There are few times in my life when I am legitimately in pain or afraid for my life. There was that Christmas night in 2011 when I became aware that I was allergic to crab through an almost deadly anaphylactic reaction, the time I had second degree burns peeling and bubbling the flesh from my thighs after an unfortunate incident with Starbucks tea, and when I had a cheap ring jammed to the bone when climbing a fence as a kid. Then there was today.
I woke up feeling a bit off, but nothing unusual enough to give it a second though. Some water and an ibuprofen usually does the trick and that’s what I was counting on today. After picking up some chilaquiles and chorizo hash at ALMA, Ritchie and I headed to our offices. It didn’t take long under the hot sun for me to realize something was really off. Like “Ritchie I can’t see anything…everything is black” before I elegantly vomited off the side of the moto as we drove. In traffic where you can’t really pull over, I got sick three times on the way to work in my rose gold penny loafers and navy dress as things came in and out of focus. Nothing but class.
When I finally arrived at the office, I immediately went in to my boss with my first words being “I feel awful” and his response being “you look awful.” It was true. Pouring sweat, shaking, and head between my knees I was not fit for meeting clients. Being the understanding person he is (and also not wanting me rocking up to potential customers looking like death), he took our meeting scheduled for this morning alone and urged me to go home as he handed me a packet of Maalox. After spending a few minutes in the arctic office, I felt I had gained enough energy and felt good enough to take a moto back home- ignoring his advice to take a taxi. But the thought of waiting when all I wanted to do way lay down wasn’t worth it to me and I hailed down a moto after buying two big coconuts to rehydrate. Big. Mistake.
It was about three streets away from the turn to my street that I live on when I lost eyesight completely. I saw little triangles dancing around, geometric “fuck you”s as I lost all sense of direction or where I was. I thought I would regain the ability to see with a few deep breaths, but after eyes closed for ten seconds and opening them all I could see was black. At this point I was boiling and pouring sweat, trying to stay conscious, and figure out where the hell I was. The motodop prompting “which way? which way?” Since the last thing I had been able to see was the cross street that I usually go two more blocks before turning right I told him to take a right all while panicking. Imagine clutching at the back of someone you don’t know, them not understanding the hailstorm of thoughts going through your foggy mind, having no clue where you are and what is going on with your body and how long the overtake of darkness will last.
Finally after about three minutes of seeing nothing but pitch black, my legs gave out and I whimpered “saum choup” (stop) and lost consciouness for a split second, sprawling onto the back on this old man driving me around town. Luckily, we were right outside of a small family restaurant where the matriarch took full charge. She basically carried me into the little eatery and put me on a chair before almost ripping my jacket off before she and her daughter quickly took a container of Tiger Balm and vigorously massaged my back, face, underarms, chest, and shoulders- slapping my face a bit just to make sure I didn’t die in their restaurant I think.
By this time I was having a full panic attack, not because I was being touched by strangers with eyes stinging from mentholatum but that my sight still hadn’t fully returned and that I had no idea where I was. The inability to communicate what I was feeling was one of the worst parts. So I just started crying. As a dozen diners and people standing by chattered to themselves about what was happening with this barang, my sight started to come back and I drank a bit of hot water. The owner continued to massage my back as I sat there shaking and then called someone who spoke English to come help me. A moment when I realized I really, truly want and need to learn the language of the country I live in.
She came and called my landlord who arrived ten minutes later, ten minutes which felt like five hours, in a tuk tuk to pick me up and bring me back home or to the hospital if I felt I needed it. I gave the woman $10, a measly amount for the relief she gave me, even after adamant refusal on her part. I hugged her and mewed “aw khun ch’ran”, again not being able to truly convey my thanks.
I cannot express my gratitude to the people who stood by me- a stranger in their country- and not only helped me but did so without expectation of anything. My landlord asked if I wanted his secretary to stay with me until someone got home but I felt I needed to just sleep, but the offer nearly had me back in tears. He told me to call him if I needed anything and I don’t know how I will ever be able to give thanks to him in the way he deserves.
It was a terrifying ordeal, and it could have been much worse. I could have fallen off the moto, I could have been robbed or raped in a back alley, I could have lost my eyesight for good, I could have died. But I didn’t, and as I lie typing this a mixture of immense gratitude, fear of a failing body, and hazy confusion settle over me. What is clearer than ever, even with blacked out vision and a fainting spell, is that I am in a place that can be frustrating at times- but experiences like today truly open my eyes to what a truly charming city Phnom Penh really is. And, my, how blessed am I to be here?
Thank you to all that helped me today, whoever you are and wherever you are. I am thankful beyond words, English or Khmer.