Sunday, February 16, 2014


Love those trees.
The moment I turn the corner of the towering palace walls, my soul feels like Phnom Penh after a hard rain has broken the escalating afternoon heat of the day.  The evening walk is a purifier, settling the anxieties of the workday and allowing for a determined stride and an observant mind to take in all elements of the community here.  Earlier this month, I lost myself in the vicious drive of a  deadline,  spiraling into the cavern of frayed nerves,  cravings for Western junk food and narrow, glazed survival mode.  Now, I was stepping out. 

The area surrounding the palace and the parallel riverside waterfront are around the corner, one reason why I am keen to keep my inexpensive apartment despite the lack of air conditioning, unending grimy dust and the decrepit furniture.  As I pass by the majestic trees that line the street and listen to the rabble-rousing of the mynas and the unceasing siren of the cicada, Cambodians are playing badminton and a posse of children rides bikes, racing them unfettered down the center line of the closed off road.  Grandmothers walk determinedly waving their arms about  through this peaceful transition zone.

To get to the river, I have to cross Sisowath Quay, a major two lane riverfront thoroughfare.   On a lucky day, I’ll be crossing the street at the same time as a group of women, who will often take my hand to navigate through the slowly creeping motorbikes and cement trucks.  The other side is a heaven of vehicle free community.  
The front of the Royal Palace.
My harbinger is a man with crippled legs sits in front of a scale, waiting for people to weigh in and give him a few reil. Most evenings the flags lining the riverbank are jaunty in the breeze.  I join into the procession: women selling pickled vegetables on their heads, all sorts of older men gathered in conversation, naked children with the telltale orange hair of malnutrition, tourists in impeccable linens,  small groups of boys playing football. The vendors with balloons crowding the back of their bicycles intermingle with toddlers bouncing in a drunken trot.  The aerobics classes congregate in rows, dancing in a small box of movements to their leader.  Most evenings the small covered boats of the river people  pull up at the base of the concrete riverbanks, discharging the children to run and the mothers to sit idly by and talk among themselves.   

If I’m lucky, I’ll see Lin and try to keep up with her for a while.  She proudly walks at least 3 laps (about 5 miles) by herself most evenings.  She owns and operates a laundry in neighborhood after divorcing her slacker husband. While some small things change through the seasons, the general tenor remains the same. My riverside walks have become a regular part of my life.
This always makes me smile.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of my job.  With new responsibility,  I've built capacity for fundraising and some other physical manifestations: weight gain, joint pains from overuse of the computer, an increasing recurrence of depressive episodes that challenge my normally positive nature and "can-do" spirit.  Since December, I’d been scheming that I would reclaim my life after Lois’s visit and the deadline that loomed shortly after she left.
And thus, as that milestone passed, the Universe opened with new prospects for the future. The hospital’s new leader is committed to development. I finally met with a wellness coach who is offering me support.   On Friday, I took the day off from work to go “to the mountain” to see Ratha's grandmother.  "Helend", she said when we discussed this earlier in the week, "no one will be working so you should come with me."  It was a Cambodian “triple play” holiday--the end of Chinese New Year, Valentines Day and Meak Bochea Day--and so in the early morning I was on my way to at a remote temple on the top of a hill in Kampong Speu province, a two hour westbound tuk tuk ride with my friend who sells noodles across the street from my apartment. 

Meak Bochea, the full moon of the third month in lunar calendar,  celebrates a spontaneous gathering of over 1,000 monks to hear the most important three precepts from the Buddha: do no harm, spread goodwill and purify you mind.  We stopped for breakfast and at the market to buy things, were passed by overloaded local transit and gleaming luxury SUVs headed to the province, and then down a dirt road with the large, ornate, painted cement archway.

How much do you weigh?”, they asked as we all looked at the daunting  road that led to the top.  I’d seen an elderly woman walking her way up the road just after we arrived , but Ratha would have been miffed had I insisted to take the 700 stairs to the top.   In that moment of ascending groaning moto transport, I was lifted into a different world.  Small shrines to honor specific Buddhist figures were scattered around the property.  Ratha and I walked to each one, sat and chanted with three sticks of incense clasped between our palms. At the end we nestled the sticks between the old ones to continue burning, the current honor held in place by those of the past.

After lunch Ratha, her grandmother and two old women carrying offerings went down the first shrine for some time of ceremony.  “This is my time.”, she said unequivocally, standing with a Cambodian bathing sheet wrapped around her body, and I was left to my own devices. I found my way to the very top of the hill at a now unused shrine.  I stood for some moments looking out over the top of a spire with the four faced Buddha, not only representing cardinal directions but also the sublime states of Buddhism: charity, compassion, sympathy and equanimity.

The unending landscape of dry rice fields stretched out before me.   I was taken back to my experiences in Thailand: the simple joy of the dinner delivery lady that facilitated an evening “power ride" in the forest temple across the street, the simplicity of chanting prayers to the Buddha each morning after the National anthem, and the turmoil of the past year at the hospital and its impact on my psyche. 

In this moment, well after the frenzy of a dismal holiday season and the ensuing promise of the new year, I felt a shift.  For now, perhaps I could make a commitment to recapture my spirit, to eddy out after the fantastic set of emotional rapids over the past six months and reclaim my love of exercise, whole grains, the small gifts of kind smiles and writing my own stories.   Ratha was relaxed, washed and dressed as we stood at the top of the stairs to make our way down to the tuk tuk.  “Thank you very much,” I said in Khmer, leafing through my pocket dictionary to show her the Khmer script: peaceful.