|The Pursuit of Happiness
There’s a level of excitement that accompanies the act of boarding a bus. Boarding a bus indicates you are going somewhere, and that is inherently exciting. While boarding this ancient bus, however, all I felt was intense dread.
We were on our way to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. My tall, blond, English husband Gaz, and I (short, blond, American) took a seat near the front. The ticket collector boarded and, in a very official manner, worked his way back, asking to see the tickets of the foreign passengers. He studied each ticket, and then asked each traveler to move to the back of the bus, as if there was something printed on the ticket specifying it was for a rear seat. Of course, there was no such indication, and it was just a transparent attempt to move all of the foreigners to the back of the death trap. We all refused to move, most likely all strategizing that sitting near the front made for an easier escape.
As the bus filled to capacity, the driver began to place blue plastic stools down the aisle of the bus for additional passengers, thus blocking us in our seats. This way he ensured that should there be any need to evacuate the bus quickly and efficiently, we would all trample each other in a mad scramble. I could handle the naked babies, the live chickens, and the Cambodian karaoke video of five songs running in a maddeningly incessant loop on a TV above the driver. But I couldn’t stop worrying about being trapped in that tragedy waiting to happen. I should have taken it as a sign of what was to come and curtailed the trip to Phnom Penh altogether.
Despite my fears, we arrived safely around 1:30 P.M. The bus pulled up in an empty red dirt lot, and before we stopped moving, a mob of men surrounded us. About twenty representatives from various hostels crowded around the bus, knocking on the windows and blocking the door. The scene can be intimidating the first time, but by this point we’d seen it before and it was simply annoying. Gaz and I saw some touts for the Lakeside Guesthouse, highly recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook. We hopped on the backs of two compact motorbikes, our dusty backpacks tucked between our drivers’ legs. We held on for dear life as the drivers zipped through the French colonial city. Outdoor café tables and wrought iron balconies straight out of a Parisian side street sat across from ornate and shining red and gold Buddhist temples. Our rumbling dirty Asian motorbikes whipped around flowered European roundabouts. Locals smiled as if their country’s harrowing history and arduous present did not exist. Phnom Penh was a paradox.
We had been duped. The drivers worked for the Smile Lakeside Guesthouse, which was a crappy dump. The original Lakeside was full, so we decided to stay one night at Smile Lakeside and move to the real Lakeside the next morning. Not much of interest happened the rest of the day. Until the pizza.
After wandering that night down the narrow dirt alley of the backpacker district, we settled on a nice looking restaurant called Oh My Buddha. It was here that I decided to satisfy a curiosity and order a Happy Pizza. “Happy” was available at many of the backpacker restaurants, meaning that the kitchen would add marijuana to your food for $1.50. I was a pot virgin, and trying it for the first time in Cambodia was not my finest idea. I had conveniently forgotten about the booming sign at the Cambodian border proclaiming drug penalties were punishable by death. I was lulled into a false sense of security by the prevalence of the “happy” flaunted by all of the restaurants.
We ordered a happy pizza and a happy pineapple shake. The food came. We ate it. We discussed our current state of affairs.
“I don’t feel happy, do you?”
“No. Not especially happy.” We felt disappointed at not having been properly happied and declared it all a gimmick.
We decided to split one more happy shake just to be sure. Being new to the world of cannabis, neither of us knew that when you eat pot, it takes longer to feel the effects than when you smoke it. That would have been advantageous information. Here are more fundamental facts about weed, verified by the Internet. (So clearly, they're accurate.) Short term effects of marijuana include: anxiety and paranoia, impaired memory, lack of attention, dry mouth, accelerated heart rate, the giggles (not medical terminology), and in large amounts, hallucinations.
By the time the second shake came I was parched and chugged ¾ of it before sharing with Gaz. Then, without warning, I had a huge urge to giggle. I looked around and knew that if I giggled, everyone at Oh My Buddha would hear and know I was stoned. So I bit my lip until the feeling passed. At long last I looked over at Gaz and cracked up. He giggled at me giggling. “Shhh.” I held my finger to my lips. “Don’t tell anybody.”
I went to the bathroom and sat down to pee. I later realized that I had finished ages before and was simply sitting there staring. I thought, “I am so funny right now!” I was in the bathroom forever, giggling and shushing myself.
Gaz and I walked home down the dark dirt alleyway. We grabbed a bottle of water from a small shop, and I ran my fingers up and down the bottle, feeling the condensation. It felt slimy and bizarre. After a few minutes of desperately convincing me not to walk into a private home that I insisted was our hostel, Gaz got me to the deck at the back of Smile Lakeside. I sat on a bench overlooking the lake and ordered Gaz to get another shake because he clearly was not as happy as I. He went in search of a shake, leaving me to puzzle over the lights from the buildings across the lake, dancing all around. I lifted my arm, and it felt wiggly, like a scrambled picture on an old TV. I abruptly decided- this wasn’t fun anymore.
By the time Gaz returned I was in hysterics.
“Make it stop,” I pleaded. “I hate it.”
The sensations were no longer funny, just strange and out of my control. I glanced at the floorboards of the deck as we walked to our room- they stretched on for miles.
“What time is it?” I asked as I plonked down on the bed. It felt like 6 A.M.
“11:00,” Gaz replied.
It had only been an hour since I had the shake. I lay down flat, my head at the foot of the bed, staring at the ceiling. My heart pounded. I thought I was going to die, or worse, be brain damaged for the rest of my life. I worried about how Gaz would explain this to my parents. I asked Gaz to take me to the hospital, which he refused to do, reminding me that taking drugs in Cambodia was frowned upon. I then started having a bizarre paranoid fantasy that Gaz had called the police on me and they would come literally crashing through the wall, like a cross between a SWAT team and the Kool-Aid man, to arrest me. I pictured rainbows and bunnies: happy things to calm myself down.
Gaz promised the feelings would wear off and I would pass out soon. He reassured me over and over, and squeezed my hand. I wouldn’t allow him to let go. At this point Gaz was feeling pretty trippy himself, but he held it together for my sake. “I just have to trust Gaz,” I thought to myself, before falling asleep.
I awoke in the morning, the world still spinning. I couldn’t open my eyes without feeling dizzy, and I was petrified I wouldn’t be able to walk to Lakeside Guesthouse to change rooms. Gaz moved all of our bags and checked in at the new hostel himself, allowing me to sleep at Smile Lakeside until we had to check out at noon. I shuffled down the alley slowly and carefully, like someone who had just come out of surgery, Gaz holding my hand and guiding me the whole way. I miraculously made it up the stairs, and slept the rest of the day and all through the night. The next morning I felt substantially better, but it would take a few days before I stopped feeling a little swirly. Needless to say, the whole “happy” experience was a complete disaster. It’s definitely ranked up there as one of the most unhappy nights I’ve ever had. A paradox indeed.