Sunday, October 5, 2014

Precious Moments in Time

Life is precious.   In the past two months, two friends have died.  Each was diagnosed with cancer less than a year ago.  In dealing with these losses, I find myself tumbling around what am I doing with my life here.  The recent days have created a longing for deeper connections, creative inspiration and more nature. 
Sharon and her daughter,
This week marks my third year of living as an expatriate, and my second year in my cheap little apartment in the dusty chaotic city of Phnom Penh. I have a good life: a decent paycheck and cheap living, an insane number of national holidays, the relative ease of travel to amazing places in the region, living a life being chauffeured and waited on. Indeed, there are times when I am living the dream—walking between jungle and beach on the islands off Cambodia’s coast or the occasional surge of optimism when my Cambodian colleagues take initiative---  that gives me hope for the future and helps me resolve my reason for living here. 

Sometimes, there are periods when I find myself lonely and seeking the connections of community.   Instead of using my solitude for earnest productivity,  I find myself distracted by the colorful matching games on my phone, hoping for responses to inquiries or invitations I've made to causal friends and acquaintances or longing  for the giggly connections with lifelong friends when the timezone is all wrong. Alas, most days I find the scope and  lack of movement in my work to be draining.  This is followed by nights where I am torn between the desire to get out, learn new things and meet new people and the comforting routine of post-work exercise and an early bedtime. 

I’d planned for a respite to Kep over the recent Pchum Benh ceremonies.  The long weekend is when people of Phnom Penh return to their home villages to visit family and bring scores of food to the temple to feed the hungry ghosts of their ancestors.   On a happenstance gathering one boozy Friday night happy hour a few weeks ago, I uncovered the shared interest with a group of new acquaintences, so a group of us took the boat out to Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) for the day. 

Photo by Karen Green 
We met a young Cambodian man, Kompheak,  who shared our ferry and was traveling alone. Thus the four of us set off on a hike around the island.   The trail was generally clear, punctuated by beautiful plants and flowers, stretches of isolated white sand beaches and small fishing shacks with an occasional rooster.  It was easy going for the first part, but as we continued to circumnavigate into the far reaches of the opposite shore the vines’ small barbs caught onto clothing, hats and even jewelry. The sun was high and it became very hot.  The trail became extraordinarily muddy, creating high jinks in flip flops. We trepidatiously waded through a suspicious swamp of standing water. Kompheak discreetly mentioned that he was exhausted.  

In the few moments following, we burst out into the front yard of a young family: a fisherman, his wife and their four children.  The bay in the front of their bamboo and palm house contained a flourishing seaweed farm.  A string with plants attached ran between pegs, discarded plastic water bottles acted as floats.  His boat was moored just offshore.   The younger children stared and the two oldest boys(both under 10)  set to work preparing the boat for departure as the fare was negotiated for the ride back to the beach where tourist services were located.  The fisherman, clad only in underwear, started the small engine with a string after putting a small bottle of gasoline in the engine and moved back to the rudder as the oldest son held the propeller in the water.  We puttered away from their home and around a couple more isolated bays.  The boy at the bow didn't know how old he was, only that he was born in the year of the monkey.  It was a great way to spend $5. 

Photo by Karen Greene 
On the boat trip over to the island earlier that day, Kompheak grumbled that this island was recently sold to the Vietnamese on a 99 year lease.  In true ruling party fashion, the Prime Minister has awarded many of these contracts to developers without any input or respect for the fact that they are public lands and have sustained people for generations.  A couple recently profiled in Forbes has profited considerably from this rampage. The previous concessions awarded to the company (not actually Vietnamese)  have resulted in uprooting entire communities and destroying the ecosystems and subsistence farming.   For the people of Koh Tonsay, they are aware of the shift but there will be no information.   For another small isolated island just east of Koh Tonsay, their transition has already begun.   

Soon, the fisherman and his family’s lives will change forever.  They will have no control; there is no mercy.  In the midst of all this, we find that it is the relationships that matter the most.  Our friends, our families, the things that we care about and that which sustains us.   We all have to take the balance between the need to be solvent and the effort that makes our souls really fly.

Life is precious. With the fleeting moments that tick away and the ever increasing rate of buildings and roads and short-term economic concessions, it becomes imperative to slow down.

For me, I'm committing to taking my fourth year abroad to do good stuff, make an effort to get out a little more, keep reaching out to friends and writing and finding new trails.   

Someone signed it in the lower right corner, but its illegible.