Zeb can hardly contain his emotions as the long-tail boat purrs like a kitten; he thinks about the trip ahead, and butterflies tug his insides like a rollercoaster. He’s the first backpacker on the beach; pacing back and forth; feeling rather disquieted. Bouncing on his salty wet toes; he resembles an eager addict, anticipating his next fix. He tells himself – just relax – there is still time. Reaching into his powder blue bum-bag he retrieves his digital camera and thinks – this will calm my nerves.
Barely breaking dawn – the morning is young – and the beach is quiet; a few local kids scan the golden granules for lost items, and beach traders converse like Mothers at the school gate. Zeb thinks – this scene will be a great addition to his anthology of travel photos. Holding the camera in position; he clicks his memory of paradise and smiles like an impish child. Zeb goes for another shot, but his view is distorted by the lightning-fast approach of bracelets and burnt breasts, advancing on him like a scene from Baywatch; it’s Moe and Shane, his new buddies.
They arrive – puffing and panting, like Sumos on a marathon. Zeb is livid, and shrieks – ‘where the fff? I’ve been worried sick; the boat is leaving in two minutes!’ Moe retorts – ‘Duuuude!!! We got a little wasted last night, sorry brother!’ Shane giggles like a schoolgirl when he remembers them singing Wonderwall in the karaoke bar. Zeb is furious; he thinks to himself – I stayed in practising my yoga, while these-two swan around the streets of Sihanoukville getting drunk. He keeps his feelings to himself though and smiles magnanimously at his backpacking brothers. ‘No probs’ Zeb exclaims – ‘I’ve just been up since 3 am excited about the boat trip’. ‘Sorry man’ retorts Shane, but we’re here now, and we’re gonna have the best day of our lives!’ ‘Hell yeah!’ announces Moe, and they have a group hug.
The trios’ hearts fill with joy as they assemble onto the timber boat. ‘ii captain’ announces Moe to the driver; a young Cambodian man named Sok, with dark, leathery skin and a beaming smile. Sok tips his head forward and says – ‘very good morning’; the three friends all return with ‘hey bro’ and nod in perfect unison. Sok fires up the engine and they depart the beach; gently gliding the peaceful waves of translucent ocean. The beach slowly fades away as they head for their destination – a remote island paradise – according to the brochure.
Around ten minutes into the journey, Zeb asks Sok if he can take a group photo and passes him his camera when he answers in the affirmative. The trio gathers into position when Shane abruptly blurts out – ‘I’m gonna hurl’. Zeb’s face raises a furtive smile as he thinks – that will teach you for getting drunk; staying in and perfecting my downward dog was an ingenious idea after all! Zeb and Moe support Shane by his dreadlocks; while a scene that can only be described as a burst riverbank of beer, noodles, and shrimp, gushes its way into the deep blue sea.
It’s another hour until the group finally make it to their destination; it’s just as beautiful as the brochure described. A tiny, uninhabited blend of light gold sand, mesmerizing ocean, and luscious green jungle; with grinning monkeys and sprightly tongued lizards, greeting them like a five-star commissionaire. Zeb asks Sok if he can take him out to a deep spot for some snorkelling; Sok nods and smiles, and Zeb lets out a triumphant ‘yes!’. ‘You two coming?’ Zeb asks Shane and Moe; ‘nah bro, we’re gonna chill on the beach for a bit’ Moe responds. The pair proceed to roll a joint the size of a traffic cone and sink back into the golden powder, laughing ferociously at the sight of a nearby gecko eating a bug.
Zeb launches himself into the ocean like an Olympic athlete – he’s done this before. Finding the perfect spot, he asks Sok to pass him his snorkelling gear; Zeb indulges himself into the crystal clear water. He can’t believe his luck when a rainbow of sea creatures bless his eyes with a memory of pure joy, making him feel euphoric. He pops his head out the ocean like a pink seal catching air and looks for his friends. Shane appears to be doing the YMCA dance; Zeb tries to read Shane’s lips – ‘sh sh shark!!!’ Zeb sinks in a moment of terror and tosses his snorkelling gear to the side; taking a deep breath – he cuts through the water like a frantic whale and hoists himself onto Sok’s boat; before Sok has time to know what’s happening. Gasping for air, Zeb looks back at Shane and Moe who are rolling around the sand in a hysterical fit of laughter. For the second time today – Zeb is furious; his entire head turns a shade of pickled beetroot, and he seeks retribution.
The boat pulls up to the beach and Zeb catapults out like a possessed axeman; ‘how dare you, you’ve ruined my day’ he shrieks; ‘chill dude’ re-joins Shane as he holds up an open palm. In a capricious manner – Zeb swings his right palm, purposely missing and catching Shane on his left breast, causing him to scream like a bewailed banshee. Moe leaps up from his Zen-like trance and steps between the pair like a peaceful diplomat. ‘Come on brothers, peace, love, and unity’ he announces multiple times like he was negotiating two tribes at war. Zeb and Shane look at each other for several seconds and both give a rueful smile and decide to let bygones be bygones. The three of them have another group hug, lasting several minutes.
The trio and Sok spend the night on the remote island; they sit around a campfire, toasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories. Zeb’s dreams are coming true.
A.T Hawthorn – 15.7.19