A portable safe, a nylon vault.

On the Beach

Pinned by pebbles, row upon row of five thousand dollars in blue engraved traveler’s checks sit like butterflies fanning their wings on the hot dry sand. If curious children draw near I will shoo them away. Here is how it happened:

After a week in Ha Long Bay sharing a small wood boat with a garrulous German couple, who  constantly fought, drank, and bacchanaled, when the boat finally pulled to port, Seth and I found a cheap guest house, set our packs down in the large cubicle room, and slept for three hours. Then it was time to wash our clothes.

There is an art to skillfully soaping the sweated up cloth, repeatedly plunging the heavy wet clothes into colorful plastic buckets, refreshing the water, finally wringing the clean clothes dry by twisting the fabric tight, methodically working the twist forward, until squeezing out the last drops of clear water. I had learned the trick from watching indigenous women in Guatemala.

As the sun set we hung our wash on green nylon cord bought in a thriving market in Phnom Penh, twenty cents a foot. After a hearty meal of fish, soup, and rice, and a short walk up the main street and back, we turned in for the night. Early the next morning, we paid for our five dollar room, grabbed our gear, and headed for the tunnel that lead to the beach.

For fifty cents, a young boy wearing a white shirt, thin gray trousers and flip flops, lead us through the war time shelter. We stooped low, following his every step, the smooth walls cool to the touch, fragrant with time. A hundred meters later we stepped into bright sunlight and gleaming sand. There were no other travelers. The beach was eerily quiet.

I spread my towel and lay down. Seth waded slowly into the tranquil blue water.

“Come on out,” he shouted from fifty yards away.

I did not hesitate, and walked straight into the waveless ocean. The invigorating water quickly rose above my ankles, my knees, my hips; and finally ringed my neck.

“It’s great,” I shouted, and waved back. “It’s great!” Then all consuming dread overwhelmed me.

"What is the purpose of your visit? How long do you intend to stay?"A money belt is a portable safe, a nylon vault for credit cards, visas, hard cash, travelers checks, a passport. The seasoned traveler wears it securely hidden inside his pant waist and only removes it at bed time. I had forgotten to take mine off, and felt it beneath my swim trunks. The salty ocean nipped my chin.

Panic stricken, frantically, I swam to shore, leaving Seth to wonder what was wrong. Kneeling behind a sand dune, fearing the worst, I unzipped the black nylon sleeve and gingerly removed its contents.  A few ink stamps in the passport were smudged. The paper currency was slightly moist; the travelers checks were sopping wet. What to do? To panic would have only made things worse.

I carefully separated the dozen passport pages which were stuck together, then set the booklet upright on the blistering hot sand. Spaced six inches apart, placing pebbles at their center, I lay out five rows of American currency and travelers checks.  A soft breeze made them flit like dragon flies.

In five minutes the sun and sand worked their magic. Row by row I gathered up several thousand dollars of checks and bills, returned them to the pouch, slide the dry passport behind them, cinched the belt around my waist, zippered it shut, tucked it beneath my bathing suit, and at last breathed easy. I stood and waved to Seth.

“C’mon back out,” he yelled, his hands gaily splashing water.

With my hands, I semaphored to Seth, and hoped he understood I’d had enough excitement for today, and preferred the safety of solid ground.