Cambodia: On Some Faraway Beach

By Michelle Mann

My first hostel was made of twigs, driftwood, old supply bags, and all the other chic rubbish the tides and island had thrown back. It was as though the Netherland-ish fellow who ran it had been stranded alone on a much smaller island, yet was for some reason awaiting a design magazine’s photographer to be marooned in the same place. 

The first two nights we awoke to rain streaming in. Every morning the hostel owner asked how long I would stay, and I would reply with the same, “I think this island will keep me for awhile.” I knew that pile of sticks was not my home, but felt it was someplace nearby. I searched the island one drink at a time. I was told to go see Leo, a kind Turkish man with eyes that smile so widely the rest of his face could only try to mimic them. Late in the evening I tried my luck. His restaurant was closed but he slid the rock from what could be loosely described as a door and let me in. 


He sat on a mat with a small group of friends and greeted me warmly as he poured me a drink. The others left as we talked, and the stars proclaimed themselves more eagerly in the sky. We sat on the same pier I had arrived on, as I began to feel even more strongly that I would be held there. The next day I began work at a hostel I had thought to be merely under construction. There were no guests besides the volunteers, yet it was open. 

Our only tools were half broken two drill bits, one fractured and a few rusty nails. The only c-clamp had been taken back to the mainland by its owner. Leo was saving for his wedding and we didn’t have the heart to ask for manufactured items from the mainland. When the heat of the day was soft we would scour the island looking for driftwood, old boards, fishing nets and anything that could become something--being careful not to take anything meant for reuse by the Khmer locals. 

Slowly my life there, as well as the hostel took shape. It got a name, and I had a purpose. I remembered how to draw, paint and build, something city life had made me forget. You don’t always realize in the clamor of subway cars and jobs with real hours the things that make you an actuality of yourself. I made friends with hearts more golden than the sand. Evenings were spent playing pool or dreaming, laying on the pier before a thunderstorm with the moon lighting the clouds brighter than Broadway lights, naming what you see in the sky and waiting for others to find the same, laughter and true happiness not in interludes but in constancy. 

A fervor to create a space, became less like the dream and more tangible. Breakfasts at 8:30 sharp, discovering the joys of mango with peanut butter on top and treasuring the luxury of a real cup of coffee. At night the stars rest in the water shimmering for all that move through the soft black ink of the sea when the moon is low. Plankton or sorcery? The waves wash away all questions softly. 

 When a stolen passport finally finally led me to leave the island I felt bits of me torn apart as the boat pulled away. A motley brigade of friends escorted me with songs alternating between joyous and melancholy. I looked back and saw them in the distance waving, smiles warmer than midday. And for a moment I considered diving off the front of the speedboat. I eyed the tides and the distance to shore. Too far for my body to reach but close enough to imagine. 

I have a small jet black seashell from the island, with its inky spirals and curves, a soft oblong opening at the top, dwindling into a sharp point then nothingness. It looks fierce and wicked. It’s the kind of object so beautiful and provocative you strive to find meaning in it. It’s the inverse of everything I found on the island. I know it’s just an object, a simple keepsake from the sea. But it’s symbolism is not lost on me. The island is not lost on me.

 The unnamed color of the water still washes through my mind, imprinted in something beyond a daydream, cast over brownstones and skyscrapers. I honor it’s salinity with the tears that come to the precipice at the edge of my eyes when its memory is close and its geographical distance is known to be so far.