It is about to be light outside. I hug my arms to my chest and shine the light of my phone upon the wooden balcony, white and bone-like in the 4 a.m. darkness.
There is a small table with a basket of bruised bananas on it; a dresser with a scratched plastic mirror; wooden steps that curve down into the darkness, into the wet underbelly of the house, where earlier that afternoon, I had lolled in a hammock while my host mom crouched beside me, peeling and slicing carrots, occasionally looking up to smile at me, occasionally flicking carrot skin off the edge of her knife.
That afternoon had passed by in a sweltering, dreamlike haze. Chickens pecked around my drooping arms as I picked at a rusty nail on one of the wooden stilts that held up my hammock. It could have been days that I lay there, even years, with only the dull and distant noise of the village’s main road to sustain me. When my host mom got up to leave, I opened my eyes and stopped her with an outstretched arm.
“Do you have—fan?” I could feel the sweat pooling at my back. It was so hot that I could feel the life going out of me, evaporating through my pores. I was dissipating with every second that passed. She shook her head.
“No,” she said, and I watched her skirts drag against the wooden floorboards above as she shuffled into the house. I would get a lot more ‘no’s in the next few hours. ‘No’ to Wi-Fi. ‘No’ to running water. ‘No’ to power outlets. ‘No’ to everything that could have been familiar to me in a Cambodian village that was one boat lift, two bus trips, and a twelve-hour plane ride away from home.
In the dark, I get to my feet, slip on my sandals, and put my earphones in. “Out of the Woods”--again. Taylor Swift’s 1989 was the only music I had downloaded on my phone before the backpacking trip. For the past month—the trains in and out of Bangkok, the Thai islands, Myanmar’s temples, and now, this village—I had only Taylor Swift for every occasion. There was no mood music, no Spotify “Confidence Booster” or “Chill Vibes.” There was only Taylor Swift at all times of the day, for nostalgic nights at the hostel and biking to temples, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
I walk out to the single main street. The red dust that rises up in angry clouds during the day, that clings to everything—bicycle wheels, pant legs, the navy skirts of the schoolgirls that pass by on the backs of motorcycles—is listless on the ground. Most of the rickety shops are closed. There is a circle of sun-browned old men gathered in plastic chairs around a TV in a dim restaurant, but none of them stir when I pass by them.
No one is watching me in this darkness, on this red dust road that hides the sounds of my footsteps, on these stolen slivers of moments in the early morning. I could walk on for as long as I wanted. I could fall asleep on the side of the road. I could get lost in the jungle, so lost that no one would find me, and months later there would be some notice for a foreigner’s body found in the brush but it would just be a paper notice, stuck on a wooden wall in the village’s main hall, for a foreigner’s body found in the brush of the middle of nowhere. In a way, I feel more myself than I have ever felt before.
A farmer crosses my path. He is heading off the side of the main road, towards the open fields where the cows graze. I don’t think; I just follow him.
He stands at the edge of the fence, his back to me, watching two white cows picking at the grass, and he is like a man at a museum. When I stand next to him, he smiles. I take out one earphone, then the other.
As we watch the sun creep up from behind the trees, I can only feel the present, extending from this moment to the next to the next, and it is not terrible anymore but something beautiful. And as I walk back to my host family’s home, back to the porch where I had sat for the entire night, turning my flashlight on and off because that, for some reason, had made me feel less alone, I see a fresh pile of cow dung on the edge of the road and the village beginning to wake up.
—Magazine writer Heidi Lai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @hiheidz.