I am woken every morning by the birds with their playful chatter. I go to bed early so the dawn chorus is perfectly timed to gently rouse me from my slumber and help me embrace a new day. That fresh hour before dawn is my time to celebrate the new day and to reflect on the joy and wonder of life before the rising sun takes to the sky.
Once the sun is up, the birdsong quietens as the heat intensifies. The first light brings a realisation that life must be lived as well as pondered. Most days I am out and before eight, purposefully scurrying around the town before rewarding myself with a long lazy coffee. I have a few daily chores and by ten my enthusiasm will be stifled by the heat and I will seek shade, caffeine and a moment to watch life pass by.
Later, just as the sun peaks, I head out on my bicycle. I am the mad dog, the English man setting off on my stately bike with a sun hat to protect my barang head. A short cycle ride brings on a sweat and I arrive at work, damp and crumpled like some second rate colonial clerk. If the birds are awake they are too hot to sing and the air hangs hot and still. My brief hours of teaching finish as the day starts to slide into evening and soon after sunset my first yawns begin to punctuate the evening.
My life is simple but never prosaic. Here in the Kingdom of Wonder I have time to reflect on the majesty of the everyday. I live here as a barang, a foreigner, and I observe life unfolding around me like a lotus. Tomorrow there will be the wonder of morning birdsong before the rising sun and a new page of my life will start.
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.