The saran wrap had held peanut butter sandwiches. Peanut butter and Peptelare sandwiches. Peptelare was a poison created by cooking cough syrup with silica crystals in a high-pressure environment at exactly 163 degrees. It looked, spread, smelled, and tasted very much like apple butter. Peptelare had first come to international attention when it had been ingested by all of the female members of a cult in Taiwan in a ritual suicide in February 2003.
Peptelare was fast-acting, but not instantaneous, so the smallest orangutans had been dead approximately three minutes after ingesting the poison, plenty of time for thirty orangutans to gobble up thirty-five peanut butter sandwiches before realizing that something was wrong.
The same night as the O/URC poisonings, there had been a similar infiltration at Camp Leakey in Kalimantan that had left forty-two orangutans dead. That night someone had also triggered the security system at Willie Smits’ orangutan center at three in the morning, but when the night guards had arrived at the breached gate, the trespassers had gone. For the first forty-eight hours after the discovery of the murders, both the O/URC and Camp Leakey had strongly hinted to the Malaysian and Indonesian press that oil palm interests such as Indo-Oil and ICT Industries were the likely perpetrators of the attacks while several parliamentary representatives had called Wan and strongly hinted that he needed to cool it off if he wanted to keep his funding.
However, that was as far as tensions had escalated when Al-Jazeera received and featured on its main news broadcast a video in which an Islamist terrorist group calling themselves (in Arabic) “Pure Homeland” claimed responsibility for the attacks.
In the video clip (played over and over again on all of the news networks—Malaysian, Indonesian, and international—for the next ten days), Pure Homeland’s masked leader stated in Arabic: “The targeted orangutan facilities are the evil tool of foreign governments seeking control over Oriental resources through Zionist science missionaries. Just like the holy lands of Palestine and petroleum in Iraq, the interfering foreigners should leave the fate of Asia, its resources, land, people, and wildlife, to Asia. In’sh Allah.”
Whoever Pure Homeland were, they knew their audience. The world population of orangutans, an endangered species, had been shrinking steadily every day for three decades without more than a handful of people taking note, and not many terrorist attacks got more than a ticker tape mention on the news anymore. However, orangutans killed by terrorists? Now, there was a story.
Most of the main news outlets concentrated their attentions on Camp Leakey, but the savvier editors and producers could see that the O/URC’s Dr. Wan Mohammed, with his carefully calibrated balance between rage and sanity, his appropriately dark sense of humor (his response to the question, Did you ever think that your orangutans would be targets of terrorism?—“My only regret is not buying any anti-sandwich security system”), and his genuine sadness regarding the cooptation of the faith of his childhood by murderous zealots, was the perfect face of the tragedy to show the liberal West. That that face was fairly easy on the eyes to boot was one of those lucky strokes of fate that the best money in the business couldn’t buy.
Five film crews came out to the O/URC during that first, busiest week. Al-Jazeera was in and out in a few hours with a bilingual reporter and film crew. The scrappy Australian crew drove up in a rusty rented van and set up a satellite video interview of Wan in his office with their anchor in their Sydney studio. The BBC reporter and her Steadicam operator sat through thorough physical examinations by Linda to interview Wan inside O.Q. with the caged orangutans in the background. The two American shoots were, of course, the most difficult, involving endless negotiations regarding access, power sources, vehicle parking, compliance with the O/URC’s quarantine procedures, food, guides, weatherproofing, and the timing, length, and subjects of the interviews (eventually: Wan and Will for the broadcast network; Wan, Will, and Linda for the cable news network). The Americans’ ten most ridiculous requests, in increasing order of ridiculousness:
10. Permission to film coverage of the orangutans in a jungle setting;
9. Hot vegetarian and gluten-free lunches for the reporter, producer, and crew (NO CURRY);
8. Reporter access to the orangutans in a jungle setting;
7. A photograph of Dr. Mohammed (at any age) in Islamic dress;
6. A helicopter tour of the O/URC’s research area;
5. A longhouse and river tour guided by one of the indigenous members of the O/URC staff;
4. Private air-conditioned accommodations for the broadcast network reporter for one hour after lunch;
3. Temporary removal of one of the exterior fences of O.Q.;
2. Permission to film coverage of Dr. Tsai performing surgery or another major medical procedure on an orangutan; and
1. Permission to film coverage of an orangutan giving birth.
American film crews ended up taking over the O/URC on three consecutive days. The cable network shot establishing footage of the O/URC campus and the surrounding forest on the first day. The cable network shot its interviews on the second day while the broadcast network shot establishing footage, and the broadcast network shot its interviews on the last day. All three were long and trying days. Will and Wan both did really well, as expected, and succeeded in shifting some of the attention to more systemic problems in orangutan conservation, like poaching and deforestation due to logging and oil palm. However, the surprise star of the cable shoot was Linda. The ruder that Linda was to the cable reporter and her producer—both self-made New Yorkers going by their ex-husbands’ surnames—the more put-upon Linda seemed by their requests, the more exhausted by their stupidity she seemed, the more that they loved her.
Four days after the last film crew packed up its reels and dollies and light meters and booms, leaving the entire O/URC staff feeling something akin to buyer’s remorse, The New Yorker came to Borneo, in the person of Stephanie Walczek, a thirty-eight-year-old staff writer for the magazine who’d been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for her work on a series of Washington Post articles on the Bosnian war. She met briefly with Wan in his office at the scheduled time on her first day. Then at the staff meeting that afternoon in meet, she was there, standing in the back. Five-foot-ten, pale-skinned, with long, wavy reddish-blonde hair and hazel eyes, Marin watched Walczek out of the corner of her eye and realized what an alarming presence Will must have been when he’d first come to the O/URC.
After Wan commenced the meeting, he announced that “Steph” would be profiling him for an upcoming issue of the magazine, and that she would be approaching everyone individually for interviews over the next three weeks. Wan then asked Walczek if she had anything she wanted to say to the staff.
Walczek cleared her throat delicately, as if loosening pink blossoms from a spring cherry tree. “I just wanted to introduce myself,” she said. “Has anyone read the magazine?”
Marin, Will, and Nolan raised their hands.
“Oh!” Walczek said, with suspiciously quiet rapture. “Great! Good! Wonderful. So some of you know that the magazine’s profiles aren’t exposés or puff pieces, or news or opinion pieces disguised as profiles of a particular person. Our profiles are about people and character and passion—about what drives the extraordinary to do the extraordinary things that they do. If there’s past pain involved in their work now, well, we want to know about that. All of the things—good and bad—that led Dr. Mohammed to his position at the head of this Center are things that we want to know.”
Annoyed with Walczek, Marin made eye contact with Will.
Marin and Will had never talked about their night together. At first she’d assumed that it was because there had been too much going on: investigating the murders, securing O.Q., and burying the dead. Also, Marin, as the O/URC’s main press contact, had been busy scheduling interviews and trying to turn all of the reporters’ queries about the attacks into opportunities to discuss the arboreal nature of wild orangutans, estimated death rates of the species due to deforestation and poaching, and the 20,000 hectares of rainforest at the edge of the O/URC’s research area that Indo-Oil was planning to cut down and turn into an oil palm plantation.
When things had calmed down a little bit, Marin had waited for Will to apologize or explain or at least acknowledge that they had had sex with each other.
She was still waiting.
Will looked away from her, mimed two legs walking with his index and middle fingers to Anwar: the O/URC sign for Do you want to go for a hike tomorrow? Anwar gave him a thumbs up and then pointed to Walczek and made the hiking sign. Will nodded noncommittally.
Marin still sat with Will in canteen if they were both there at the same time, and they were both so evil and compartmentalized that the content and tone of their conversations during these meals, right down to the amount of teasing and laughter, was exactly the same as it had been before the fateful night of tuak boilermakers and unzipped Gore-Tex jackets. However, since that night, over three weeks ago now, Will and Marin had not gone for a hike together, either alone or with a third party, and people had to have started noticing.
A few hours after the staff meeting ended, Walczek’s driver (apparently Walczek didn’t know how to drive) drove Wan, Will, Marin, Anwar, Nolan, and Walczek out to Kuching for an expense account dinner at a seafood restaurant on the Promenade.
The air of the state capital was shot through with a thick, dead heat that night. The bugs were tiny black acrobats stretching and posing between tricks. The open-air restaurant that Wan had chosen was decorated in some import-export version of tiki: hardwood tables covered with red tablecloths, molting tribal masks of apocryphal origin, and red and white tea candles in wood votives with Star-of-David-like holes cut into the sides.
The driver lit a cigarette and walked away down the dark Promenade smoking, and Walczek and the O/URCers sat down at a long table overlooking the river. The river was black and still with night. Wan ordered for the group: a feast of Malaysian, Chinese, and Iban seafood preparations that was certain to elicit more sighs of quiet rapture from Ms. Walczek.
“So you really, really don’t know how to drive?” Anwar asked Walczek.
Walczek laughed. “Really, really,” she said.
Everyone but Marin laughed.
“Taking the subway to work every day is a matter of conscience for a native New Yorker,” Walczek explained. “It’s just better for your soul.”
“Wow,” Nolan said.
“What’s your favorite thing about New York?” Will asked.
“I love that it still intimidates me quite often,” Walczek said. “Just a few weeks ago I was at a benefit party for Tibetan freedom at the New York Public Library in Bryant Park. There were these beautiful canapés on an ice sculpture of the Dalai Lama, and Robert De Niro was there... and I just felt like I was an eighteen-year-old girl again, crashing the grown-ups’ party.”
Everyone but Marin sighed quietly with rapture.
“Ms. Walczek—Steph—I think that you’re the coolest person that I’ve ever met,” Nolan said.
“And I think that all of you are the coolest people I’ve ever met!” Walczek exclaimed.
“I still can’t believe the O/URC is going to be in the freaking New Yorker,” Will said. “That is just wild.”
Marin watched Will’s face as he spoke. She thought that she saw a vein twitch to the side of his left eye. He wasn’t in his right mind.
“I’ve actually always been fascinated with monkeys and apes since I was a little girl,” Walczek said. “They’re so intelligent. I was looking in Ewald’s eyes when Wan took me back to O.Q., and I felt that he saw right into my hard little New Yorker heart and called bullshit. If Wan hadn’t been there, I would have probably started crying.”
Marin knew that Will hated people who made the orangutans all about themselves, but he, along with the others, was nodding along with Walczek’s story and looking wistfully off into the river.
This is bullshit, Marin thought, grade-fucking-A. It had been their job to protect the orangutans, and they had failed. And instead of being punished for it, instead of the universe giving them their karmic due, the O/URC was being rewarded with money (their donations website had crashed with overflow traffic in the hour after the first U.S. television news profile had aired) and media attention that NGOs of their size and scope could ordinarily only dream of.
Marin couldn’t stomach this; it upset her terribly; and—most disturbingly of all—it made her miss Ray Marcos.
Marin hadn’t been wrong about Ray; she hadn’t been wrong to leave Pac. She hadn’t changed her mind about that. However, Marin was certain that Ray would have dismissed Stephanie Walczek as the self-involved lightweight that she was, and for that alone Marin missed him.
That night, alone in her bungalow, Marin sat down on the edge of her bed in her nightshirt and shorts and tried to take an objective inventory of her friends back home, her world-class education, her parents, her old job at Pac, and everything that had happened to her since she’d come to Borneo. She tried to remember why she’d come here, but a clear recollection of the Boolean computations of the choice seemed just out of grasp.
Anwar, Will, and Wan were talking about the Walczek dinner on Will’s porch and laughing. It seemed to Marin that the darkest heart of the jungle lived in the space between their laughs. She didn’t know what to do.
It was just a slight switch in orientation when it hit her, the tiniest ballerina flutter of neurons. However, as soon as the switch happened, Marin knew that it was the only thing: she was going to leave the O/URC and travel around Asia alone.
Marin had forgotten how much she hated being a tourist. She was already in Kuala Lumpur, half-heartedly browsing K.L.’s crowded Chinatown street market in the unfiltered equatorial sun, when she remembered.
Marin didn’t like the constant cycling of contrived expectations and predictable disappointments. She didn’t like the cheap kitsch and pirated goods on sale at the market. She didn’t want to take photos of buildings that had held no special meaning to her until that moment. She didn’t like that seeing a McDonald’s was an aberration to the authentic experience that she was trying to have; she didn’t like being reminded that she was the kind of self-important, compromised person who goes to developing countries to try to have authentic experiences. She didn’t like being unable to shake the feeling that she was making all of her decisions based on faulty information. And she couldn’t even enjoy having no purpose but her own pleasure when there were other people around her—other Asians—busy at work and making a living for their families.
Marin, starving, was a few seconds away from the tourist’s equivalent of mission failure (lunch at McDonald’s) when she walked by a food cart with two Chinese families eating at the plastic tables in front. The sign said “HALAL - SATAY AYAM (CHICKEN) - SATAY BEEF - RM4 for 3.” Under it, skewers of fatty chicken and beef were browning over a slim, smoky wood charcoal grill.
She ordered three skewers of chicken and three skewers of beef in Amoy.
The hawker, a Malaysian-Chinese man her father’s age, answered in Amoy, “Five minutes. Sit, please.”
Marin sat down at an empty table and immediately felt better: she could actually do this.
The satay itself, when it arrived minutes later, surprised Marin with its excellence: it was cooked perfectly and was tangy, nutty, meaty, salty, sweet, and mildly spicy. Marin was, in her young life, lucky to have had the absolute best version of many a thing; she knew intimately the slightly thrilling, slightly anxious feeling that this induced; and she recognized it now, eating this anonymous street market satay.
Marin had eaten good food in humble places before, but only by being brought to them by some wise (usually older) person who’d accumulated such knowledge through many years of trial and error. The realization that she could stumble upon the absolute best version of a thing on her own, without hype, pretense, or preamble, was a revelation.
Marin stayed on in K.L. for four more nights and saw some Hindu temples, the Petronas Towers, and a mosque. She bought a Graham Greene novel at the Japanese bookstore in the mall at the foot of the Petronas Towers.
From K.L., Marin took a bus to the temperate mountain region of Cameron Highlands. Cameron Highlands had a sleepy summer camp feel to it. During her five nights there, Marin toured a large tea plantation, drank lots of tea, ate tom yum soup hotpot and claypot rice, made small talk with a young French couple staying in her hostel, and fell asleep at ten o’clock every night trying to read the first page of the Graham Greene novel.
The cool climate made Marin a little homesick for San Francisco, and, on her last evening there, she went to an internet café and shot an email to Nazneen, Jorge, Ben, Becky, and Max:
From: Marin Choo <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Nazneen Abadi <email@example.com, ...
Date: 12 Dec 2003
Left the O/URC for a few weeks. Had to escape my newfound infamy! Bumming around Malaysia, Thailand, and TBD... miss you all!
She clicked “Send,” the browser window reset to the perfunctory indexing of her inbox page, and she felt very lonely.
The timing was the bitch of it. If her tuak-boilermakers-induced insanity and the Pure Homeland attacks had happened months apart, Marin felt certain that she could have handled each with her trademark aplomb: brushed off the former as a drunken mistake and mourned the latter with an appropriate amount of sobriety and sense of loss. As it was, she felt deeply, exigently responsible for both and deeply, exigently bitter at the universe for both, even though one event had clearly fallen inside the domain of her control and the other had clearly not.
Marin reached her guesthouse, and walked down the quiet, empty hallway to her room. She unlocked the door, entered, and flicked the light switch. In the jaundiced dawn of the shaded bulb on the ceiling, Marin’s bleach-streaked towel, vinyl toiletries bag caked with soap, and two-year-old clothes looked like the personal effects of a reclusive leper, not a capable young woman with her whole life ahead of her.
Marin next went by bus to the Malaysian city-island-state of Penang, a former Straits colony like Singapore and Melaka. The name Penang, though not one encountered at all in Marin’s undergraduate studies or post-baccalaureate work and life until a few weeks ago, emitted in its sweet syllables some essential lucre of the centuries-long project of Asia.
Although Marin’s Chinatown guesthouse left much to be desired in terms of privacy, cleanliness, and comfort, its surroundings were pleasantly Old World: tumbledown colonial shophouses with working wooden shutters. It was the end of 2003, and two or three internet cafés and a reggae bar staggered among the ancient tailors, mechanics, noodle shops, and herbalists of the Chinese diaspora seemed the edge of something important. Marin certainly felt that she was coming close to the heart of a zeitgeist.
Indeed, even after packing what can only be described as a backpack for the carriage of her belongings for this trip, even after spending five nights in Kuala Lumpur and five nights in Cameron Highlands in budget guesthouses with lots of Europeans and Americans dressed like paupers and pilgrims and in possession, also, of backpacks, Marin had not considered until Penang the possibility that she might be, at this moment, backpacking. She’d always thought of backpacking as one of those sub-pursuits of The Alternative Lifestyle, like skateboarding, veganism, and dyed hair, that she’d chosen tattoos and music over a long time ago.
On her first night in Penang, Marin had a greasy curry and rice in Little India and then wandered into a used bookstore next door to the restaurant.
The bookstore was a world unto itself. Shelves lined every vertical plane of the shophouse, and spine-creased books had been stuffed into every available square-inch of every shelf. A Tamil man whose cheekbones curved downward, like mushroom caps, sat behind a glass-topped desk piled with books, reading a book. Marin started browsing. She saw a copy of a Tom Wolfe novel that she would have liked to leaf through, but it was tied to four other books with twine.
“Sudhir,” a woman with a slightly Malaysian-ized Australian accent called out from the back of the store, “I think you’re charging too much for your Coetzee.”
“I charge what any civilized bookstore would charge for Coetzee, Corinne,” the Tamil man at the desk said, turning a page in his book and reading.
“Sudhir, really,” Corinne said. She emerged from behind the tall bookshelf in the middle of the store, with two slim paperbacks in her left claw. She was a blonde woman in her thirties. Her clothes, though backpacker-style in letter, seemed overly composed, like a costume. She was pretty with a face full of small, delicate features, but there was something uninviting and severe about her presence. “Would you rather have Generation Y reading Harry Potter?”
Sudhir ignored her and asked Marin, “Can I help you find something?”
Corinne almost answered him but caught her mistake just in time, turned, and noticed Marin for the first time.
“Do you have any books on Thailand?” Marin asked.
Corinne smiled sadistically, and Marin knew that there had been many girls needing to know about Thailand over the years. Marin didn’t want to know how many years.
“Your tattoo...” Sudhir said. “You’re...” He pulled from a trashcan a folded-up copy of The Star. “You were working with the orangutan center in Sarawak.” He opened and refolded the newspaper and held up a pre-Pure-Homeland-attacks picture of Marin and Nolan eating durian.
“Before the Terrorists...” the headline read.
“Mah-rin Choo?” Sudhir said, reading from the photo caption. “This is you, isn’t it?”
“In the flesh,” said Marin.
Sudhir and Corinne were both silent for a moment, unsure what to do with this information.
“You poor thing!” Corinne said finally. “What a thing to go through at your age! You’re doing the right thing, you know: seeing the world. Getting perspective.”
“Are you—” said Sudhir, “you don’t sound Malaysian.”
“I’m American,” Marin said. “I came to Malaysia to work at the O/URC over a year ago.”
Sudhir and Corinne peppered Marin with questions about the O/URC, her work there, the murders, and the resulting media attention.
“It is so typical of Malaysians,” Sudhir said, “to only start paying attention to something important once Westerners get involved.”
“Unbelievable,” said Corinne. “So now you’re going to Thailand?”
“Yes,” said Marin.
“I don’t blame you,” said Corinne. “Were you just thinking of taking a bus up across the border?”
“Yeah...” said Marin.
“Yes, it’s quite cheap from here,” Corinne said. She wanted to talk the backpacker version of shop. “You should go to Railey Beach first. It’s on the west coast of southern Thailand. Everyone knows Phi Phi Island because of that horrible Leonardo DiCaprio movie, but I like Railey better. And you can go climbing there, if you’re even a little sporty. You have to find a bus to Krabi, and then from Krabi you take a boat to get to Railey.”
Sudhir shook his head. “I’ve only been Phuket once. It was okay.” He sat down at his desk and opened his book.
“And then, if you cross to the east coast...” Corinne said. “There’s Koh Samui and Koh Phangan.” She smiled her sadistic smile again.
“Yes, I’ve heard about the Full Moon Parties,” Marin said.
Every full moon, backpackers, gap-year Brits, and louche Southeast Asians descended upon Phangan Island in southern Thailand for an international beach rave.
“When I first went to Koh Phangan,” Corinne said, “a very long time ago, my friend and I took a longboat out there, and it was just another pretty island on the east coast. There was nothing to do there but watch the sun rise on the beach. Now it’s been overtaken by the Ibiza set.”
Marin knew not to be jealous of Corinne’s “authentic” experience of Koh Phangan. Marin had learned at least this much from the orangutans. Asia’s occasional splashes of seductive gypsy magic made certain kinds of visitors identify too personally with Asia’s compromises and blandishments. Still, Marin couldn’t fathom why Corinne had stayed on, why over so many years the other woman hadn’t understood what it had only taken Marin a few weeks to understand: that what was gone was gone was gone. Staying late at the party won’t make it last.
During the next few days, Marin explored Penang’s main tourist sites—Penang Hill, the Khoo Kongsi Chinese clanhouse, historical George Town, and several museums—during daylit hours, and at night she went to the bookstore in Little India and talked to Sudhir and Corinne about current events, only occasionally revealing particulars of a more personal nature. When Sudhir and Corinne found out that Marin had worked at a development bank in San Francisco, there was a lengthy inquisition about Pac. Both of them seemed to think that Pac had some kind of connection to the CIA.
Corinne gave Marin numerous food recommendations, but as soon as Marin left the bookstore she could never remember any of them, and neither Sudhir nor Corinne ever offered to take Marin to these places themselves. After four days, Marin was ready to move on.
To get to the southern Thailand town of Krabi, Marin spent ten hours on a mini-bus with a snoring Dutchman and a driver who, while talking nonstop on his cellphone, did the equivalent of eighty miles an hour on a two-lane road. From Krabi, it was a fifteen-minute jeepney ride through the rain to what turned out to be the wrong beach. The last boat from that beach to the right beach had just left, so Marin stayed the night at the wrong beach.
The next morning, Marin woke up early and walked a few feet down the road for breakfast: Thai iced tea and a banana pancake. She went back to her hostel, checked out, and walked to the shore. At the shore, she inquired once again about a boat to Railey.
Marin didn’t see any of the boatmen pick up a cellphone or leave their posts on the beach, but soon enough a tuk-tuk motorcycle cab puttered up to take her to an embankment where under an overcast sky a bunch of tourists were being shooed into the water and ushered onto boats by skinny young Thai men.
Marin rolled up her jeans and waded in.
The cabin of the tiny wooden boat was surprisingly roomy. Marin took a seat in the middle of the portside bench. The boat filled with passengers, one of the Thai men untied their anchor, the motor revved, and their little vessel pushed through the fat muscles of the ocean. When Marin turned to look out the window behind her, her face filled with spray and sun.
The beach they landed at an hour-and-a-half later was gray and windblown. It revealed its secrets slowly: in a shell of a coconut here and there.
Marin booked a single room at a hostel just inland. She had lunch at the hostel restaurant—greasy drunken noodles and more Thai iced tea—and surveyed the scene: there were two small coed packs of twenty-somethings, lots of couples and groups of couples (also mainly in their twenties), and a few lone guys and pairs of guys, in a gamut of ages and temperaments. These were the tourists, the secular half of Railey. For, despite its name and proximity to open ocean, Railey Beach was not a beach town so much as a major rock climbing destination, famous for its well-routed and gorgeous limestone cliffs. The climbers moved through Railey’s makeshift community of travelers that day like a chosen people, looking important and inaccessible with their gear and ropes strung over their shoulders.
The sun came out during lunch, and Marin went back to her room and changed into her swimsuit and a jersey sundress. She walked over to the beach on the other side of Railey after lunch, which was supposed to be nice, according to both Marin’s Thailand guidebook and Corinne. Halfway to the beach, Marin passed some backpackers pointing at and photographing, strangely, a nondescript wall at the side of the path.
When Marin got closer, she saw what had captured the backpackers’ attentions—there was a small band of baby macaque monkeys running along the head of the wall and up the branches of a nearby tree. One by one, the squirrel-sized torments raided an open package of crackers sitting on the wall, until finally one grabbed the whole lot of it and scurried up the tree, depositing half its contents on the young woman winking into the viewfinder of her camera below.
Marin felt an ugly blossom of superiority—macaques were the rats of non-human primates.
Marin had never been particularly enamored with beach culture. She had gone with her high school friends to Lake Michigan on summer weekends, bought bikinis and brightly-dyed sarongs, laid out in the sun with a silly magazine, and tried to enjoy herself. She had done two proper beach spring breaks in college: Cancún sophomore year and Venice Beach senior year. Throughout all of these experiences, Marin couldn’t shake the suspicion that American beach culture was a mass delusion created by some savvy beach umbrella manufacturer many years ago.
When Marin rounded the last wall of the throughway from the hostel, Phra-Nang Beach came into view: an acreage of silk blue Poseidon surging and breaking on a seamless white-white shore.
It was enough to make Marin want to fall in love with anyone—any empty-eyed stranger on the beach—just to transmute the beauty of the ocean into something physical to take inside her.
Instead, Marin swam. Marin untied the halter straps of her sundress, pulled it over her head, dropped it on the sand, and walked to the water. She could hear its long call; she smelled its eye-burning salts. She waded in without difficulty—the low-tide waves were strong but not rough. When it got deep enough to duck under, she felt her hair engorge a gallon of cool and heavy water.
After a long swim, Marin went back to her hostel to shower. At the balcony just a few feet away in the second floor of the adjacent bungalow, a large beach towel whipped and tickled in the wind. On the clothing line above it hung a pink bikini and a pair of baby-blue swim trunks.
Marin closed the door behind her and walked gingerly into the bathroom. The concrete floor felt cool and unfriendly under her bare feet. She twisted the cross-shaped head of the faucet on the wall, and water spilled out noisily from its mouth into the plastic bucket below. She felt cold just watching it.
Marin dipped the crusty red scoop hanging on the wall into the bucket and filled it with cold. She tucked her hair behind her ears and dumped the water on her head. It was cold and then cold again. She scooped. And dumped. And scooped and dumped. She worked her bar of soap into a lather and shot it over her limbs and torso, over and under her bikini. She took off her swimsuit and rinsed it off in the sink, wrung it loose of water, and hung it on the hook on the bathroom door to dry. Then she lathered her breasts and in between her legs, and then scooped and poured slowly against the front of her body, slowly over her back. Then she scooped and poured into her hair, combing through it with her fingers to get the middle wet. She squeezed a coin of shampoo into her palm, rubbed it vigorously into her wetted hair. Then scooped and dumped and scooped and dumped.
Soon enough it was all over, and there was the illusion of great accomplishment that comes with the survival of great discomfort.
As Marin slipped back into the familiar universe of her underwear—white, cotton, clean—and flicked water from the inside of her ears, a five-second clip of ordinary memory (Will sitting in canteen during breakfast and laughing at some lame joke she’d made) bottomed out her carefully reconstructed ego. She lay down nearly naked on the thin foam mattress of the guesthouse bed and felt the meager molecules in her sinus almost and yet not accumulate to an actual drop, stalling behind her eyes. The grief and bitterness inside her felt arid, clogging: a mass of tangled threads. She hated, hated, hated Will.
In the middle of a fight with Marin in early 1995, Marin’s mother had made the mistake of taking off her wig. Marin had gone ballistic: how could Jinny play the cancer card during a serious mother-daughter negotiation? Marin had felt entitled to her own freedom—real life was happening outside of their miserable suburb and Marin would have to miss out just because her parents were irrationally frightened of things that they didn’t understand? She’d screamed “I hate you” to her bald, dying mother and meant it.
The next day, Marin woke up early and purchased a caving and climbing lesson at one of the small climbing shops on the beach. Her guide/teacher was a young Thai named Pai. He wore Thai fisherman’s pants: loose-fitting cotton pantaloons that folded in and tied at the waist. Marin had seen many backpackers wearing them in Penang.
Pai’s English was very basic. Marin tried hard not to lapse into annoying baby talk with him, but she couldn’t help it for some reason.
“So. When you. Start doing. This climbing?” asked Marin.
“Oh... three?—years before,” answered Pai. “My friend taught me.”
“You were not scared... going up high?”
“Scared?” asked Pai.
“Scared,” Marin repeated, in case his problem was impending deafness not not knowing a foreign language. “Afraid? So high there you think you fall?”
“Oh, no,” said Pai. “I think my friend will not let me fall.”
They walked over to Phra-Nang Beach the same way Marin had gone the day before. They passed the wall where the girl had been photographing the macaques. They reached the beach, and Marin followed Pai down the middle of it. They were the first ones there—two lone sets of fresh footprints in the tide-smoothed sand.
Pai led Marin away from the beach towards a small patch of jungle. The trough of a U-shaped branch hung directly in their path. Pai lifted it for Marin, the only available doorman for this door, and motioned her in.
They hiked a small distance until they reached the orange shoulder of a mountain.
“Look,” Pai said, gesturing away from the mountain, in the direction from which they’d come.
Marin turned and saw the ocean, saw it stretch out to a horizon that no one would ever reach, no matter how far or fast they swam.
“Okay?” said Pai after a minute.
“Okay,” she said.
Pai turned and led her into the mountain.
Marin buckled the harness around her waist and walked over to Pai. He was anchoring the rope to the cave floor. In three too-simple movements, he tied the rope into Marin’s harness.
“Okay,” Pai said. “Very easy. You go back, and the rope hold you. Just keep looking up—and slowly.” Pai did something quick and important-seeming with the rope. And then it was time to go.
Marin walked backwards over the edge of the drop and felt the rope tighten at her waist and in her hands; the harness gripped around her, forming the outlines of a seat. She could feel the air behind her and below her, the cool height of nothing.
“Okay, now let the rope, slowly,” said Pai.
Marin did as she was told and felt the friction of moving rope in her fingers. She didn’t move her feet though, and, after the rope corrected itself and she dropped, they hung level with her waist, snagged on the rock.
“Let go your feet!” yelled Pai, leaning dangerously over the edge so that her eyes met his. She pulled in her legs as directed and swung away from the limestone and back again, her feet landing a natural distance below her. “Okay, good!” yelled Pai, “Now again, let the rope.”
The more Marin fed the rope and negotiated the rock, the more she began to enjoy the fall. She became conscious of her body as a physical mass, something with density and weight. None of the usual things mattered here: she was an aimless, emotionless stone being lowered, a raw good in export.
The ground came suddenly, before she was ready, and she collapsed like an abandoned marionette into the foot of the wall.
Pai yelled down instructions at her to untie the rope from her harness, tie it to itself in a loose knot, and leave it dangling so that he could pull it back up for his own rapel down.
After successfully detaching herself, Marin walked around the mountain to her left and saw the real climbers—bodies, muscles, leaping up the wide spread of the mountain beside her, all limbs and no fear.
Pai had already found his own way down and noticed Marin’s interest in the athletics on the wall.
“You want try going up now?” he asked, untying himself and pulling the rope off the anchor. It snaked to the ground. “You try.”
Pai took out the climbing shoes that he had brought for Marin, and she squeezed into the form-fitting rubber-bottomed shoes and pulled the laces in tighter, and tighter, and tighter.
“Okay,” Pai said, carrying the coil of rope to the right-most end of the big wall and dropping it gently on the ground. He removed his shirt and tied himself back into the rope. “I go lead climb make line now, okay?” he said.
Pai took off, the rope hanging between his legs like a tail, completing the monkey look. He posted each yard higher and higher, then anchored the rope’s top a good sixty or seventy feet above them, and floated, flew, danced his way down.
Pai tied a nervous Marin into the line and stepped back, pulling the rope tight. She stepped towards the wall until she was face-to-face with it. Tentatively, she felt up its powdery surface. When she found the first hold, a small cavity above her right shoulder that she sank her fingers into, and pulled herself one full foot off the ground, something clicked. You don’t know what you don’t know. It was the inexplicability of it: that this seemingly uniform and spartan mass of wall in fact yielded any number of viable steps to hoist one’s self up from.
Marin took step after step—found tiny, uninviting cracks in the mountainside surprisingly sturdy and reliable, found other more overt protrusions surprisingly hard to get a hold of. At one point she nearly fell, but didn’t—she grabbed the bottom edge of a large crevice above her and, shaking, moved her foot to a small ledge to her right. Her legs split apart in a “V” as Pai pulled her rope in tighter, a bright wind blowing through and making a small space between her ponytail and neck.
If zeitgeist had been what Marin had subconsciously set out to find on this trip, then she found its frontlines, capital, and court at Khao San Road in Bangkok. Khao San Road had been accidentally invented by Lonely Planet writer Joe Cummings a decade ago when he’d reviewed, positively but very briefly and innocuously, in an early edition of the Lonely Planet’s Thailand guidebook, two Chinese-run budget guesthouses located close to what had been at the time a quiet and unremarkable Bangkok street.
(When Marin deduced this from the public fact pattern later, it reminded her of that old quote from Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus: “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships | And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”)
Granted, Khao San Road in 2003 was still not much on paper: a four-block-long stretch of the city populated entirely with budget backpacker hotels, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, internet cafes, travel agencies, dance clubs, massage parlors, and daily and nightly street markets. However, mixed into the population of dilettantes and intercontinental truants who rented two-dollar beds and ten-dollar rooms on Khao San Road were some wild-oat-sowing future leaders of the Free World, and therein lay Khao San Road’s relevance and power.
Marin, already in need of an upgrade after twenty days of budget fan rentals, checked into a small A/C room with a private bathroom and hot water shower at a hotel on Thanon Khao San. She changed from her bus clothes to a sarong skirt and linen shirt and went out to shop on Khao San Road’s street market.
There were no “topless towers” on Khao San Road, but its market did bear a vague resemblance to the acropolis of an ancient Greek polis. The street was blocked off to most automobile traffic, and its sandaled citizenry were engaged in human-scale exchanges throughout the strip. For sale: joke T-shirts, fisherman’s pants, hemp jewelry, rasta caps and flags, glittery head scarves, jersey skirts and dresses, pygmy elephant and monkey carvings, hair braiding, made-to-order crepes, deep-fried spring rolls, chicken kebabs. Khao San Road was the town summer fair of every suburban would-be-bohemian’s dreams. Marin made her way to a stall of fisherman’s pants. The stall’s teenaged girl proprietor was wrapped up in a conversation on her sticker-covered phone.
At the next booth over, a pirated music booth, a Caucasian guy and an Asian girl, both in their twenties, had a spread of twenty or thirty CDs out by the register and were arguing with the street vendor in a mix of English and Thai. Marin could tell from their accents that they were both American, and the boy (Marin had acquired that idiotic traveler’s habit of, knowing no one, seeing everywhere people who reminded her of people “back home”) reminded Marin of her college friend Ben. This boy had that same incongruous golden-boy-with-a-dark-side exceptionality about him. Or maybe it was the two motorcycle helmets he was carrying: a black one hanging by its strap on his forearm and a smaller pink one cradled over his stomach.
“800 Baht, how much is that?” said the Ben-like guy, to the girl.
“Twenty dollar only,” repeated the hawker. “Very cheap!”
“C’mon, Bree, that’s cheaper than blank CDs.”
“Not really,” said Bree, who said something more to the vendor in Thai.
The hawker replied quickly and, from the gestures he made, appeared to protest first and then relent. Perhaps sensing who was the more pliable shopper, the hawker added in English to the American guy, “Only you I give so little. Because your friend know how to speak Thai.”
“What’d he say?” the American guy asked Bree.
“He said he’ll give us two more CDs for the same price,” said Bree.
“We’re already buying fifteen.”
“I know, Greg,” Bree said.
“We could go back to Chatuchak,” said Greg
“No,” said the street vendor, “Chatuchak only old CD. New CD only I have.”
“Yeah, but we can get fifteen CDs there for 200 Baht less than you’re giving us!” Greg said.
“O.K., I give you sixteen CD, 750 Baht,” said the man.
“G-Cakes, did you see anything else you wanted?” asked Bree.
“No, it’s all just this dance music crap,” said Greg.
“Fifteen CDs, 700 Baht,” she said to the hawker.
“You like Bob Marley?” he tried in reply.
“No...” Bree said, glancing briefly at Greg.
He nodded slightly.
“Avril Lavigne,” the hawker said. “Sing-ing very nice.”
“No,” Bree and Greg said in unison.
“O.K. 700 Baht. Only for you.”
Greg, who admittedly was growing less and less like Ben by the minute, pulled out a thick wad of hundred Baht bills and started counting to seven. The vendor bagged their CDs, and they took off in Marin’s direction holding hands.
“Fifteen for seven hundred—exactly what we wanted, right?” said the girl, Bree.
“Exactly what we wanted,” said Greg. “Good Customer, Bad Customer works every time.”
“That’s cause I’m such a good Bad Customer, right G-Cakes?”
“Mm-hm...” Greg pulled the bundle of their clasped hands to his mouth and kissed it.
Marin tried very hard to care about colors of pants.
A high-pitched ringing in the Americans’ backpack was barely audible amid all the street noise, but Greg and Bree both heard it. Bree was the one wearing the backpack, so Greg pilfered through it, found the phone, and answered it. It was for him. Bree started browsing through a pile of sarongs next to Marin.
“You know, at Chatuchak—the weekend—market, you can get three of those for 180 Baht,” Bree said. “Not that anyone needs three pairs of fisherman’s pants. But you can get them as gifts or something.”
“Really?” Marin preened at the insider info. “It’s already so cheap though.”
“Hi, I’m Bree,” said Bree, holding out her hand.
“Marin,” said Marin. They shook. Bree’s hands were surprisingly dry, grainy.
“Where’re you from?” Bree studied Marin’s clothes and hair.
“Chicago,” Marin said.
“I thought so. Us too. Not Chicago—but, you know, we’re American too.”
“That was one of my men,” said Greg, hanging up the phone and coming over to Bree, “He thinks his monk cousin will talk to me.”
“That’s great, G-Cakes. Why don’t you explain what you’re doing to Marin here.”
Greg laughed, incredulous. “You’re amazing Bree,” he said. “I’m on the phone for five minutes and you already have a new best friend.”
They were Bree Praddakayap and Greg Murray, Fulbright Scholars, winners of grants funding their living expenses and research in Bangkok for a year. Bree, a first-generation Thai-American born and raised in Rockville, Maryland, was studying the effects of macroeconomic policy in Southeast Asia in the years following the 1997 Asian economic crisis. Greg originally hailed from Scranton, Pennsylvania and was interviewing a bunch of Bangkok men for his doctoral dissertation (he was in the fourth year of his Ph.D. in religious studies at UCLA) on the annual Rain Ritual monastic retreat, a rite of passage performed by most Thai men sometime between graduation and marriage.
Greg said, “Americans have spring break in Cancún and booty dancing at frat parties... the Thais have...”
“Nirvana,” quipped Bree.
“Or three months in an orange robe trying to get there,” said Greg, unable to let the joke slip by unqualified.
They exchanged all of the usual questions. Marin didn’t exactly lie, but she did skip over the Borneo section of her resume and let the Fulbrighters assume that she had been working at Pac the entire time since graduation.
Bree and Greg invited Marin to dinner in two days on Friday night, and then the Fulbrighters strapped on their helmets and mounted and sped off on their motorcycle to someplace else.
Marin hung around Khao San Road for the rest of the day, trying to read the damned Graham Greene and logging less than a page per reading location.
On Thursday, she visited Bangkok’s key sites: its gold-spired palace and an adjoining Buddhist temple. As Marin stared at the forty-six-meters-long gold-plated reclining Buddha statue, she wondered if maybe mankind was doomed to always turn things into the opposite of what they were supposed to be.
On Friday, she traveled out of the city center to Chatuchak Market and bought two pairs of fisherman’s pants, a blue-and-white hibiscus-print skirt, and a necklace of wooden prayer beads. The purchases had a nice aggregate weight-to-utility ratio about them.
Khao San Road each night was a crossroads of unimaginative, down-market sin. Alcohol, nicotine, flashing lights, and pop music—walking the length of the night market strip through moist hives of drunken Brits and bored backpacker couples on Wednesday evening, Marin actually felt nostalgic for a Joss-curated playlist. Thankfully, Khao San Road’s night market had some decent street food: flash-fried pad thai; black rice with condensed milk and mango; and Thai iced tea. This, in fact, was Marin’s dinner two nights in a row.
The next night, it was finally time for Marin to wait for her pickup on the designated street corner.
Sixteen minutes late, a navy blue car pulled up in front of Marin, and a window rolled down. Bree, in the driver’s seat, wearing lipstick and mascara, her thick hair down and ironed straight, smiled and waved brightly.
“Sorry, we’re late!” she said. “I hate driving in this stupid town.”
Greg was riding shotgun, and in the back seat with Marin was another Fulbrighter named Lisa, a Ph.D. candidate in cellular biology, and Lisa’s boyfriend, a Russian-American computer programmer named Yuri. Yuri hadn’t gotten a Fulbright, but he and Lisa hadn’t wanted to spend the year apart so he had come with her and they were living off Lisa’s grant money together.
Bree, Greg, Lisa, and Yuri talked about the hazards and quirks of living as Americans in Bangkok, and Bangkok itself passed by—light shops five layers deep in lit lamps and chandeliers; the multicolored bonanza of dollar stores; emblem-faced banks; gambling halls filled with the craned heads of men; and the dusty square butts of air conditioners hanging over the street—all connected by an omnivorous Celtic knot of traffic-backed ramps and roads.
“Wait, are we expats?” Bree asked. Someone else had just used the “E” word.
“I always thought of expats as, like, bankers in Hong Kong or whatever,” Greg said.
“No, expats are any foreigners living in a less developed country than where they’re from,” Yuri said. “So even broke-ass Russians in Thailand: we are expats.”
“We’re farangs,” Greg said. “That’s Thai for ‘white devil,’” he explained to Marin.
“I’m not a farang,” Bree said.
Marin and Will were both technically expats by Yuri’s definition. Perhaps what had happened between her and Will had been as inevitable as Bree and Greg dating in Bangkok: just two expats constructing the simplest version of an expat community together.
Human nature: was it an oxymoron or not?
There was, thankfully, one authentic Thai citizen meeting this particular five-some of exported patriates at the dinner restaurant. Greg and Bree had met this person, Thaksin “Ducky” Chaluallakorn, at a mutual acquaintance’s lavish engagement party at the Bangkok Four Seasons a few months ago, and they had all become friends.
Bree parked in a lot, and their group walked into the restaurant, Rai Chiang, together. Rai Chiang’s interior walls had bright pine-colored wood paneling. In the middle of the room were large tanks filled with water and edible marine life: gray-orange crabs and lobsters crawled up glass as big-cheeked fish sidled up to corners and stared.
All of the dining furniture was modern and Asian: shiny black tables and low-backed black chairs with lime green bamboo print cushions. Well-to-do Thais filled the room. About one-third of the tables had at least one white person in their party. The air smelled of ginger, basil, chili, and the richest oils of the richest meats.
“Uhh...” said Yuri. “This place looks expensive.” He looked stressed out by this.
“It’s expensive compared to Khao San Road,” said Greg, “but it’s not too bad.”
“Uhh...” Yuri said again. “Yeah.” He whispered something to Lisa, who nodded and whispered something back to him. Yuri’s ears moved backwards like a cat’s as he listened. Whatever she had said to him, it made him look no less stressed out.
Marin’s group was seated right away, and Greg and Bree ordered beer and appetizers for everyone: deep-fried fish skin, green papaya salad, and chicken curry puffs.
“So I get to this monk’s house for the interview,” Greg said, continuing a story he’d begun in the car.
Three large bottles of Singha beer arrived, and the waitress set the bottles and six frosted glasses down in front of Bree. Greg reached over and poured all six beers, distributed them around the table, and took a long drink from his own glass as he continued talking.
“And this four-foot-five Thai woman answers the door. And I introduce myself, ask if Mr. So-and-So-long-ass-Thai-name is home. She doesn’t say anything so I explain that I’m doing my Ph.D. in religious studies and am doing a comparative analysis of the Rain Ritual in Thailand to coming-of-age practices for adolescent and young adult males in other religions and cultures around the world. You know, my whole shtick. She says, and I quote: ‘You talk a lot, making people very tired, I think.’”
Bree and Lisa giggled. Yuri narrowed his eyes at a huge pile of crab at the next table over. Marin wondered if, like in a cartoon, it looked like a huge pile of money to him.
“What. The. Hell.” Greg continued, “I thought I was going to see a monk, not a psychic.”
“Wow, she owned you, G-Cakes,” Bree said.
“You don’t make me tired, Greg,” Lisa said.
“Not ‘very’ anyway,” said Marin.
“And then I hear this man screaming in Thai in the background.” Greg rattled off a stream of syllables that sounded like fluent Thai to Marin.
“Whoa,” said Bree, looking disturbed.
“I guess I said that right,” Greg said.
“What was it?” asked Lisa.
“Thai men are evil,” Bree said, shaking her head.
“Thai men are e-vil?!” a very tall and attractive young Thai man standing at the head of their table exclaimed playfully. He was wearing a dark gray blazer over a T-shirt and shorts and pulled a bottle of champagne from a Duty Free bag and placed it on the table.
“Ducky!” Bree, Lisa, and Greg shouted in unison.
Yuri smiled for the first time since Marin had met him.
Ducky somehow wrinkled up the box-thick construction of the Duty Free bag into a ball and—Marin would remember this years later, with Parisian faux regret, as a bad omen that she had not heeded—dropped it on the floor.
Their group shifted chairs so that an empty chair opened up in the front near Ducky, across from Bree.
“And what about Thai women?” Ducky said, taking the empty seat. He had a British accent, Queen’s English. “You’re just innocent bystanders in all of this, I suppose?”
The appetizers arrived, along with—magically—champagne flutes. Ducky popped open the champagne under the table, and began pouring it into the flutes.
“Where were you coming back from when you got this champagne?” Bree asked. “Let me guess—” She closed one eye. “Frankfurt?”
“Close,” Ducky said. “Bern, actually.” He popped a fried fish skin chip in his mouth.
“How’s Switzerland these days?” Greg asked.
“Cold,” Ducky said, between crunches. “I must be spending too much time in Europe because these fish skins taste fucking brill.”
“Ducky, this lovely lady here is Marin Choo,” Greg said. “Bree picked her up on Khao San Road a few days ago. Marin is half-Chinese, half-Filipino, from Chicago originally, a Stanford grad, worked for the Pac Development Bank, got tired of that, and is now traveling around Southeast Asia for a few months.”
“Very excellent to meet you,” Ducky said. “Bree ‘picked’ you ‘up’ on Khao San Road? What does that mean?” He passed around the filled champagne flutes.
“It means that Greg does not satisfy Bree sexually anymore,” Lisa said.
Ducky laughed. “So she went looking for action on Khao San Road?” he said. “And she found you?” he said to Marin.
“Something like that,” Marin said.
“You’re just traveling around Asia?” Ducky asked.
“I think so,” Marin said. “I’ve only been in Malaysia and Thailand so far.”
“What about Cambodia?” Ducky said.
“I’m thinking about that next,” Marin said.
“Angkor Wat?” Ducky said.
“I would love to see Angkor Wat,” Marin said.
“It’s your lucky day,” Ducky said. “I have the Angkor Wat connection.”
He pulled out his handheld communication device, and thumbed some of its tiny buttons.
“When would you like to leave for Angkor Wat?” Ducky said.
“Sunday,” Marin said.
Ducky thumbed more tiny buttons.
“What’s your email address?” he asked.
“firstname.lastname@example.org,” Marin said. She spelled her username for him.
“Okay...” he said, typing. “And that’s... how it’s... done. You are now booked on the best shuttle from Bangkok to Siem Reap: air-conditioning, Japanese utility vehicle, and English-speaking driver who is actually acquainted with some basic traffic laws, incredibly enough. Pick-up is on Khao San Road on Sunday morning nine o’clock, and drop off is between seven and eight p.m at a very nice guesthouse in Siem Reap. They have a huge library, decent cook, and the rooms are well-appointed, charming, comfortable—it’s quite the bargain actually. My mate A.J. is based there and can arrange tours of the ruins upon your arrival.”
“Ducky has mates everywhere,” Bree said.
“All named A.J. too,” Greg said.
“He has girls everywhere too,” said Lisa.
“Also, coincidentally, all named A.J.,” Greg said.
“Uh-huh,” Marin said.
“I do not have mates, girls, anyone, anywhere,” Ducky said.
“Let’s make a toast,” Yuri said, raising his champagne flute.
“To A.J.!” Greg said, raising his flute.
“To A.J.!” they said, clinking flutes.
The champagne was cold, bitter, and sweet. Not the most authentic Thai beverage in the world to be sure, but Marin didn’t let that bother her. How liberating it was to be around fun and smart Americans! How much less explication and qualification everything required! A travel-arrangements-arranging Thai with a well-stamped passport wasn’t bad either.
Ducky got up and switched seats with Yuri so that he was sitting across from Marin.
“So where’d you get your tattoo?” Ducky asked her.
“‘The secret of being a bore is to tell everything,’” Marin said, feeling liberated enough to quote Voltaire.
Ducky laughed. “Gorgeous, funny, and mysterious,” he said. It wasn’t clear to whom he was providing this summary.
Marin did not think that Ducky was a serious person, but something made her want to take him seriously. And, frankly, she didn’t want to think too deeply about why.
The bus to Cambodia, the guesthouse, and A.J. were everything that Ducky had promised. Marin felt very spoiled. It had all been too easy. She felt on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
She woke up at four a.m. on her first morning in Siem Reap to go over with A.J. by tuk-tuk to the main Angkor Wat temple for sunrise.
Marin’s bones and joints burned with the pain of being torn prematurely from their eden of rest. In the dry orange light of the guesthouse gate lamps, A.J. waited for her. He was friendly without being intrusive or chatty, and the drive over to the park that housed the eight-hundred-year-old temples and ruins of Angkor was bumpy but quiet. Marin couldn’t see much—it was still very dark out—and fell asleep briefly, but when they reached the gate and bought Marin’s ticket, it was light enough to admire the smoothness of the black concrete road, the narrow lines of leaf-filled trees against a gray-green sky.
Inside the park, paddies of still black water soaked the bottoms of grass-crowned rows of rice. The sky was still and shallow as the water.
An unexpectedly lengthy time and distance later they reached what could only be Angkor Wat: a long stone wall framing a tumble of rosette-roofed towers, the wall in turn surrounded by a placid moat.
A.J. dropped Marin off at the entrance and joined the many other drivers and guides parked in the gravel pit across the street. Marin crossed the moat bridge without fanfare. Several hundred tourists were already lined up along the inside wall of the temple. They were camped out on the grass and stairs. Marin passed them and headed into the complex, walking up and down the cascade of stairs and corridors to the back, easternmost end of the building, where the sun was already starting to color and whiten and sidle its way up.
It was a massive ball of gas, and an arc of one of its satellite planets was rotating into view of it. The stone wall of Angkor Wat was cool under Marin’s palm. She was moving closer to the sun; they all were. Its light cast long shadows in the temple that would disappear at noon.
For one moment, Marin Choo could live with herself and everything she’d always done wrong.