It was the sort of café one ends up in. A place that no one would choose, where time is wasted before something better happens. They were sitting at a table, four Europeans, with unloved luggage left carelessly on the forlorn terrace.
Smoking heavily, they must have been travellers on their way to the next awesome experience. Shorts that mismatched t shirts hinted at uniformly alternative new age leanings Long gaps in their millennial conversation were adequately plugged by the WiFi that comes free with the mediocre coffee.
It was fifteen minutes before I noticed her. A girl of no more than five years, who must have spent more moments than just these unwanted. She came from nowhere and talked to the group but no one seemed able to look up from the internet to respond. One or more of these slightly grubby people must have been her parent. A small blonde girl with blue eyes was bored in Asia and no one seemed concerned. So conspicuous and yet unacknowledged by those who have a duty of care.
Cigarettes were finished and butts were squashed underfoot. Backpacks were swung into position and the four travellers were ready to depart. The girl’s hand was taken wordlessly as if she were just excess baggage and off they set, towards the next adventure.
What untold want do you have, little voyager, whose parents have set sail to seek and find? What memories of childhood will you create? How must it feel to be incarcerated on the backpack trail of someone else’s escape?
The way I do things not my fault. Or is it? I should know by now, surely, that when they ask me what I think, they don’t mean it.
So I have given my view bluntly and with the full force of my honesty. Tomorrow I must revisit the scene of the criminal faux pas, because another day another dollar is my mantra. My manager may or may not hate me. My colleagues might not think I’m weird. However, previous experience tells me that, after three months, the Asperger is beginning to crack through the thin normality I have endeavoured to veneer on myself.
It doesn’t matter if I fit or not, really. I feel like a misfit and I can create an awkwardness from thin air. Once it’s there I wrap myself in it like a safety blanket of bee stings. Being stung I retreat and my cycle pedals furiously into its inevitable descent.
Soon, I will pack my bags. The runner who can’t face the unsure and yet dives headfirst into the unknown will lurch into another incarnation. A new me, contrite and certain that I can hold back, will set forth with an all too temporary trepidation.
If only I could say nothing, how different my life would be. How few opportunities I would have needed. How few avenues I would have ventured down. How few mes I would have needed to create.
My life is my fault. My faults are my life. I should know by now, surely, that the Asperger Path is just the way I do things.
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost invisible. The world is transacting around me and I am there, in my bubble, untouched by the commerce of life.
Get your friendships here. How about a lovely bit of bonding. Who fancies a nice little chat. They buy and sell their time, love and care like market traders but I never quite feel that the offer is aimed at me.
Here in Cambodia, I am used to not understanding. My life is lived in one language, while daily life is transacted all around me in another. The protocols and customs are based in a culture that I understand only superficially. I know that I miss messages and mix messages. Yet, my life has always felt as if I am somehow apart from culture rather than a part of it. The lonely otherness of the traveller is second nature on the Asperger Path.
I enjoy the market place. The overload to the senses is a shock but life, even observed from a bubble, is marvellous in its mess. So I will buy my bits and pieces and play my role. I’ll take a small smile and a bunch of happy being me, please.
Travellers on a journey we have happily coincided. This Emerald City is where we three live and teach. We were talking about Aspergers in the classroom, but my colleagues were unaware that I am the Tin Man. Thinking my knowledge was purely professional, the questions came flooding out. Questions reveal so much more than answers.
Do you think he knows he is different? Is he aware how others see him? Why can’t he adapt? Why does he look so sad?
Each question was given to me to answer. Such difficult heartbreaking questions to hear because each was so personal and yet I couldn’t say it. Why couldn’t I tell them? I guess because I fear their observation. I choose to remain a colleague.
I know I am different, but I forget until it slaps me in the face. I am unaware of how others see me. In fact most of the time I assume that they don’t see me. When they do, it usually another slap. I do adapt. I live in the world and I pass for almost normal in almost all situations. The sadness you see is when the world treats me badly. Sometimes it comes crowding into my carefully constructed spaces. It judges and points fingers in my face.
Those questions flooded me. The third person was not a barrier thick enough to deflect them. They told me how “other” I might be labelled. Until I’m brave enough to say I am like him, people will see us as not them. Aspergers might make me feel like a tin man, but sometimes I am just a cowardly lion.
I don’t like getting my feet wet. I don’t like how it feels. Today it’s raining but it’s still hot so I am torn between the cool comfort of my sandals and the tough impermeability of my walking boots.
The smallest choices are often the most pondered. In my life, I create routines and regularity to help me avoid that endless vacillation that can consume time and mental energy. I sweat the small stuff like plastic micro beads polluting my psychic eco-system. I need to make a decision but right now I’m blogging about it.
Those big decisions that people have, they seem to cause me less trepidation. Moving to Cambodia was done on a whim with no prayer. I just upped my life and landed with my full 30kg allowance and recreated a life. Things have worked out just fine so I must assume I am a resourceful little sausage. I have a job, a roof over my head and there’s healthy food on my table.
So, I can just jump sometimes. I guess it’s fine to get my feet wet, but only when it’s metaphorical. Maybe I should just wear the sandals and see how it feels.
I no longer mark time. Time is very different here. The punctuations I took for granted have gone. Now time doesn’t comma or full stop.
You see things differently at a distance. The detail is lost but the panorama allows each piece a place, and the whole is quite unlike the parts.
Once there were four seasons. Nature kept my clock ticking. Larks and robins, buds and falling leaves, late sunsets and dark mornings, each a reminder and each setting me in a context. Here it’s hot. Sometimes it’s wet. It’s light for breakfast and dark for dinner. A year can pass unnoticed.
The seasons come with much more. Emotionally I used to shift. I was carefree in June, melancholy in November and oh so hopeful in March. Activities would change. Life would move to the garden, the balcony or the beach for the brief halcyon summer before beating a retreat to log fires and drawn curtains. My friends are far from me so birthdays are Facebook updates and Christmas isn’t coming. Now that I am no longer on it, I can see I was immersed in a cultural calendar.
My days run on like badly constructed sentences, weeks are just ill defined paragraphs and without the seasons there are no chapters. I am in a stream of consciousness and living in the now because the passing of my time is no longer marked.
It was Independence Day today and as I live so close to Independence Monument I thought I would see how it’s celebrated in Cambodia. Obviously I had the day off, so I had breakfast at my usual street café but at a slightly later hour. Then I ambled up the usually busy boulevard, closed to all cars except the elite with their ruling party VIP passes.
There were so many balloons and that was most unexpected. I felt very conspicuous, a foreigner and a European, wandering through the celebration of an Asian nation’s overthrow of colonialism, but the warm gentle smiles that are ubiquitous in Khmer culture soon calmed my trepidations.
The Red Cross were out in force, as were the Scouts and hundreds of schoolchildren. Smiling children holding pictures of the late king, or his still living wife, waved small national flags and clutched artificial white flowers which were to be laid on the monument.
Another foreigner passed me. Hello I said questioningly. He stopped and looked, and it took us both a moment to place the other. He had been neighbour from London that I hadn’t seen in 6 years or more.
Life changes and relationships shift. Whether between friends or nations, it’s good to remember the past and look to the future. We never know when an old acquaintance might become a new ally. My independence, well charted in this blog, is full of days made brighter by a little random human interaction.
The event takes centre stage at least geographically. The full moon is here and so boats are raced along the Tonlé Sap river which runs through the heart of the city. Yet, first time celebrant though I am, I mostly wander alone through the hinterlands of the Water Festival and stumble on scenes of familiarity in this quintessentially Cambodian celebration.
The festival itself is almost irrelevant and only the dignitaries in their tiered and shady seating can truly ascertain what’s going on. They sit on a dais sandwiched between the palace and the water, staring at the boats going simultaneously up and down stream. A thin line of supporters extends either side along the river bank but many thousands are focused elsewhere.
Towards the front the vendors are very much pitching to the basic needs. Food and water are being sold as families picnic near but not in sight of the racing boats. Cramped but jovial the families laugh and joke as sour green mango is dipped in a chilli salt sugar mix that assaults and ultimately defies the tastebuds.
A street or two further away large bowls of boiling oil teeter perilously on charcoal burners to produce chicken that is ends up being somewhere between dried and fried but will never upset the stomach. Near by the generously stomached smiling coconut vendor skilfully wields his cleaver to prepare a cooling treat and then pierces the translucent thin flesh with the ever present plastic straw. Here the more complex epicurean desires mingle with other vendors selling balloons and little treats. None of these traders has a stall but merely sits or more often squats and trades alfresco. A mat forms a good base to sit for a picnic. There is more open space so families are sparser allowing room for children to run around and play games every bit as convoluted as those being enacted on the water.
A good kilometre away, but still within the network of closed roads there are the more formal markets and stages. Random big businesses each hawking their wares. Cell phones and detergents both play loudly distorted Khmer love songs to entice their customers. Empty now, but after sunset there will be quite a party on the big main stage. It’s corporate sponsored and it’s going to be loud.
As I head out past the gun toting police on the traffic exclusion barriers, normality, or what passes for it in Phnom Penh starts to reassert itself. The motorbikes and horns replace the vendors cry as I return through the crowded streets to my house. I do not see many solitary observers like myself so I feel slightly superfluous. The people will stay and talk, eat and promenade long after the boats have left the river. Food, family and business are the cornerstones of life here and this festival is ultimately a celebration of that.
I bought some bananas on the road from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh. To eat a banana you must first peel the skin. A thick and rather unyielding exterior hides a fruit of delicious sweetness. Filling and healthy, and yet, if you didn’t know to look beneath the surface, you might discard it.
There are three right ‘nanas here with me now. If travel has broadened their minds they must have been imbecilic when they left Heathrow. One main theme is their schmicheal. This is apparently irresistible to all women and yet woefully under-utilised. They have met women who go on about shit and they just agree with them to get a bit, but still don’t get their end away.
A second topic is shit. Not the aforementioned kind spouted by women, but various hues and consistencies of what passes, or pours more often than not, from their bodies. This is all the fault of the food and not at all related to the alcohol, cocaine and marijuana that have been a daily part of their trip. The small bus bears painful testament to the fact that Jamie is none too well.
The slightly infected wounds, which are yellowing and weepy, were caused by a motorbike accident equally unrelated to their choices. A stunt that went epically wrong but apparently that’s because you only live once. They might go to a doctor when they arrive in Cambodia, though the talk is more of unregulated pharmacies and lounging by the pool in speedos that enhance their respective schmicheals.
I wonder how far under the slightly racist, very sexist, phallic obsessed, pus encrusted exterior I would have to delve to find the true sweetness in these countrymen of mine. At the market, if the bananas don’t have a healthy skin I pass over them. Mould on the outside often means there’s nothing worth looking for inside. Here to I have decided not to buy, so I will never know if Jamie Jamie Blow Job, Jackoff and Fingers have more to offer than the facade they are offering to people on the road from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh.
That week. That week that was. That awful week that was endured. It lies behind me now. Not thrown away like trash, for life is a cycle. I have recycled those lessons that I have learnt from all those weeks endured behind me. Neatly stacked the weeks are placed into months into years into decades. My life that was and still is.
Lessons learned and relearned. Difficulties, over and over, then overcome as I strive for more. I want more compassion to exercise and more resilience to flex for this grimy life, whilst a far remove from hell, is no heaven.
This old man is still alive and my what a life I am having. Knocked and bumped, but only because I am living on the high octane of reality, unsedated and fully conscious. I will come to land some day but my past so neatly archived and so carefully recorded will always be behind me, giving my future, however time limited it might be, full screen. The future is always there. Unknown and daunting yet I rush forward, still a fool with my lessons to learn. One day I might be one of those angels with their divine wisdom, but not today, for they are already dead. My life was, but still is and is hopefully yet to be.