A Travel Fail and Cambodian Breakfast Angels


natalie patton -cambodian breakfast angels-3By Natalie Toon PattonInstagram

For Christmas this year, my husband and I decide to forego getting gifts for each other and instead gifted our family a post-Christmas trip to Cambodia. Google maps estimates the drive to be six hours from our home in Bangkok to Siem Reap. Google maps is out of touch in this part of the world, but my husband is Clark Griswald when it comes to vacations. Those who prefer a Caribbean destination for their vacation may consider a trip to the Cayman Islands.

“It’s a straight shot due east. The kids will be splashing in the pool before sundown,” he tells me.

Positive Patty orders some fancy straps and a tarp to fit all of our baggage on the roof of our small SUV. Recalling the time his parents lost his luggage off the roof of the car as a child and he spent a week’s vacation wearing his sister’s clothes and underwear, he boldly declares, “No way that’s going to happen to us. These are straps of steel!”

We leave at 7am. Everybody is shiny and caffeinated, especially the guy behind the wheel. About three hours into our trip, we hear the swishing flap of the tarp beating the side of the car and see its large silhouette waving at the blue sky in the rearview mirror.

My husband’s bag is gone.

My son’s bag falls off soon after.

We recover his bag, but after a three-hour unsuccessful backtrack looking for my husband’s bag, we cut our losses and decide to move all the bags in the car and carry on to the border.

The border crossing is a slow bake in the sun. Meanwhile, the baby has a diaper blowout all over her car seat. We finally walk into the arrivals waiting room when my three-year-old vomits everywhere. She vomits again when it’s our turn at the window to stamp passports.

In the bizarre no-man’s land between Thailand and Cambodia, half-dressed children are playing a bowling game with a flip-flop, men pull two-wheeled carts packed with goods for export, and a dead body is wheeled by on a stretcher. My three-year-old vomits again when we’re finally on the road again. We run over a snake.

It’s getting dark as we enter Cambodia, and there are no streetlights. The silhouettes of lone palm trees and water buffalo scattered throughout flat farmlands fade into an inky darkness. A magnificent starry sky is a rare sight for us city dwellers, but the next three hours turn into some of the most stressful hours of our life. We come close to hitting several trucks carrying livestock. One farmer is using his cell phone as a headlight.

At hour 14 of our six-hour journey, we reach our AirBnB and collapse into bed. The next morning, I wake up still dizzy from the day before, but pull myself together so I can go search for some breakfast to bring home.

That’s when two angels magically appear. God’s mercies have come in the form of the breakfast ladies bearing pots of coffee, fresh croissants, crepes, tropical fruits and juices, and eggs cooked any way we like it. All of God’s glory is on display at a beautiful garden table outside by the pool, and I want to cry. But rather than be fully present and accept the warm embrace of The Most Perfect Thing Ever, I subject my poor husband to a guilt-fueled sideshow about how undeserving we are.

Remembering our jailed refugee friends in Bangkok, I imagine their heinous travel stories and remind my husband that, “For them, there is no beautiful morning-after with peace and breakfast ladies. Their misery has no end date in sight.”

I’m a real treat to be around sometimes.

Mr. Patty tells me to lighten up and hands me another croissant. Why is it so hard to be fully present and absorb God’s good graces?

I find living in the space between a privileged life and the awareness of injustice awkward and confusing. In the midst of my mostly comfortable life, there’s an undercurrent of guilt and impending tragedy. It lurks under the surface, threatening to steal joy from whatever feast is before me.

The Kingdom of God is often described as a lavish banquet, a party, a feast. As we widen the table to invite more to the party to eat from the bread of life, we can forget to enjoy our participation in the feast. Like the servant in Jesus’ parable who was given only one talent, we bury our treasure when we don’t relish the moments when our cup is brimming with so much grace and goodness that it overflows.

Writer Jen Hatmaker says, “There is a middle place, holy ground, where we learn to embrace the fasting and the feast, for both are God ordained. There is a time to press onto sacrifice, restraint, self-denial, deferment. There is also a time to open wide our arms to adventure, laughter, fulfillment, neither regards herself as too important or too unworthy to enjoy this life.” (Of Mess and Moxie)

The feast is more than just the inner workings of our hearts. It’s the beauty in the tangible world; reality itself. It’s warm naps and wildflowers on the side of the road. A brand new box of Crayola 64 (before the kids get hold of them.) The love between a child and a pet. New throw pillows for an old couch. A reunion of friends after years of separation. The ability to laugh at the absurdities in a horrific road trip. And certainly a private breakfast made by someone else on a morning when I wasn’t expecting it. These things are holy, all of them.

My husband has always been the full sun to my partly cloudy skies, and so I take his advice to revel in these moments of glory, adventure, beauty and absurdity. We explore temples, take ice cream breaks, have canon ball contests in the pool and leave the kids with a babysitter in the evenings, so we can enjoy our spicy Khmer food in peace. We celebrate the end of the Christmas season. We celebrate what may be one of our last family trips in Asia before we move again.

We celebrate without forgetting the injustices around us, and understand these things can occupy the same space. Tomorrow will have suffering and tragedy, but it will also have new mysteries to unravel and new wonders to behold.

When I visited my refugee friends in jail upon our return, they asked about my trip. I’m reminded that as they spend their days behind bars waiting on a new country, they still take the time to put on lipstick and decorate each other’s hands and arms in gorgeous lacy henna patterns. They make colorful vases out of magazine pages folded like origami and beautiful drawings. One teenager is working on a screenplay. They still laugh deeply.

Even in the darkest hell-hole on earth, these African beauty queens are taking the time to celebrate womanhood, appreciate beauty, and insist on their own worth, strength and dignity. They understand better than I do what it means to be human and alive: that beauty and celebration matter. They continue to teach me far more than I can possibly teach or serve them.

We should pay attention to why Jesus calls the poor and meek “blessed.” We have so much to gain by allying ourselves with them. They show us that when all idols are stripped away, all that is left is sacred breath and the glory and enjoyment of the time being. And that is where the good stuff really lives. They keep us plugged into the divine circle of self-emptying love. We’re filled to the brim with every perfect grace around us, which we can then pour right back out onto others. We love, because we are loved.

Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century German Benedictine abbess, tells us that in order to fly like an eagle we need two wings: one is embracing God’s glories all around us and the other is tending to pain and suffering in our midst. Both involve paying attention.

May we be women flying high with both wings, deeply aware of both the glories and sorrows surrounding our lives.


About Natalie:

Natalie-Patton-150x150Natalie Toon Patton is a partly cloudy, always scattered, overly caffeinated Arkansan turned expat living in Bangkok with her husband and three tots. When she’s not hailing a tuk tuk or letting her son sample fried grub worms on the street, she is an advocate for urban refugees and writes about the intersections of faith and travel at natalietoonpatton.com. Follow her scattered life on her blog or on Instagram.