By Dipika Kohli
Northwest Asian Weekly
Three guys who talked like Eastenders asked me what I wanted.
Pasta. Did they have that? Kind of. In a set.
“Ok. I’ll have that. The special. But can I substitute the beer, please? Do you have milk? Yes. Yes, thanks.”
I was not in the mood for beer and pasta, conversation of the variety that happens when you go to a place with lots of young people who are on the road indefinitely, searching for something but not necessarily aware of what, or why, or how, and often getting distracted by whatever’s around. It’s normal. It’s the age.
Me, I’ve been traveling for about twenty years, but in intermittent blocks. India for three months when I was 23, then Ireland for three years with all the setup that comes with that, and now I’m in Cambodia. It’s been almost a year, and I feel good here, noticing the new.
“I like Kampot,” I say, mindlessly to myself, but out loud.
Aske Pederson, who pronounces his name “Es-keh” and said I could print it here, heard. “You visiting for long?”
“A couple of days. Maybe four. Maybe five. I’ll just see. I want to kind of get offline a bit, you know?” Glowing screens all around the place—on tables, at bar counters, in pockets shining through—gave me the feeling I was on some kind of New Generation tour. Going to India on my own in the nineties was mostly journaling, scrapbooking, and commingling with the other people around the way we were doing now. Just hangin’ out, like I remember from before, in small towns in Himachal Pradesh and Kochin, without hundreds of people to talk to in any time zone at our fingertips. What’s going on, these days? What’s really happening to us?
I almost didn’t go on my Kampot sojourn because I know it’s going to be like this. But I can’t help it. I’m feeling keyed up in Phnom Penh with my routine, and there’s not a lot of greenery around, a lot of expats talk about that, especially the ones from Melbourne who really, really miss their parks.
Public space, private space. For sharing, and caring. It’s hard to discover the way from one to the other, but it’s possible, when we make time and room to try. Which involves, of course, taking small risks. Journeying out, even a small three-hour jut into Cambodia’s eastern turf from my base, is fine, is good, is clearing the head a bit. I go offline. I draw. I pick up my pen, before the pasta.
“I used to draw,” says Aske. “When I was a kid I was good at it. I should do that more. I should draw.”
I pull out a blank cream sheet of A4. A pen. I push it towards him, across the diagonal space of my placemat and his. In a square, if one edge is the length “s,” that distance is “s” times the square root of two. I like this idea of roots and twos. I think about things like this but try not to let them enter first-time conversations.
But I can’t help it. I talk geometry. I go into math.
Surprisingly, this is welcomed. It begins to feel like I’m talking to my younger brother, in fact. I can go on for a while about nothing in particular, and it gets vaguely interesting when one thread connects to another that is parlayed in from the outside boundaries, from the edges, pulling and drafting their way to center space, and the people who contribute to it words and observations move the stories along, and build new weaves. I like this. It feels connectional, if that’s a word, in a way that online doesn’t.
The new year got me to think about those things I want to change and those things I want to develop more deeply. Get off Facebook. Open my own website, mynamedotcom, which I’d always thought was totally self-centered but now I realize is the hardest thing I’ve done professionally, as it come down to accepting myself as an artist, through and through, without apology. Used to be I’d hide behind a moniker, a design studio name, making me feel official, making me feel legit. (Our studio designed the 25-year anniversary update of this publication, for example.) Good times, but boring, after a while. Not quite… challenging enough. What could I do, instead?
Oh, yeah. Move to Phnom Penh. Figure something out when I got there.
I would be in Kampot for a few days to see about making some sort of event happen, but I wasn’t sure just yet what. I had some zines in hand, these worksheet booklets I was playing with while in Singapore last November, seeing if I could enter some stuff into their Art Book Fair and meandering into the space of asking those hard questions like “Four things to ask yourself to chart your life course” in an approachable, accessible way. Would someone in Kampot want me to share them?
An American. Surprising, since I had this bias against Americans when they opened conversations, their style being that of overwhelming the other, in a rhetorical blow-by-blow of debate whose aim is to conquer. I got into one of those discussions for the first time at Junior’s in Brooklyn in the 90’s, it was philosophy and logic, and pushing and not yielding. It was icky, really, afterwards. I realized though I’d been able to “win,” it felt terrible. The quality of the after-space, the just-after, was crap. I swore I wouldn’t do that again. Try to beat someone down with words.
The English lads seemed more needed to for this sort of outfit. They were walking around like the floor was covered in sawdust and blood, like they were just back from Glasgow, broken-toothed and freshly tattooed.
“It’s some kind of poker night tonight, it seems.”
That explained the downbeat feeling. Shaggy dogs, oiling about as if they were part of the furniture, waxed over with layers of dust and soot and a sensation that it was filmed with diesel.
Aske sneezed. Or coughed. He was hanging in there, though.
“Are you sick?”
“I have a cold. Or something. Headache. Stomach stuff.”
“You might have dengue!” I shocked myself with this ridiculous statement, because I sounded exactly like my mother. But that didn’t keep me from pressing: “Have you had a test?”
“You might have it! You should get a test! It takes no time or anything. It’s like, five minutes. Dude. Just get one.”
“I’m going to see if I feel better tomorrow,” he said.
Right. But then, when you’re still in your early twenties, you don’t think about consequences, tests, anxieties, what ifs. You’re still open. You’re young, you’re interested, you don’t think stuff can end too fast and that life is long, an open road, with voluminous oranges heavy in groves, bounty on both sides.
Some of this I may have blurted out, saying things I can’t remember a little blurry, but out loud.
To which he said: “Want to know how to be absolutely sure you’ll be miserable?”
“Know exactly how your life is going to end.”
Endings. The road.
“Wow,” I said, genuinely impressed. “Did you make that up?”
*Beat*. *”No.” *Beat*. “I heard it on a podcast.”
“You know, you could have made it up that you made it up, and I wouldn’t know.”
“I know. I thought about making it up. For a second.”
“But you didn’t.”
“But I didn’t.”
What about all those people posting status updates, right now in the world, wherever they are. How much of what they share is real, and how much is made up. What does it mean, what does it not mean, how does it matter. I’m not around my iPad, so I can’t look at examples right then, right now, while it’s on the forefront of my mind where it should stay for point four seconds and then blip out into the universe. Instead, when there are those things near me, I will look. I will waste time. The minutes of my life, adding up. I will dig in, and it won’t be useful.
But for now, I’m in Kampot. I’m talking about life, endings, awakenings, and the road.
However it ends, we concur in our own ways, is fine. (end)
Dipika Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.