Imagine standing in the middle of the desert. Nothing as far as the eye can see. Imagine looking at the ocean. Only the horizon disrupts waves. There is a majesty and splendour in that frightening isolation.
Here I sit in a café. The cars pass by, horns sounding warnings to the market shoppers. The street vendor’s bell jangles above the humming drum of the city. All of the chaos of Asian life is crammed into the narrow streets of Phnom Penh and in the February heat it feels as if there is no space for air.
Here I sit in a café. I shift my focus. The heat cools and the sounds silence. In the glaciers of my psyche I create a shimmering isolation. The lone man lost in his mental landscape and divided from the jarring reality of life.
Once I found the world as an overload on my senses. It attacked and assaulted me with unwelcome sights and smells that left me aching and disoriented. Now I can disappear. I have made my Aspergers a rabbit hole and with a little focus I can fall into the detached wonderland of mind.
I can imagine standing in the middle of the desert for I do not fear the majesty and splendour of my own isolation.
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.
Blimey I nearly fell off the edge! The Asperger Path has been winding a route through some perilous peaks and spectacularly rugged ravines in the last month or two. Here I am on the other side. I am battered and bruised in places but, like any good traveller’s luggage, each scrape is a tale to add to my unfolding history.
I have been in Cambodia for about six months. I have made mistakes and compounded them by applying bad strategies. I have taken the wrong job in the wrong city and then the wrong job in the right city. I have been thrust into some rather awkward positions to expedite my extrication.
So here I am. Sweltering under the sun in Battambang. Currently I am working seven days a week but finally it’s the right job in the right city. The seven day weeks are just a blip. It is only for three weeks but I am looking forward to that day when I wake up and realise that I am not teaching. The workload, like the heat, will not be fatal. I have picked and chosen carefully and longer term life is looking rosy as I settle into undergraduate teaching.
The heat will not last forever. The rains will come and that is the next hurdle I face but my year here is already half over. My big reward will come when the rains subside. I will travel across this amazing country in the cooler months of winter. Then, as my visa nears expiry, I will choose a new country to explore.
Like Cambodia, the next country will no doubt be full of stops and starts as I awkwardly try to fit myself in to my new surroundings. I may be bruised and battered but my, what a path I am travelling down.
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.
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.
“I think to myself, what a wonderful world.” I am in that place with Louis Armstrong today. A few weeks ago a film company announced on Facebook that they wished to screen a film in Battambang and were looking for places and audiences. I contacted them to suggest the school where I work.
Today I saw the fruits of that company’s labours. I sat in a room with a hundred or so students, none of them mine. We soared over pristine rainforest in the Cardamom Mountains before skimming the surface of the Tonlé Sap and the mighty Mekong. We surveyed the northern plains and the highlands of The East. I saw all of the natural beauty of the Cambodian countryside.
More marvellous than the landscape, and the focus of this documentary, were the many and diverse creatures that form the fauna of The Kingdom of Wonder. The call of gibbons in the wild forest near Angkor Wat echoed through my soul. The sight of a majestic elephant stopping to scratch its belly as it stepped over a fallen tree caused laughter in a room that was mostly quiet and captivated. The beautiful Giant Ibis, the national bird, now sadly endangered, was seen roosting in the trees.
My eyes and mind were opened wider today. It’s a wonderful world and I hope that those students will appreciate the beautiful fragility of the country they call home.
I am woken every morning by the birds with their playful chatter. I go to bed early so the dawn chorus is perfectly timed to gently rouse me from my slumber and help me embrace a new day. That fresh hour before dawn is my time to celebrate the new day and to reflect on the joy and wonder of life before the rising sun takes to the sky.
Once the sun is up, the birdsong quietens as the heat intensifies. The first light brings a realisation that life must be lived as well as pondered. Most days I am out and before eight, purposefully scurrying around the town before rewarding myself with a long lazy coffee. I have a few daily chores and by ten my enthusiasm will be stifled by the heat and I will seek shade, caffeine and a moment to watch life pass by.
Later, just as the sun peaks, I head out on my bicycle. I am the mad dog, the English man setting off on my stately bike with a sun hat to protect my barang head. A short cycle ride brings on a sweat and I arrive at work, damp and crumpled like some second rate colonial clerk. If the birds are awake they are too hot to sing and the air hangs hot and still. My brief hours of teaching finish as the day starts to slide into evening and soon after sunset my first yawns begin to punctuate the evening.
My life is simple but never prosaic. Here in the Kingdom of Wonder I have time to reflect on the majesty of the everyday. I live here as a barang, a foreigner, and I observe life unfolding around me like a lotus. Tomorrow there will be the wonder of morning birdsong before the rising sun and a new page of my life will start.