“Weather forecast for tonight: dark.
Continued dark overnight, with widely scattered light by morning.”
– George Carlin
When I was 20 years old, I tried riding my bike across Cambodia. It was an impulsive decision. I used to blame the Canadian who I was traveling with at the time. We had traveled together in Chiang Mai and bumped into each other in Phnom Penh weeks later – the world shrinks when you’re a backpacker. In Phnom Penh, he was determined to rent a motorcycle and drive it to Siem Riep which is where everybody goes to see the mother of all temples, Angkor Wat aka, the Machupicchu of Southeast Asia.
I hinted and hinted about how much fun it would be for ME to ride on the back of any motorcycle and travel to Siem Riep… but he remained oblivious. So I tried to one-up him by renting a bicycle the next morning and making the journey to mecca on my own fuel. Who’s the badass now?
I estimated that it would take me four days to complete the trip. For reference, it takes a boat four hours to make the trip, and a bus takes about two. When I rode my bicycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles, that trip took me a full eight days. That too was based on an impulsive decision that got me into some good trouble.
When people ask me, “Why do you do this? And why do you do it alone?”
I say, I don’t know. I’m not even an outdoorsy type of person. In fact, the older I get, the more yoga and salsa I do. And if you ever see a Latina in the U.S. holding an umbrella to block the sun, it’s not an Asian contagion, it’s just me trying to block to sun to abate the inordinate amount of pigmentation spreading across my face so shut up.
How the idea forms: I look at a map, I place two or four fingers between two cities and I think to myself, “Looks doable.”
The reason I ride out these impulses alone is because nobody ever wants to go with me. Or when they do, they first have to take care of something so we have to plan it out and that’s not my style. It’s not everyday that you get an itch to do something crazy that feels right – unless you’re a psychopath then it always feels right. There’s a time and place for things to happen and you don’t always get to choose when.
For example: Once upon a time, after I left my sales job (or it left me, whichever way you want to look at it), I was in no rush to start job hunting or figuring out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life so, when my heart said, “Hey let’s do this” during a moment while I was somewhat lucid and hanging out with my best friend in San Francisco, I said, “Oh it’s you again.”
Let’s see, the balance in my account was dwindling into the double digits so I had no income, BUT I had a credit card! And everyone who knows me, knows that I’m more scared of debt than walking through the valleys of the shadows of death (because I’m just that responsible about my FICO score).
The circumstances for that journey were far from perfect but I had learned years ago that they could never be perfect.
“If you’re heart wants you to do something that you feel resistant to, it’s probably a sign that you should do it” – Swami Sankarananda
This is the story of how this one experience made me believe in god for two more years.
The night before I took off to Siem Riep, I set my Baby-G watch alarm to 6am. I didn’t hear its baby beeping noise and instead, woke up at 8 something. Because I wanted all the daylight I could get in order to get as many miles in, and I didn’t have a flashlight, nor a tent, I was tempted to postpone the trip. Mistake #1: I wasn’t properly equipped.
The bike cost a $1 per day to rent; the seat was pointy and uncomfortable but that’s all the guy had. Mistake #2: I took it anyway.
Mistake #3: I rode the bike in flip flops and a flimsy day pack. To this day, I don’t know how to change a tire. What if I got a flat? I didn’t think that way.
So I was huffing and puffing, enjoying the scene, meeting locals who would immediately laugh after I told them about where I was headed. I thought the ride would be a straight shoot going west but there were actually many forks on the road. My Lonely Planet map wasn’t detailed enough so I had to ask for directions.
Since nobody spoke English, I would point to a road and say, “Siem Riep?” many different ways till I got a reaction.
The road was paved. That was nice, anything outside the road was either green or arid and filled with who knows how many landmines so make sure to stay on the road.
When night began to fall and because Cambodia is such a third world country and still recovering from the Khmer Rouge, there were no street lamps. The path in front of me slowly dissolved. I didn’t bring a tent because I thought there would be a hotel I could scurry to. This was 10 years ago, this was before smart phones so I had no idea where I was.
Correction! I had a Motorola Sidekick, remember those?
I began to walk my bike and stuck my thumb out whenever a truck, a car or anybody drove by. But all they did was wave and smile.
The sky turned pinkish orange and there was no sign of civilization, just woods left and right. I began to cry. First I prayed, then I cried. I prayed for light.
I yelled to god, “Hold the sun! Hold the sun!”
I was riding west, peddling as fast I can, trying to reach the next town before the sun became an orange wedge on the horizon, before the sun completely dipped off. I yelled, “Can you hear me? Please god, hold the sun, just 11 kilometers more! Hold the sun for 30 minutes.”
I bargained with him, “I promise not to smoke marijuana for a year!”
When he didn’t hold the sun (ugh, he), I thought of my mom.
Then it happened. The sun disappeared. The skies went from purplish blue to midnight blue.
I remember my hands trembling on the handlebars as I pushed myself off the bike.
Isn’t this the god who created the world in seven days? As illogical as this sounds, why couldn’t he hold the sun up for just a little longer? I was done crying and I felt beaten and betrayed.
I needed help so I asked him for somebody to communicate with. I needed to tell somebody that when a tourist sticks out their thumb in the darkness of the night, it’s a cry for help! I needed somebody to speak English, Spanish or even French. Or for him to give me the ability to speak Khmer! I was in the middle of nowhere so I was really testing this god.
When he didn’t answer again (I thought he could read my thoughts) and I felt ignored, I took the matter into my own hands (novel idea). I could either keep riding west in the dark and find refuge in some other type of light, or I can throw myself next to the glowing white stone dragon statue that was on the grass, to the right, glowering at me as if to say, “This is not your god’s land so stop trying to talk to him.”
Respect. I was never so scared in my life.
Then a “miracle” happened. I looked over my shoulder and saw a light. I summoned that light, all sweaty and smelly. And chilling out under a big palapa thatched roof hut, was a family. A girl who’s name I will never forget greeted me IN ENGLISH. Her name is Jupe. Jupe was 16-years old and spoke English! She fed me soup that night and rice (or brice because that’s what she calls it) the next morning.
The fact that her English was comparable was a sign to me that MY god had sent her. I know, weird. That night, Jupe placed blankets on the floor and a mosquito net over where I would crash. She sat next to me, cross legged on the floor and examined the contents of my day pack.
A bottle of water half full
- A change of clothes
- Small bottle of water
- A book
- Another book
She said, “You cannot go to Siem Reap like this.”
She leafed through my novel, “Up Country” by Nelson DeMille.
“Why you read this?” she asked.
“I’m going to Vietnam next.”
For the rest of the night, Jupe read my book to me in English and even asked me to correct her pronunciation. I was lucky, or was it blessed? She was delighted to finally have someone to practice her English with. I wanted to take her with me to Angkor Wat, she’s never been. She hasn’t found the time as she’s so busy with going to school and helping take care of her family.
I thanked Jupe then I thanked god for saving me that night. That experience cemented my belief in god for another two years until I went to the University of Southern California, San Diego and reached the age of reason (a little too late in my opinion).
Maybe there is a god, but it’s not Jesus Christ or some male figure. I do like the idea of there being a higher power so I use words like “karma” but ultimately, I don’t believe in any of it. It’s more rewarding to not cling on to any religious dogma in order to live a good life, I have my own set of guidelines that keep me from going nuts. You can sometimes find them on Instagram, quotes like:
Jump and the net will appear, maybe.
Resistance is another word for having nothing to lose.
If your dreams don’t scare you then you’re sleeping too much so meditate and you might sleep less and be more productive.
So that was DAY ONE of my ride. To be continued in part 2.