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Surely this is heaven.

Cradled in a wooden boat,

We cross over, our cares and Patrick’s phone behind us.

You really want me to get out now?

We slip from boat to ocean, shoeless, laughing.

Ask him to bring out bags to the villa.

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That feeling comes up again,

Some call it disbelief.

Pinch yourself, this is real. 

Warm sand, tide pools,

Blue and pink whorls, shiny black stones,

Sea glass, broken coral.

Driftwood, stray dogs.

The jungle barely held at bay.

The water laps gently,

I can’t picture a killer wave to save my life.

Our beach is perfect.

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Things go wrong in paradise.

You can snorkel, honey,

remember?

Rung by rung, I am submerged.

I bob on the surface, paw through a milky web,

pull something that looks like rice noodles from my shirt. 

Needles of fire in this aqua splendor,

My collarbone burns, welts up.

I pay a price for laughing with the fish.

Urine is the only thing that helps, the boys swear.

But I’ll be damned if they can pee on my neck.

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Hot water chases off the ocean.

in the ubiquitous outdoor shower.

I look for mosquitoes.

Soap, lather, swish, swipe,

dash, wrap, light, spray.

Spray again, spray more.

Goddamn you little horrors. 

Damp hair for seven days,

nothing dries around here.

Where is the fan?

My dress is tight, body swelled in the heat,

Skin sticky, salty, resists clothing.

But I squeeze in anyway,

leaving the glamour for the girls in the movies.

A girl at odds with nature,

dressed for another night of pad thai.

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Meeting Sue,

friendship sparks in an instant.

Have you tried this lipgloss?

No, but my favorite is Chanel. 

Funny, mine too.

We love dogs, kids, books.

We only take green or blue ski runs. 

Collecting shells and fashion tips,

Whiling away the tropical hours.

A comrade in arms against the jungle,

She sees it my way.

Sue, I like everything about you,

Especially the way you ride a bike.

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Games of skill, feats of strength,

Boys will be boys they say.

Even grown men succumb.

Screw you, with your tight rash guard.

Hey, I make more money.

I’ll race you to the platform.

We’ll climb that mountain without a machete or a guide.

A fistful of thorns later,

Angry, puffy skin.

Maybe antibiotics will help?

Nah, just suck it up.

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Boys dream things up,

Fueled by testosterone and lack of work emails.

We’ll pedal to lunch.

No, we’ll paddle.

The best seafood is always around the way,

the hot, sweaty way.

Don’t make me ride over potholes!

Don’t go too far from the shore!

Our pleas useless,

our lunches delicious

 

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You like spicy?

Sure, why not.

Bragging, puffed up, the boys claim they can cook.

Coconut milk, peppers, curry paste, no problem.

Aprons on, wine glasses full.

Soak the noodles, seer the shrimp.

Is that how you use the egg?

Thank God for Mei,

Someone with skill around here. 

We gobble it all down,

Geckos eat too, dashing from light to light.

The sun sets orange, glowing.

Dinner in our villa feeds everyone.

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Shrouded in nets, lulled by fans,

We sleep like babies.

Mostly, until I hear something buzz.

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Goodbye, ankle deep in water,

A kiss on each cheek

And a promise to return.

Going back is as easy as closing our eyes.

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Thanks again, Po, for the photos!

To stay at Koh Jum Beach Villas, click on

http://www.kohjumbeachvillas.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I wait nervously with Po in our Singapore apartment, scanning the airline websites.  Our friends from the US are landing in the middle of the night.  I wash a few stray dishes, fiddle around with the guest room sheets.  I reluctantly head to bed, sleep with one eye open.  And then I hear it, the soft click of our condo door.  I rush out to get my first hug from home.  World’s collide.  Singapore mixes with Boise as Mark, CS, Liz, and Aaron arrive.  We are six giddy schoolkids, heading to Vietnam together, where the Tiger beer is cold and the pho is hot.

Ho Chi Minh City is vibrant, buzzing.  We eat pho and prawn pancakes, run between motorbikes, buy tourist t-shirts, visit the War Memorial, and laugh at the water puppets.                      IMGP2653

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Next we float the Mekong River, adrift on a wooden boat with painted eyes.  We alight and explore the surrounding villages, rice paddies, schools, and floating markets.  Some of us take a turn on the longboat oars as we paddle down a side creek, ducking under thick foliage and waving to the village kids. The sun sets deep pink and orange over the palm trees.

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At dinner, one of the boat guides explains the reason for the ice-cold aircon in our cabins and we strain to capture the details.  He instructs us to keep our windows shut to freeze the flying monkey toes.  Puzzled, we stop listening entirely and ask each other – monkey toes?  Oh, mosquitoes!  And I groan.  If there is one thing I detest, and endlessly complain about, it’s mosquitoes.  I grimly wipe my nose for the hundredth time with a swatch of toilet paper and hope that either my newly acquired cold improves or that the aircon really does keep the monkey toes at bay.

We fly to Phu Quoc Island, eager for sun and sand, and find our jungle huts with mosquito nets over the bed.  The bathroom is also open to the sky and God, and we have no hot water.  As I see it, this resort called Freedomland should be called the House of Flying Monkey Toes.  How cold can a cold shower be, I muse nervously. I cough, sneeze, blow, and coat myself with DEET.  My cold hasn’t improved and I can’t find a Kleenex for sale on this island.  I wonder if I shouldn’t have taken malaria medicine after all.  But it’s time for bathing suits, another Tiger beer, and a swim in the Gulf of Thailand.  I wad up more toilet paper and jam it under the strap of my bathing suit.  Looking grandmotherly, I soldier off to the beach.

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The water is divine.  Warm, baby waves lap against the shore.  We walk out forever on soft sand, the water only reaches our waists.  We swim with abandon.  Even I forget my terror of the ocean for a few minutes, and I help to judge the handstand, flip, and floating competitions between Mark, CS, and Po.  We romp up to the beach, stretch out in hammocks, eat crispy spring rolls, and guzzle coconuts.  Dinner is served every night under the trees.  White lights sparkle, music plays, and we dress up and sip cocktails until it’s time to eat.  Our green, wooden table seats at least thirty, and we cozy up to new friends from all over the world.  When dinner is served, the food is beyond delicious.  On our last night, the hosts build a roaring bonfire.  I stretch out next to it, feeling dry for the first time in over a week.

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But I’m irritable and sick.  And beyond having a cold, I am homesick.  Our friends remind me of the life I’m no longer living, and I feel unreachable.  I can’t relax because the time might go too fast and our vacation will be over.  I want to be the old Jillian they know but I’ve changed, and not necessarily in a good way.  My crazy, grumpy bits still cling to me like sweaty clothes.  Iwon’t snorkel with broken gear and a head cold.  I can’t even will myself to drink a Tiger beer.  I am my worst self, complaining about city living in Singapore, the humidity, and the jungle insects. Then I worry that maybe my friends will move on, that my home in Boise won’t feel the way I remember, that everything has changed.  I tuck the mosquito net around me and bawl in bed.  They say home is where the heart is, but where is that?  And can I ever go back?

We slurp up our last bowl of pho together in the airport.  Then it’s time to say goodbye to Mark and CS and I come undone.  I curl up against them, wail out loud that I want to go to Boise with them. I say I’m sorry for spraying bug repellent in the van, sorry for being so whiny. They rub my back and say they love me.  A day later, when I say goodbye to Liz and Aaron, I cry again.  Liz and I kiss on both cheeks and blink hard.  I watch their taxi roll away into the dark, toward Changi airport.  They are going home, and for now, I’m staying here.

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But the sweetness of our time in Vietnam stays with me for weeks, long after my bug bites stop itching.  My heart is just a little lighter.  Mark, CS, Liz, and Aaron – thank you for coming to visit.  Your friendship is home to me.

Thanks, Number 4, for the pictures.  And for rowing the boat like a local.

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Antonia, if you’re reading this, it was great to meet you!

For a fantastic, local homestay, try Freedomland on Phu Quoc Island.  The hosts are so friendly and the food is incredible.

http://www.freedomlandphuquoc.com/

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I’m not a cyclist.  I ride Bikkonen, my Gary Fisher commuter bike, no more than ten times each summer, and it has a forgiving seat.  I don’t own bike shorts, jerseys, or gloves.  But here I am, on a bike tour in Cambodia.

We drive to a small hotel downtown Siem Reap and say hello to our Australian cycling mates, Denise, Kellie, and Laurice.  I’m busy applying last-minute mosquito spray and mosquito patches, turning myself into a walking Citronella candle.  I fiddle with my bike shorts.  It feels like I have a baseball cap shoved down my pants.  I’m as jittery as a cat, and looking, as my friend Carol says, very Sporty Spice.  And it’s already hot at 8 am.  Mr. Bun, our guide, adjusts our bikes and adds a gel seat cover to mine.  I try it out.  Seems OK.  I take a wobbly spin around the parking lot.

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We head straight into city traffic. Motorbikes, buses, cars, bicycles, pedestrians, and dogs try to negotiate a roundabout.   I go into a coma and tail Mr. Bun without even looking at traffic for myself.  There is no way I can take one hand from the grips to signal a turn. Lucky for us, the traffic is fairly slow.  How much would it hurt to be run over by a tuk tuk?

My heart is pounding in my ears.  Look where you want to go, I say to myself.  My gears are low and I’m pedaling like a maniac.  My mouth is all the way open, sucking in dust and exhaust fumes.  At one point, a car bumper comes within inches of grazing my knee.  Po is filming me and he is not looking where he wants to go.  He is completely turned around on his bike, asking me to smile for the camera. I feel a cramp starting in my shoulders.  But I’m too nervous to slow down or straighten up.  I hunch over and pedal.

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We move from pavement to dirt roads.  Careful of the loose gravel, I think.  There are fewer cars and motorbikes, more cows, buffaloes, chickens, stray dogs, monkeys. I damn near wreck trying to pedal through thick sand and avoid an aggressive monkey.  I try to stand up on the pedals when we cross over potholes.  But there are so many holes that I end up crashing through half of them.  My upper arms are shuddering so violently that I appear to have bat wings. Thirteen kilometers until our first break.  I give up calculating the difference between miles and kilometers.

My eyebrows collect sweat, which is a new phenomenon for me.  Bugs hit my face and I swallow a few.  So much for my malaria pills.  I thunder over rutted jungle roads, swerve to miss every life form imaginable.  I see dead snakes, some crushed on the road, some cooking in a wok, all coiled up and held together by string.  The smell is pungent and fishy.  Sometimes a breeze blows up, or a patch of shade appears, and the relief is almost too much to bear.  We stop for cold drinks and a snack, forage in the van for mangosteens, lychee, small oranges, bananas, Coco Chip cookies in little packages, ice cold wet wipes.  I offer to eat some durian just so our break can last longer.  That’s when I discover that easing my butt off the seat is the most painful thing in the world.  I stand motionless, straddling the bike.   Mr. Bun offers to take the bike and prop it against a tree.  I’m too embarrassed to admit that I can’t even swing one leg over.   I just pretend I like standing better.

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We ride again.  This time 16 kilometers until the next temple.  I try shifting to one side of my butt, then the other.  I try standing up. I moan every time I hit a pothole.  I am outraged, in agony.  My legs are coated in a paste of red clay, sunscreen, bug spray, and sweat.  I am minutes away from waving down the support van and giving up.

 

But something good is usually around the corner and pride is a vicious thing, so I keep riding.

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Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bakong, Arun -we see so many temples in three days. Built over a thousand years ago, they tell the story of a splendid kingdom that crumbled apart and was swallowed by the jungle. Ringed by moats, they are a majestic labyrinth of stones, doorways, huge sculptures, elephants, Gods, and Sanskrit writings.  The ruins have been places of worship, burial grounds, and movie sets.  Some temples burn incense and have offerings for the gods. They are resplendent in the morning sun, sultry and mysterious in the late afternoon glow. The stones go from deep mossy green-black to pink sandstone to red clay.  The air is heavy with mystery, the piercing ring of cicadas, and the muted conversations of tourists.

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I wander about the temple grounds, squinting in the bright sun. This may be my one chance to visit and I take it all in.  I look down long, cool corridors, my mind tricked by the repeating columns.  I climb steep flights of steps, my feet sideways in order to fit.  I trace my fingers over the carvings, listen to Mr. Bun explain how ancient people hunt, fish, ride elephants, pick lice from their hair, chop snakes into bits, destroy invading armies. I get a Hindu blessing – a red string tied around my wrist.  As we come and go, small children persistently hawk souvenirs.  Three for one dollar, miss?   Washington DC is US capitol.  Barack Obama is President.  You come back later?

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My favorite thing is the sound of the word hello, echoing from village huts and deep foliage, ringing from rice paddies.  The children call out, run up to the edge of the road to greet us.  They are sometimes dressed, sometimes naked, always smiling.  Hello, what’s your name?  Where you going?  You go to temple?  Bye bye.  They reach up for a high five.  At one point, I look up to see an entire group of school kids at the edge of the road.  They cheer raucously, stretch out to touch our hands.  I reach out too, even though I’m unsteady with one hand on my bike.  Their tiny palms touch mine.  My throat burns when I swallow.  Tears come down under my sunglasses.  Here I am, welcomed to Cambodia by these precious kids, and all I can do is feel sorry for myself on my bike? Their spirit changes my ride entirely.  Just when it gets too hard to pedal, I hear it.  Hello!  Hello!  Hello!  I holler back, HELLO!  And it saves me, over and over.

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The best good thing is my husband Po.  On our last day of riding, he joins me at the back of the group.  I struggle and he reminds me to stand up to relieve the pain.  Just a little bit further to the floating village.  I’m dying, I say, I’m totally finished.  That’s when he reaches out and rests his hand on the small of my back.  Riding next to me, he takes over my bike.  I am flying.  I stop pedaling entirely, just to see what happens, and I’m still flying. We zoom by the fish market by and gag at the smell, laughing.  We stay neck and neck like this without swerving.  It’s like I have a motor on my bike.  Delight washes over me.  My legs rest, I only steer.  I ask if I’m too heavy and he says it’s no trouble, just stay out of the potholes.  He can push me as long as I need it.  And believe me, I need it.  His bike handle sometimes brushes my hip and I picture us crashing together.  But even that doesn’t scare me.  It’s so fun to go fast, I say.  Is this why you love riding?  He just laughs and shakes his head.  And we go the last 13 kilometers together.

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In the end, I ride 56 miles in Cambodia, some of them easy, some of them difficult, all of them full of love.

 

Thanks Kellie, Denise, and Laurice, for all the laughs on the ride.

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Thanks, Po, for all the pictures, for believing I can do anything, and for assuring me that the scabs and bruises on my butt really are just from riding!

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For your own Asian cycling adventure, visit http://www.spiceroads.com/

 

 

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