Saturday, December 12, 2015

Forever Friends

A good buddy left suddenly two weeks ago.  She got medical results that set an immediate departure in motion. The details that followed seemed staggering: Christmas plane ticket rebooked, notice to the job, selling furniture.  I went over in the final stages of her packing to pick up her bicycle.  Her apartment reflected the frenetic state that comes from rapid and unplanned circumstances.  The 2 large suitcases packed, the carry-on nearly full and the remnants of everyday life left behind in the wake: books and magazines scattered,  a jumble of left-over products lying about, and the obvious distraction and distress in the approaching deadline.  The emotions of leaving, reviewing, decisions and time pressure mounted as the time for the taxi came nigh.

With my friend J's extreme transition of departure from country, way of life and community, I was bereft. I don’t know when I will see her again.  In my past of seasonal jobs,  I often lived and worked with a small group of people for short periods of time.  In that context,  we formed intense everyday relations—they kind when they see you scurrying to the communal bathhouse in the morning—that were deep while we were together, but faded in departure.
In the day of homeless adventures.
 I'm holding a copy of Ed Byrne's
book, "Vagabonding in the USA." 

My forever friends are precious and valued,  especially in expatriate life.  I am really happy and deeply grateful to welcome CBE to Phnom Penh tomorrow. I got introduced to CBE through my sister, when in 1991  in the midst of travels with seasonal employment, I needed a place to stay for about 6 months to deal with my own health circumstances.  She had a small shed in her spot in the trailer  park in a nice section of Boulder Colorado.

The small square building had a proper roof, windows, and a doorbell. While in Boulder,  I worked three jobs, got my teeth taken care of, and soaked in the happiness of her space. After a while,  she let me sleep in the top berth of her spare room, where I nestled in the small space, like living on an overnight train without the rickety motion.  One night, I heard her laughing in her dreams.

The antics started as we got to know each other.  After a night of one too many margaritas, I was the one in slightly better shape to drive home.  I put a key in the ignition of her Toyota Tercel and was mystified when it wouldn’t turn over.  Then, as we turned on the interior light and collectively collapsed into a fit of tipsy and hysterical giggles over the key in my hand—the one that would have started my Toyota Corolla had I driven it to the bar.
Over the years, CBE and I have traveled together.  I joined her on a trip to Cozumel one winter where I saw, as I was doing a resort course to join them on a dive, a small seahorse just off the beachfront. “How rare! “ The instructor exclaimed later.  It was a delicate presence with mysterious propulsion, the wonder of a creature I had never seen before.  The next day, we headed out to sea for a dive and I breathed underwater for the first time in the colorful and fantasical world well below the surface.

CBE came to Alaska a few years later, where I got my friends to help me secure a flight on a small plane into a lodge on the outskirts of  Denali National Park.   We hiked in the tundra mountains, reveling in the endless wild country.  On the return trip, we had the small plane to ourselves and I joked about flight tricks.   After we took off, he educated us.  "These are positive Gs", he said, as he drew back on the yoke and the plane ascended quickly in the air.

A similar size to the plane we flew in.

 My face felt a little tight then, under pressure."...and these are negative Gs!" as we plummeted down quickly, our bodies floating in the air secured by the seatbelts, laughing hysterically in the danger and thrill. As it did it again. And again.  The pilot settled into a low and slow over the creek below.  I looked out to see the water rushing over the rocks, a brown bear scurrying away before ascending for the final approach  the landing strip next to the highway.

In 2012, I went to see CBE in Tanzania for my 50th birthday.  My sister, nephew and mother also joined us on safari.  In the Serenghetti, we saw 13 lions sleeping in a single tree. "Holy Mother of God", the guide exclaimed.  Later in the trip, after a difficult medical situation with my mother in a remote part of the country and my family's scheduled flight back home, Carrie and I returned to Dar Es Salaam.  We had a goodbye dinner with some of her friends. There, I made a connection that led to another connection that invited me to Phnom Penh.

The pervasive need for friends, contacts and networks was brought to home  last week when a filthy, disoriented and abraded Norwegian man came to the hospital where I work. I saw him in triage, finished a short task and then went down to the exam room to talk to him. He was naked in a gown, his clothes lying in the bottom of the waste bin and covered with dingy, salt water soaked gauze pads from the wound cleaning. He said his passport and money card were stolen, There was a moto accident. He was confused.

 The security staff were relieved that I was helping. I went out with my colleague to buy him new clothes. Our tuk-tuk driver had seen him at the a public hospital earlier in the week, where he was kicked out for not paying a bill. I called the Embassy to discover he was well known to them already and they could do nothing until the family agreed to pay for a return ticket to Norway. I told the staff he could not sleep on our property.  Later that evening.  I got a message from his son and replied, then moments later a photo of him appeared in my Facebook newsfeed from a Cambodian samaritan encouraging people to help him and her contact info.  I wrote to her too.

The next day was a national holiday. All diplomatic functions ceased and the hospital was also very quiet.  My mailboxes were empty. No word from the son, the well-meaning samaritan did not reply. The man continued to hang around the hospital, inciting concern and anxiety from the staff and my own worries grew into the night.  I wrestled with his profound vulnerability, the obligation of my response and the other deadlines pressing in on year end. I conjectured on the son, I sat with my own conflicting feelings on compassion and destain.  The Norwegian continued to chain smoke just outside our waiting area.

The gates opened on Friday after calling the Embassy to tell them the man was still here.  The son called me from Norway later and I was able to pass the phone to the father. The father looked healthier, rested and bright with relief.  The security manager gave me information that his passport and bank card were found in a village north of Phnom Penh.  In the afternoon, I received a briefing missive from the Embassy mentioning the imminent arrival of the Cambodian Immigration police, the status of travel arrangements and a head-shaking detail, "Next week, we can discuss how to get him securely on the flight to Norway without him running away again at the airport."  The case was solved.  I later learned our staff gave him a pillow and a blanket for sleeping.

 I am now ready to welcome Carrie to Cambodia tomorrow. Ever thankful for a forever friend.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Life in Dog Years

“It took me a half an hour to psych myself up to get out of the house and buy milk for coffee!” Heloise  exclaimed as we talked over the lunch last week.  We were bemusing over expat transitions in recent weeks.  One mutual friend has rather suddenly decided to depart.  “She said she was done.” Heloise continued, pausing to take a moment to sip her mint, passion fruit,   and ice shake that was included in our $5 lunch set comprised of a copious bowl of fresh veggies, cold green noodles and a hard-boiled egg.

"Life here is in dog years!"  I giggled at my own joke.  Our departing mutual friend helped orient me in my early days in Phnom Penh three years ago. Goodbyes are becoming very tiring. Jerry Jones' terrific blog piece on looking closely at the Stayers, The Goers and the Newbies is very perceptive and relevant in expatriate life transitions.
Heloise and I laughed and commiserated some more on the fatigue of  life here: air pollution, poverty, general lack of access to decent health care, daily near-misses in traffic, frequent purse snatchings and dodging substandard food safety bullets.

While Phnom Penh is a pretty cushy expat posting, even US Embassy employees get hardship pay for being here. The stress can age you fast, or escalate passage of time. Without the comforts of competent house staff, something as simple as a broken curtain rod requires a whole series of navigational issues to replace. 

It’s no wonder I am happy to stay in routine. I've never moved out of my small and cheap “swimming pool” style apartment that has tile from the floor reaching 1 metre up every wall. I know the drivers in the hoods where I hang out.  I walk around the corner to get salad makings every Sunday. It’s relatively easy to get western groceries here, although most of the stores are now catering more to the Chinese market,  As a result,  there are now a proliferation of items with palm oil or some sketchy looking rendition of a knock-off of Western snack food on the shelves
As a foreigner that can't read Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Khmer or French, one does never really know what you are going to get from the package. You can’t really know that your mail from your mum will arrive. In most professional settings, the training and competence of any kind of service provider is circumspect. In a recent chat with a Californian working on a job site here, he relayed the story of a team of Cambodian laborers who dragged a safe across the owner's hardwood floor instead of just putting it on a rug and pulling it. Afterwards, the group kept their eyes to the floor, now gouged across the length of the living room, and shrugged,

 In some Khmer families and even with long time relationships here in Cambodia,  what comes from the person’s mouth does not often reflect their true motivation or feelings.  It is better to not say the truth.  In the past saying the truth could get you killed.  For foreigners, this can be draining context to navigate.
The office of Prime Minister Hun Sen (one of the  longest-running Prime Minister in the world)  just issued a directive that the Water Festival will be cancelled this year due to “concerns with drought and which requires us to gather our forces and all possible means to solve the problem of water shortages for rice fields in the dry season."

At the moment I read that, I was both disappointed and disgusted. Sure, I was looking forward to staying in town this year and taking it in, but I  knew he lied. Hun Sen was worried about crowds gathering in Phnom Penh.Recent days have seen a series of violent incidents with opposition party leaders being jailed, beaten and disparaged.  A young college student was convicted of treason for a Facebook post.   
While I don't mean to whine, I am a little concerned that I am losing my cheery sense of optimism. My energy has waned  after a rough few months on the health front.  Was it me being depressive?  Why was I tired all the time?  Why couldn't I believe that Cambodia, as a country, would overcome the great challenges ahead?  Was I losing the mojo that brought me to this part of the world?  Is it me or is it the work?

On Monday morning on the way through the waiting area to my 3rd floor office, there was a man  waiting for treatment in a wheelchair.  His destroyed foot poked out, elevated slightly.   I walked by quickly, taking a quick assessment of his face and his foot. It wasn't bleeding,  It didn't seem rotten, but there were chunks of flesh missing, perhaps revealing bone. He was older, looking at me, as many of the patients do, with eyes that are both blank and pleading, appreciative and weary.

As Mary Calahane writes in her blog post Your Work or Your Life, the people laboring in the grassroots of the NGO sector already have a reputation for living with overburdened workloads and staggering need. Fundraisers have a constant state of obligation, feeling  responsible for generating resources for services and salaries.. Then there is the lingering sense of inequity;  my salary is high within the organizationI k now I'm worth it, but it doesn't help the mitigate the obligation to perform.  In the expat context, workers can achieve the fourth dimension of potential burnout. They need to not  only fiqure out what to do now, but how to invest in the local staff capacity for the future.

As need to hear that again. Remembering that my deck of cards and they way that they have been played has generated the opportunity to learn,grow, experience. When the current play is tiring, that you can wait it out and for the dealer to shuffle a new set of cards for the next game.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Burning It Up

The earth is on fire this year. During a short trip to Penang island in Malaysia, the epic and horrific conflagration of the Indonesian peat bogs touched my lungs. Our trip was characterized with occasional bouts of blue sky, but largely a dormant, brown-grey haze stretched over the horizon for most of the days. While hiking in the rainforests of the smallest National Park in the world, I reflected a little on the notable fires of my past.    Not the fond memories of Alaskan campfires snapping and cracking in the fire ring, but of the fires that were accidental and out of control, powerful and angry. 
On the return approach to Kuala Lumpur,
the sun sets in haze. 

While co-leading a group of teenagers on a 6-week camping adventure through British Columbia and Alaska, I made a simple mistake with a backpacking stove led to one of the most embarrassing and dangerous moments in my life.  We'd just picked up the kids from the airport that day.  There were lessons in how to set up the tents, orientations and questions, and then the stove safety demonstration before we prepared dinner. 

My co-leader was a mensch and I was worried.  He’d disclosed to me (but not our employer before he was hired) that he took psychotropic medications for both anxiety and depression.  He was a little more into his own head than to what was needed at the time, a bit bumbling and uncertain. He had no experience; perhaps they thought I could take most of the load.  Communication seemed awkward, the pseudo-cordial clarification of every small detail was time-consuming and painstaking.  Perhaps I was a bit inpatient, a little stressed, pre-occupied myself.   The cooking stove was an ultra-light backpacking stove, primped with hand pumps and then, even in calm moments of serene backcountry dinners, required a tricky wisp of fuel set alight to set the liquid fuel to gas.  I gave it a few extra pumps to be sure. 
An oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan is shrouded in 
haze from agriculture fires raging across the country. 

Photo by Jenito.
 I set it alight to start the process of priming- converting liquid fuel to gas. Twelve impressionable adolescents and 2 new leaders watched. In seconds, all hell broke loose.  Fuel spurted, the intensity of the flame melted the plastic housing cap.  Clumps of flames landed on the enormous leaves of skunk cabbage that surrounded on the gravel. The fuel bottle was alive, seemingly spinning and engulfed in 1 liter of pure jet-fueled flames.  Time was the only fire extinguisher.

It was dangerous and fascinating, horrifying and demoralizing. My heart and spirit both infused with fear and shame, a loss of honor and dignity, a really rough start to the trip.  The co-leader brightly suggested we pack it up and go out for pizza and then onward we went.  It wasn't the only incident on that trip.    

The wildfire that raged for 30th birthday a number of years earlier, on a trip where I joined my fellow guide/boyfriend and his clients in a remote canyon on the Rio Grande river in West Texas, also started with a single flick of a lighter.  We were packing up the boat after a lovely birthday cake and dinner the night before in one of Mariscal Canyon's only campsites. The client-husband needed to poop after the “groover”, a leak-proof metal box that was the field toilet, was firmly tucked in the bottom of the raft, Bob sent the guy off into the farthest reach away from the river to bury his business in the dry grasslands near the cliffs that surrounded our small campsite.  Moments later, we saw the wafts of smoke as the insurance salesman started running to the boat shouting,"I tried to put it out. It went too fast."

Bob, launching into the Eagle Scout mode I loved, grabbed his cotton serape and ripped it in half, taking both pieces to the river before running to the blaze.  I filled up all the metal dish washing pails Keep packing the boat." He yelled, "We're going to need to get out of here soon."  
An image taken from Nasa's Terra satellite on 
Sept 24, 2015,shows smoke from 
fires in Indonesia over the coasts
 of Borneo and Sumatra. PHOTO: REUTERS

He was as strong as I've ever seen him, running back and forth for as long as he could, but in moments the flames came toward us.  We loaded up fast, jumped on the raft and retreated to the safety of the river.  Silently, we drifted backwards as we watched the smoke curling up around the blackened beach, harsh against the burnt umber canyon walls and the languid brown of the Rio Grande river.  

On return to civilization, we were the talk of many a bar stool, rambling criticism of what we'd let be created, let happened, done. The next year, when I returned for my last spring season on the river, one of the old-timers from the competition sidled up to me while I was writing and enjoying an ice cold sun tea at Pam's Diner.  "You know," He drawled, "I gotta tell you that the campsite you guys burned up last year bloomed into a field of flowers. It's really beautiful now."

The smoke from Indonesia has now drifted to Thailand, diverting flights and causing millions in tourism revenue.   Unexpected and our of control fires always have some impact. The financial costs,health risks and sometimes loss of life, emotional impacts of the helpless witness on sometimefar greater than ourselves.  The vast power of a force unleashed and uncontrollable is mesmerizing and horrifying.

Now, as the climate changes and the intensity of natural forces increases, we are poised at a brink.  Do we stand, simply dumbfounded at the power we are witnessing, remaining hopeless?   Or do we furiously try to stem the tide for as long as we can?    Perhaps we can only hope that, like Phoenix, we can be transformed as a result of witnessing its power.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Emergency Contacts

There were 3 in the space of 5 days, and then another in mid-September.
The notices come across the newsfeed of expat forums, where an active group of the white-guy old-timers will troll the Cambodian newspapers and republish the headlines.  

Some will either have their girls translate for them, or use Google translate to publish the stories in "Khmeringlish".   After someone posts, the lurkers respond with messages of horror, sadness or just plain curmudgeonly bad taste.

Here's the run-down of last month's roster (partial list)

September 28:  The body of a murdered foreign man stuffed into a suitcase has been found in a river near in the village of Anlong Chhlak near the Ha Tien VietNam border this morning.

September 27: The body of well known German expat Tanja Wethekam, 60, was apparently driven to Mekong Hospital and dumped there by four foreigners in a car.

September 23:  A 62 year old Australian man, Gerald Nailor, was found dead in his room at the Cozyna Hotel on the riverside in Phnom Penh yesterday

September 15: Australian national Peter Condon was found dead in Phnom Penh in his hostel room. The police suspects that he died from a drug overdose about 2 to 4 days before his body was discovered.

Tanja Wethekem Facebook photo
Peter's circle touched mine, unfortunately after he passed.    It is not uncommon for my colleague-- a Cambodian staff who answers the general inquiries to the hospital's email address-- to receive plaintive emails asking for help finding people who have been hospitalized.   She does her part with a quick call to medical records and emails them back with a response.

They often mix us up with other places- a similar sounding name or the town named after the King Father.  I once had an American woman call us looking for her boyfriend.  She'd gotten a call from someone in a foreign country who found her number in her boyfriend's phone after he was hospitalized from an accident.   She  was desperate to track him down as she didn't get enough details on the original call and the number wasn't accepting return calls.

She  called our main line, and I observed my Cambodian co-worker's confused facial expression and responses.  He passed the phone to me.   She read me the name of the hospital.  I asked our staff to make a call or two and told her to call me back.  Then I asked her to spell it and typed the name into the search engine.  "It's in Hong Kong", I said. "Not Cambodia.  Lucky for him."

We received another inquiry from a mother looking for information to our email address.  The staff dutifully checked hospital records and responded. I saw a copy of the email, and with a sinking feeling, made the connection with a blip on my Facebook news feed.   The news had been broadcast here already before the family had been notified.   I replied directly and encouraged her to call the Australian Embassy immediately.  

She replied later that day.  Now she knew he was gone.  She was looking for information, any information to assuage the incredulity,    "He was so happy and relaxed there." she wrote.  "We're a close family and talk frequently."  With some trepidation and plenty of warnings and assurances, I sent her the link of the newspaper article that was my tipoff.   We exchanged a few more emails.  She told me her other son was flying to Cambodia to try and learn what happened. I can only assume that they are dealing with grief in their own way.  

There are plenty of expats living on the edge here.  Their stories, in their demise or vulnerabilities, are splattered across the newspaper with gristly photos or nagging questions still unanswered.  An Excellency's daughter that struck and killed an Irishman on his bicycle, a young woman murdered in Kampot, Several men, still unidentified.  So far in 2015, the tally is 86 so far, 90% are male.

Some of these people led secret lives, far from families and surrounded by the cursory and casual relationships that characterize many social relationships here in Phnom Penh.  The tenuous relationships of fringe expats are not the kind of people that you share feelings with. It's a good time camaraderie only, yukking it up or moaning collectively over beers.  
Offerings of food for Pchum Ben

Tragically, or perhaps a just and favorable ending, there are expats who come to Cambodia to die. They are called Deathpats.   They are retired pensioners, perhaps suffering from physical or mental illness or estranged from their families, who know that they can stretch the dollars further here, bask in warm weather, cheap beer and beautiful women.  If they pay the right people, they can be taken care of very well. Then, in the Buddhist tradition, they can be cremated into the dust of the earth.

In these recent days, Cambodians honor their dead with the very important Pchum Ben ceremony. The monks have been chanting daily, people make daily, pre-dawn offerings at the Pagoda as their 7 generations of ancestors walk the earth again. The belief is that the ancestors, especially those without living relatives, come back to seek food.   They are hungry ghosts, with small mouths, desperately seeking the reassurance that they are remembered by the offering, so that they will not have to return to the dark place of Buddhist hell.  

While not my ancestors who are passing under mysterious circumstance in this country, this is a good time to remember those who have passed.  It is a good time to give thanks and recognition for the people who have enriched our life.  Even for Peter Condon, who seemed like a nice chap who made a bad decision on a weekend night.  

Offerings at the Temple

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Walking the Four Corners

Our small bus slowed as the traffic and people gathered on the walkway in Thimptu. This was a new road in the capital, the country's first and only road flyover (overpass) on our way from the Punaka Valley to Paro in Bhutan.  The police cars waiting while pedestrians stared, not at the robust football match across the river, but down to the shores of the river below.

A happenstance encounter with the local newspaper the next day revealed that it was a drowning. A woman  jumped to the river after an argument with her husband.  On the plane leaving Bhutan I read a newspaper with a headline stating that suicide rates now outnumbered the combined deaths from HIV,TB, and Malaria.  Bhutan is now in the top 12% of countries worldwide for deaths by suicide.

Tigers Nest. Paro Taktsang  Photo by Ira Block. 
This troubling statistic comes from a country that prioritizes gross national happiness over gross national product. Here, mountains and hills roll unfettered through a tiny country. Small villages are connected through muddy roads that cling to their sides around innumerable curves.   Healthcare, education and a small baseline consumption of electricity are free. Plastic bags and tobacco use are outlawed .Like Alaska, my home for many years, there is a very small population (less than 700,000 people largely clustered in urban areas), rural subsistence lifestyle and deep cultural traditions and national identity.

That's where the similarity ends.  Alaska hosts  nearly 2 million people a year in the frenetic 100 days of the summer tourist season,  Bhutan has a very strict tourism policy allowing only 100,000 visitors a year into the country  A minimum daily package includes flights, visa, lodging, meals and a Bhutanese guide for $250 a day.  Normally out of my price range, the trip I sated a long-time wish in the spirit of carpe diem.

The Universe at Punakha Dzong. 
Stunning, fulfilling and peaceful were my three words that I crafted to summarize the trip for my friends when they ask.  I traveled for 10 days with 14 other creatives (convened by Writer's Journeys) and led by a handsome, thoughtful and talented Bhutanese guide.  In between soaking in the delicate, symbolic art that adorns nearly every surface, sharing stories and impressions with our group, and hiking up mountains and through rice fields,  I wrote.

We had daily workshops that included reading and writing. lunchtime conversations included great conversations around craft, practice, and publication.  We met local writers who were talented, generous and eager.  I rejuvenated my spirit and miraculously, despite buffets and beer every night, did not gain weight. I  reflected on my current big projects and the past, present and future path..

In an early morning before breakfast, I remembered and wrote about my two years in Juneau, Alaska in the mid-90's. Surrounded by vigilant mountains that tumbled into a narrow ocean channel,  I spent the summer leading kayak trips and the rest of the year in a small office managing a struggling organization. The dark season was long and filled with a nearly constant cold, horizontal rain that pummeled my lonely self in my early months of living there.

Juneau Harbor at night.
Desperate for exercise, on occasion I would power-walk  home from the office along the long sidewalk between the Gastineau channel and a 4-lane road.  In the first months after summer and as the sun slipped away, the weather was often blustery and unsettled, ominous and fearsome.  Thoughts circled around.   "What if I jumped off the ferry one night?" I mulled the possibility over.

The rumble  of the engines and the anonymity of 4am would hide the act. By the time anyone realized, I rationalized,  the icy waters would have numbed physical capacity to swim and I would return to the ocean, to the natural world I loved.  That thought would sit next to me for a while, waiting. When I was ready, I would mentally swallow brightly-colored lights and muster on.  The thought gained and dissipated strength through challenging times, but never became overwhelming.

Some cannot move forward with the dark thought at their side. Who  knows why the woman in Thimphu  jumped into the river upstream?  Buddhist precepts foretell painful reincarnations for this act. For Bhutan's deeply spiritual population, the portent of this despair is powerful.  Bhutan's suicide rate, like Alaska's, largely befalls young people between 18-25 who live in rural villages. As in Bhutan, alcohol is usually a factor.  Faith and tradition can help, but in a country where the forces of culture are sometimes in conflict, young people are most at risk.
National Memorial Stupa 

Late one afternoon, we went to the National Memorial Stupa in Thimptu.   Dozens of people gather there to walk clockwise around the stupa chanting,"Om mani padme hum". This Tibetan Buddhist chant of compassion is invoked through prayer wheels. In all shapes and sizes, the prayer wheels are held in the hands of the walkers, gripped by the base and turned by people walking by (always clockwise) or the forces of a river stream. At the Stupa, older people clutch prayer beads, reciting the mantra 108 times. Children accompany their parents, some surreptitiously checking their telephones while holding the arm of their elder.  A few walkers make sure that they move to the outside of the pillars at each of the 4 corners, touching them as a way to meet the ground in the 4 directions.  This feels important for all of us: centering ourselves in what is important. 

The prayer wheels, large and small, are present everywhere in Bhutan. 

In Linda Learning's memoir Married to Bhutan, she talks about her observations on happiness:
  1. There will probably be some physical pain and some form of renunciation on the road to happiness. 
  2. Ultimately, no one else can make you happy. You have to do it for yourself. 
  3. Happiness doesn't come from outside forces. It comes from how you view the outside forces. It comes from inside. 
On this last point, she coaches us to train our attitude to happiness.  To do that, she encourages us to consider death as a tool to stabilize our mind and to focus on gratitude. Our goal to maintain happiness requires us to face the fact that our life is short.  I am filled with gratitude for the capacity to go to this remarkable country with a very special circumstance.

We become better people when we are grateful for what we have. When we remove the attachment to belongings or transient emotions. To always be grateful for life.  We have so much to accomplish- sometimes by doing and sometimes by being.  For this experience- small moments combined in a profound, thought-provoking and reassuring landscape-- was an incredible gift.

The Place I Want to Get Back To

The place I want to get back to
is where
in the pinewoods
in the moments between
the darkness
and first light
two deer
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me
they said to each other, okay,
this one is okay,
let's see who she is
and why she is sitting
on the ground, like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;
and so they come
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way
I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward
and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring me that could exceed
that brief moment?
For twenty years
I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting, exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts, bestowed,
can't be repeated.

If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named

Mary Oliver, Thirst (Beacon Press 2006)

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Knitting Instead

In the dog-days of summer (my homeland) and hot rainy season (here), Orion's dog Sirius rises into the heavens.  Without the ability to see the starts here in this urban environment,  I've been a little lackluster in creative writing efforts and the work at the office,

In July, I failed July's Camp NaNoWriMo and my commitment to writing 30,000 words in a month,   I became overwhelmed and discouraged reading Joan Didion's masterful recount of the loss of her husband and daughter  in The Year of Magical Thinking.  The writing exercises that fueled work earlier months ago seemed trite when I sat down.   I downloaded guided meditations and brainwave music and listened to TED talks and podcasts. While swimming laps in the pool, I would have brilliant ideas that I promised myself I would remember until I got to my notebook-- and then they dissipated into the friction of pen on paper and the hesitations that stopped up a free flow of words written. That number is the primary  measure of how writers succeed and I was falling short.

I was sick with a fever for three days in early August, sleeping, and dreaming.  Again just a couple weeks later, my immune system is still struggling: spasms of sinus-shattering sneezes rattle my brain and I am left reeling in the aftermath. The recent weeks of this year-long commitment to focus on my writing have slipped away with nothing substantive to show for it, except the hearty progress on a sweater for my niece.  This project is an experiment, combining small stash balls into a pattern that I downloaded off the internet and adapted to fit a rapidly growing girl. Like all good creative process, I have no idea what will result from the effort but I trust the final product will be what it is.

Perhaps my creative force is like the rains of the season. Predictable in general, but only coming in a true and authentic voice and power when the idea reaches the point where it must be written.

This time of year the clouds often gather in the late afternoon.  Then the winds pick up, swaying tree branches and rattling the ill-fitted and rusted sheets of roofing metal on the old wooden houses outside of my office window.  The  sky darkens and everyone knows the rain will come. The tension  builds on the street as the moto drivers hurry to reach their destination.

In the rush of a downdraft of slightly cooler air, large splatters of rain dot the sidewalk. The pavement emanates a the familiar fresh smell associated with sudden urban precipitation. The momentum escalates and in moments and later the rain is torrential.  Water pours down from the rooftops, gushing into streets and lapping up over sidewalks. The rain comes in undulating gray waves, pounding the pavement and ruffling through the landscape.

In recent years, the seasonal afternoon storms are becoming more sporadic and violent in the city.   In early July, an extraordinarily brief and powerful wind storm created havoc in the streets, uprooting trees and sending construction debris spiraling into the air.   Short gif of Cambodian man struggling in strong wind

For my creative work at this stage, I am hoping for a brief and powerful outburst that cements my commitment to telling my story.  Perhaps this will foster a deeply-rooted confidence that will carry me through the excuses, the vagaries of life events and the ever-rocky daily reality of my paid job.  All I from this year is  to generate material, create a draft and give me something that I can begin to refine and share.

Some writers I know can dip into the creative spirit like a short swim in a lake. They are able to paddle around and generate material before emerging on the beach, toweling off and heading back into their work lives. Some use a rigorous dedication to a schedule (4 am!), others go on trips with unrestricted time.  Still others muck around in reading and ideas and remain poised for  a moment to strike their hot irons.

 In mere days, I will be off on a 10-day retreat with a terrific group of people in a wild and wonderful country (Bhutan!)  with lots of space and support for creative work.  I know the story is there.  I will find the path to let it out. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Key Conspiracy

At least 5 days a week, I get a locker key from the sullen and disinterested reception staff at the front desk of  The Place- Phnom Penh’s premier upscale gym.    I have been a member since the Khmer New Year sales promotion  The membership investment was a critical part of the decision to reclaim my health and sanity and was combined with a decrease in work hours and responsibilities.  Life has been flowing since April with laps back in forth in the pool and elliptically-propelled daydreams of nordic skiing.

Now I have other frustrations.  Invariably, my key opens a locker tucked into a corner or is perched on a wall that is right next to the sauna or is immediately adjacent to a person that has just arrived.   There seem to be the same keys distributed to certain individuals.  When I overheard a wealthy-looking Cambodian woman asking the locker room attendant in Khmer for a key, I realized that there must be a tiered system for the better locations. This was never an option for me.  I was feeling at the lower-end.

I have a mixed relationship with the place- it’s an air-conditioned luxury gym with an enormous number of top-scale machines and a "min-Olympic size"  pool with lanes of tile and  swimmers who stay within them.   On the other hand,  management insists on playing Electronic Dance Music (EDM) at levels that I can still hear with my earbuds in and the women’s locker room is a microcosm of what I am growing to resent about Phnom Penh's rapidly changing economy.  

From The Place website 
The daughters and wives of Phnom Penh’s wealthy tycoons act in ways that are socially appropriate for them, but a bit perturbing for me.  I see the confident women lounging around, talking and laughing in the early evening on a bench near the water cooler. They are planted firmly in the most heavily trafficked area of the narrow hallway, so that each person must carefully navigate around their outstretched legs and pristine, colorful sneakers.  The younger Asian women bow their heads as they go by in respect.  

Members of this social group order the attendants—likely paid about the amount of my monthly fee—to fire up the steam room, to slather lotions and scrubs on their backs before they enter there, and to carefully carry  their plastic baskets of expensive French and Japanese skin products and a clean towel to the shower and hand products through the curtain as needed. 

The fancy women primp themselves.  Eyelashes are gently glued to the lid in a ritual probably performed at least twice a day. One woman bends over in the in front of the mirrored toilet doors and uses 2 blowdryers to fluff her hair.  Makeup is applied in small dabs and smoothed over what already seems to be perfect skin.  
There's generally at least one
gym bag like this in the locker room.
I never thought about your workout
gear matching your stilettos.  

Then, the attendant girls fasten bras, adjust dresses and pack the bags.  The girls remain poised until their lady is ready, then dutifully tote the gym bag behind the impeccably- heeled woman to the waiting Range Rovers, Lexuses and Land Cruisers. There are small amounts of local currency given for these services.     I see, on occasion, a younger caucasian woman sprinting ou the door in gym wear for a quick bike ride home for her shower and think, "We are all so different".

As written about many times before, there is great change happening in Phnom Penh and in some ways the differences between the expatriate aid workers and the Cambodians is also reaching some level of equilibrium.  The expatriates are not the only rich people in town anymore.  A Rolls Royce dealership opened a few months ago.  The economy is growing at breakneck pace- approximately 7%  a year in Phnom  Penh.  The Khmer Times reported in April that the number of Cambodians with more than $30 million in net assets increased by 170 percent over the past decade and further increases are likely in the next ten years.  In a particularly ironic travesty, the Minister of Rural Development owns a huge estate with its own golf course and 6 luxury villas. (Phnom Penh Post, Febuary 2015).

In recent weeks, there has been increasingly bad news for democracy and civil society.  A new law that severely restricts NGOs ability to speak out against the government was passed to the King for signature.  This had no public comment or review.    Foreigners are prohibited from participating in any public political gatherings. The opposition party leader Sam Rainsy took a selfie with Hun Sen and then flew off to Paris while 11 of his supporters who were arrested in a political rally against the ruling party were sentenced to 20 years in Cambodia's horrible prison system.
Phnom Penh Post "My dinner with Rainsy" 15 July 2015 

This rapid economic growth continues to fuel the environment for exploiting and displacing the poor and limiting the opportunities of the struggling middle class.  Just yesterday, Forest Trends showed the destructive legacy of economic land concessions (largely provided in sweetheart deals among the political elite) are destroying the last of Cambodia's highly valuable timber resources under an illegal scheme.   Over and over again, the ill-gotten gains from the rapacious drive of Cambodia's elite fuels their own ambitions and desires for sumptuous trappings.   The middle class may get a good key some time in the future, but the house will be stripped bare and worthless.  

For the extreme poor, the poor who are working or the lower levels of Cambodia's middle class, they will never have access to My optimism for change and hope for the poor, the struggling lower-middle class and the large percentage of Cambodians under 30 is continually challenged.  Without a profound shift in the ways of doing business, their families will never have the key. 

All over the world, there are families and entrepreneurs who seek the "key to success".  Savings, an ability to invest in their future, affordable and quality healthcare,  good education for their kids and a  prosperous community that provides opportunities to grow.   I'd love to be a part of a society where there are unlimited keys.  The seesaw of life here always seems to come down to the heavy burden of reality and the collective hope of a better vision for future.  Here in Cambodia, I remain teetering  on the fulcrum.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Time is but a Shadow

My parents are moving. They are leaving their house in the woods to a bright new condominium in the closest small city about ten miles north.  In the days before my dad was admitted to the hospital for his scheduled non-invasive hip surgery, I did some work to get ready for their transition.

It was a glorious bluebird day in mid-coast Maine. I surveyed the old woodpile in their front yard. Ten years ago the tree had come down. At the time, my sister and I loaded up the wood racks on the front porch, dutifully created a wood pile and then covered it with a blue tarp. 

A magnificent rhododendron in someone else's front yard
around the corner from my parent's house in Maine.. 
In northern regions, blue tarps are legendary for covering up all sorts of mysterious things. Sometimes the tarps evolve into their own identify, a mainstay of presence that slowly fades in the sun. They are a symbol of that which will be used someday, but not now. Perhaps there is hope that the items and the tarps themselves will melt in the spring sun after the long winter. However, each year the distinctive blue returns, reminding us of all the things in our lives that have been ignored, shrugged off as too much or remain simply a secure object in the landscape. Clearly, a house with a blue tarp in the front yard was not that marketable.

With a walking and pulling, the tarp ripped off into pieces and threads, Small logs had fallen asunder, creating an incredible heap of wood chips and compost.  Ants swarmed out of the layers of plastic as the pile was revealed: a midden of decaying matter and vibrant microorganisms with slow motion smells of rich earth in progress and the ripe colors of fungus.  The fireplace sized logs crumbled in my hands, soaking through the gloves as all matter of insects scurried about. Slugs appeared bloated and gluttonous with undisturbed feeding.  The pitchfork blades reached deep into the pile of now rotten wood- a glorious celebration of the passage of time and the fleeting transience of life. It was too much to move it all around the yard that day; my parents are now facilitated to find someone to deal with it or simply use it to improve habitat.  

The next morning, it was time to work in the basement. I tackled the letter boxes of 30 years of tax files. The slips of gasoline receipts from the station on the corner, the vaccination and check-up schedules from the doctor’s office, pay-stubs recorded on computer punch cards.   The diligent accounting of everyday family expenses slipping down into the recesses of the shredding bin. Ancient overruns of magazines from my father's professional work, loads of old papers and paperbacks discolored, yellow and spotted with mold. There was no need to keep it. I was still working with my father’s papers in the basement, just as I had when I was 14 in 1976. Things do not really change.
Just one box of many. 

“My mother always said, ‘Time is like a shadow.’” Bob the chatty hotel bartender said as he poured my mother and I our third glass of wine after the first evening of my dad’s surgical journey.We were giddy in the accomplishment of the procedure, planned for months while Dad suffered quietly in pain. We were staying in a hotel as the house in the woods was over an hour's drive from the hospital.  

The daily routine of hotel check-out and hopefulness, disappointments, waiting for medical professionals who tippy-tapped into computer monitors during their dialogues with my father, uncertainty, bad food, grumpiness and the tension of captivity, cumulated with "just a few more days to be sure" of the sickly antiseptic smell of a rehab center/nursing home. Wispy haired women waitedin wheelchairs. I scurried back to the house in the woods to tend to the garden, do the recycling and direct all my emotions into getting things done.   In one night, I dreamed I was crawling across a bridge over a large chasm, noting the deeply frayed cable above me.
A glimmer of nature on a walk in the woods with my oldest
nephew and the dog.  A beautiful bench all hand hewn. 
This crevasse of fear and concern opened as I witnessed aging- my own, my parents, and my sister's now teenage children who I last knew very well when they were 7 and 5 years old. Oldest daughters in traditional Cambodia culture often assume the care for parents, and as a single person there was no one else for me to take care of. The dutiful/loving role of matrimony was obvious for both my parents and for brother in law and my sister, who had another major surgery, which also occurred during my visit.  I was feeling quite alone, supporting my family through travails, but it was important to be there. I was happy to do it.
1992- a time when I had no home and
inconsistent work. The book was called
"Vagabonding in the USA". I still wear
a pink bandanna in the field. 

These questions remained gaping in the sense of my own state of transience as a single expat, now over 50, with no base of operations to call my own home. How will I age? Where will I live when I can no longer muster the resources to cope with the maintenance needed to steward a home, let alone my body. What trustworthy person will come to take care of me when I need it? 

In these moments of sometimes volatile vulnerability, I slipped into a morass of self-doubt in the great unknowns of my own future and the eventual repatriation. The grand open step of what is next loomed large and mysterious. The thoughts of years to come abounded and multiplied, creating a spiral of questions of where, who, how and what. The spirit of "I believe" wavered under the stress despite phone conversations with old friends and my internal attempts to reassure myself,

Now returned to Cambodia, I am far distant from those personal worries for now. My apartment is cheap and serviceable. There are plenty of fruits and vegetables. The future of my workplace is evolving, with directions ahead. There are no firm decisions to be made now, so the questions can be placed under a tarp until more months pass.  

The rainy season has started the dynamic and unexpected of everyday life. Small raindrops fall from a sunny sky, the plants seem happy and fresh and the flame trees that shelter the small community of commerce across the street from my house are now filled with brilliant red flowers and verdant foliage.