other day named sarah, who moved here from manila to open a boutique hotel. she said to me, “i went home for awhile and i missed siem reap. i missed the grass and the color of the sky. i missed the things i forget about when i am in manila.” i guess what she was saying was she was missing life. her life. 

is this my life? is this where i will be, where i will grow old and change and transform and see wrinkles deepening and grey hairs sprouting more than they already are? is this where it will all happen?

i don’t even know what day it is today. i have no calendar, no reminder that i must do this, i have to be here at this time. i just do it, do whatever. wake up and move. and just go.

i don’t know where the hell i am going. i have no real benchmarks, no “i gotta do this by this time and then i will know”. i don’t fucking know anything. all i really know is that i live in siem reap, cambodia right now. and i am a shopkeeper, and i don’t know how the hell to be a shopkeeper. i am just being one and working really hard at pretending i know what i am doing.

i haven’t given the thought of a future much time. it’s this vast open space, and i don’t want to acknowledge it. i am trying to accept that i am not in control of anything. i guess i really have to face that i never have been. i try to visualize that i will be single for the rest of my life, without kids, without any real future plans. just pretending forever that i know what i am doing and where the hell i am going. and hopefully recognizing the color of the grass and the sky along the way. 

i don’t know how to be independent, i am just being it. i am pretending i know how.

well, the true journey has begun.

i am an ex-pat. officially, truly, wholly, 100% an expatriate from the united states of america.

this is home. siem reap, cambodia. 

home.

i am looking around, constantly, surveying my place, my neighborhood, the faces, the at-once-familiar-but-i-don’t-know-you faces i see every morning when i am awoken by the squeak-squeak-squeak of the strangely hilarious clown horns that these ladies squeeze to announce their arrival to pick up your recyclables (and pay you for them). and in the crust of my slumber, most likely covered in a sweaty film, i think, “where am i?”

i look about in my room, my one room above the shop, hear the endless whirr-whirr-whirr of the ceiling fans that provide a tiny bit of relief from the heat, see the battered old fridge that my dear maree left me before she went home to australia, smell the scent of humidity mixed with the bouganville that hangs from my shuttered windows, and it crosses my mind that i am home.

this is mine, this is my place, my settlement, my hat-hanging, my palace. 

admittedly, i shed many tears this week. fear mixed with confusion combined with homesickness topped off with more fear. scared was like the cherry on top of this muddled sundae.

the economy and the fights on the thai border and the rain that will be ending soon, hopefully, and the distance and the no internet connection and sarah palin and the silence and the time difference and the diarrhea and the needs and the wants and the oh-my-god-what-have-i-done and the future and the past and fuck, the present. the now. i am crying about now.

i pedaled over to see kristen, my friend, my wise and sensitive friend who owns the soria moria, my home away from home all summer. i saw her, and the tears came. big, giant, monsoon-season droplets drenched my face, my already-soaked-from-sweat tee shirt.

help, i said, help.

i am here, was her reply. i get it and it’s okay. i’ve been here 9 years, i know. i understand. you’re entitled, you can cry. if you didn’t, you’d be a weirdo. it’s natural. i do it, too.

and somehow having permission to cry and long for and weep and desire and miss and have this moment of emptiness and be told it was okay, i felt better. i just needed the permission. i needed the pass.

so i planned the grand opening of the store. i wanted to dive into something that would fill up the holes, stop the gaps, clog the ducts. i printed out fliers, welcoming and beckoning our friends and colleagues to come to the store on saturday night at 6pm and have a look at my world. to have a look at dine. to have a look at me. to look at the sacrifices and the dreams and hopes for this, for me, for him, for cambodia.

and they came. 

we had beers and a dj playing cambodian music and bowls of local fruits out for the taking and bamboo rice–my favorite, bought in the countryside where it is sold–in large baskets and i had seen this teenager all summer selling belgian waffles from a vendor cart and i asked him to come and serve the guests his treats, and we had buckets of soda and the store was immaculate and people came. they came.

our street was alive. our music echoed off the alleyways and the sounds of all the children from the orphanage who were my honored guests provided the backdrop of laughter and excitement and called to the curiosity seekers. and they came.

kristen spread the word and it was a veritable united nations of siem reap in my store–expats of all types, locals, tourists, doctors, NGO workers, yoga instructors, hotel concierges. they came.

“everyone is talking about your shop,” said one expat. “we’ve needed you around here.”

i am here. i am afraid, i am lost, i am excited, i am inspired, i am needed, i am lonely, i am fulfilled, i am all the things i was in new york. i am the same.

i am here.

i am home.