Standing amongst a sea of strangers waiting for the bus assistant to shout my name and give me back my stamped passport, I felt sick. I was exhausted by all the crying and months of debilitating anxiety that had led to this day and my face was blotchy and I probably smelled of fear and BO because it was so fucking hot.
Everyone there had someone to support them. Someone to moan to about how long this was all taking. Someone to lean against while checking social media because it was that boring. Someone to shake their head at because words failed them. I didn’t have anyone. How would I feel better if I didn’t have someone to talk to? And it occurred to me that I will never say ‘remember that day we left Vietnam forever?’
So I stood there, eyes wide with the horror of what this whole situation really meant; once over that border, there was no going back. The nearly 5 year relationship with my, now ex, boyfriend had abruptly ended almost 2 months before – although we’d managed to scrape a flimsy friendship together – and the life I’d built as half of a couple these past 3 years in Ho Chi Minh City would finish. Just like that. And I would have to begin again.
5 hours later I arrived in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Soon after settling into my room I booked a seat on a minibus to Kampot, a sleepy riverside town in southern Cambodia famous for its pepper. I was going to be staying at Greenhouse guesthouse on the Kampot river a couple of kilometres out of town. I arrived two days later determined to find some rest from the pummelling I’d given my brain the last few months.
My room was a bamboo hut with a shared bathroom. It was simple and cheap and I was only a few metres away from the restaurant serving an uncomplicated menu of Western – mostly French – and Khmer cuisine, and lots of lovely cocktails.
Although hut and cocktail were in close proximity to one another, I didn’t want to step outside the confines of my new safe abode. Words sometimes can’t articulate what is feared and it felt as though I was afraid of everything. In order for me to make the most of this time I needed to take drastic measures. I decided that whatever I was afraid to do, I had to do it.
The first thing I had to do was take a shower in the shared bathroom. I’m so not one of those people who cares about the cleanliness of public toilets, like, I sit on them without putting down loo roll. However, my anxiety was through the roof so any kind of self-care, such as washing my body, felt like an unnecessary reward.
I carried my red beach towel, some clean clothes and my wash bag across the car park towards the block of two bathrooms. All around the sink was wet and the floor was soaked. I noticed a long piece of bamboo hanging from the ceiling so draped my clothes and towel on it. Next, I had to strategise: How can I take off/put on my clothes without getting them wet? Do I keep my flip flops on? Do I use the shower or the tap? What gets cleaned first? Should I even bother shaving?
I eventually got round to showering. The water was freezing, but I got used to it. My clothes were a bit damp after I put them on but they dried up quickly in the heat. There really wasn’t anything to worry about and maybe I’d even shower tomorrow.
A couple of days later I rented a motorbike to ride up the meandering road of nearby Bokor Mountain. Knowing this terrified me was what propelled me to do it.
I looked at Bokor and I breathed it all in, then burst into tears, a loud ugly sobbing, still riding my bike. Every time a car or bike came in the opposite direction I had to pull myself together and take the odd look behind me in case someone was close enough to hear. As soon as it was safe I’d start crying again.
At the top of Bokor mountain you can see the sea and some nearby islands. The sky is ominous one moment and serene the next. There is an old abandoned hotel and from the outside the building looks unfinished and hollow. Inside is labyrinthine; rooms freely connected to other rooms or hallways or staircases or roofs. It’s easy to get lost. Floors are flooded by the rain that seeps in and pretty green mold covers some walls, complementing the peeling grey plaster.
I walked into a room overlooking the sea. The floor was mostly damp but there was a dry patch in the middle so I stood on it. The dusty wind blew straight through the glassless window and up against me. I closed my eyes and made myself smile. I realised that what I had been afraid of was experiencing something beautiful alone. I felt something inside me lift.
Upon returning to Greenhouse that evening I stared at the river. The water was calm and reflected the stillness of the darkening sky. I wondered why I hadn’t yet swum in it and asked myself what was I really afraid of. Well, the day before I’d seen a snake poke its head up and swim a good 10 feet through the water. I’m scared of snakes. – But Jen, I said, snakes are much more afraid of you than you are of them. – Alright, the water looks a bit yellow. If I swallow it I might get sick.- Yes, you might even catch a deadly skin eating bacteria but the likelihood of that happening is remote. – OK. I’m afraid of being on my own. I’m afraid of feeling lonely and what loneliness can lead to. I’m afraid of being pitied for being on my own and I don’t want to be pitied. I want to be loved. Fine. I’ll jump in your fucking river.
To prime myself, a couple of days later I rented a kayak for an hour. I walked towards the pile of green plastic two-man kayaks and a British guy was there gauging their size for him and his girlfriend. He offered to help me so I accepted and took a step back to watch him push the kayak into the water. He looked at me confused and said ‘Yeah, grab your end then’. I was so ashamed and I wanted to tell him that I was really sorry for coming across like a lazy, entitled woman, and maybe I am, but I am a feminist too, obviously not a very good one, but I’ve just come out of a long term relationship and my ex would do those kinds of things for me and I’m just trying to get used to everything now. Sorry.
After a fairly awkward and clumsy entrance into the water – my end happened to have only a thumb sized hole while his had a handy piece of rope – I paddled upstream along the riverbank where trees hung low and birds where singing. The sun was high and hot making my sunburn from Bokor sting but my anxiety was abating although the absence of anxiety doesn’t equate to happiness. I was in this perfect place and felt nothing.
I returned to dry land, threw the paddle onto the stone steps and balanced my way out of the kayak. I manoeuvred the end with the rope towards me so I could pull it out of the water. Wearing my soggy flip flops and digging my feet into the sand, I pulled with everything I had. I managed to get half of it out but the other half was going into the water. I stepped backwards and slipped but managed to stay upright. My hands, gripping the rope, burnt. My stomach was searing as I eventually dragged the kayak towards its home. I let go and felt dizzy and then nauseous so sat down. Even though I wanted to vomit all over that stupid kayak, I felt a tiny sense of victory.
Before there was any jumping in a river, I needed some Dutch courage. As I sipped a pina colada, I looked out to the jungle covered hills beyond the river. The view before me began to come alive. As I breathed, it breathed. I inhaled as it exhaled.
I thought about how I could be better, how I could get better. My short time at Greenhouse had taught me an important lesson; I must love myself better. I must trust myself the way a child unquestioningly trusts her father. I must care for myself the way a mother cares for her child, with gentleness and kindness and love, unconditional love. For me to be well, and to love well, I must first know how to love myself well and that sometimes means doing the things that scare me the most so that I can be free from fear.
I skipped back to my hut, grabbed a dry green towel and made my way to the floating dock. I sat on a bamboo sun lounger and lay the towel over the top of the chair. I was concerned about making the sunburn on my face worse so put the towel over my head and sat still for what seemed like hours berating myself for not going in. My heart was racing and my head began to pound from the heat and the mental fight I was having.
I slipped off my flip flops, lifted the towel away from my face, pushed myself off the lounger and stood up. I didn’t give myself a moment to think as I walked towards the edge of the dock and dived straight in.