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 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.
My Aspergers is with me always. Everywhere I go, it goes. My life is filtered through a disordered prism.
When the awkwardness hits, or relationships feel dry and unoiled, I know my Aspergers has raised its head again. I analyse what went wrong and pore over the details. I feel like a crazy, eccentric scientist because I know what I seek is simple, and yet it eludes me. My Aspergers is a source of frustration. When you know you have a flat tyre, the road still feels just as bumpy. Knowledge is good but knowledge is not the same as a solution.
But there are days when my Aspergers is almost invisible. These are the good days when I feel that I am just like everyone else. Life ticks over and Aspergers gets no credit.
Yet surely my Aspergers contributes as much to my success as my failure. My brain is still wired differently when I am being brilliant at work, funny at dinner, or helpful to a friend. It solves problems, creates solutions and makes my life, quite frankly, awesome.
I live with my Aspergers every day. All that is good about me is filtered through the same disordered prism. I am the rainbow and my life is lived on the spectrum. It’s beautiful and colourful here. Like everyone, I have good days and bad days, but every day I travel with my Aspergers.
Good intentions are kind thoughts and we need to accept, in ourselves and in others, that we can’t act on every kind thought. We choose causes that resonate and help those who, for whatever reason, impact on our consciousness. One person chooses donkeys in Devon and another HIV in Africa. If everyone had good intentions and acted on just a few of them how lovely this planet might be.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. People who have thought good thoughts and planned good deeds, yet because they didn’t apply themselves, nothing got done. This is too harsh. The road to hell should be paved with evil actions. Crimes deliberately planned and executed by people that were quite content for others to suffer.
So much for the conscious and the deliberate, but what can we do about the inadvertent. I try to be good, and I strive to be better, yet I often fail. I am honest and forthright, but this can cause pain and hurt to those around me. However inadvertently it is done, the ache is the same. My good intentions can be the cause of harm and upset.
Perhaps the road to hell is a private personal creation. I agonise over the unintended hurt and sometimes I am more hurt by the impact of my actions than my victim. People with Aspergers, often considered cold and unemotional, can have deep and intense empathy, though they may struggle to communicate it. I will not allow the Asperger Path to become my road to hell. If I deliberately plan and execute deeds with the intention to harm that makes me a bad person. However, I need to realise and understand that sometimes people get hurt and that hurt is part of life. So, I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Please, don’t let me be misunderstood.
Her blue jacket is beautifully graphic and I lose myself for a moment. The lines of white and grey intersect, forming squares within endless squares to consider and reconsider. Her face, though equally lined, is softer, less mathematical. It’s human. Life has been witnessed, lived and ultimately survived with a quiet dignity.
Having dismounted from an ancient bike, which is possibly older her, she passes through the early morning coffee drinkers. Each is addressed with a low, gentle voice and an open smile. Few refuse this woman, for her poise and grace starkly highlight that life can be far from fair.
Finally, she comes to me. Her smile becomes a soft chuckle and there is an impish, mischievous glint in her eyes. Unlike her back, her spirit is unbowed. She offers me her lottery tickets, fanned out for my perusal. We both know I don’t really understand what she is selling and that I don’t speak the language. However, she chooses to include me in her day and as she looks directly into my eyes I see the kindness of one who has known what it means to be left out.
She remounts her bicycle and cycles away but she has left me behind, knowing that happiness isn’t found in a winning ticket.
The Mekong River threads through Asia linking countries, cultures and people. It has flowed through through time and history and threads moments together like pearls on string. This mighty river is taking me on a new adventure.
However, as I look out mournfully from my window, I can’t help but think that being on the Mekong when the rain sets in is not dissimilar to being on the train from Crewe to Manchester. The sky is a relentless, indistinct grey and the rain on the windows drives away all thoughts of a landscape.
I had never imagined that my first crossing into Vietnam would evoke Cheshire, but journeys should be full of surprises, and minds long broadened by travel can still bring home sharply into focus.
There is no tragic tea trolley or inversely cheery attendant on this boat and my one banana and drinking water were consumed well before the border was crossed. The sky and the river merge long before the unseen horizon. There is a nameless hue brewing outside that is somewhere between grey and brown. Wet and warm, it resembles that cup of Travellers Fayre tea which, more often than not, was bought to simply to alleviate the tedium.
I arrive in Vietnam in the unwelcoming dark of the wet season. An ill equipped traveller, I scurry, umbrellaless, to the safety of the nearest hotel. Travel isn’t always glamorous and exciting, but my journey so far has been a good one. Even on rainy days, there are blessings for the counting. Tomorrow I will wake up and explore a new city in a land I have yet to see in daylight.
Many years have passed since my forays to and from Crewe, which are now like water under the suspension bridge on the road from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City. Then a student, now a teacher, life is so different. Then I thought of my future while being haunted by my past. Now, there is just now. I’m living in the moment, but ever mindful that moments are connected in time, like a river.
When you first meet him, his happiness shines through the cracks and scars of a careworn face. He works hard and lives well in this life he has built. Things were very different once and beneath his scratched surface there is still a shadow of darkness.
He had been dead for years. Unhappy with himself he fulfilled his own prophecy and became a loser. Once lost in hazes of his own destruction, he got high and then higher until one day he realised that he was lower than he ever thought possible. Rage, sadness and loathing had been numbed in toxic gutters until he choked in his own filth.
Now he is born again. This man found redemption in himself. He fell in love but didn’t change for someone else. He looked within and saw the bitter reality of what he had become, but also he saw his the glimmering vestige of his own hope. In loving another, he realised he could be better. And so, step by painful step, he changed into a man that he wanted to be, kind, content, sober. Once transformed he fought for, and won the heart he desired
Just now and then you see through the cracks. The profound sadness and dark anger will never completely disappear. Life can change and heal but it leaves livid scars. Scarred he may be, but he is longer scared for he carries the marks of a survivor, a fighter, a winner.
Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith. Something or someone happens and you, for some reason, decide it’s an avenue you want to pursue.
Life is quite a journey. Birth is followed by education, work, love, rest and death. This mortal coil spins faster as we age, and most of us are far too merry to get off. The Asperger Path has been a happy, but somewhat more disorderly, route through life’s conventions.
Actually, I took a detour long ago, and discovered life could be neither straight or narrow. I broadened my mind, loosened my inhibitions, and allowed myself to be open to opportunity’s knock. I have lived in kinky meanders and loved with spacious permissiveness.
It’s time to leap and faith is my parachute and . If I land safely, I will let you know.
Ooooh. Fallin’ free, fallin’ free, fallin’ free, fallin’ free
Donna Summer is on repeat in the juke box of my mind. It’s time for some free falling because I feel love, conventional, old fashioned, ‘you and me’ love.
There was much talk of great things. Impressive plans were made and yet, somehow, they were not implemented. Awesome ideas were placed on a shelf and never got dusted off.
Those grand designs, so perfect and precise, did not become part of my life. The life I lead is messy. It is busy and crowded, full of a million small things but that is how my life is lived. The devil may be in the detail but so am I. Work is done, clothes are washed, groceries are purchased and life slips by in insignificant moments.
These moments, so small and yet so purposeful are where love is found. I look after myself, not through grand schemes of how life might be , but in the daily routines where I already am. So it is in these moments that happiness must be built. Enjoy the commute, smile at the market, smell the fresh warm smell of clean bedsheets, because every chore can be act of love and a reminder of your worth. If you can see love and happiness in the doing of small things, what more do you need.
We all see the world differently. Perspectives can change with time and place. However difference can unite us or divide us. It is up to us to decide on that.
I am a gay. That makes me somehow different. In my life, that difference has been the source of intense hatred from some and touchingly profound love from others. Being outside, my brothers and sisters showed me what solidarity can look like. Being outside, sometimes I really needed them. My family never cast me out and indeed, love and acceptance has been more of a motif than hate.
Hate is strong though. The power of seemingly isolated incidents can butterfly effect into a tsunami that crushes self esteem and inhibits self expression. I remember so many of the acts of hate, so vividly. Why then can’t I recall the individual kindnesses with the same focus too.
I am going to change my perspective. Acts of love need to be marked and gratitude needs to be both registered within and expressed without. I am surrounded by love, not hate, and the bubble I float in should not be popped by the occasional small prick.
From today I will see the world differently.