International travel can take its toll. Americans disparage of drinking tap water in Mexico; but where I travel to gather interviews for My Job, there’s a lot more than water to worry about.
Siem Reap, Cambodia: Long ago and faraway, a kingdom in Southeast Asia that spills down the Indochine Peninsula into the Gulf of Thailand, was inhabited by hill tribes and ruled by a succession of wealthy Khmer kings. Later, Cambodia ended up sacked, invaded, and protected—sometimes in combination—by France, Japan, Spain, Thailand, Vietnam, and the U.S. Its current 15 million residents, who are 90 percent Khmer (Cambodian) and 95 percent Theravada Buddhist, have also survived the genocide of up to two million of their kin by the Khmer Rouge communist terrorists.
Cambodia’s come a long way in preserving its stunning Hindu and Buddhist temple ruins. When I visit this spring, I get to wander around Ta Prohm, the 12th-century temple site where Angelina Jolie shot the movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”; and Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage archeological complex of temples from the 9th-14th-century. My American friends and I have only about 48 hours in-country and a lot to see, from ancient temple ruins to current programs developing tourism (the #1 revenue source here), garment-making, and rice farming, and others dealing with drugs and human trafficking that plague current society.
I’m really excited to see Cambodia, this tiny kingdom that seems like a magical land where modern-day fairytales can come true. My American friend, the stunningly talented humanitarian photojournalist Karl Grobl, met the love of his life at a local restaurant here and settled down at midlife to relish the life he’d always wanted.
Tomorrow, I’ll be interviewing Karl’s wife Srey Pouv, who grew up in the refugee camps during the Khmer Rouge siege and who’s worked her way from bleak poverty to running a rice-microloan business for farmers in the village of her birth. Having heard of her courage and tenacity in a country that has few strong-women role models, I’m eager to meet Srey Pouv. Her story will make a fascinating chapter in My Job.
But this afternoon, right in the middle of our tour through the temple ruins of Angkor Wat, my body suddenly implodes. It could have been something I ate in Thailand, or a bug I picked up on one of eleven flights I’m taking over three weeks in Asia. A traveler never knows . . . all I know is that I cannot manage to hike to the top of the temple no matter how amazing the view. I sit on a stone in the shade, swallowing Advil and Imodium and praying I make it to the next hotel intact.
My friends sprint to the top, ooh and aah, and snap their selfies. We wander around the grounds of the complex, stopping for conversations and group photographs. I grit my teeth and silently count the minutes until I can reach a bathroom and a bed.
When we finally arrive, we discover one of the most luxurious hotels I’ve ever seen, the Victoria Angkor Resort and Spa. What a shame that we’re here only one night, and that I have to waste it being sick!
I decide not to take “no” for an answer from my body. I do miss happy hour (and that’s when my friends know something’s really wrong with me!) and can barely sip ginger tea and push steamed rice around with my fork at dinner. Yet, I shower up and then sweat through the group dinner.
We meet with locals working on behalf of women’s rights and the owner of Elevate Destinations, the ecotourism company running our logistics. I alternate between babbling incoherently and sulking into silence. Despite my fever, I can tell that we’re in a pretty chic French-Cambodian bistro, the conversations are lively, and the food would have tasted divine. For me, it just becomes a countdown of the minutes left until I can crawl into the haven of a clean bed.
Anyone who’s traveled outside their comfort zone has undoubtedly experienced the mutiny of the body in some strange city or country. I’ve been a lot sicker than this, far longer and messier.
For me in Cambodia, it’s like some miracle happens between midnight and 4a.m., and by the next morning, I rally. I check out of the hotel, run over to Srey Pouv and Karl’s for the morning. Srey Pouv is gracious, strong, brave, and beautiful. Spending the morning with her and Karl in their family home and hearing her life story (to come in My Job) reinvigorates me; it reminds me what an amazing book this will be.
After the interview, I visit a trafficking-survivors’ program in the afternoon, get a quick glimpse of downtown Siem Reap, and then dash to the airport for a late-evening flight.
Next stop: Hanoi, Vietnam. Next adventure: unknown.