Are those f*cking fire ants? That's what I thought as I stood in the small wooden hut sweating completely through my shirt in 100-degree heat while the Cambodian park ranger gave me the death stare. I watched the tiny monsters march one by one on a wooden column that stood directly behind his head. They were roughly 100 times bigger than any ant I had ever seen in America. I was sure they had to be some specially engineered six-legged killing machines created by the army of Cambodia. Yes, those are the nasty creatures that will rip my body apart piece by piece after the ranger chains me to a post atop the Angkor Wat temple at high noon. This is how it ends. Flesh-eating ants. Pit stains. Done. All because I wanted a sh*tty Instagram picture that at most would get about 180 "likes" and 10 comments. Two of which would be spam from a company that sells graphic tees with poop emoji on them.
I was so excited for my first trip to Southeast Asia for two main reasons. Foremost, this would be the first journey longer than a weekend I'd be taking with my boyfriend, Brandon. Two weeks together was going to be a real test. We joked that our official hashtag for the trip should be #makeorbreak. The story I am about to tell you is the only time during the trip where I thought the official hashtag would turn into #break. The second reason was to boost my traveling expert street cred. I was a travel host for a video series on POPSUGAR, and I was trying to build my list of countries and experiences. I've traveled a lot throughout Western Europe and North America, but come on, does that really count? Everyone and their mother goes to London or Chicago. (No, really, my good friend and her mother just went to London and Chicago.) I wanted to do something bigger. Go somewhere exotic. Show people I am truly a world traveler who can give you tested travel advice. Not because I googled it, but because I lived it, damn it. For me, Thailand and Cambodia seemed to be the perfect next stamp on the old passport. Halfway around the world. Ancient temples. Delicious food. And me soaking up all of it. The perfect investment into building my career.
But let's be real. This was 2016. You can't just do something, be good at it, and be happy with your accomplishments. Don't you dare. Nope. You gotta SHOW people you're good at it. You gotta get a lot of people to follow you who think you're good at it. You gotta get "likes" and comments to prove you're good at it. It doesn't matter what "it" is either. Whether it's teaching or acting or farming or parenting or being a student. You gotta be a force on social media. Otherwise, you do not count. You're invisible.
Now, am I being dramatic? Maybe a bit. But don't tell me you haven't felt that gnawing pressure yourself. You've scrolled through Facebook posts and wished you were having the perfect wedding with cocktails served in vintage mason jars like your old high school friend. You've seen your ex-boyfriend swapping faces with some girl on Snapchat and felt completely alone. You've "liked" the tweet that pictured your co-worker's hot abs, which made you feel like you were the fattest person on the planet. You've felt that lack of accomplishment just by swiping downward on your phone a few times with your thumb. We've been pushed toward this new way of validating ourselves, and it's damn hard to ignore.
I'm not going to be bashful. I was a very good travel host. I'm very good at my jobs, and I keep getting better. I get promotions and raises. I get awarded at work. I get other job offers. I get praise from bosses, peers, friends, and family. I've worked hard for 16 years to get to this point in my career, and I'm damn proud. I should be proud. Shouldn't I?
However, there's this ever-growing voice inside my head that whispers louder and louder with each passing year that none of that really matters. None of that proves I'm on the road to success. That voice eats away at my sense of security. He makes me compare myself to people I don't even know or have ever worked with just because they get 500 "likes." He makes me feel like I'm not employable because I don't have 100,000 followers. He convinces me that I must really suck at life if there are only two comments on my latest post. He scares me into thinking people are going to realize I'm a fraud. He's a real jackass.
Awhile back, I thought it was time to shut that voice up. Instead of doing more research for an upcoming interview or helping with preproduction of an upcoming shoot, I was putting the focus on what was really important . . . getting lots of little red hearts. I was going to make Instagram my b*tch. I told myself I needed to do it for my job, but truthfully, it was for my ego. Instagram would be my main focus since its users tend to eat up a good travel pic. Post by post, I got better at it. A little filter here. A little retouching there. #bestvacation. #instagay. From Austin to Seattle to Hamburg, Germany, I was learning what gained me "likes" and followers. But it was slow going. So when Brandon brought up a trip to Thailand and Cambodia, I jumped at the idea. It was exactly what I needed. A two-week trip like that would be Instagram gold.
The minute the plane took off for Cambodia, I had tunnel vision. Get the best pictures you can imagine. Get the pictures that will make people wish they were you. That's the way to get people to respect you nowadays, right? Make them envious. Poor Brandon had no idea what was about to hit him. This is a man who has posted six times on his Instagram account in one year and hasn't posted anything on Facebook since 2013. It's one of the reasons I love him. He's detached from that world, and he's still so secure. (Unlike his boyfriend, who needs constant validation.) He knew posting was something I felt was important for "work," and he supported that. I had told him my plan to get some good pics, but I don't think he knew the extent of how deeply necessary I thought it was.
Our first full day in Siem Reap, the beast came out of hibernation and was ready to be unleashed. We were heading to the main temple of Angkor Wat to see the sunrise and spend the day exploring the surrounding temples. Take a minute and google Angkor Wat. Look at this magnificent temple that was built approximately 900 years ago. It will take your breath away. That beauty and the neighboring temples were going to be all mine. I'd have pictures for months from this one day alone. I knew I had one shot and I better grab the opportunity by the balls, or should I say, by the filters?
One after another after another. I didn't step 10 feet without snapping a selfie or picture of a golden Buddha. Hundreds and hundreds of clicks. I could feel my heart racing. My anxiety level was up. I had to get the perfect pictures. In my head, each tap on my iPhone was one picture closer to Instagram domination. It was horrible. I was walking through this gigantic masterpiece and instead of feeling awe, I was feeling like nothing was good enough. The lighting isn't right here. My eyes don't look as blue there. I knew it was wrong. I knew what I was doing was beyond ridiculous, and I couldn't help it. The only thing that kept bringing me back to the magic that was right in front of me was Brandon's presence. He was so happy. I wanted to share this moment with him. And I would for a few minutes, and then I would get right back to it. I kept telling myself that I was going to stop taking pictures and just look up, but around every corner there was a new must-capture scene. The voice had full control of me.
As we made our way to Baphuon Temple, I thought of it as a whole new challenge. New stone faces. New perfectly shadowed statues. New opportunity. Brandon and I approached the main entrance, and it was truly breathtaking. A hundred-yard walkway of stone elevated about six feet off the ground led you into the temple. As we walked along this raised path, we laughed about it looking like the perfect runway for a Victoria's Secret fashion show. I had to get a shot walking on it. I asked Brandon to jump off and take a picture of me doing a cartwheel along what now was a catwalk to me. He humored me while I did about 10 cartwheels across the 900-year-old stone slab. I might as well pack up and go home, because it wasn't going to get any better. That was, until we reached the top of the structure. It was there Brandon and I saw two men and a woman laughing and having a grand old time. One by one these German tourists were jumping over a gate to climb to the tippity top of the ruins where there was a stone archway that opened up to the sky. Each of them stood in the doorway posing like an ancient warrior or supermodel. My face lit up with heart eyes . . . just like the emoji.
Without hesitation I handed Brandon my camera and started my way to the stairs. I did realize that the gate, which held a sign that pictured a stick-figure man climbing stairs with a big red line going through it, meant DO NOT CLIMB. Brandon tried to stop me because he didn't think it was a good idea. To which I replied something like, "Oh, he's just the rule follower in this relationship," and rolled my eyes. The Germans, who spoke English, laughed. Brandon gave me a stern look that clearly said, "Don't say I didn't warn you." I leapt over that gate like a gazelle and raced to the top without a second thought. I struck several poses, and Brandon snapped away begrudgingly. My new friends looked up and shouted encouragement. When I came back down and looked at the pictures, I was a bit disappointed because I didn't even think they were that good but thought with the right amount of tweaking one would be worth posting. On we went exploring the temple. I led us back down to the bottom with our German friends following closely behind. Just before we reached the ground level, I noticed a woman guard standing there. I immediately thought, "SON OF A B*TCH!" I knew why she was standing there. She wasn't even looking at us, but I knew something was coming. When I was about five feet away from her, she looked up, stared me in the eye, and with a thick Cambodian accent said, "Give me your park pass." This was the pass everyone purchases to enter the temple grounds. I asked if there was a problem, and she replied, "Give me your park passes. All of you." Brandon. Was. Not. Happy. He looked at me with such disappointment I had to look away. I was the first to offer up my pass in hopes I'd get merits for following orders. The Germans reluctantly handed theirs over too.
We walked a good 50 yards in utter silence. My heart was about to beat out of my chest. The sweat would not stop pouring from my head. I was in a country where mass genocide had taken place a few decades ago. I knew nothing about the laws, rules, religion, or punishment, and from the looks on the Germans' faces, neither did they. A memory of Michael Fay came flooding back into my head. He was an American who was caned in Singapore when I was younger for light vandalism and theft. It made international news and caused major tension between America and Singapore. There was an outcry for his release from the American public, but in the end he was sentenced to time in jail and whipping with a wooden cane six times. Was I the next freaking Michael Fay? Would Obama be calling for my release in the rose garden?
I just disgraced a sacred temple. Was that worse than defacing a car? Sure seemed like it might be. Don't mess with religion. A Buddha seems a lot more important than a Beemer around these parts. It may have been the sweltering heat and deafening silence that added fuel to my anxiety, but I was sure sh*t was about to go down.
I was so embarrassed that I could disrespect this beautiful country, its people, and its culture.
We came upon another guard who in no way looked friendly. In broken English he asked us who was at the top of the temple. I immediately confessed and made it clear it was not Brandon. I was still hoping that killing them with kindness would save me from one less skin-tearing whip of the cane or maybe provide me with an extra portion of food in prison. The Germans followed my lead one by one, and thankfully they too said Brandon was not involved. The guard gave Brandon his pass back. This was a huge sigh of relief for me. If Brandon was free, he could at least make his way to the American Embassy to get Obama on the line.
The guards then led us to a wooden hut. Before we entered, I managed to secretly slip Brandon my phone and whispered for him to delete the pictures. He gave me the visual OK and waited on one side of the hut. The look of anger in his eyes had now turned into grave concern. He was very nervous, which in turn made me very nervous. The Germans? Forget it. They looked like they were about to cry. The guards instructed everyone except for Brandon to sit around an old wooden table. The minute I looked the male guard in the face, I noticed the tiny demons behind his head. Those gnarly ants staring me down. Waiting for their first bite.
It's worth noting that much of the stress over the next 45 minutes came from the language barrier. Neither of the guards spoke English very well, and none of us spoke a lick of their native tongue, Khmer. Every word the male guard spoke came out slowly and dramatically. We were struggling to understand what he meant and praying that we weren't misunderstanding and answering in a disrespectful way. Our tone of speaking became skewed as well. Like something out of a sitcom, our answers were also sluggish and drawn out as if we were speaking to someone under water.
The first thing the male guard asked was if we had read the rules on the back of the pass and flipped it over to show us. Rules? I had never even looked at the back of the pass. The fourth rule clearly stated that we must comply with all posted signs in the temples. He then pulled up a picture on his phone. It was a man lying down on the ground at one of the temples. The guard asked us very sternly and seriously what had happened to the man. I naively replied with the voice of a fourth grader, "The man didn't pay attention to the sign and he fell and hurt himself." Immediately after, from the corner of the hut, Brandon blurted out, "The man is dead!" The guard nodded. My initial thought was that Brandon was not helping the situation and needed to stop being the teacher's pet. Then reality quickly set it. I went from blindly trying to get the ultimate picture for my Instagram account to being forced to look at the harsh reality of a man who lost his life. I was a piece of sh*t.
The next statement out of the guard's mouth, and this was the only time I clearly understood what he said, was, "Do you know what they would do to you if you did this in Singapore?" I just about threw up. We were all taken aback. What did he mean by this? I was convinced this was where he was about to say that police were on their way. For sure this was where the handcuffs came out and they would throw us in the back of a truck and toss us in jail. It was a rhetorical question, but the man knew the power of what he had said. He knew it would put it into perspective for us instantaneously.
We were not caned. We all sat there and listened to the man explain why the rules were important. And we timidly tried to explain how we knew what we had done was very wrong. We watched a video that was the equivalent of something you would show teenagers before they go into a museum. Pay attention to signs. Wear appropriate clothing. No selfies with the monks. (Super sad that has to be stated.) Instead of sending us off to a prison where we would hit rocks with a sledgehammer for the rest of our days, the man pulled out a folder with slips of paper and asked us to write an apology to the government of Cambodia. In a way, this was worse than the caning. This put us back in elementary school, where we belonged. We were too childish to play with the big kids. I was so mad at myself.
I couldn't look back at Brandon. I was so embarrassed that I had put us in this situation. So embarrassed that he had to sit through this and waste precious time where he could be off exploring these beautiful sanctuaries. So embarrassed that this was our first trip together and on day two I ruined it. So embarrassed that I had managed to forget I was a visitor on hallowed ground. So embarrassed that I lost sight of what this wonderful trip was supposed to be. So embarrassed I could disrespect this beautiful country, its people, and its culture. So embarrassed that I thought just because I wasn't in America I would be punished with some horrible sentence. So embarrassed I let a stupid app take control of my good senses.
After we wrote a brief apology and they took a picture of us holding it (yep, that happened), the guard asked for our phones so he could delete the pictures. Brandon handed mine over and the man immediately went to the recently deleted section where all the pictures were still located. Brandon had only deleted them from the main album, and the man looked at us like we were amateurs. It's pretty funny to look back at that now and think about how sneaky we thought we were. As he was deleting the pics, he looked up at me and he said, "Do you know why we were watching you? Because when you entered the temple you were already disrespecting it," and he pointed to the pictures of me doing the cartwheels at the entrance before deleting them. If there was a black hole around, I would have jumped in it.
As we walked away I thought for sure Brandon was going to rip me a new one. I deserved it. He didn't yell or get upset. He hugged me and said he was just happy that things didn't turn out worse. The rest of the day I was afraid to take any pictures of the other temples. I thought all the guards were watching and waiting for me to make another faulty move. Brandon had to force me to take pictures just so we had a few. The voice in my head was gone. It was time to be present.
A great ending to this story would be me telling you that I deleted all of my social media accounts and moved into the woods of Montana to become a lumberjack. But that's not what happened. I still post. I still hope for "likes" and wonder why my number of followers isn't growing faster. But I care less. I don't check my notifications as much. I skip days when I don't feel like posting and just want to ignore the internet. I tell myself I've got a good job and they're not going to fire me because my Snapchat score is low. I look up from the screen, and I look at life.