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.
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 have chosen the path I walk through life. The multiple decisions that I have made all through my life have brought me to where I am now. I am happily living in Cambodia, some six thousand miles from where I was born and working as teacher. I may never return to England or I might fly home tomorrow. My life has no long term plans.
It has been an amazing life so far. I was a school dropout at seventeen. I left home and my studies suffered as a consequence. That decision, catastrophic as it seemed to my parents, had set the tone for my entire adult life. I have made decisions that have been hard for others to fathom. I have lived outside the box and more than once have come dangerously close to living in one. My life has always had a semi permanency as I have travelled through. I was told, at fourteen, that I was a dilettante and I would seem to have fulfilled this idea that I am a butterfly who may never truly settle.
Along the path I have acquired tools and strategies. I had to work hard in a variety dull jobs when I was young but I have learned a lot. I have returned to education many times. I may have dropped out of education once but over the years I have acquired a plethora of teaching qualifications and these enable me to live and work almost anywhere in the world. It’s hard to say what makes a good teacher but I hope I have something to offer.
I love teaching and I thrive on change and new challenges. So here I am on the path I have chosen, slowly travelling through my life one country at a time. Hopefully helping a few people along the way and earning money for food and a roof. It’s not everyone’s dream and I’m not sure it’s mine. It’s where my decisions took me and I am happy to be here, for now.