The first sip is heaven. I greedily gulp, allowing the cool coconut water to rinse my dust-covered throat. My desert tongue is brought back to life. I look down; my skin is caked in a thick layer of grime. I turn to Rose and begin to laugh. The first 30 kilometers of our trip has left us as dark as the dirt road beneath our tires. The Khmer woman still holding the coconut-opening machete looks even more confused; her proclivity to smile – shared by most in Cambodia – soon overtakes. We must be quite the sight: two light-haired Americans traveling by bicycle, covered in dust, arms and legs exposed to the sun. Yet, the attention we receive is relatively little compared to our previous travels; the mobility most celebrated.
I left India almost two weeks previously, arriving first in the clean, orderly, and seemingly futuristic Singapore. The curt transition left me wide-eyed. As I absorbed all around me, no one stared at me in return. For the first time in a long time, I was able to melt into city life. My body relaxed. It relaxed from a tenseness of which I had not been conscious – an instinctual state of defensiveness stemming from my relative vulnerability. A woman in a man’s world, I had oft found myself the only female on the streets in India and Africa. In Singapore, I was merely one beating heart in a pulsating metropolis – I found asylum in anonymity.
From Singapore, I had planned to work my way through Malaysia and into Thailand where I would meet a friend from Vanderbilt. While sorting through these plans, I received a most unexpected, and equally exciting, email from a high school friend named Rose. Traveling through a fellowship almost identical to the Keegan, Rose is studying the role of sports for self-confidence in girls, particularly those living in male-dominated societies. After about five months in India, Rose moved to Battambang, Cambodia, her current location, to work with SALT (Sports and Leadership Academy). She had seen my Keegan itinerary, knew I was in the region, and invited me for a visit.
Rose and I hadn’t seen each other since high school. We hadn’t even kept in touch. But the opportunity to reconnect abroad, when we were both in such similar circumstances, was too much to pass. I adjusted my plans and used my travel rewards to book a flight from Malaysia to Cambodia. This would become one of the best impulsive itinerary changes of the year.
In Battambang, I was able to see life in Cambodia apart from tourism; to attend the oldest team’s soccer practice; to share experiences with one of the few people in my same position; and to return to life on a bicycle.
Much of Rose’s time in India had been even more mobility-limited than my own. As such, she had fully taken advantage of the relative freedom in Cambodia for cycling, undertaking multiple overnight bike trips up to 300 km in distance. When I arrived, she proposed we embark on our own. We would bike 90 km to Pailin, spend the night in town, and bike the 90 km back to Battambang the following day.
I knew the trip would be hard for out-of-practice legs, but I couldn’t resist. My muscles itched for the fatigue of limit-pushing exercise; my heart yearned for the exhilaration of self-powered travel.
So we did it.
And yes, the journey was tiring.
But it was beautiful.
And I felt free.