He asked me if I was lonely in Cambodia and if I missed home. An unexpected touch of concern from a man I met in passing, but ultimately it was an ill thought question. He thinks that I should come home, but he doesn't realise that I am at home wherever I am. That wasn't his only mistake though.
I am not lonely in Cambodia. I am rarely lonely anywhere. My loneliness is something others see but it isn't actually there. I have always led quite a self sufficient existence. My life is hermetically sealed and my emotions are lived out in the landscapes and scenarios of my mind. No one really knows me and no one gets invited in. I am not lonely but I am often alone.
I love people. Well, I like a spot of company is probably more accurate. I enjoy telling silly stories and presenting my public face to the world. I get up and out and go about the town and say my hellos. However, more often when I have free time, I choose to relax in other ways. I have my own place and I just go there and lock the door. Being self obsessed, I enjoy my own company. When I am alone with my thoughts, time passes easily. My mind is the most beautiful place I know and I could dream my whole life away in there.
My problem is that other people cause me stress. It's not deliberate. The people I meet are kind and lovely as well as intelligent and witty. It's me and that beautiful mind of mine. I never feel I might have said something wrong, crossed a line, or not been considerate enough when I am on my own. Because I can't read other people too well, I am constantly on the wrong foot. Or I think I might be. So, I hop awkwardly through the briefest of encounters and then run away to my quiet, empty home.
Here is as good as anywhere. I know a few people and my language problems keep most relationships stripped back and simple. I don't know when I'll go back to England, but if I do, I'll be looking for my own place where I can just go and lock the door. If any asks, no one's home.
I love being on my own. I can happily spend the majority of the day in my own little world. Today I have barely spoken to anyone and it is now lunchtime. I have just been wrapped up in planning lessons and getting ready for my six hour teaching day tomorrow.
I like a routine so I get out of the house about 6 in the morning. My alarm isn't set but I am usually awake before dawn. I walk and watch the good people of Battambang. At the start of my walk the streets are quiet and life hasn't really commenced for most khmer households. I see the same faces exercising by the river. There's the kindly looking fellow who teaches his adoring, all female class Tai Chi and the men who play Kinja, a game where you kick a shuttlecock to each other.
I stop for a bite to eat at the same little place. Sok sabay I say to announce my presence. I like the fact that peace and happiness are my first words each day as I take my seat and wait for my dollar breakfast. I've usually walked two miles or more before I sit down, so I am more than ready for my pork, rice, pickles and broth.
After breakfast I wend my way home. By seven the town is feeling more awake and the streets are full of life. Children off to school and parents off to work. Others, like me, choose to have a Khmer pavement breakfast.
A cup of coffee just before home signals the fact that there is work to be done. I try to start early so I can have a break and eat my fruit salad lunch. On good days, like today, I get a paragraph or two hammered out before it's time to put my long trousers on and face my students. After the peace and happiness of the morning, my afternoons are more hectic. I love teaching, but I don't find it calming or tranquil.
Most nights after work, I will go out and be sociable. A chat with friends is great but the Asperger Path will have me home by about seven. That will leave plenty of time for some vegetables and rice and another slice of peace and happiness before bed.
Life is full of simple pleasures. I rediscovered one recently and I am loving the manifold delights it's bringing me.
I have always been a walker. From a very young age I would happily pound the paths of Wiltshire with my parents and explore the rolling hills and forests that surrounded the town I grew up in.
A few years ago, having moved from London to Suffolk, I decided to build walking into my healthy mind, healthy body mantra and I fell in love with Suffolk in general and the River Deben in particular. Bleak and beautiful, serene and scary, this tidal river with its constant ebb and flow was both the heart and border of Woodbridge.
Then a year ago I deserted my homeland and I ran away. Sydney was a revelation. Stunning National Parks fringe the city and the bus and train network opened up a plethora of opportunities. As I travelled Australia I realised that every town boasted great opportunities to get out and get my stride on.
Then in 2017 I landed in Cambodia and it all came to a halt. Searing heat and the traffic chaos of Phnom Penh meant there was precious little opportunity for a relaxing, life-affirming stroll. I knew I wouldn't last in the capital and in February I took a job in Battambang.
There are frangipani trees everywhere,here, and there's a magnificent muddy river that bisects the city. On both sides of the river there are shaded paths but the heat meant I never took advantage of the amenities.
Last week a look in the mirror horrified me and I decided to make a change. Now, when I wake at five, instead of bemoaning my fate and lolling like a beached whale till 8, I jump up and I am out the door. I drink a litre of fluids, brush my teeth and I'm gone. Early sunrises, other exercisers and a multitude of birds bring a smile to my face as walk up and down the banks of the River Sangker in the relative cool of the Khmer dawn.
I feel better. I look better. I get more done every day. Life has become a happier place to dwell. All of this I get from going for a walk. I try to do my 10,000 steps because on the Asperger Path we like a target but if I don't, I don't sweat it. I've already done my sweating for the day.
In Britain I was expected to be so much more than just a teacher. A social worker, counsellor, parent, friend, mentor, big brother and psychologist. A multitasking miracle worker who would whizz into a room and create a positive learning environment from whatever I found. With Pavlovian conditioning, I could change tack with every tolling bell, ploughing through a long day where breaks and lunch evaporated and needs were met, anticipated and dealt with. The gifted were stretched, the less motivated were encouraged and the hungry were fed. Sometimes even clean clothing was appropriated. I made a difference. London’s schools were challenging and dynamic, and not for the fainthearted.
Cambodia is no place for the fainthearted either. Grinding poverty, years of internal corruption, and searing heat bring their own challenges. However, like many foreigners work in elite, private settings with students who are relatively wealthy. The library has precious few books and the school feels under resourced but the parents all have big four wheel drive cars.
I set a task and my class of students do it. I have never taught students like this before. They are respectful and engaged, no matter what. Are we doing something creative and engaging right now. Not particularly. In fact, we are doing peer and self assessment of paragraph writing with a final draft to be produced by the end of the lesson. Deathly dull if you ask me, and I am theoretically a writer.
In addition to having no real classroom management issues, I am not expected to analyse or deep dive data. I do not produce reports or graphs highlighting student underachievement nor am I expected to contact parents and build home school relationships.
I come to class. I teach. I assess. I grade papers. I give feedback. However, this generation will be pivotal in the the changes that are need to happen in this country so I might be just a teacher but, like all teachers, I can still make a difference.
Once I was blissfully unaware. I was an misfit, an oddball, an eccentric of a peculiarly English type but I thought nothing of it.
My few attempts to fit in were always just opportunities to stand out. I was a follower of fashion for example. However my “fashion-forward” sensibilities were heady when combined with my complete unawareness of the ripples I can create around me. Never thinking to look back, I sailed through the calm waters of life with the cut of my jib set jaunty.
Then they interfered. I was labelled. The very essence of who I was became the focus of others. Professionals were involved and meetings took place. People were concerned or perhaps even worried. I was placed on the Asperger Path and my life juddered to a halt.
Half the world away and here I am. The path is mine. I have owned myself and stuck two fingers up at those who told me what I could and couldn’t do. I live in a country where I don’t speak the language and my height, colour, build and beard separate me from the crowd. No one has really heard of Asperger here, let alone his blooming syndrome. We are all blissfully unaware.
I took a walk along the river today. I wandered down under the shady trees and crossed over on the bridge that usually takes me to work on my bicycle. I stopped for a bite to eat with the barbecue pork lady before heading north. So many times I have walked passed the pagoda there, meaning to stop, but somehow I never find the time.
Today I found I had time to spare. My tummy was full of rice and I was feeling in the mood for a meander. For me the temple itself was not the main attraction though it is undeniably beautiful. It is surrounded by other buildings as most temples are in Cambodia, but in Battambang the architecture always seems just a little more special.
I wandered about and took a few snaps and then headed north along the eastern river bank. It was a cool morning and it’s been a while since I just went for a walk. Up to the bridge that takes Highway Number 5 over the muddy brown Sangker river. I wandered up to the ferry terminal and found myself a coconut to satisfy a niggling thirst then abandoned the river for the frangipani shaded walk east.
My last leg reminded me that this seemingly sleepy city is in fact the second largest town in Cambodia. After my dreamy walk where I felt quite alone with my thoughts I turned south and soon was in the happy midst of daily Khmer life. Psar Boeung Chhouk teems with people. The Psar Nath may be the landmark market hall but Boeung Chhouk market is were people come to shop in droves.
Four months I have lived in this city. It still fills me with wonder, charms me senseless and brings a smile to my face. Sok Sabay I say to almost everyone I meet. Peace and happiness is easy to find in Battambang.
It never rains but it pours. Sometimes things are just badly timed. No matter how good your intentions are you end up down that well paved road and it can be slippery when wet. The last few weeks I’ve been in need of an umbrella.
It’s not that I am work shy, but, much as I love teaching, I am a firm believer that less is more so I choose to work part time. I cut my cloth accordingly. My life isn’t particularly ritzy but here in Cambodia my qualifications allow me to access a good hourly wage. I like to keep my teaching hours at around fifteen for the perfect life, work, remuneration balance. Recently my hours took a precariously low dip but I had been given the opportunity to teach amazingly interesting classes at the weekend. Thankfully, serendipity popped by with a more bread and butter offer of daily work.
The weekend classes were just one module of a Masters in teaching and my lovely students have all passed; most with flying colours. But the daily classes have already been running for three weeks. Today is my first day off after eighteen consecutive days of teaching. A few of weeks of teaching almost thirty contact hours has meant time has flown. I have had to exercise planning skills to ensure I was delivering well sequenced, well prepared lessons to four very different groups. Work life balance has been on hold and, this month, payday promises to be filthy in its richness.
Today, however, I am not a teacher. I have left my course books at work and Monday’s lessons are planned. It is time to recalibrate. Today I am grabbing a good friend, some swimming shorts and a place by the pool. I will sit under one umbrella whilst stirring a slightly ridiculous, fruity cocktail with another. It never rains but it pours.
It seemed a little cooler today so I thought I’d wear a really nice shirt. I have always been a bit particular clothes wise. It’s a tad thicker than my normal shirts but the temperature is only 32 degrees (that’s 90 in Fahrenheit). What a silly mistake.
So I get to work and I can feel my back. Can you feel a glisten. I can. The beading crescendos until I can sense the tsunami between my shoulder blades. As I cool, I continue to be a one man sprinkler system with no fire to extinguish. The overall effect, I was hoping for a post modern, post colonial elegance, has been washed away and I look like a sweaty foreigner who isn’t coping with the heat.
My students are kind. They won’t notice. Actually they can’t not notice, but they won’t comment. Soon I will be safely in the air conditioned temple of my classroom. As I explain the rather formulaic approach we are taking to paragraph construction I will become both drier and less self conscious.
So who do I dress for if no one really cares. I dress for me. I shave and shower and trim my beard because I am not just a teacher or a foreigner. I am in the poet autist, and although I walk a solitary Asperger Path it’s important to remember who I am. I have always been a bit particular and a good shirt is worth a little discomfort.
Thursdays are an early start for me. My eight o’clock class lasts until eleven so a good start to the morning is crucial, especially as I have my usual afternoon classes as well.
A good friend told me about the street café outside the Korean Steam Boat restaurant and as it’s on my way to work I thought I might give it a whirl. A lot of Cambodian people eat breakfast in a café. My Khmer language skills are pretty ropey but the aforementioned friend assured me there’s only one breakfast on offer with this lady. I know the word for one. It’s muy. And soon I was sitting down with a plate of rice, pickles and some truly magnificent barbecued pork. It was accompanied by some broth and was really tasty. I was feeling pretty lucky.
Just when I thought life couldn’t get any sweeter I realised that the noodle place next door sells coffee. So after my breakfast I indulged in an iced coffee and sat and watched the world go by.
Thursdays just got a whole lot better. I might even consider taking another morning class, or perhaps I should just get up early more often and enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the cool morning air by the river in Battambang.
Have a good day.
It’s been a year. How am I?
A year ago I lost my job in circumstances that were less than savoury. I discovered that discrimination is alive and kicking in twenty first century Britain. When it rears its ugly head its price is cold hard cash. Hush money was paid and I went. My head may have appeared to be held high but inside my tail was firmly between my legs.
So my first steps along the Asperger Path were walking away. Away from people who saw my weaknesses and seemed blind to what I could offer. Away from people who tried to get inside my head and happily trampled my self esteem and my dignity under dirty, corporate feet.
I went far and now my scars are no longer livid. A year has passed and my life has changed. I have taken my diagnosis, put it in with the rest of my baggage, and I have travelled. This rigid creature of habit who couldn’t cope without routines has slept on sofas, hitchhiked, stayed with strangers, made new friends and travelled half way around the world. I’ve seen the sun rise over mountains, deserts and oceans. With each sunrise came another day of my new life.
Here in Cambodia, I met an extraordinary man. With the gentle honesty that sometimes only a stranger can exercise, he pointed out my strengths and dismissed my protestations. He was passing through, geographically speaking, but he will be around for a long time. He gently told me that my fine mind is balanced by a fine heart. In doing so he reminded me of someone I used to think I was.
So here I am. That goodhearted man, blue eyed and smiling, is older but he is not lost. I’m not walking away anymore. The Asperger Path is mine. I don’t deny it; I own it. I will go where it takes me and I am confident it will take me where I want to go.
It’s been a year. How am I? I am fine.