About to turn forty, Carlos Peñalba quits his senior position at a financial software firm in New York City to travel through Asia for a year. Although his main motive is to explore a continent almost unknown to him, he also intends to use his journey to fulfill his dream of becoming a writer and a photographer.
Carlos’s original plan would take him from Nepal to Japan, but unexpected circumstances force him to alter his route and extend his adventure to eighteen months. After trekking high peaks, reaching remote cultures, having some interesting encounters and taking up vipassana meditation, the end of his long journey brings him (where he least expects it) something much more important than a new career.
The Year I Became a Nomad is a travel memoir of two journeys: Carlos’s physical and philosophical voyage to the East, as well as his personal quest to attain a new and fulfilling life.
“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” – W. B. Yeats
Excerpt from Chapter: Baguettes, Temples & Genocide
Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, is located on the banks of the river Sangker an hour south of Sisophon. I stayed at the hotel Chhaya, very central and with spacious rooms, air conditioning, and refrigerators. A young motorcyclist who helped me take my bag to my room offered to drive me to the most attractive temples in the area. He was young, friendly, smiled easily, and spoke good English, so I hired him. That afternoon we went to see Wat Ek Phnom, a temple in ruins from the Angkorian era. It’s located ten miles north of the city, and the way there is beautiful; first, by a narrow road lined with wooden houses between coconut and palm trees, then, in the countryside, through farming villages. My driver was twenty-three and liked movies so much he blew out phrases unknown to me from films like Die Hard and Crocodile Dundee. Films were his English teacher. When asked if he had a girlfriend, he replied, “No money, no honey,” an expression so popular it’s printed on shirts for sale in many shops.
Next day my motorist picked me up at 9 a.m. to go to Wat Banan temple, located on a hill that comes out of nowhere in the middle of the plain. I had to climb 359 steps to reach the top, where the views were spectacular. Later we went to Phnom Sampeau, better known as The Killing Cave. It’s at the top of a hill and has a skylight in the ceiling. The Khmer Rouge established a prison there and killed approximately 10,000 people by hitting them on the head and throwing them through the skylight to the bottom of the cave, about 65 feet below. Anyone who still remained alive was then finished off. In the cave there are many skulls and bones of those killed; a reclining Buddha has been placed there as a result of the killings. I asked my guide if someone in his family had died during that period: he said his mother witnessed her brother and sister’s murder, an uncle and aunt the young guy never had the chance to meet. He said his mother barely spoke about it because sadness and weeping took possession of her whenever she did.
I asked the driver to pick me up at 9 p.m. to go to the only club in town, Sky. While dining at Smoking Pot, a restaurant popular with tourists for its cooking classes, I met Brian, a young American who was also staying at Chhaya. I invited him to come to Sky, and we arranged to meet in the hotel lobby. From there we went out in the local style: the three of us on a bike. We went into the club without paying, sat at a high table with stools, and ordered three Angkor beers. It was Wednesday, and gradually the place filled up, surprising for the day of the week. The clientele was young; few were over twenty-five. As usual, there were more men than women, but surprisingly, males were more active on the dance floor. There were also some lady-boys, exaggerated in their hairstyles, makeup, and movements so there wouldn’t be any doubt they were really women. Western pop music alternated with Asian, with some hip-hop and rock in between. With midnight there also arrived half an hour of ballads so that couples could slow dance. None of us danced, although Brian and I tried unsuccessfully to push our young driver to hit the dance floor. On leaving the club we saw two attractive local women we had spotted dancing inside. I asked my driver to talk to them and ask them where they were going. Everything was closed already, but I insisted on his getting their phone numbers.
The next day I had planned to rent a bicycle and leave Battambang towards the Ek Phnom temple, to enjoy the beautiful Cambodian countryside. Before leaving, I went to the central market to repair the zipper on one of my shirts. In Asia everything that breaks can be repaired easily: shoes, clothes, bicycles, any machinery. Once inside the market, in the area where the seamstresses sew dresses, I showed my shirt to a woman who was putting together a wedding dress with her sewing machine. She glanced at the zipper and sent one of her two employees to buy a new one to sew onto my shirt collar. I sat on a bench to watch the women sew. The opposite stall was a ladies’ hairdresser, who was washing a lady’s hair; the sink was a large plastic drum. A stocky man approached with a thick wad of old money in his hand. All the stalls were handing him money, which I later learned were the daily market-cleaning fee. The collector asked me, in correct English, what I was doing there. He was friendly and chatty, and named Yam. He said the youngest of the seamstresses thought I was very handsome. I appreciated the compliment as she smiled, blushing. She was just eighteen. While playing with the notes, he invited me to his home for lunch, something he said he did from time to time with tourists. I hesitated but eventually accepted. He would pick me up at one of the market’s exits at 11:30 a.m.
After picking me up, he drove me on his bike across the river to his home in Battambang’s Muslim neighborhood. He had married a young Buddhist despite his parents’ opposition, who in protest didn’t attend the wedding. He told me he hardly visited the mosque; he wasn’t very religious and drank alcohol regularly. His house was a simple wooden building, with an open floor for cooking and storing tools, and a wooden platform to sit and eat on. The surrounding houses were so close that the concept of a neighborhood was given a new dimension. External stairs reached the first floor, where there was a main room and a bedroom. The neighboring Muslim children came to see me. Some girls covered their hair with scarves; a boy wore a Muslim cap. All were extremely friendly and curious. Yam’s wife was young, twenty-three. He was thirty-six, and they had a three-year-old boy who was with his grandparents, and another child was on the way: Yam’s wife was seven months pregnant. Yam liked soccer so much he’d named his son Wayne Rooney, after the excellent striker for Manchester United. At first I thought this was a nickname, but the father assured me it was his son’s legal name. Yam and I ate a fish soup and a delicious beef curry with rice on the wooden flooring downstairs. His wife remained on the top floor.
Later, he took me on his motorbike to see the ruins of a small temple about twenty minutes away amidst the beautiful countryside. On the way back, we stopped to watch three men fishing with their hands in a pool a foot deep. It is said that, during the rainy season, Cambodia when viewed from the sky looks like a huge pool full of fish. After the rains, as the rivers recede, many ponds are left behind, forming natural pools ideal for fishing; therefore, it’s common to see Cambodians fishing with their hands in those opaque ponds. In a little more than ten minutes, the fishermen threw four large fish at our feet. A woman and her daughter rushed to pick them up and place them in a bag before their frantic shaking could return them to the pond. Yam decided to buy three fish for his parents. It was up to me to carry the fish in a tied plastic bag while the still-living animals were trying to escape their fate. I met Yam’s parents, his sister, and also Wayne Rooney, who, fully naked, had a small plastic truck between his feet instead of a soccer ball. After we greeted them all and I gave them the bag with their night’s dinner, Yam dropped me off at my hotel but insisted I have dinner at his house. He was very persistent, always in a friendly way.
At the hotel I saw my young driver and asked if he had called the girls we met the previous night. He said that one of them had called earlier, saying she had to work that night in a bar he didn’t know but believed was a karaoke. She had invited us to stop by, but the proposal didn’t attract me too much, so I preferred to stick with the plan to have dinner with Yam. He picked me up on his motorbike. On the way home I asked him to stop to buy some drinks for dinner—a beer for me, two soft drinks for him and his wife, as in her presence Yam didn’t drink alcohol. We had dinner inside, sitting on the floor with the TV on showing a Korean soap opera. This time his wife joined us, but as she didn’t speak any English, she concentrated on the TV. Yam told me she was serious because she knew he had another girlfriend. He had met a young girl of twenty, who lost her parents very young, and was very poor. Although she worked as a waitress in a restaurant, she barely made enough to survive. In fact, she was homeless and slept in the restaurant. According to him, he was with her to help her out of pity, and that once committed he could not leave her. At that point I didn’t know what to think of him, whether he was being a true Good Samaritan or was just excusing himself without remorse.
When we finished dinner, he said he would like to introduce me to a woman. He told me she was not only beautiful physically but as a person too. I said, of course I would love to meet a woman with those characteristics. She lived nearby but that night was having dinner at a friend’s house. It took us a bit to find the address. Once we did, we were invited in to have a beer. Five people—a couple on vacation, the woman I was to meet, and two others—sat on the floor around the remains of a feast. The woman’s friend and her husband had just arrived on vacation from the United States, where they lived in California. The woman Yam wanted me to meet was called Sokun, pretty and tall, of dark complexion, with round eyes, high cheekbones, and a wide white smile. She spoke enough English without difficulty. After the beer, we said goodbye, and Sokun escorted us to the bike. Yam asked what I thought of her, if I liked her. I said yes, and we agreed to meet the next day in the afternoon.
We jumped on the motorcycle to go to Sky. On the way, Sokun called Yam to make sure I’d like to see her the following day, and to apologize for not coming with us for a drink. She said she was too drunk to venture out. In Sky we just had a beer, and afterwards I asked Yam to take me to the hotel. On the way, he swerved and stopped at a “massage” place where several scantily dressed women sat outside, waiting for customers. I told Yam I was not interested, but he seemed to want one, and maybe thought I would pay for it. I stood firm and left the women without a customer and Yam dissatisfied. My opinion of him was deteriorating.
Sokun called Yam and agreed to meet up at 6:30 p.m. in the park by the river. She preferred to meet in a public place but after dark so her appointment wouldn’t be too visible. Sokun arrived on her motorbike, and we sat on a bench watching a group of women who gathered daily at the park for an aerobics class. We talked about going to dinner together. I exchanged Yam’s bike for Sokun’s. The restaurant was a large place with live music: a woman brightened up the night with her songs. We sat down and Yam went to talk to a waitress; he had brought us to the restaurant where his young friend worked. We had eel soup, rice, and beef with vegetables. Yam’s girlfriend reluctantly sat down to dine with us. She had a sweet and humble smile with a mixture of tenderness and sadness. The image of Yam’s wife, seven months pregnant, sitting alone at home worried about her husband’s whereabouts didn’t stop flashing in my head. I didn’t feel guilty about the situation, his being there with me dining with Sokun and that girl instead of his wife—if not me, someone else would have been his excuse—but the memory of that young woman left at home when she needed him the most was souring my dinner. Afterwards, Sokun and I left Yam in the restaurant and went to one of the street bars along the river.
Sokun was thirty-six years old, divorced for twelve years, and had two children, a boy of thirteen and a girl of eleven. She had married at twenty-one, as arranged between her and the groom’s parents. She had accepted it, as millions of women in many parts of the world have done and still do. Once married, she suffered tremendously as her husband spent his money in bars and on women, didn’t show her any respect, and even beat her regularly. Sokun had decided to divorce him while pregnant with the girl. She cried every day, unhappy, looking at the difficulties that awaited her, a young woman of twenty-four with two children, alone in a country where a divorced woman would probably remain so for the rest of her life. Her husband, as it happened, had not expected the divorce, repented, and came home, asking for forgiveness, crying for her to return. He knew it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to find another woman after the divorce and the bad reputation he would get, in addition to losing the services of a housewife. She, however, could not contemplate being with him, preferring to deal with the difficulties of a dignified solitude. Now she worked at a guesthouse, cleaning and cooking six days a week, for which she earned $100 a month, a salary that had to feed her, her children, and her mother, with whom they lived.