Travel notesIssue 07 | November 2009

Cambodia: How I Failed to be Good

by Dalel Serda

When we enter Cambodia, the road we’re on is barely a road. Our taxi driver does his best to maneuver and zigzag the craters and small hills. We drive like this four hours, from Poipet to Siem Reap. The landscape looks infinite, dusty, red. There are wiry copper-colored children with ivory smiles running, keeping up with us because we are going so slow; they’re chasing puddles of rainwater where they poke sticks at tadpoles and rocks. Every few miles, we see ramshackle homes ready for the wet season, tall on stilts.

* * *

Landmine and civil war victims litter the sidewalks of Siem Reap and hold out their hands to us. We drop two hundred riel coins into their palms and frown as we walk away from them toward the outstretched fingers of a child, limbs all intact, who says, Fuck you, when we tell her that we’re sorry, that we don’t have any more money to give.

* * *

The Cambodian sea is a mirror under the aging sky.

At the beach at Sihanoukville in the south, there is a young girl sitting on Beth’s sarong. Yes, threading, please, Beth says when the girl comes to offer us manicures, pedicures, massages, fruit and all kinds of hair removal. The girl is dexterous and her fingers move almost imperceptibly as she wraps the thread around Beth’s hard-to-see light brown fuzz atop her upper lip. Beth is quiet and still under the girl’s arms. Better than shaving, the girl says. She’s slender with darker skin than mine. When she stops working on Beth she asks me if I like the color red. I paint them red, too, she says pointing to my toenails. I nod. Sure, I tell her, Paint them red. Like your bikini, your lips, she says, smiling. I smile too, and wrap my sarong tightly around myself, suddenly self-conscious.

Later, Beth walks into the water. Standing hip deep in silver rambling waves, it looks like she is dancing.

I remove the sarong from around my torso and walk to the water where Beth is watching a young Cambodian girl running wildly into the waves. She wears cutoff denim shorts and a white t-shirt, and when she gets wet, I can see she also wears a bra.

A man (American? British? Australian?) chases her. He’s much taller, at least three or four times her age, and awkward as his legs break through the water, leaving an enduring wake. His belly hangs heavily over his black Speedos and his skin is red from many careless hours in the sun.

He catches her, and carries her like a child in his thick arms. She squeals. I start to walk toward them. Beth is walking also, slower and more tentatively.

He takes her near the sand where his friends put their arms around their own young girls.

I see a white woman around my age ahead of me in the water, also watching. Together we say nothing for several minutes. Then in a British accent: It’s better this way, she says. I turn to her; I’m unsure whether I’ve heard correctly. I decide to keep my mouth shut.

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About the author

Dalel Serda is an American renegade who made her way to Cuba over ten years ago to get lost in the backstreets of La Havana, to Norway to feel short among giants, to Turkey to be asked hundreds of times if she is Turkish because of the color of her skin and the thickness of her eyebrows. She’s an MFA candidate at the University of Texas-Pan American.

Read our current issue:


Two poems by Anne Babson
Vignette, Townhouse, 9 a.m. by Troy Cunio
Night Becomes Day Over the West by Megan Foley
Yukon River Aurora by D. B. Goman
Two Poems by David Havird
Cretan Love Letter by Emily Linstrom
Holland by Rick Mullin
Fear in Kenya by Kristina Pfleegor
The Lounge Lizard by Ed Shacklee
Two Poems by Sarah J. Sloat
Night Flight by Vicki Stannard
Koinonia Farms by Alina Stefanescu
Thessaloniki, Four a.m. by Anastasia Vassos
Imaginary Oceans by Jason Warren
Two Poems by F. J. Williams

Postcard prose

It’s Salty by Kelly Hill

Travel notes

Anchorage in the Great Land by Karen Benning
The Value of Small Money by Megan Hallinan
Screensaver by Sandra Larson
Thirty Cents by Tommy McAree
Gokarna by Kate McCahill
Going Places by Rachel Miller-Howard
Susanville CA: Notes From The Road by Susan Volchok