Funny how when I get sick I miss home more. Not that I have a home to miss. Cravings for comfort foods kick in and they seem hard to find here. Maybe the British cuisine can serve a blander dish with more ease than the Cambodians. Or maybe home is more than a place, it is a set of associations, responses and experiences that I pack in my case and unconsciously haul across continents.
I want mashed potatoes and, rather bizarrely, custard. I’m not even sure when I would have last eaten either of those. They were hardly staple foods in my low carbohydrate kitchen. In Cambodia, It will be easier to get some bananas and brown rice and I suspect all will be well. In fact, probably quite a lot better than I would have fared with custard. I’m not really sick, I just feel a bit under the weather but the heat and the solitude magnify things and I’m feeling sorry for myself.
What I really want is a friendly, familiar face to share a cup of tea with. Someone to remind thats everything’s going to be all right. Sometimes writing this blog is my daily cuppa. I share my joys and woes, my insights and my banalities with you. So I’ll say thank you to the potential millions of people that might see this and to the one or two who are actualy reading this.
I feel better already. Fancy a cup of tea?
Once I lived in a beautiful town on the bank of a river. Kind people and happy faces were in no short supply as I pottered about. My life was built around casual conversation and good coffee. I was living in paradise. Why did I leave?
Well I suppose the main factor was that I lost my job. My employer pushed me into getting a diagnosis of Aspergers and then seemed unsure what to do with it. That uncertainty sat over me like a cloud and brought a great deal of unhappiness. I locked my heart, steeled my soul and tried to protect myself. I was told that I wasn’t wanted. They were guilty of disability discrimination and they knew it. My silence was bought and paid for but the hurt and the shame came at a higher price than money.
I ran away. I travelled to the other side of the world and kept moving. For now, I am living in a beautiful town on the bank of a river. Kind people, happy faces and good coffee percolate my soul. Having lost paradise, I am not trying to regain it but it seems to follow me. I am a traveller now. I don’t want to settle and build a life. I want to keep moving, keep changing until eventually, the fear of losing is lost. The shame will subside and the hurt will heal. Then I will find paradise for I know where it is. It’s locked away safely in my heart.
It came through post and there it was in bold black type on white, official headed paper. I am different. I have always struggled with relationships and rubbed people up the wrong way and now I know why. Asperger’s syndrome can be frustrating to an onlooker. A good friend told me I shouldn’t worry about my diagnosis and that I was over analysing it. I explained, in far too much detail, that worry and analysis are how I am wired and they help to create a hard concrete logic that underpins my life. I could see her patience starting to ebb as she suggested that knowing this, meant I could change it. I changed the subject instead but it left me thinking. Life nearly always leaves me thinking.
When it comes to mental well being there’s a deficit model that seems to focus on what people lack. I understand that. It’s the same model my logical brain applies too. However we need to think about the positives of neurodiversity. I think I manage my Asperger’s syndrome quite well. Some people don’t notice it at all. It’s part of my design
and it’s all the good and wonderful things that I am. It is what makes me a writer and a poet. It is what makes me, me. There is a stark architectural brutality to my mind that some people think is hard and ugly. Some people are quaint country cottages with roses round the door. Others are smart Regency terraces with geraniums artfully tumbling from window boxes. My inner life may have a jarring, angular modernity but my clean asymmetric, concrete lines don’t lack roses or geraniums. I’m just a different type of beautiful.
Am I still travelling? I mean I’ve rented a flat, signed a work contract, and got myself a twelve month visa. That feels like roots. Then again, I am still thinking where next. I just bought a laptop for work and I’m freaking out. Most people don’t buy a laptop when travelling but then a lot of people already have a laptop so thats only a huge commitment in my eyes. After all it comes in a backpack. The Asperger Path comes with baggage too in the form of over analysis and anxiety. It’s all right, I am still moving, just not too quickly.
Those that come here have already chosen a quiet diversion from the highlights of this country. On a lonely planet, the irony is that most are guided along more well beaten tracks. This backwater, Cambodia’s second city, cannot boast a UNESCO heritage site or awesome experiences. It’s quirky, a little offbeat and has a crumbling post colonial charm that doesn’t look amazing on social media. However, as a place to reside, it has a lot to offer. Great cafés and lovely restaurants, a tree lined river and lots of happy friendly people make this city a jewel. I am lucky to be able to work and that allows me to travel at a different pace. I am not a moss gatherer and one day I will roll away but for now Battambang is a home and a great place to experience life in one of my favourite places, the slow lane.
The cafés of Battambang are a leisurely way to waste away a Sunday and I ignored the thundery heavens as I cycled to Street 1.5, just south of the central market. My favourite café was uncharacteristically full and I and my flat white were wedged in a corner between a well upholstered, coke swilling American and an anxious Londoner who was hopelessly unsure about her salad. An Australian accent cut through the generally quite subdued chatter of the corner café. I looked up to see an ancient outbacker informing his equally elderly friend he had plans to read the Quran in the not too distant future. I dropped my gaze but remained all ears.
“Apparently, there are Mohammedans who deliberately misquote the Quran to Westerners.”
“They call us Kafirs,” his friend announced in an accent that was several hours drive south west of Dublin.
Still loud enough to be considered a Public Service Announcement, our man from Alice continued, “Once I have read the details I will be able to know when they are lying to me and be able to put them straight. Half of them don’t understand their own beliefs”
“Of course some say it’s what readers of the Quran have interpreted and that these interpretations build together to give a bigger picture.”
The man from Cork was stopped there. Clearly this dialogue was becoming a little cluttered and the outbacker had a point to make. Making it plain he wasn’t interested in anything but the actual words of the holy text iself he dismissed the idea of Muslim intellectuals, favouring a more fundamental approach. He’d met some, in a Melbourne college, and they, Muslims, were hypocrites. They talked about the sanctity of marriage and leading a good life while they were having affairs with Australian women and drinking beer. He assured his friend from Cork that people can’t follow a religion if they don’t believe hook, line and sinker. Hoping his colleague was not a defrocked priest fleeing Catholic guilt and frolicking in South East Asia, I listened on. I was no longer pretending not to stare. Sadly, moments later, the conversation was interrupted by a diminuitive Khmer woman with a surprising voice that overpowered even my Antipodean ranter. She was a tour guide and explained to her group, The Intrepid Explorers, that showers had been forecast and therefore transport had been arranged so no-one would get wet returning to the hotel. The discussion, like the salad, was left unfinished as the obedient travellers filed out. Moments later, the place was deserted and an empty coke was my only companion as the first heavy drops of rain thumped onto the corrugated iron verandah.
They say that travel broadens the mind and I hope the cliché is true. Each day I see and hear different things and my mind tries to process and understand the experiences. I try to observe without judging and I always fail so I observe and I comment because that’s how my mind works Every mind is different and we all start our journey from different places and perspectives. As for the Intrepid Explorers, now safe and dry in their respective hotel rooms, I hope tomorrow’s itinerary will provide them with much more than just conversation, Coca-cola and the eternal questioning of salad.
I have a hundred thousand words in my head. They jostle noisily each keen to escape the obscurity of my mind and land in the spotlight. Fame and glamour will follow once they escape into the world. What an anticlimax they must feel. The leap made faithfully to discover a regimented place in the ether. There were thoughts of vellum, iridescent inks and golden nibs forging an italic masterpiece. Instead they have become row after technological row of evenly spaced semantic units like some dull but well planned suburban housing project. All hopes dashed, aspiration extinguished, as the dreadful realisation hardens like a concrete pavement. They have jumped headfirst into a blog. The last hopeful thought, a successful blog, is crushed.
These words will never know Caxton’s machine or the loving labours of a brotherly illumination. The beautifully artisanal imperfection of times past is not their destiny. Modernity has taken the life of the word and made it quite proletarian. They were not even mused over by a consumptive with a candle in a draughty vicarage. My words, more touched than pressed, are entered silently into a phone and then set adrift. Lost in an enormous blogosphere, they will sit awkwardly awaiting hits that will be single digit in volume before disappearing wordlessly into the void of the archive. My apologies words, for you are on the straight and narrow asperger path and, despite the absence of forks, there can be no doubt that is the road less travelled.
So a man decided to attack Parliament in London. The man was a Muslim. This was a terror attack. The logic is very simple. However this simplistic logic can be quite dangerous. There are extra police on the streets of Britain. Sadly what is feared most now is not another attack on the highly protected mother of all parliaments, but an attack on ordinary Muslims living in the U.K.. Why would anyone do that? Islamophobia apparently, but surely its just good old fashioned stupidity served with a dash of post-imperial racism. A Muslim man attacked Parliament so let’s should attack someone with the same religion. Or even more ridiculous let’s expect someone of that religion to explain the motivation behind the attack and a solution to ISIS and Syria while they are at it.
I know what fills me with terror and it’s not terrorists. I see people, scared people, not terribly intelligent people, who are filling themselves with hate and anger. This vitriol is then hurled indisciminately at people who are in some sense, other. It could be Muslims, gays, the disabled, blacks, Europeans, Asians or intellectuals. There are a lot of people in the world to hate and ironically, the narrower the mind, the broader the hate spectrum. We need a war on that kind of terror. We need to educate the ignorant and reduce the threat of prejudice. So let’s choose a phobia and start to gently wipe the fear from the minds the scared people.
Cambodia, the Kingdom of Wonder has me in its hot sweaty palms. I’m gripped, hooked, stuck or maybe even seduced by its charm. There are obvious down sides. The poverty, corruption and the rather undemocratic democracy, all of which leave me reeling. The health care is so bad that rich go abroad and the poor go without.
I am not Cambodian, I am barang, a foreigner, and freely admit I have no real understanding of the culture into which I’ve slipped. But my, how this country has me wondering.
Firstly everybody seems so happy. Smiles are freely given with the greeting sok sabay, peace and happiness. Of course Cambodians have their woes, probably disproportionately more so than many other nationalities. Culturally woe not worn the face and if a smile disappears then a line has been crossed.
Also everything works despite nothing appealing to my pedantic sense of logic and order. The traffic system is perhaps based on a traditional criss cross pattern of a Krama. Everyone has an equal right of way and somehow we all weave through with a smile.
My biggest wonder though is that I can finally work at a slower pace. Long lazy breakfasts with the laptop and a coffee and then home for cool shower before a spot of teaching in the afternoon. The climate and culture imbue a languor and my how it suits me. The smile spreads easily onto my face in the languid liquid evenings as my brow is soothed smooth in the hot breeze. The Asperger Path is still an uptight and anxious one but for how long, I wonder.
In Britain, 1977 was The Queen’s Silver Jubilee. There were street parties, lots of red white and blue and every pupil in my primary school got a commemorative mug. Society was changing and Britain was emerging from a recession and would soon dive into another. There were punks on the television with black leather jackets and brightly coloured hair. The dissatifaction they represented was lost on this happy child. Ironically the death of disco coincided with my mother noticing that her younger son was more a sexolette than a sex pistol. I certainly liked to get dancin’ in the garden in my 99p aviator sunglasses. Such happy, long, summer days when I was old enough to be somebody but young enough not worry what that might mean. I danced like no-one was watching and my mother hoped if they were that they weren’t noticing. It was my last summer of innocence.
The storm clouds of puberty were gathering and whilst my hormones didn’t rage too much, some my peers were getting angry. By 1978, I was aware that having hair that looked like an outraged chrysantheum was an anecdote best not shared and that junior school’s eccentricities were big school’s weaknesses. I was the boy who was different and people were not afraid to show me how much they valued conformity. My mum, who liked punks more than The Queen, let me be myself. She supported the outlandish haircuts, the asymmetric earrings and the fashion disasters. She had enough punk spirit to allow her germ free adolescent the freedom to become a happy, well adjusted dancing queen .
We are all travellers. We are born but by the time we die we are in different times and different places. I was born into much unhappiness. My mother thought she had arrived as she had a home and a husband. She ended up barefoot and pregnant, deserted by my Catholic father for a woman who dripped a hard headed, icy sophistication. My mother, leaking milk, eventually admitted defeat and returned home to the helpful but rigidly, judgmental parents she had left on her ill advised wedding day. Her ensuing battles with her mental health and self esteem didn’t leave much stability or love to spare for two boys who had already lost a father. She left us out in the cold for a while but she had to put her own oxygen mask on before she could worry about our care supply. The return to a semblance of normality was a bumpy bohemian road along which I grew to love my shy mother. She was clever and funny and quietly loved her children though organisation and routine were scarce commodities. As an adult I can see my mother has bestowed both gifts and burdens on me. Having no children, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to parent a child while your own life veers off course.
My mother’s life was short but in her last few years I saw a woman of fifty something years coming into her own with a joy and a confidence I had only ever glimpsed as a child. I am fifty now and sense I am, like my mother, in a very good place. Looking forward, I don’t know where I am going but I am fairly confident it will be great when I get there. I can see where I have been and the path has been a tough one and I have no doubt the future will hold a few surprises yet. My mother taught me that demons can be battled and was an example of how we can change. I have travelled through time and space but it is the internal journey that has been my greatest adventure. It has taken me to places far from my childhood and will continue to do so as long I ask questions of myself and the world I see before me. The inquisitive mind travels far for what is a quest without question. The answers aren’t often found but if you stop asking your journey is over. This restless traveller hopes to live on the bumpy bohemian road and die having never quite arrived.