You have to love Diana Ross. Well, I guess you don’t have to but I do. She was with me at breakfast this morning and asked if I knew where I was going to. Hell no as Oprah Winfrey replied in the film version of The Color Purple. Luckily, not being black or southern, I did not receive a beating for my strident response. Diana just went on, almost as if she hadn’t heard, to ask if I liked the things that life is showing me. This time my answer was a life affirmating smile that wasn’t covered by hand but shared with the morning muesli.
I am starting to believe that life is a gift. Like all the other gifts and talents I possess, it benefits from a bit of practice and honing. I am just past fifty and feeling fabulous. I have created a life that, right now, plays a rather gentle hand. My skill sets and strengths have been carefully balanced with my, let’s call them, eccentricities, and life is being lived in a contented manner. I have a home far from home and I have found friends far from friends. There have been a few hairy moments over the years but my diploma from the school of hard knocks looks dusty in the bright sunshine of easy street.
Diana might be worried about my lack of destination but this life is easing on down the road. On my slow journey away from Oz I seem to have found myself a rather comfortable window seat. My name is not Dorothy and I will not surrender. I am somewhere, over my rainbow, living my spectrum disordered life one day at time.
Do I like the things that life is showing me? Hell, yes Diana! Hell yes.
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.
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.
Cambodians smile a lot. It’s one of the most wonderful things about living here. There is almost no situation where a smile is not appropriate. Unfortunately the smile had dropped from this Cambodian face.
He wasn’t very happy and he seemed very anxious for me, the source of his anguish, to share in his misery. I had tendered my resignation and he thought that telling me I was a bad person and how I had acted wrongly would make me reconsider and stay. There was nothing positive evolving and in the end I left the room. I had tried to do what I perceived to be the right thing, but it wasn’t being well received.
Outside, I spoke to a kind and helpful colleague. He always smiles and is a delightful man. I was trying to rebalance the situation. Even on the Asperger Path I like to leave avenues open though I seldom return. In the course of the conversation I made a comparison with England. Like a bullet from a rifle, the angry man charged from his office to chastise me for talking to his subordinate. You’re not in England now he shouted, this is Cambodia. He was right, but this Cambodia was rough and angry and not like the land of gentle harmony I have seen so far.
I have a month’s notice period to work. It feels like it might be tough. I have a plan though. I will take a gentle path and wear a Cambodian smile. After all there is almost no situation where it’s not appropriate.
Desire can easily make a wise man foolish. I have a crush on someone. At fifty I suddenly find myself feeling as giddy as a fifteen year old. The first time we met he scampered over and told me all about his life and work. I listened but was distracted. I couldn’t decide if his sunny smile was broader than his feet. Both were irresistible and, being shy in the presence of beauty, I studied his feet more.
The second time we met he had forgotten my name. I remembered his and, much my shame, had practiced saying hello in Khmer so that I might charm him. He was as puppy-like as before. His broad, welcoming smile comes so easily and it’s hard to believe he only had the same number of teeth as any other mortal. I saw his eyes sparkling and then spent a while contemplating his feet, naked save for a plastic Y strap disappearing into his rather excitingly spaced toes.
Last night I saw him again. He regaled me with tales of traditional games that will be played in the run up to the New Year celebrations. How I want him to wet my face and blow flour all over me. Or perhaps in the tug of war I can encircle his slender waist with my arm and add some weight to his team. As we talked I found his excitement quite contagious. My smile must have mirrored his and he said my smile puts a light in his heart. I caught his eye, just for a moment before, feeling my colour rise, I dropped my gaze to his toes, which flex constantly as he talks.
He wants to visit me at my home before the New Year. Cambodian custom demands footwear be left by the door and finally I will see those capivating, dark feet fully naked on my floor. I am not foolish enough to risk clouding a beautiful smile so I will be a perfect host and offer my guest tea and cake rather than a foot rub. I may feel as giddy as a fifteen year old but experience has made me a wise old man.
I went to market, Psar Nath, yesterday and bought a few bits and pieces. A smiley lady reminded me that communication is much more than words and home I came with a bag of goodies. It’s been a month or so since I had access to a cooker and I have eaten out come rain or shine. Now if it’s raining I can stay home and dry and eat. It’s going to be awesome.
I tend eat my own version of Asian food. I have a wok and a love of veggies so a stir fry is the usual choice. Last night I sat in my kitchen and cleaned and chopped and peeled. It was so relaxing. The wok went on and soon as I smelled the garlic and ginger releasing their aroma I knew dinner was going to be great.
Simple home cooked food is a joy for me. A one pot approach and an emphasis on plenty of vitamins and nutrition. A second shopping trip this morning and I experimented making soupy noodles with some leftovers. I’ve still got enough for supper.
So tomorrow I’ll be off to market again. I’m hoping I’ll get another smile with my shopping.
Cambodia, the Kingdom of Wonder has me in its hot sweaty palms. I’m gripped, hooked, stuck or maybe even seduced by its charm. There are obvious down sides. The poverty, corruption and the rather undemocratic democracy, all of which leave me reeling. The health care is so bad that rich go abroad and the poor go without.
I am not Cambodian, I am barang, a foreigner, and freely admit I have no real understanding of the culture into which I’ve slipped. But my, how this country has me wondering.
Firstly everybody seems so happy. Smiles are freely given with the greeting sok sabay, peace and happiness. Of course Cambodians have their woes, probably disproportionately more so than many other nationalities. Culturally woe not worn the face and if a smile disappears then a line has been crossed.
Also everything works despite nothing appealing to my pedantic sense of logic and order. The traffic system is perhaps based on a traditional criss cross pattern of a Krama. Everyone has an equal right of way and somehow we all weave through with a smile.
My biggest wonder though is that I can finally work at a slower pace. Long lazy breakfasts with the laptop and a coffee and then home for cool shower before a spot of teaching in the afternoon. The climate and culture imbue a languor and my how it suits me. The smile spreads easily onto my face in the languid liquid evenings as my brow is soothed smooth in the hot breeze. The Asperger Path is still an uptight and anxious one but for how long, I wonder.