The Pandemic Letters: Trapped Overseas

Trapped in Cambodia: The Experience of John

Associate Editor Jim Weitz has compiled a series of interviews and first-person accounts of travelers trapped overseas by quarantine protocols associated with the CCP Virus (COVID 19).

My professional background is in photography. I worked a pretty steady job when I was young. Then starting around 40 I began working at various different jobs, including for the police as a crime scene investigator for a couple years. And I traveled a lot. The last six years has been a whirlwind. I moved from England to France where I bought and renovated a house. I met a woman there and fell hard for her, then we moved together to Bordeaux where we bought a couple cottages. Unfortunately, she left me six months later and the relationship ended in 2017. I went back to England where I spent a couple of months recovering from depression.

I was looking for a way to reconnect with people, and I found an outfit that could arrange for me to teach English in Cambodia as a volunteer. They posted me in the southwest of the country, where I spent two happy months teaching children in a remote village. That was March to May 2018. I fell in love with the country, the people and my students. Doing something altruistic for the first time in my life renewed my faith in humanity. Cambodia became a special place for me.

I went back to England where I worked some labor jobs, which I wasn’t too crazy about, especially during the cold British winter. The house in France sold in December 2019 and I got some money from that. I decided to go back to Asia, this time to Sri Lanka, where I spent four weeks teaching children and a couple weeks traveling. After that I flew to Bangkok. In the beginning of March there were whisperings that the borders were going to close, so I traveled from northern Thailand to Laos by bus and on to Cambodia by airplane, because I thought I’d rather be stuck in Cambodia; it’s not landlocked and I had good memories of the country and my time teaching there. I crossed the border on March 20th.

I wanted to visit my former students. But the school where I taught had closed due to the coronavirus. In fact, the entire village was closed to foreigners. At least the beaches in Cambodia were still open. I went down to Koh Rong Sanloem Island and spent 10 weeks there. Beautiful beaches! I had a flexi-ticket to go back to England in April, but April came and went, and I kept extending my time on island, as there were no flights, anyway. Thank God I got a flexi-flight … I met loads of Westerners when I was at the beach, and we started feeling like a family. But most of them eventually went back through Seoul, flying with Korean Airlines to their homes, which wasn’t an option until the start of June, and a very expensive one.

Then my life took another turn, I met and fell in love with a woman who was working at a resort on the island. Her English was very good. She had been in Vietnam for two years leading tours up and down the length of the country. Then she came to Cambodia and got a job at the resort where I met her. And then, well … one thing led to another and now she’s pregnant. So, my life is about to get a whole lot more interesting and purposeful. I’m 54, never had children. I didn’t want to be an old father, but it looks like that’s what’s going to happen. I’m pretty healthy. I drink a bit, but don’t smoke. She’s 38, quite a bit younger, and she’s really happy about having a child. Eventually, we got tired of the beach, so we moved to Phnom Penh and signed a six-month lease on an apartment. It’s a bit expensive but central. I’m financing everything, which I don’t mind doing. She has to send money to the Philippines to help her family. She’s got children from a previous marriage, who live with her mother-in-law, and she goes home when she can. But there’s no work there.

Back in 2018, I bought a VW camper van, which is tucked away in a storage hanger in England. I’d planned to cruise around Europe in it, but the coronavirus put paid to that. So now I need to go back to England and sell the van and sort some other things out. Then I’ll return to Phnom Penh … but even that has its problems. The Cambodian government requires that anyone arriving in Cambodia must post $3000 upon arrival in a holding account, which will be used to test for COVID and finance a two-week quarantine, and pay for your care if you are sick.

When you go to the market in Phnom Penh, vendors pull their masks over their faces when they see you coming. You don’t know whether that’s because you’re a foreigner, or they do that all the time. But I have to say the people overall have been very nice. I haven’t experienced any kind of discrimination.

In March, my friends and family had been saying John you’ve got to come back. My heart always rules my head, and this was no different, I thought I don’t want to go back to England. And I’m so glad I didn’t listen to everyone and stayed here instead, because the last three or four months have just been wonderful. And my friends have said John, tell you what you made the right decision, because it’s been so miserable being at home.

About three weeks ago, I went back to the school where I taught two-and-a-half years ago. The main reason I went back was to see my favorite pupil. I turned up unannounced and surprised her. She had her hand covering her mouth. Her two front teeth were decaying from the middle. I had planned to bring her a gift but didn’t know what to give her. Then I thought I could help her get her teeth fixed. So, she did that one morning, and that afternoon at lunch she was smiling the whole time with two new front teeth.

I haven’t told my mum yet about becoming a father. My mum and friends and sister will not believe it. That’s part of the reason I took on the apartment for 6 months, so my girlfriend has got someplace comfortable to be. I don’t really want to be in England anymore. I’m close to my mum, have a smattering of friends. Still I’m just happier here than in England. Like everything, it will come down to how I can afford to stay here. I plan to start teaching English again. I’ve started an online TEFL course to help prepare. I loved teaching these kids. At the end of my two volunteer stints, they looked at me strangely, “Why is a grown man crying?” Because I get so emotional when I’m leaving, you know.


About the editor/compiler:
James Weitz is the author Gonzo Global Inc., a satire of globalization in which Mexican tap water is exported to the United States and sold as a laxative. He is also a travel writer. He has lived in Asia and Latin America for most of the previous 15 years. During that time, Weitz has worked as a technical editor and taught ESL, composition and law at schools and universities in Latin America, China and Taiwan. Previously, he worked on anti-corruption issues at the Organization of American States and in the Latin American and Caribbean section at the World Bank. His writings have appeared in print at the Mekong Review and in the online journals Red Savina Review, and Pennyshorts. Weitz has a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics with a focus on cross-cultural communication from Nottingham University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Minnesota. He is an Associate Editor at OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters and also contributes articles to O:JA&L on Literary Tourism associated with the Western Pacific region.

Image: National flag of Cambodia. Public domain.

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