I like planning.
When I was 11 years old, I decided to get an English degree. When I was 14, I made a plan to graduate college before the age of 21. I listed potential schools to attend and which courses to take, ending up with complete plans for at least four different schools.
I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English two days before my 21st birthday.
Then I got married.
Then my dad passed away from cancer.
That wasn’t a part of the plan.
It never is. You know it’s going to happen eventually. It’s inevitable. But you don’t plan for it. Because those plans are too painful to make.
We had a funeral. The multitude of flowers around the house withered away and died. I went on my honeymoon. Life went on.
I worked in an office. One of those big gray boxes in the middle of a sea of gray boxes. It was static. Reliable. Commute thirty minutes on the freeway, clock in, work, clock out, commute thirty minutes, home. Five days a week.
Every week. The same. But life went on, right?
Every day, re-live my dad’s final moments in the hospital room. Every day, listen to my mom talk about him. Every day, look at people twice, three times my age, still having a dad to talk to, to hug, to debate politics with.
Grief is a strange thing. One second you’re fine and the next you’re sobbing and forcing yourself to confront it.
Two months after my dad’s death, it was time for a new plan.
I had lived in Utah for 17 years of my short 21-year life. For 15 of those 17 years, I lived in the same two-mile radius.
I shopped in stores my dad shopped at. I ate in restaurants my dad ate in. I sat on the couch he sat in. I needed change. New scenery. A new job. A new life.
My husband, David, and I had discussed moving abroad before. We both loved to travel. We were both tired of Utah. So, why not leave for real? We had degrees. That magical piece of paper was our ticket to a vast array of jobs beyond the borders of the Utah bubble. But, as much as I’d like to say go wherever the wind takes you, if you’re not a trust-fund baby, that’s not an option.
Where could we go? Where could I forget about my grief?
Cambodia. A place where many people have lost themselves. It’s hard to plan for tomorrow when you’re not even sure of today.
Two million people were killed in Cambodia during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s — the Cambodian Genocide. An entire generation of Cambodians erased by a cruel regime, leaving behind a wound that still hadn’t healed. Leaving behind a world that didn’t know they had ever existed.
Even now, many Cambodians live on $10 a day or less. Poverty is rampant. Many do not have access to clean water, proper medical care, or education, but they’re resilient. They had experienced so much loss, and yet they continued to re-build their country and reclaim their history obscured by the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia was finding itself. Maybe Cambodia could help find me.
I found a job teaching English. I thought I could do it.
Four flights across the world later, the brutal heat and humidity slapped me into reality.
As much as David and I loved traveling, our only international travel experience was a couple of cruises; yet, here we were, diving into a year-long teaching commitment in a country we’d never been to for an Eat Pray Love dream.
My school sent a driver to pick us up. “Welcome to Cambodia.”
We exchanged greetings and I reached for the seatbelt, not finding one. As the car began to meander through the crowded streets, I got my first look at Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. The roads were too narrow for the army of American-sized white SUVs and swarm of tuk-tuks and motorbikes zipping and swerving like busy bees on their way to the hive. If there were any traffic laws, they were just suggestions.
“How do you like Cambodia so far?” Our driver asked.
My eyes burned from a sleepless night spent on the plane as a sardine stuffed in a can next to a man with dandruff. As much as I wanted to close my eyes, I couldn’t.
“It’s very different,” I answered truthfully.
We drove past packs of skinny stray dogs, skinny stray children, make-shift huts, barbed-wire villas, trash mountains, and a tuk-tuk driver urinating on the side of the road in full-view. We were a pair of twenty-something Americans from Utah, the land of funeral potatoes and Mormons. I thought I knew what poverty looked like. I didn’t.
I knew what loss was, but this was more.
“Here we are,” the driver said, pulling up to the apartment building. We unloaded our luggage and started hauling our belongings upstairs.
A shirtless boy, no older than 12, sat on a wooden stool at the foot of the stairs, watching a little box TV like the kind my mother watched telenovelas on in the kitchen years ago. The hammock the boy slept in every night was beside him. This was our security guard.
A woman with permed hair and pajamas greeted us. “Hello! So nice to meet you! Teacher from school, yes?” This was our landlord.
We hauled our sticky, sweaty selves up several flights of stairs.
The landlord followed us inside. “You like?”
Our apartment was beautiful. A wrap-around balcony revealed panoramic views of Phnom Penh. The A/C worked wonderfully. The king-sized bed beckoned me.
“This place is amazing,” David said.
“Yes, okay! I see you tomorrow with contract for rent.”
I could finally close my eyes. “Look at this,” David yelled from the kitchen a few moments later. Never mind.
A parade of ants lined the floor from the kitchen counter to the fridge. The counter was coated in a layer of grime. The bathroom was not much better. It smelled like durian fruit.
I walked out on the balcony.
At 7 PM, it was already pitch-black outside. One minute the sun was there, the next, it was gone, leaving a night sky of high-rise skeletons and a moon shaped like a bowl instead of a crescent. I hadn’t missed the sunset. There wasn’t one. We were right next to the equator. A world away from the Wasatch mountains and sprawling suburbs of Salt Lake City.
“How are you doing?” David asked.
My hair was frizzier than it was in the sixth grade. My eyes hurt. My knees hurt. I hadn’t showered after flying across the world.
“Can we go to bed?”
The mattress was titanium. The pillows were even harder. I was too tired to notice the sheets were dirty. Dogs all over the city decided to bark.
I woke up with bedbug bites.
At 4 AM, I found David, already in the living room, attempting to fix a blurry image on the TV.
“How did you sleep?” I asked.
“My back hurts,” he answered. “How about you?”
I lifted my leg to show five angry bed bug bites.
I knew it was wrong to complain. We had an apartment nicer than many in Phnom Penh. Air conditioning, wifi, television — amenities we took for granted in America every day. So what if it was dirty? At least we had a home. That was more than many people here had.
After scrubbing the bites and washing the sweat out of my hair, it was time to venture out.
Our neighborhood was calm. Women swept their sidewalks and set up carts selling wares. Men sat outside with newspapers and cigarettes. Kids played tag. At 5 in the morning, Phnom Penh teemed with life while Salt Lake slept thousands of miles away.
I wondered what it was like to grow up in a country so devastated by death. Grief compelled me to leave my entire life behind to come to Cambodia. I had that privilege. What about the security guard? A little boy sleeping in a hammock every night, alone. Who was his security guard?
When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in the 70s, Pol Pot forced Phnom Penh’s residents to leave the city for farms and labor camps in the countryside. Overnight, hundreds of thousands of people became homeless. Many died of starvation. Others of disease or exhaustion. And still many more were brutally tortured and murdered. Four decades later, homeless people wandered the streets with vacant eyes in search of homes and dreams long ago shattered. The child security guard was a victim of the Khmer Rouge too, even after all these years.
We hitched a ride off Grab, the tuk-tuk equivalent to Uber, to find a bite for breakfast. Imagine the I-15 freeway in Lehi, Utah, under construction, or whatever your most dangerous road is. Riding a tuk-tuk is like that, but if your car didn’t have doors. Just a paper-thin roof. The tuk-tuk only traveled 30 miles per hour, yet I felt like I was in a Mission Impossible car-chase scene, zooming down narrow roads, sliding on tight turns, and constantly dipping into oncoming traffic, but somehow, miraculously, not wrecking. I held David’s hand tightly and prayed silently.
“I can’t breathe,” David said after we stepped out of the tuk-tuk. He had asthma. I thought he was referring to how crazy the ride was. He wasn’t.
I wasn’t paying close attention though, because what came next was the highlight of my brief time in Cambodia. We ate at One More, the restaurant with the best noodles I’ve ever eaten — egg noodles in a delicious stir-fry sauce with crunchy snow peas, fried egg, and cooked carrots.
After eating our delicious breakfast, it was time to tour my school. We grabbed another tuk-tuk back to our apartment, where a driver would be waiting to take us to the school for a scheduled tour.
The school was an hour away by car, surrounded by tall, barbed-wire fences. A guard was stationed outside the front gate, wearing a baton on his hips.
“I thought I’d be working closer to our apartment, at the Kindergarten campus,” I said to David. “This doesn’t look like the school I saw in pictures.”
My heart started to pound, as it always does before a job interview. I already had the job, I shouldn’t be scared, and yet here I was, in Cambodia, 8,000 miles away from home. I left my mom and dog behind. I sold my car. Quit my job. All for a country I had never even been to.
The school administrator came a few minutes later. “Kendra, it’s nice to finally meet you in person! Welcome to Cambodia! Let’s have a tour, shall we?”
The administrator showed me the classrooms, cafeteria, and swimming pool. She explained that the students here generally came from wealthy families. Most Cambodians couldn’t afford an education like this. Many couldn’t afford any education at all.
Pol Pot had envisioned a utopia, or so he claimed, a country where every Cambodian would live without the “evils of the world.” He took away education. Then, he killed anyone who had an education. And eventually, in his insanity, he killed anyone who wore glasses.
I never learned about the Cambodian Genocide in school.
The administrator pushed up her glasses. “Do you have all your documents with you?”
I showed her my college diploma, passport, TEFL certificate, and immunization record.
“Excellent. I’m going to scan these. Please, make yourself comfortable.”
I watched out the window as a caravan of tuk-tuks and cars zoomed down the street.
“Here we are,” the administrator said, her high heels clacking against the floor. “Now I have some documents for you to sign.”
She handed me a job contract. I signed a digital version three months earlier. I already did my homework, at least I thought. The contract didn’t go into effect until Monday.
I slid the papers across the table.
“Thank you, now let me go over expectations. You are required to be at the Kindergarten campus every morning at 7:15 AM to wait for a tuk-tuk that will take you to this campus. You will teach the class of children ages 2 to 5 –”
“Sorry, I thought I would be working at the Kindergarten campus. Didn’t we go over this in our interview a few months ago?” It had never been put on paper.
The administrator gave me a quizzical look. “Oh, did we? My apologies.”
She continued going over expectations and procedures without skipping a beat.
I didn’t say anything. I should have. But I didn’t. I just sat there, nodded, and smiled. The meeting ended. “I will see you on Monday for your first day.” The administrator waved us goodbye and her high heels clacked away.
I sank into the couch the moment we arrived back at our apartment. The A/C blasted my sticky skin. I thought my Venezuelan body was made for 100-degree weather and high humidity, but even I was beginning to feel sluggish. David was drenched in sweat the moment we arrived and still hadn’t got a chance to properly dry.
“The Kindergarten campus is a block away from our apartment. That’s where the school said I’d work, back during my interview a few months ago. They didn’t tell me I’d be working an hour away,” I said.
“Maybe we can get an apartment closer to the school. We haven’t signed the rental contract yet,” David said, “anyway, it’s the Fourth of July. Do you want to go out? Do something fun? We have a few days to kill before your job starts and we have time to figure everything out.”
The fact that it was the Fourth of July hadn’t even crossed my mind. America was shooting off fireworks and barbecuing burgers while Cambodians were still trying to pick up the pieces from a decade’s long mess. And instead of helping them pick up those pieces, I was self-absorbed in my own mess. Happy Fourth of July.
I wanted to go home and I hated myself for thinking that.
To celebrate the Fourth of July and attempt to get my spirits back up, we decided to go out for a night on the town. Our next tuk-tuk ride wasn’t any easier than the last. “It’s so hard to breathe out here,” David said, taking a puff of his inhaler. The air was heavy with exhaust fumes and dust from the thousands of motorbikes, cars, and people packed into the tiny roads. Even I was having trouble breathing, and I wasn’t the asthmatic one. Of course, I got over it as soon as we got out of the tuk-tuk. David didn’t get over it.
But at the time, I was only thinking of myself.
We visited a Japanese-owned mega mall, Aeon, a four-story tower of entertainment. Two floors of shopping, an entire amusement park on the third floor, and a randomly-placed DMV on the top. It was the coolest mall I had ever seen, but I still wanted to go home.
I wasn’t ready for this. I was a naïve, privileged, sheltered woman from half a world away. I didn’t belong in Cambodia. I couldn’t open a jar of peanut butter by myself. I had never even lived alone. What made me think I could navigate life here? Cambodians were strong. Me? Pathetic.
I remembered my mom warning me. She grew up in Venezuela with six siblings and a single mother. She knew what it was like to be hungry. She knew what it was like to not have electricity. To not have running water. She understood Cambodia. I didn’t.
And here I was with an apartment nicer than half the buildings in Phnom Penh with all the comforts of my American life, terrified. What would my dad think?
I knew what I thought. I was ashamed. I could hear my mom saying, “I told you so.”
I was ready to collapse. Every time I looked at something, my eyes burned and watered. I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep since we were back in America.
If we stayed in Cambodia, my contract with the school would begin and I would have to pay a contract breakage fee, the equivalent of one month’s salary, $1,700. We had a decision to make. Leave now while we still had money to get home or wait it out to see if it got better?
I didn’t have $1,700 to pay the breakage fee.
We discussed our deteriorating emotional states over breakfast noodles at our favorite restaurant, One More.
“It’s okay if you want to go home,” David said. He started to cough. “I don’t know if I can even handle the pollution here. It’s really getting to me.”
I handed him a glass of water. “I don’t want to be a failure.”
“Well, we came, and it didn’t work out. That’s okay. At least we tried. How many people back home would even try to do something like this? We did it! Be proud of that!”
“It’s hard to be proud when I’m about to abandon a job I didn’t even start. When I’m about to abandon those kids who need a teacher. You can’t say we tried. We’ve done nothing but complain.”
“We made a mistake, so let’s try to fix our mistake instead of making it worse,” David said. “If we’re not happy here, we’re not happy. The school will find a new teacher in no time. I’m sure.”
“I came here because I wanted my dad to be proud of me,” I cried out. And there it was. What every child wants. To make their parents proud.
Most Cambodians were Buddhist. Monks in distinctive orange robes strolled Phnom Penh’s streets. My parents were Mormon. Mormon missionaries strolled Salt Lake City’s streets in white shirts and ties.
What religion was I? I didn’t consider myself anything. My dad considered that a problem. I stopped attending my parent’s church around the same time he was diagnosed with cancer. His religion was everything to him. He was everything to me.
And now he was gone. I wanted to make my dad proud, but I didn’t know how. David coughed into his shirt, his face pale with sweat.
“Let’s go home,” I said. I was devastated. Not even the plate of delectable noodles and snow peas in front of me could help.
“Your dad is proud of you,” David said. “I hope you realize that.”
I do now.
David and I went back to our apartment to pack what little we had unpacked.
Someone was knocking at our door. David walked over and let our landlord in. She wore dark sunglasses and pajamas. “Hi, sorry I no bring rent contract sooner. I got eye surgery.” She pointed at her sunglasses.
Oh. “That’s fine,” I said. “No problem. Actually, you don’t have to bring the contract –”
“I have it here,” she said.
“Really, you don’t need the contract. We’re leaving,” David said. “We’re going back to America.”
The landlord was silent. We stood like statues.
“We’re going –”
“I heard you,” the landlord hissed. “Why? Why you disrespect me like this? This is not right, you know! It’s not right!”
“I-I know,” David said. “We feel really bad. It’s just not going to work for us. I’m really sorry.”
“No, no,” the landlord said. “It’s not right.”
“We’ve only been here a couple nights and the contract hasn’t been signed yet. We can just go and you can rent it out immediately. We’ll clean everything up. Leave it even better than we found it. It’s not a problem.”
“Yes! It is problem! You no leave!”
“I’m really sorry, I don’t know what else to tell you, but we are leaving. I’m so sorry.”
“My apartment. My money. One-month rent,” the landlord insisted.
David reluctantly handed her a wad of cash. $420.
“Fine. Get out now. Can’t stay here. Leave key on counter.” The landlord huffed and puffed her way back downstairs.
“I’ll call a Grab for the airport,” David said.
“But I haven’t booked a flight home yet.”
“Well we can’t stay here,” David shouted. “The landlord wants us out and we need to leave before your school contract starts in three days.”
“Okay, I get it, let’s just stop to think for a second.” But neither of us were thinking clearly. I hadn’t thought clearly in a long time. If I were, I wouldn’t be in Cambodia right now.
“We can’t carry this luggage around!” David was losing his temper and wheezing as he grabbed the suitcases one by one, shoving them outside the door. “Start taking these downstairs.”
I took one suitcase, slowly lugging it down the four stories it took to reach the bottom of the staircase. It was 100 degrees out with high humidity.
“We have to hurry,” David shouted, hopping down the stairs past me with a suitcase under each arm. He was drenched head to toe in sweat. It was even dripping off his eyelashes.
“We don’t have to hurry. You paid the landlord, it’s over. Slow down before you hurt yourself.”
David dropped a suitcase on the curb and dashed back up to the top of the stairs for more. He was coughing and heaving as if he had just run a marathon.
“You have asthma!” I yelled. “Please, just slow down.”
He sprinted back down, his chest rapidly rising and falling. “There’s. One. More. Suitcase,” he breathed.
“I’ll get it,” I said, but he darted past me. When he came back down, his face was beet-red. Sweat droplets filled his glass lenses. He wiped a smear off his dripping face. He wasn’t okay.
“There’s the car. Let’s go.” David started lifting the luggage once again.
“Please just let the driver do it,” I said. “You’re not okay right now.”
He ignored me, lunging the heaviest 50-pound suitcase into the trunk. He hadn’t slept any more than me. He was straining himself and his asthma was getting far worse than I’d ever seen.
We headed toward the airport. David couldn’t catch his breath. I handed him a water bottle. He drank the whole thing.
When we got to the airport, David leaned against the wall, grabbing his chest. “I can’t breathe,” he said. He fished through his backpack and grabbed his inhaler.
I pushed a luggage cart as David attempted to follow. He was ghostly white. He dropped into the first chair he could find. “I can’t get on a plane. I’m sorry.”
“The next flight to Salt Lake doesn’t leave until 10 tonight. Do you think you’ll be okay by then?”
David clutched his chest. Beads of sweat pooled around his face. “I feel horrible right now,” he said. “I’m dizzy, I feel sick.”
“I-I’ll find a medic or someone. Just wait here.” There was no running away from problems. Cambodia knew that better than I ever could. I thought of the little boy security guard at the apartment. I hoped he would be okay. I hoped my husband would be okay.
I went off in search of help while David coughed and struggled to catch his breath. I reached out to the first employee I saw and asked for help. The employee looked at me quizzically but understood enough English to call emergency personnel on his walkie-talkie. Several minutes later two men with a medical toolkit found me and David.
They took David’s vitals. “Everything look fine. You have enough oxygen.”
“But I feel like I’m going to pass out,” David said.
He didn’t look fine.
The men took their toolkit and walked away wishing us safe travels.
“Go ahead and book the flight to Salt Lake.”
“Just because they said you’re fine doesn’t mean you’re fine.”
“Well we’re in Cambodia so…”
I booked the flight to Salt Lake. The sooner we were home, the sooner we could figure out what was going on. Asthma attack? Rare tropical disease?
I wheeled the luggage to a Korean restaurant while David sipped water. Our flight was seven hours away. “Want a bite of my noodles?” I asked. “These are delicious. I wish Utah had Bonchon.”
“I think I’m going to faint,” David said.
“Come on, you’re not going to –” I dropped my fork as David fell backwards. I screamed and leaped from my chair.
At least thirty pairs of eyes locked onto the scene we had just created. “Help! Call an ambulance,” I yelled, grabbing David’s head. My heart pounded and everything was blurry.
A crowd formed. A poor lady from Burger King offered a glass of water. Phones took pictures and videos.
Airport staff brought a wheelchair, lifting David off the floor. It was the same men who told him just a while ago that he was fine.
Eventually, after what felt like an eternity, the ambulance arrived. “Where are we going?” David asked.
“Royal Hospital. Nice western hospital,” the paramedic said. He loaded David and our luggage into the ambulance. I squeezed into the tiny amount of space left, and off we went.
How crazy it was, to be over 8,000 miles away from home, riding in an ambulance in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We were stuck in gridlock traffic. Tuk-tuks and motos weaved their way around the ambulance, blocking our path. There was no running away from problems and all it took was a trip across the world and my husband ending up in an ambulance for me to learn that.
We spent the next three hours in the emergency room. We weren’t getting on our flight to America.
We slept in a hospital room that reminded me of my dad’s room at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. The last time I saw him alive.
My dad wasn’t an emotional man. One of the only times he audibly said he loved me was on the phone, the first year I lived outside my parents’ home. I was doing my own taxes for the first time. “I love you, Kendra. See you soon.”
I cried after that conversation. The thing about my dad was that he was a man of action, not of words. He expressed his love through teaching. He was a great teacher. He taught me simpler ways to solve math problems than what my school tried to teach, taught me the bass guitar — though my hands were too small to ever be any good. He helped me navigate the complexities of taxes and removing computer viruses, taught me how to beat a video-game boss without crying, how to kill a spider without crying, and how to drive a car without swearing too much. Most important of all, my dad taught me how to be a good person.
After a night of testing and monitoring, David was healthy, as far as the doctors could tell.
“It might have been a combination of factors. Stress, heat, asthma, exhaustion, pollution. Perhaps it was all enough to trigger a panic attack. Although scary, a panic attack is not physically threatening.”
“Okay, well, embarrassing, but good to hear,” David said. “Glad I’m not dying.”
“We can run more tests, perhaps a brain scan just to make sure-”
“Nope. No thanks, we need to get home,” David said, thinking of the potential hospital bill.
Just like that, it was over. There still wasn’t an official diagnosis, but three different doctors had determined David was healthy, and that was enough. He wasn’t dying. I still had a husband. I kissed him. “I love you.”
The total bill came out to a little bit over $1,500. A drop in the bucket compared to the astronomical bill that would have been the case in the U.S. and the average yearly salary for many Cambodians.
After the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, Pol Pot went into hiding while the millions of people who suffered under him went on with life, trying to move on from the horrors of the past. He died in 1998 under house arrest, right before being tried for his crimes against humanity. In the end, there was no running away.
We had an 11-hour layover in Narita, Japan. We rode the Tokyo subway. We prayed in a Buddhist temple. We ate Japanese ramen. We walked in the rain along a garden path, and stopped at a pond, staring at the luscious greenery surrounding us, finally at peace.
I went to Cambodia to find myself and ended up losing myself and just about everything else, but I did find something. I learned about privilege. I learned to be grateful for what I have. I learned that it’s okay to fail. I learned about love — not everything is about me. I learned that no matter what, my dad is proud of me. I learned that travel is the greatest education anyone can ever have.
There’s a Cambodian TV show called “It’s Not a Dream,” where victims of the Khmer Rouge are reunited with long-lost family. I sometimes still think about the child security guard. I hope he’s all right.
Kendra Nuttall is a copywriter by day and creative writer by night. Her work has appeared in Spectrum Literary Journal, Capsule Stories, and Chiron Review, among others. Kendra has a degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing from Utah Valley University. She lives and works in Utah with her husband and poodle. Visit her at kendranuttall.com