Love in Southeast Asia: “I forgot the Umbrellas”

“It won’t stop raining.”

Our hotel driver tells us, solemnly, about the uninviting weather pattern in Siem Reap.

“You should come back when it’s not raining.”

Parker and I glance at each other. We exchange a silent joke about the ridiculousness of that suggestion. In the moment, we share an appreciation for the rarity and specialness of this trip. We share sadness that it’s coming to an end and gratitude for how far we’ve come. The magic of it all. To be in this van right now. On this road. In this country.

This once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

This miracle life.

The tiny, developing streets of Siem Reap are cluttered by Westernization. Every two hundred yards there is an elaborate, ornate hotel. They all look abandoned. It’s like a rainy, Vegas ghost town.

We pull into a beige, stucco monstrosity. All of the sudden I feel like we’re trapped in one of those tourist horror movies that Parker taught me about when we first met. We were flipping through channels late one night after dominating our friends as partners in a sweep of board game night. He paused the scrolling to summarize Touristas, “These movies are all the same. The dumb-ass Americans get wrapped up in some sort of organ harvesting scheme and everybody dies.” Weeks later I agreed to come on this trip with him.

My stomach feels queasy.

The inside of our Cambodian hotel is more whimsical than our previous accommodations. It’s clear Siem Reap has embraced its position at the center of exotic tourism. The hotel attendants are clad in elf-like, gold and green uniforms. There’s a chance it’s an homage to traditional culture, but I’m suspicious it’s an appeal to Western excess and essentialism.

Alone in the lobby, we are suddenly swarmed by six, eager employees. One has a welcome drink, the other a local pastry, four more are there to ensure we feel like the two most important people on earth.

I breathe a sigh of relief. For now, it seems I’ll be returning home with all of my vital organs.

The next day, we hire a local guide to lead us through Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

He’s small and stoic. He doesn’t grin from ear to ear like Neil, or pay us effusive attention like everyone working at our hotel. He delivers lessons like a task-oriented high-school teacher. No frills. No nonsense. No attempt to glamorize Cambodia’s brutal history of conquest and imperialism. Just the facts.

We make it from an early morning start to the noon hour under an increasingly dark and threatening sky. So far, no rain.

A torrential downpour interrupts our midday meal but subsides before we’re out and about again.

As we wind up the dirt road to the back entrance of Angkor Wat, the clouds are the color of school-yard asphalt. It’s the type of darkness that blurs the passage of time. Where even 1pm looks like twilight. It’s misty and majestic. The lush, green, swampy background. The ancient ruins.

Five minutes into the tour of the most famous temple in the world, it’s pouring again. Our otherwise poised and pragmatic guide is suddenly fidgety and uncomfortable.

“Is Cambodian rainfall secretly deadly for American tourists?”

We maneuver through every inch of the temple before reaching the front entrance.

It’s still raining. With each falling raindrop, our guide looks more and more distressed.

Parker and I take one more glimpse at the weathered stone walls, then stand at the brink of the dramatic entryway, ready to leave the temple.

Our guide looks up, frowns, then lowers his eyes.

“I forgot the umbrellas.”He says it like he’s telling us we can’t leave the country without giving up a kidney.

Parker and I try to assure him we’ll survive the weather. He’s unconvinced.

The next few minutes are filled with awkwardness and anticipation. In the midst of pacing and contemplating, I think about this quiet, simple man.┬áHe devotes himself to sharing his country with eager tourists who land in his life for only hours at a time. He doesn’t rely on recurring business, or building a client portfolio. I can’t Yelp him when we leave. In the absence of traditional incentive structures, he pours his heart into his work.

This trip has been filled with heartwarming encounters among unlikely friends. Over and over, we’ve been met with varied manifestations of love and goodwill; with reminders about the far-reaching impact of small acts of kindness, of how easy, and meaningful, it is to be nice.

I let the rain fall on my eyelids, then my mouth. I twirl with my face to the sky and my arms wide open.

Tropical storms have followed us all over Asia, but right now the air feels special, and unique.

Love in Southeast Asia: Getting High in the Rain

We left our hotel room at 4:00a.m. By the time we landed at the Colombo airport it felt like we’d been awake for a week and a half.

Today is a struggle and it’s not even noon.

Our friend Priyan, native Sri Lankan and gracious host, meets us at the airport. He’s dressed in chic South Asian attire. His hair is perfectly styled.

My hair is matted to my forehead and I’m wearing crusty Lululemons.

We drive towards the capitol city and he educates us about his home. The longer we’re on the road the more I lose hope in the sugary-caffeinated beverage I’ve been dreaming about.

Two hours and two iced coffees later we arrive at our first destination. Priyan’s friend is running a school/shelter for Sri Lankan street kids and they’re anxiously awaiting a visit from the exotic American tourists.

We walk through the primitive playground into a small building. My tall travel partner is practically on his knees trying to squeeze himself through the doorway.

Inside, 50 skinny kids are crowded around short, metal tables. They are staring up at us, wide-eyed with anxious enthusiasm and wonder.

My first instinct is to drop low to them, smile and wave.

Immediately though, I’m paralyzed.

None of them speak English. Only a percentage speak the same language as Priyan and some barely speak at all. For the first time in my life, I’m in front of a group of kids with no idea how to act, what to say or how to keep their attention.

They crowd around me kneeling on the floor and we stare at each other. Still smiling.

For five or six minutes I struggle trying to translate through Priyan. I can feel their energy bubbling to the surface and I still have no idea what to do with them.

I look up at Priyan, “can we play?”

Before I get a response, I walk out onto the playground. A six year old boy jumps up behind me and touches my back.

“Thank goodness.” “I know this one.”

I start chasing the little boy around the tall metal slide. He climbs to the top delighted with his escape method. I pretend to be frustrated trying to jump up to tag him. He laughs hysterically at each of my failures.

“Yes, I can do this.”

Before long, twenty kids and I are playing a game I’ve played a million times with eight hundred kids in the United States. I run around. Freeze. Make a face. Do a dance. Strike a pose.

They mimic and follow me. I growl in their faces, start chasing them and they scatter. Screaming, giggling, screeching with delight.

I am winded. And sweaty and blissfully happy.

Thirty minutes later the sky erupts in a furious down pour. My new friends cling to my waist and drag me inside.

We dance and play keep-away. They show me their favorite toys.

I feel alive, invigorated, inspired, loved, connected, full.

I feel like the best version of myself.

When it’s all over I have tears in my eyes. I am flying.

My friends can’t believe what’s come over me.

I try to share my feelings with them but all I can come up with is “I’m high from all of it.”

The entire afternoon felt like a miracle.

I’ve been babysitting since I was eleven years old. I’ve been working with kids for over a decade. Again and again I’ve been humbled by how kids are so loving, so expressive, so honest and unconditional. But even in all my experience and wisdom, I feel overwhelmed. In disbelief.

On the other side of the world I walk into their lives a stranger. I don’t look like anyone they’ve ever seen. I don’t speak their language. They have been through all the trauma and heartache that would leave any human heart untrusting and closed off. And yet, they embrace me. With love and laughter. With hugs and smiles and boundless energy.

I am moved beyond expression.

How could I ever be a lawyer?