“I’m going to the other side!” calls Mariana, one of the volunteers on Sunset Beach, as she marches off with a daypack and a phone. She is going to get internet. That’s what the other side means here. Paulo the waiter calls it ‘Indiana Jones and the search for the wifi.’
To get to the other side you have to do a jungle hike of about thirty minutes depending on whether you are an Austrian mountain expert, like the owners of the little resort, or an English girl like me, used to the rolling undulations of the South Downs. It is actually a short climb then a hike. The climb is up what seems to be a dry waterfall – ropes on both sides that you grab and haul yourself up with. Orange rocks and yellow earth form steps and vines curl around trees like snakes, curl around your feet. You are dripping with sweat in seconds. The jungle squawks and trills and crackles with dry sticks. A leaf falls and I am certain it is a snake. Or a spider. Or a lizard. Or some other creature pictured on the brightly coloured informative poster at one end of the path. Each time I do the jungle hike, grabbing a rope that could so easily be a snake, my ears tingling with the tinny saw of cicadas, I am not sure if I would rather see the jungle inhabitants… or not. I secretly hope to see the black Cobra, or the black and white stripy super dangerous one. Or the green one Oscar the chef saw with a frog in its mouth.
But, according to a helpful leaflet entitled ‘Samloen Snakes,’ with photographs of all the possible snake encounters, if I did see it, and it did feel attacked for some reason so it bit me, I would need to photograph it whilst keeping my arms down whilst keeping still whilst running for help and the ‘emergency plan’ of the nearest ‘resort’(not a glistening white block of efficiency and luxury the word may imply). It also has a phone number in case you are stranded in the jungle with a snake bite and no emergency plan is available. There is no phone signal in the jungle. And on Koh Rong Samloem, there is no doctor, no hospital and no help. So it’s not really that helpful, as leaflets go.
There is a spot somewhere on the jungle path, where it starts to descend and the ropes begin again, that Brad, the American volunteer who took photographs and sat comfortingly each day at one end of the bar, found one day in his search for the outside world. Here there was an intermittent phone signal. We called it Bradley’s office.
And that is what happens living on an island with a small group of people and no access to doctors, wifi or buses. Small things take on dramatic proportions. We hail the one who arrives, unscathed, back from ‘the other side’. We want all the news – what was it like? Was it windy? How strong was the internet in the Turkish restaurant? You didn’t even go there? Ooooh – where did you go then? Really? Was it any good? The person fishes out some pringles and a pen they bought in the minimart and we are all jealous and impressed.
I am a volunteer teacher on our side, Sunset Beach, and when I am not working or it is the weekend, I do nothing. And I mean literally nothing. Sometimes I might lie down instead of sitting up. The light goes after sunset and it is too dark to read. My computer broke some time ago. I drink. Sometimes a lot. On the nights I don’t drink, I lie in a hammock and listen to the wind and the waves turning as they darken from cobalt blue into plankton-dappled black, if you paddle. But I don’t really paddle much either. The longer I am here, the less I do.
Someone hears about a volunteer who left due to overwork at a different resort. It is a hot topic. Then someone sees some monkeys so we race after them to scare them off with a slingshot and the dog. Then we do nothing again. On the other side there are bars with dance music, and tourists with loud voices slathering suncream.
On the other side, you can get cashback and your nails done. Not on our beach. I hand wash my knickers and hang them in the wind – it is an event.
When Hurricane Pabek passed us last week, somewhere to the south, and some boats came in towards the beach and stayed there for a night, it was bigger news than the hurricane. No supplies came on the supply boat. No ice blocks were fought over and claimed, no trays of eggs and cans of beer were dragged up the beach. It is over after five minutes but it is a daily flurry of action. Not during the hurricane. We just sat there and discussed whether the dive boat would stay too or leave, as it normally did. On our side, even weather events barely ruffle the surface of doing nothing, in the pristine and glinting sudden-ending day. The other side becomes less and less of a need. And when you do clamber through the whistling, skittering squawking jungle, after a few weeks, there are no messages waiting. We are the Lotos Eaters…