Cambodia: Mary and other creatures10 min read

Nadja, Sunny and a half-dead gecko the cats got

I am perching in a half kneeling position on my bamboo bunk bed in my bamboo hut in the middle of the jungle. I am peering through a crack between two pieces of the bamboo screen that serves as my bedroom wall, stapled onto the netting – the only thing between me and the jungle creatures. There are monkeys outside and they do not know that I am watching them intently. There are ten of them and they are sitting in small poised lumps of mushroom and beige fur, cracking nuts. One of the monkeys has a baby clinging onto its belly. The monkey nearest to me is so near I can look into its eyes without it knowing. It feels like I am looking into an ancient secret and that I shouldn’t be there. I feel like David Attenborough. The monkey picks up a nut, rolls it nimbly between its palms, bites it, rolls it again then cracks it open. Quiet, alert, confident, it eats. Watching.

monkeys where they live

When I was living in the jungle on Koh Rong Samloem, I was not the first there. The monkeys were. And the butterflies, the millipedes, the black and white squirrels, the small scorpions, the spiders, the buffalo, the birds, the geckos, the cicadas, the toads, the snakes, the ants and cockroaches. The creatures around me had been there forever, playing the jungle, orchestrating its life. The dead creatures in the kitchen fridge were shrimps with long grotesque black whiskers protruding from plastic boxes, baby octopuses, chopped fish bodies, and other animals that had never lived in the jungle. I had seen two dead cockroaches on the floor, and heard about one dead spider.
Purely on the ratio of dead and alive, we were losing.

There are no sticks and shrieks and pounding feet and barking dogs chasing the monkeys away. There are no slingshots this time. And that is because I have not told any of the other humans that there are monkeys surrounding the bamboo hut. Eating nuts in their territory. Pedram says we should kill one with a bow and arrow and then they would know who was in charge. But when we chase them with slingshots and the excited dog, Sunny, they move only a few feet away and just sit and watch us. They leave if they feel like it. They don’t give a fuck.

my home in their home

One of my earliest memories is of us children standing on the kitchen counter with our mum holding us close, shrieking at a spider that had appeared. The story in my memory is that my two-year-old brother was sent next door to the neighbours to fetch help and we were rescued and the spider dispatched. My childhood and teenage years were punctuated with screams and dead spiders which my father killed with a rolled up newspaper and the word ‘sponned’. I have nothing against spiders, yet I am now an arachnophobe. Thanks Mum. In fact, one of my favorite metaphors is the weaving/spinning/sacred feminine one. This phobia is the reason I had never been to Asia before despite the temples being full of Buddhas and the pull of Pad Thai. But somehow I had ended up not just in Asia, but in the midst of the Cambodian jungle, where spiders live.

I knew I needed to be cool – either I tolerated their presence in their home or I had to leave. So I took a shower with a large dead spider flattened in a corner and did not call for help. ‘Be cool Jinpa’, I said to myself as I turned on the shower. Something moved out of the corner of my eye. It was the very much alive spider, its legs unfolded and long, scurrying away towards the bamboo door. Even writing this I have prickles running up my arms. I gasped and my vision went cloudy. That’s what phobias do – they make your body do crazy stuff. I went into full flight or fight mode and leapt from the shower to the furthest side of the room. And that is the worst thing about spiders. They are like a horror version of Schrodinger’s cat. Are they more terrifying when they are there, or not there, with their eight legs and eight eyes? I stared at it against my will, knowing it could not leave and I could not help it to leave. I feebly called out and shivered. After a minute a very capable German guy happened to walk past the hut and I called to him for rescue. As he swept the creature out the door he said,

“Hmmm, he is a big one.” I started to try to control my shuddering breath, and felt vindicated.

That night I started smoking again.

Gecko in the morning, on the inside.

Each day, waking up in the hut my first thought was who might have got in and be with me. One morning it was a millipede, curled and prehistoric, next to my left eye. Another morning it was a dark brown lizard, behind the toilet door. And one morning it was another spider – sandy-blond and high above my head. Pedram came with a stick and a chair to reach it and moved it for me.

“Was it dead?” I asked.

“Which answer would you prefer?” he said. Good question.

I got used to the squawking, screeching, trilling life of the jungle. I got used to my heart beating ever so slightly more quickly, my groin tingling, like vertigo. I was always on edge, as I lay in hammocks or sipped cocktails in the idyllic tropical sun, my peripheral vision jumpy, like a fully trained elite soldier’s. I got used to being OK with it.

The place for staff to sit was a collection of bamboo chairs with mildewy cushions near the path to the other side of the island. We sat there when we weren’t doing anything else – which was a lot of the time. One morning a friendly tourist came up to me. She said her English wasn’t so good and could I help her with some vocabulary. There is a creature, she told me, and he is eating another creature, and it is all rather fascinating. Could I come and see, and tell her the name of this creature. I obliged, in some temporary fit of ignorance as to the nature of things. Only that morning a large black toad had crawled onto my foot as I boiled the kettle, and the cat had dragged gecko remains across the kitchen.

She pointed up into a tree with branches reaching across the path. In the tree was an enormous web. In the web was a large red spider which appeared to be hanging, half dead, as another even larger black and yellow spiked vision of hell did stuff to it with its front legs. Was it eating it? Asked the tourist.

I ran, my heart thumping in my chest, my hair tingling like a million baby legs were crawling over me. My eyes went cloudy and I leapt onto a chair as if somehow this would save me from the nature of the jungle, doing what it did.

In spider emergencies, humans are often more dangerous to an arachnophobe, than the spider itself. When I was 13 Amanda my horrible friend trapped me in the girl’s toilets with a spider on the end of a 15 cm ruler. When I was living in Buddhist bliss in Samye Ling monastery, one of the monks chased me out of the tea room laughing as he wielded a large Scottish spider and then threw it at me. Letting on you are afraid is always a dangerous move. But I was standing on a chair shaking. It was clear something was up. Gradually attention was drawn to where I was staring. The two spiders were so big and terrifying looking that for once in my life I did not look like I was overreacting. Phones were taken out and photos taken. People stopped under the web and pointed. Paulo the waiter took the first of what would be many attractive women to ‘show’ them the spider. Parisa, the owner who both loved me and chopped up animals without a thought, shouted “Kill it!!!”

People tried prodding the spiders with a stick, which made them move, which made it worse. The web was too big and too strong for mere humans with sticks. Those spiders were not going anywhere.

Parisa says ‘Kill it!’ Karlo says ‘Name it.’

It is a week later and I am smoking a cigarette and drinking a glass of rose. The sun is setting in its muted tea-rose pinks and oranges and the beach is peaceful. I am leaning on the bar chatting to Pedram. If I were to measure, I would say it is about ten feet between my stool and Mary. I have called her Mary as apparently, according to Karlo, it helps with arachnophobia. Mary has been there every morning. I know this, as the first thing I do before I go to meditate or drink coffee, is check she is there. Some mornings she is so well-camouflaged against the trees that I have to stare for a while before I can make her yellow markings out. Then there is a confusing jolt of horror-cum-relief as I see she is just where she should be. So I know she is there now – in silhouette – perfectly spider-shaped, her legs splayed out in nature’s symmetry, huge and distant. I still do not know how big she really is, as I have not been close enough to find out. But dinner plates come to mind. If I want to go to the other side of the island, I take the long way round.

The previous evening, when I looked, she was not there. I had that existential moment. Andre, from Brazil, told me in his cheerful voice;

“In the day she sleeps. But at night … she runs!” He made his fingers run to show me. Parisa was making neck-cutting gestures at him over my head, so he added, falteringly and unconvincingly;

“But she is in Saracen Bay now. She won’t come back…”

She is Schrodinger’s spider – I have to check she is there for my own peace of mind. I would rather she was where she should be, living in her web in the jungle, eating large red spiders, than in some unknown place, like under my bed. But to know it, I have to look at her, etching her contours over and over into my subconscious – building spider-legged synapses I don’t want.

After the storm, she was gone. Her web was ripped, a few strings hanging in loops. I was worried. I missed her – was she dead? Had she retreated into the jungle to build a new web where the monkeys live, and where I would never go?

Where the creatures live

Creatures continued to live as if we were not there. Rumours of snakes on paths with frogs in their mouths, nighttime scorpions encountered with bare-feet , geckos tormented by the semi-feral cats. Otherworldly insects with fists and feelers crawled on my feet, and bird-sized velvet butterflies with lazy flapping wings drifted past in the light.

The morning I left, Scott said, as we sat safely in the boat, a large spider had been hiding beneath his shoe in our bedroom. He hadn’t wanted to tell me so he had moved it whilst I was packing.

I shuddered and stared at him. “Was it black and yellow?” I asked.

drinking my aperitif, in paradise, on edge.

PLEASE SCROLL RIGHT DOWN TO THE BOTTOM, PAST THE WHITE SPACE, IF YOU WANT TO SEE A PICTURE OF MARY… (thanks Scott)

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keep going

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not there yet

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nearly there

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Mary!

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