When the heat wrapped around me like a soggy blanket I stopped breathing. At least, it seemed that way. Usually I breathe in cool air and exhale hot, moist air. Stepping out of the plane onto the airport gangway in Phnom Penh I seemed suddenly to be breathing in my own exhale. There was a brief moment of panic. A part of my brain piqued and prepared for suffocation. I stopped and breathed in deeply, feeling the straps of my backpack tighten across my chest. Exhaled. Yes, definitely still breathing.
Exiting the airport I could see my friend waiting for me. I could see her, in the Buddhist clerical uniform she always wears. Her usually shaved hair had grown out a little (she had missed that month’s traditional head-shaving day, she later told me) and the result was short tufts of white hair that clung to her skull like feathers on an egg. We don’t hug in public, so instead she greeted me with a mock punch to the gut accompanied by a “ppuchaah” sound. How this is more decorous than a hug I don’t know.
“You could have got that SIM card outside the airport and not kept me waiting,” she said walking towards the car park.
She was driving an ancient saloon of indeterminate brand. Luckily the air-conditioning worked. I say “worked” but it was in the same way the lungs of an emphysemic frog work. Torrents of sweat began their ascent towards the tip of my nose.
It was water festival and she didn’t want to risk being trapped in the brutal Phnom Penh traffic so we decided I would stay at a two-bit guesthouse on the outskirts of town. I slumped on the heavy wooden bed and fell comatose.
I woke around 5am having slept five hours. Given I slept only three hours on the overnight flight, I realised with dismay that I had slept just eight hours in two days. Far too little for someone like myself for whom homeostasis is a religion and daily routines are the only stability I know.
Jetlag filled me. It was as if I had been caught in slow-motion while trying to achieve an important task. Everyone else continued at normal speed but time had become gloopy for me. I slopped into a tuk tuk and went to have breakfast.
I found a nicer guest house near riverside that evening. It had just gone nine when I got into the shower. My eyes had been drooping for hours but I would not allow myself to drop off during early evening – that would have resulted in a world of hurt: waking at midnight, unable to sleep and instead trying to fill the early hours with non-nefarious activities. There really aren’t any non-nefarious activities available during those hours. It would have been hell.
The shower water came in at a mild temperature. I wasn’t feeling horny but I masturbated anyway, releasing semen in short, primitive spasms. I figured the relaxation effect would help me sleep better and, as Aussie singer Courtney Barnett said, “it’s cheaper than Tamazapan”. Having missed a total of 12 hours sleep over previous nights it didn’t take long to drift off, refrigerated by air conditioning.
When I woke, the daylight was hot and yellow. Sounds of traffic filtered through the walls. I found a spoon and went to the bathroom to scrape the gunk from my tongue. It was thicker than usual. I ran the tap in the sink and watched the few spoons of sludge dissolve away. My head felt like it was full of hot sponges.
I found a bottle and guzzled it down. It didn’t help. My thirst had become metaphysical; it was the platonic form of thirst – infinite and unquenchable. I grabbed my watch; it was 2pm. Last night’s sleep came in at 16 hours, an insane amount of sleep. That’s double the normal eight. And I don’t even like to sleep for that long. I’d sleep for Thatcher’s four if it didn’t give me a headache.
My mind raced. Terrifying decisions presented themselves: do I have breakfast now or wait a couple of hours and have dinner? But then, if I eat dinner, that will become lunch and dinner would be at 10pm, I wouldn’t get to sleep until 12am and another late night would make the horrible cycle repeat. I would become trapped in some kind of vampiric existence, rising late afternoon and emerging to feed after dark. In the end I had a curry and went to bed at 10pm. Of course, I barely slept. But it’s the thought that counts.
The next day, like many foreigners finding themselves awake at dawn, I took a walk down riverside. The sun rose, a faint smell of sewage pervaded and all around me people were alive with the possibilities of morning. Not me. My body was sure it was afternoon and, on some level, I was still convinced that in an hour or so I would be eating dinner and watching the new series of 24.
Middle aged ladies zipped by, their arms making fast triangles, barang joggers too, a group of people in white with floppy swords and fans started performing some kind of Taoist ritual; ahead of them the line-dancers seemed crass by comparison. The sun fell in enormous sheets. I turned back. It was dinner time, but I’d have breakfast instead.