Last weekend Alex and I left the daily grind and grime of Phnom Penh for one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. As all good stories go, there are no pictures to back it up–but if you visit Cambodia, I’ll show you the scars. And maybe I can take you there.
It was 7:00 o’clock on Friday morning, the weekend before the Khmer New Year holiday. I was getting ready for work when my phone rang. It was Alex, an Australian volunteer at the local Academy.
“Hey, would you be able to leave today instead of Sunday?”
We’d been planning a 300-kilometer trip North to the Davis’ home, a family Alex had volunteered with for a couple months before coming to the school. He was full of interesting stories about the work they are doing to protect the forest, and I was excited to be invited along on this visit.
After some deliberation, I decided that, yes, I could leave today.
“Just give me a couple hours to send some emails and pack!”
And we were off: Alex on a dirtbike and I on my Dream, cruising out of Phnom Penh into the freedom of the open road and a long weekend.
Little did we know what this day had in store.
Since the Davis’ live so far from cities and markets, we planned to help by bringing 5 kilograms each of tomatoes and mangoes with us. After a few hours of driving, we stopped at a market to see what was on offer. The mangoes were priced extravagantly, and were green anyways, so we let them be. We almost cleared one vendor’s stall of green tomatoes, though.
They fit perfectly in my bike basket.
It was after noon now and the sun was burning. A little further down the road we stopped at a roadside shop for lunch. When we got up from our meal, we were surprised to see it was after 3 pm! And we had only gone about half way. We would have to keep a steady pace from here to arrive before sundown.
The hot sun dropped lower as we rode closer and closer to fresh air and cool trees.
After asking for directions and making a couple calls, we found the unpaved road that would take us closer to the Davis’. We wondered about the distance. Maybe 60 kilometers more?
We didn’t know much, except that we were getting closer. Alex was recognizing things. And the dirt road was smooth enough for cruising, even on a Dream, except for the occasional human-sized pothole that would force me to apply flashy defensive-driving techniques, like Think Safety First, Be Aware of Your Surroundings, and Have an Escape Route.
Unfortunately, I’ve never taken a defensive driving course.
And whether or not that’s the reason I hit a ditch the size of the Grand Canyon, at 40 kilometers per hour, in the middle of a road on the way to the most beautiful place in the world, I’ll never know.
My Dream went flying farther than I did. It left me behind to try a bout of off-roading. Perhaps it was inspired by Alex’s bike. Poor thing didn’t get very far with that endeavor, though.
My t-shirt was ripped and my arm scratched up. The Dream had a bent mirror and a little cracked plastic. Overall we both still looked pretty good. I was pleasantly surprised.
And then I saw the tomatoes.
The basket had come off, but it looked like the tomatoes had flown out before that. Many were still in the bag. Some were crushed beyond repair, but the least ripe of the green tomatoes had kept their integrity. We repackaged them and tried tying them onto Alex’s seat. It was a rough job, but we hoped it would do.
And now the sun had set, and Alex’s headlight did not work.
We kept moving. Only, maybe, 30 kilometers now?
To see, we had to ride side by side or in close tandem, sharing my headlight. The country grew more remote, the road got smaller, and Alex was trying to navigate. My fuel was at less than an 8th of a tank–I knew I should have stopped at that last gas store on the corner.
I stopped us because I noticed the tomatoes falling off Alex’s seat. A few had dropped out of the bag onto the road, and rivulets of tomato juice were starting to run down the bike’s frame. Despite our mounting frustration, Alex tried tying them on again.
We asked some hunters for directions.
“Eight kilometers to Tabos.”
More tomatoes on the ground. More adjustments.
My tank was on empty when we pulled into Tabos, the nearest village to the Davis’ home, around 7:30 Friday evening.
Alex recognized the village chief, who pointed us to the road to the Davis home. We took it, tank on empty, one headlight between us.
It can’t be long now, we thought.
Come back next week for the rest of the story.