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.
Cambodia is a land that got lost in time. A dictator came along and declared Year Zero and tried to recalibrate the society into an agrarian socialist utopia. The ‘new people’, teachers, artists and intellectuals were purged and tortured in the genocide that followed. After years of bombing from the Americans and bitter civil war Cambodia decided to inflict even more lasting damage upon itself. The aftermath is apparent but I feel powerless to help because I’m not sure what I can do.
Cities were deserted and the people were returned to the land. Those that weren’t tortured faced starvation or hard labour and in two years about a quarter of the population were dead. Mass graves, horror and destruction were left as the Khmer Rouge were pushed back from the capital by the advancing Vietnamese liberators.
Now Cambodia faces new challenges. A prime minister who has been in power for decades and whose role in the Khmer Rouge is still vague, rules a country that is lurching into the twenty first century. Rapid urbanisation, modernisation and industrialisation carry on seemingly unregulated. Any attempts to preserve habitats and cultures are hindered by corruption at all levels. In Cambodia there are many complex and conflicting needs which are failing to be met. Sadly many of Cambodia’s population are as poor now as they ever were.
One the legacies of this newly democratic kingdom is waste. You see it everywhere. In a country with so many issues is it a liberal European concern that Cambodia is choking to death on plastic. Perhaps it is, but I am as liberal and European as they come. Plastic Free Cambodia launches today and I will do my bit. This country could be a jewel in Asia’s crown with its diverse habitats and amazing ecosystems. Mighty lakes and rivers dominate the country but, if they end up polluted and choking, Cambodia could find its still largely agricultural population falling victim once again to a leadership whose primary concern is not the welfare of its people.
While I am here, just a visitor passing through, I can ensure I inflict as little damage as possible. I can’t stop illegal logging or palm oil plantations but I can say no thank you when I’m offered a plastic bag.
I lead a very small life. I get up and go about my business and to most I am an unknown. I am a nameless stranger on the streets of a city whose language I cannot read or speak.
Yet, everyday I feel welcomed. When shopping, the generosity of a smile, when I struggle to communicate, calms me down. The old ladies of the market laugh at me but I can see the kindly twinkle in their eyes as I stumble through buying my vegetables. The toddlers, standing on the footplate of their parents’ scooter even shout hello as they go past. So I may be unknown but I’m not unnoticed. As a foreigner, a barang, I stand out. I am tall, even by British standards, so here in Cambodia I feel as if I’ve come down a bean stalk. I sail around the town on a big old fashioned bike, having eschewed the ubiquitous motorbike, gathering smiles.
In my small life, these seemingly meaningless interactions are anything but. Each one contributes to a sense of happiness. Here in Cambodia people are shy but they are not wary. Having come from Europe where the single adult male is shunned as potential stranger danger it is lovely to receive happy waves and carefree waves and hear parents encouraging their children to say hello.
I will never change the world and I have no aspiration to do so. Nor will many of the people I see every day. However, a cheery hello or an open smile can change someone’s day. I know this because the good people of Battambang share their small city and their kind, friendly nature with me, making my small life a happier one.
A streetcar named desire stopped in my town the other day. A stranger disembarked and before he got back on he got and the bell clanged to signal his departure he declared that I looked comfortable in my own skin. Such a lovely compliment, thrown as he sped away to elsewhere.
We had spent such a short time together but looking back, the conversation was deep and the humour dry and sparkling like a good champagne. Certainly I had felt easy in the to and fro of the friendly conversational joust in which neither of us were tilted from our seats. We were well matched.
I’ve never depended on the kindness of strangers but when you’re travelling alone a stranger’s takes can light up dark unknown skies. I thrive on meeting new people. The relationships are superficial even if the conversations are deep and the torturously subtle complexities and conventions of long term relationships are hazards that need not be traversed.
As I travel alone on the Asperger Path, I realise that my life has acquired an openness and sense of freedom that it had often lacked. I have neither the time nor the ability to set up bizarre rules and restrictions. My life, so often run around a set of self constructed, constrictive mantras, is now open to the four winds and whoever they blow my way.
I have made some unusual choices and I’m sure the odd eyebrow is raised in my honour. However I took the road less travelled so I grateful when the streetcar drops off a stranger and he walks a block or two with me. I don’t depend on their kindness but it is most welcome.
I met a man the other day who blew away the cobwebs that had gathered in forgotten corners of my mind. Through his conversation he gently reminded me of lost passions and interests that have lain, unvoiced, in the hinterland of my consciousness. He was travelling at light speed through South East Asia. However this cosmic hare paused for breath before zipping past me, the earth-bound sluggish tortoise.
We talked of things from home mostly. A trip back to the familiar which was less memory lane than a base touch with my own culture. The politics of the left and the left out was discussed over one too many beers and the world unable to righted was dispaired over. We shifted our focus to love and relationships and discovered much in common. We both believed in the openness and flexibility of love. Seemingly polar opposites, the more we discussed the broader out common ground became.
When he left I knew that I would never see him again. I wish he were a tortoise because I could have travelled and talked with him forever. How easy life would be but I don’t fall in love with tortoises. I fall in love with hares and so I wake up with spiders rebuilding their homes in forgotten corners.
Situations have been a little overwhelming lately and I needed to do something to resolve them. Life in Cambodia can see chaotic to an outsider and I guess I can be chaotic too. Chaos squared does not bode well. Chaos can cause me anxiety so I don’t want things getting exponential. When I get anxious, I feel make rash decisions because my emotions, those unreliable things that should not cloud sensible decisions, run riot. They bounce around like pinballs at the arcade and the bells and flashing lights overload my senses. All too often I end up annoyed and frustrated because I feel my actions have been useless and yet instrumental in my own failure.
A friend of mine was listening to me berate myself over a beer. She knows me well so waited patiently for me to exhaust my train of thought. When I stopped for breath she intervened. She placed a calming, cooling, rather compassionate logic over my thoughts. First she explained that actually in situation x what else would one do but y. She elabotated that, because x was so pressing, obviously y was a short term solution to alleviate the situation until z could be implemented.
I wish everyone could be more algebraic with their care and love. On the Asperger Path, it is rare to meet someone can translate the world in a way that makes life suddenly seems so beautifully ordered.
Maybe love is just a very difficult simultaneous equation. Perhaps each of my friends could be approached as a quadratic equation. If my friend can both salve and solve me with algebra, it’s time for me to start applying some maths and solving a few of life’s problem.
It’s been a tiring day and I am feeling every one of my fifty years. My students are a happy, chaotic bunch. I learn new things about them every day. Today was phase two of our poster making day. The theme was ‘all about us’. Having established that the word post and the word poster are not as intrinsically linked as they had supposed, we ditched early attempts at envelope making. We went gung-ho into a world of frantic colouring, with rather more reluctant sentence construction, but slowly a picture came together of each of the individuals I teach. The posters are up on the walls and I think they were genuinely proud to see their bright colourful efforts on display. .
With twenty nine in one class and twenty one in the other, I admit I don’t know them as well as I ought. With a ten year gap between the youngest and the oldest, I am often trapped, dazzled in the headlights of the differing needs and demands of fifty children. I don’t do hugs so luckily I have an assistant who deals with that for the very youngest. I remember to smile more than frown and I can see they enjoy the time we spend in class.
My mantra of working together and helping each other featured in a few pieces so I guess they have listened to more than I give them credit for. We love our teacher said one poster. My name wasn’t spelt correctly but they did a great job getting my baldness on to the page. I love my students too. However most days I leave school feeling quite overwhelmed because love divided by fifty doesn’t leave much of a remainder.
We chose a spot on the river bank, under a tree, to try and escape the heat. He wanted to talk and I was happy to listen. He told me that he feels he doesn’t fit in or truly belong anywhere. I wanted to reach out and hug him but instead I asked him if he knew what he wanted from life. The uncertainty and long silences convinced me he had never thought about that. My friend has so much ahead of him and so many choices to make.
After a month apart, being with him for a day, reminded me how lonely my life can be. His easy presence sharpened all the absences I feel. Funny that he is lonely too, this man who brought his life crashing into my quiet world. He seems unaware of the brilliant power in his smile and the joy it brings to those around him. I always knew that behind his smile was something darker. Not sadness, but a shadowy awareness that his life is not going to be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.
I hope one day he realises this is a gift of sorts. It can be a chance to build a life slightly apart from the world and have a detached perspective that, although skewed, can be truly unique. Perhaps he, like me, will discover that his life is a solitary state and some lives are never truly shared. We simply choose people who make our solitary existence more bearable.
I think he has chosen me.
I have consistently chosen solitude in my life. I guess the Asperger Path is not like the Yellow Brick Road and I am not Dorothy. I like people but I always keep a certain wary distance. I feel so claustrophobic when I do get drawn in because those circles of friends can bind you tightly and before you know it you aren’t free until the second Saturday in June.
My diary has an echoing sparseness that is a source of joy. There is a real sense of calm and well being in knowing that I don’t have much to do and plenty of time not to do it in. People are always asking me about my plans and sometimes I feel like putting ‘I Don’t Know Yet’ on a t shirt. I’m almost never busy and so I like to decide things at the last minute. It’s not going with the flow, it is more about deciding if I want to be in the flow in the first place. I don’t like to rush and I don’t juggle my social engagements. My life is not empty, it is just very well spaced and uncluttered, and it is lived at a sedate pace.
People have asked me what travelling alone is like. For me, I wonder the opposite. How can you travel with someone? How far will you get before your paths diverge? Do you have to compromise a hundred times a day? It never occurred to me that I could share this. I was travelling alone long before I ever left. I have journeyed a mile or two with some great people who have touched my heart and soul. I will always leave people behind because my life, my amazing and wonderful life, needs wide, open emotional panoramas. Going solo is the only way for me to live because it is only when I spend time with other people that I feel lonely.
Funny how when I get sick I miss home more. Not that I have a home to miss. Cravings for comfort foods kick in and they seem hard to find here. Maybe the British cuisine can serve a blander dish with more ease than the Cambodians. Or maybe home is more than a place, it is a set of associations, responses and experiences that I pack in my case and unconsciously haul across continents.
I want mashed potatoes and, rather bizarrely, custard. I’m not even sure when I would have last eaten either of those. They were hardly staple foods in my low carbohydrate kitchen. In Cambodia, It will be easier to get some bananas and brown rice and I suspect all will be well. In fact, probably quite a lot better than I would have fared with custard. I’m not really sick, I just feel a bit under the weather but the heat and the solitude magnify things and I’m feeling sorry for myself.
What I really want is a friendly, familiar face to share a cup of tea with. Someone to remind thats everything’s going to be all right. Sometimes writing this blog is my daily cuppa. I share my joys and woes, my insights and my banalities with you. So I’ll say thank you to the potential millions of people that might see this and to the one or two who are actualy reading this.
I feel better already. Fancy a cup of tea?