Boston: Secretive Seashell From Phnom Penh

I never really spent much time in gift shops.

But, I’ve still managed to accumulate an absurd amount of sentimental keepsakes and I’ve always been this way. I started turning shoe boxes into time capsules when I was in 7th grade. My closet had a whole shelf dedicated to boxes that were neatly labeled with the year, or if the year was extra eventful, the specific months within the year. Each box had the basics, like handwritten letters (the ones I received, but also the ones I never actually sent), photos from old disposable cameras, ticket stubs, etc. The boxes also contained an assortment of odd and unusual pieces. If it were possible for me to peek into those boxes today, I’d find most of them hard to recognize.

I remember some of the specifics though. I had a popsicle stick that was colored red from a Spooky Walk back in 2007. Once you paid for your admission ticket, the person at the counter would hand you a popsicle stick to carry as you walk through the haunted trails and houses. If you got too scared and needed a break, you were supposed to hold the stick up in the air and the cast would refrain from jumping out at you. I’ve always hated scary movies so I have absolutely no idea why I chose to subject myself to a yearly spooky walk, but I’m sure 14-year old me had her reasons. It was probably because of a boy, or because she could sneak off before and smoke a menthol. Almost every box had a stick, until they stopped giving them out which was *conveniently* the same year I decided that I was “too old” for spooky walks.

Some New England shells

One of the boxes had an empty pack of Marlboro smooths. I shared the pack with two of my childhood best friends as we drank stolen liquor out of vitamin water bottles while sitting in the middle of a foggy, sod field at 1am. The sod field was located behind my friends house and it was the perfect spot to lay out under the stars. We spent an absurd amount of time in that field. The field was the best place to hang out because we could do anything we wanted without the fear of getting caught. Anyway, I think this specific pack was in the 2008 box because that was the summer we all spent too much time crying over boys who broke our hearts. I used to think it was weird how most nights ended with one of us crying. Looking back on it over a decade later, I feel a sense of nostalgia for that level of vulnerability and trust. Those two friends helped me through one of the toughest periods in my life and I don’t really know where I’d be without them. We’ve all grown apart since those years, but the memories of those nights will always continue to warm my heart.

I also want to take back what I said earlier about how I’d find most of the objects unrecognizable. Those boxes were lost during a house fire, but if I had the boxes today, peeking inside would unlock countless memories from those adolescent years.

I know this because even though its stubbornly selective, I’m constantly finding evidence of how weirdly specific my memory can be. As I’m typing this, there’s a shelled almond in a little dish to my left. The almond is from a tree in Portugal. I never saw an almond tree before so I plucked a few as a snack but quickly realized removing the shell isn’t an easy task. Theres also an acorn from a tree in Greece somewhere in my desk. I was traveling with a guy I met in Slovenia and we sat on a rock throwing acorns into the sunset to see how far we could get them. If you asked me to recall what I did in Lagos or Meteora, I’d struggle to tell you anything in detail. Give me an old almond, I’ll tell you all about the smell of the ocean. Throw that acorn at me, I’ll tell you the exact hue of the sky.

The almond from Portugal

Fast forward to today’s unexpected time hop.

Back in September, my friend Kim gave me her old projector in exchange for a round of beer and poutine from Saus. I finally unpacked in from the bag this morning in hopes that I’d be able to play a movie on it later. I looked around my room and noticed that there was only one wall with enough space, but there wasn’t any sort of ledge on the opposite one to place the projector on. So, as one does on day 5/10 of quarantine, I was inspired to install a shelf.

Once the shelf was set up, I started putting random things on it to make it look cute and home-y. I rallied up my collection of animal figurines that have been gifted to me by various friends and strangers over the years. The Wes Anderson-esque bird print I found in the trash while biking into work is now the centerpiece. The little Szechuan pepper jar that I filled with international currency is cozied up next to a pothos in a jar. After I placed the projector on the left side of the shelf, I took the scallop shell I found in Portugal (the one that’s been in my purse for the past 3 years) on top of it. While looking around my room for other little specks of sentimentality, I saw the torn satchel hanging by the corner near my window.

Scallops from Portugal

Inside the satchel, there’s a scallop shell hidden between two circular pieces of styrofoam tied together with a thin piece of twine. I’ve had it for over 5 years but I’ve never actually looked at it. It’s actually one of my favorite stories, and somehow, it’s never ended up on this blog.

One time, I met a woman (who may have been me from the future) while sitting on the patio of a hostel bar in Phnom Penh. I don’t remember her name, where she’s from, or even where she was heading next. My journal was open, my ashtray had maybe 1 or 2 butts in it, and my water was soon to be replaced with a beer. Suddenly, a motorcycle rolls up to the hostel and the woman hopped off the bike before stepping onto the patio. After checking in, she came out to the patio and sat in the same corner as me before asking to borrow a lighter. I asked her about the motorcycle, and just like that, we became friends for the night. She bought the bike in Thailand with the intent to ride all the way through Cambodia and Vietnam.

Her stories made it seem like she’s lived at least 12 different lives, I admired that. We talked for hours about everything and anything, we even talked about our deepest traumas because “well, odds are that we’ll never see each other again and it would probably feel really good to get this off our chests.” This is relevant because remember when I said she “may have been me from the future?” Well, its because our stories were almost identical. Nothing like sobbing over shared trauma with a stranger at a hostel bar, right???

“11/24/2017 – Throwing acorns”

At this moment in my life, I was obsessed with The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and was inspired to hike the Camino after reading his other book about it. So naturally, I began talking about the shepherd boy and his encounters with all sorts of folks while embarking on his own mission to discover his “Personal Legend.” She sat there patiently without saying a word – she definitely saw the sparks of joy and enthusiasm behind my eyes as I continued to explain why this all meant to much to me and why I needed to do the same. Once I stopped, probably to catch my breath, she smiled as she collected her room key and said “be right back.”

I lit another cigarette and became worried that she really just wanted to escape after being subjected to my unsolicited TedTalk.

She returned after a few minutes with something in her hand. She sat down, giggled, and said “I already know all about that because I just came from the Camino.” She told me about all the times she’s walked the Camino in Spain and why each time was more important than the last. After her story was over, she handed me the thing that was in her hand and said “here’s a scallop shell from Santiago de Compostela, its for you but you can’t open it until you do it yourself.”

The Secretive Seashell from Santiago de Compostela
…. that was given to me in Phnom Penh.

When I was 24, I told myself that I’d celebrate turning 30 by shaving my head and hiking the Camino. I never made it to Spain, and although I still have two more years to go, I don’t know if the Camino is something I’m ever going to do for a variety of reasons but either way,

I’ve kept that promise ever since.

See ya.


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