Monday, December 29, 2014

Dark Times

I am so glad Christmas is over.  I know people get worked up about the whole thing—Baby Jesus, music, rituals, gifting, food and drink-- but ever since the days when I worked the streets of downtown Boston reaching out to homeless youth I have found myself increasingly jaded by the hollowness of cheap Santa hats and old-timey carols.  Naturally, being in a different country, separated from family and with the really good friends all far away... it is challenging.

I've coped with an all-alone boozy fest for the first time in years.  In the past three weeks, I appear to have gained 5 pounds. The  wonderfully cool crisp weather of late keeps me away from the pool and with no interest in going to the gym, I try to get out and lumber around the streets for a bit of perspective. A couple evenings I came home exhausted from tribulations at the office and simply rested on the couch immersed in another secret addiction: Pet Rescue Saga.  Now at level 457.

In Alaska, I struggled with the winter solstice time.  There were mornings when I emerged from stuporous sleep like swimming through warm jello.  I crawled out of a warm bed in a very cold house, groggily put a down coat and fleece pants over the pajamas and stumbled along with the dog in the morning dark in an attempt at routine exercise.  I then drank my first cuppa hovered over the bright blue florescent light therapy gizmo.  On bad days, I pulled up to the the coffee shack on the way to the office.  The barista kindly thawed/cleaned the go-mug with steam and set me up with the sludge cup of drip coffee with a shot of espresso. Life seemed to lighten with the sun of midday. 

 Winter Solstice in Alaska,
This year's coping mechanism is a troubling throwback to days gone by.  Please don't worry- I'm not diving deeply into old patterns, but I have found myself wading around a little more frequently through the holiday season. This pattern started with the crazed substance abuses of the late '70s,   I had a fake ID at 16, forged from a friend of a friend whose mother worked at Vassar College.  A photo, some typing and a hot iron made me instantly of the drinking age of the time.

In the tame suburban idyll where I spend adolescence, there were keg parties in the far reaches of the woods owned by IBM where many fathers worked. In the night,  groups of males teenagers would gather around a fire, singing bawdy songs likely learned at Boy Scout camp  and coping with overly foamy beer from the haphazard keg transport.  There were vehicles that went off the road and incomprehensible dramas in homes with no adults present. Holes were punched in walls. People peed and puked and intercoursed in inappropriate places. Pot was laced with paraquat or PCP or Angel Dust. We were obsessed with the Doors and Pink Floyd.   It was a glorious blaze of rage, angst, ennui and discomfort.  Some died.

It wasn't until after I bought my house and lived alone that I began to drink by myself more frequently.  In the wintertime, there was an enormous bottle of whiskey in the kitchen cupboard, boxes of wine that I learned not too buy. I was smoking then-- as I had since my teens.   On some mornings I awoke feeling like a booze processor.  The pounds escalated in bouts of 5.

It was then time to stop.  There were evenings when I had to clutch the steering wheel and drive by the Brown Jug on the corner.  In the early days of the therapy that took me from the crazed denial of my youth to the self-aware and thoughtful person I am today, I remember drawing an image:  my battered and beleaguered spirit at the bottom of a dark well, standing upright and reaching to lightness, seeking small toe holds of security and progress to a better emotional place.

On Solstice day this year, I spend the day out at Takeo province with my friend Karen. Under the guise of a cheap and convenient bus ticket, we went down to a music festival at a children's orphanage in the region.  The music program wasn't all it cracked up to be, but fortunately I had a back up plan to visit Wat Phnom Chisor. With some relatively easy negotiation with the local motodups, we were soon climbing the steps to the temple.

On top of this small hill lay one of the oldest sites in Cambodia's cradle of civilization--predating Angkor Wat by 100 years and dedicated to the dieties of Brahma (the creator) Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer).    Ancient crumbling laterite bricks were propped up with 4x4s and Cambodians of all ages walked around and looked out at the vast vistas of  palms and rice fields.  The huge Boddhi tree housed a spirit house and more than one long-tailed macaque.  I distributed riel to various stops and received small tokens and big smiles.  While Karen explored in more depth, I simply looked to the north and let the elevated breezes buff me while temple boys made small inroads at conversation.

If all goes according to plan, 2015 will bring some changes for the good. My proposal to reduce work hours and responsibilities  has been agreed to.  I will use the new found time to write the checklist of stories from last year's writers retreat.  Alaskan friends are coming to visit.  I will look and scheme to 2016 and the promise of another major life shift.  This New Year's Eve, I am going out to celebrate and stay up late for the first time in many years.   The light is returning.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Not Really My Homeland

After landing at the Dallas airport after about 20 hours of transit time, I ordered a small coffee at the bagel shop and was presented with a huge cup of hot, steaming brew. I was stunned and overwhelmed for a moment  This was the small option.  I was back in America.

Our rental house, just like all the others
down the block. Our immediate neighbor
had fruit trees in the backyard. The small
swimming pool was encased in a huge steel
cage to prevent both human, and animal

My sister planned the trip: a week in Disney World in Orlando Florida, a large rented house with my parents, her family and my brother-in-law's father. Three rental cars. A pool and a trip to the discount mega store for provisions.   I spent the first few days trooping along with my nephews and sister in a daze of jet lag, exhaustion and motion-induced/overkill of western food nausea.
Morning at Universal Studios 

 My sister, in her unparalleled planning and efficiency, declared that we must enter the gates when they opened to secure shorter wait times for the best rides.  As we pulled into the parking lot the first day,  families streamed  board  the monorail to the park.  There were trends obvious then: mouse ear headbands, shorts and black socks, strollers.  By the end of the day, I counted 21 girls in princess dresses, 11 teams of family team jerseys ("Smith Family Reunion 2014" with "thanks Gamma Jo and Big Bob" on the reverse or "We WILl always rememBUR you" and a photo of Wilbur on the front.   There were 9 meltdowns, including a woman my age with her forehead resting on the picnic table.  And there were only 3 Caucasian-looking cleaning staff.

Just outside of Frontierland, I'd seen more than one elderly black man in a pristine white suit cleaning the area.  This observation, combined with the news of the verdict in Micheal Brown's death and the ensuing riots in Ferguson, and the Splash Mountain log flume ride that featured the characters from Disney's Song of the South felt like a complete validation of the  pervasive racism that characterizes my country. America's  history- nearly 100 years after the Emancipation Proclaimation, blacks were finally granted the right to vote --and still men in particular still suffer considerably at the hands of the law, educational policy and social stature.  The current events ares generating a long-overdue firestorm of opinions, questions, demands, violence and pleas for thoughtful dialog.  

A recent editorial from the Hass Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at Berkeley, author John Powell writes,"  It is important to understand that the continued debasement and dehumanization of all those who are marginalized is not just to the detriment of individual communities, it is unhealthy for the health and well-being of our entire society at large.

The multitude of other black and brown people killed by police calls for more than a conversation. It demands a deep transformational  movement, one that recognizes the unequal experiences of people of color and their white peers."    The issues of disenfranchisement and of truly understanding the situation of people who do not have born priviliedge also starts with a conversation about class, as article by Gina Crosley-Cocoran explains here

A pivotal part of my experience with Leadership Anchorage in 2006 was an exercise called the "Priviledge Walk", in which all of us: Alaska Native, Blacks, Hispanic  where lined up on a single line.  For each question that was affirmative for us, we took a step forward.  After the exercise was over, we were asked to turn around and notice where our classmates were.  I will never forget the feeling of looking back at my friend Tammina, whose skin was deeply, stunningly black, standing at the absolute back having barely taken steps from her place at the beginning.  As I noticed all of our positions, progressively the people with lighter the skin color where at the front.  Our answers to the questions were based on our personal experiences.  So how can we judge how others feel from the things that they perceive?     That experience has made me forever conscious.   
Found while gift shopping amid
an overwhelming aroma of PVC and
schlock.  Another bumpersticker
"Know Guns. Know Peace. Know Safety.
No Guns. No Peace. No Safety."

In Disney World, I saw the masses of middle-class white Americans that were as foreign a culture as the Middle Eastern people that were milling all around Bumrngrad hospital during my visit there in early November.  I was surrounded by different accents of English, enormous people with the characteristic rectangular bodies and rolls of flesh on their bones, giant portions of food and the people infatuated with the Mouse.  I was truly in a different world and was not altogether comfortable there.  I am American, but not this America.

In most moments, I appreciated the happenstance encounters with song and dance revues in front of the castle, the way we always seemed to score the best seats on the rides and serendipitous encounter with a very smiley baby and her family who sat next to us on both the Indiana Jones review show during a rainstorm and the steam train ride around the park the next day.  It was wonderful to see my family, especially my nephews, and wait in a line with them undercover during a phenomenal tropical rainstorm that rivaled those here in Southeast Asia.  I had fun. 

After all my other family members left for their destinations, I forayed into the "real world" and went to the Florida Mall on the second busiest shopping day of the year in America.   I heard Spanish all around me, people laden with multiple paper shopping bags, bright lights and provacative displays, a frenzy of activity and loud music not unlike some of the street markets I have traversed here in Southeast Asia.

A quick run through Macy's offerings revealed styles that didn't really work for me from the lineup of garment producing countries: Bangledesh, Guatamala, China, Cambodia.
The mall security workers having lunch.
One was complaining about the divorce. 
After checking the items off my list that was carefully crafted over a period of a couple months, I had lunch at a place with a sushi conveyor belt.   Then I found my way to the bus stop for my trip back to the hotel before my 4am departure the next morning.

It was there that I saw the real face of Orlando..  At the bus stop, I saw a family get off the bus.  The kids were wearing weary clothing.  The mother had a haggard, sagging face, blowing the smoke from her cigarette to the side and looking distantly into space.    There were a number of folks muttering to themselves, others waiting in the weariness of uniformed service jobs and a $2 bus fare each way.  I got off the bus with a few hotel workers and made my way to the fancy hotel my parents gave me for the night.
One of many nice small lakes in the
 region around the hotel. Sign says,
"No Swimming. Alligators in area."

48 hours later and on the first day back at work, I was returning home from work a little later than usual and couldn't find a tuk tuk.  I started walking.  Down the street in front of me, a 5 year-old girl was dragging an orange plastic basket.  Clutching the basket, her father lay flat on the pavement and in an adaptive leopard crawl slithered himself behind her pushing with his elbows and ankles.  I could only do a short Metta for them at that moment, just as I had for the two morbidly obese sisters that I saw chain smoking in the special section at Disney World.  

There is so much suffering the world. We have to speak of our compassion, our anger, our pain and our memory.  By acknowledging and sometimes speaking of our suffering, we can develop the understanding to move beyond it.  And, for us to find our places of power and solace to renew and heal our pain. The bird titters outside of my apartment in the morning, the alligator swimming in the canal behind the  sealed, air-conditioned house that we rented, the injured manatees eating romaine lettuce at The Living Seas at Epcot and this vast and fantastic sunset on the shores of Cape Canaveral.  


Wednesday, November 19, 2014


'When you have your healthyou have everything. When you do not have your healthnothing else matters at all.'  From Dry: a memoir by Augusten Burroughs-- author of Running with Scissors. 
I once described an upper-class, 50+ woman as "well-maintained."  She had a honed pilatesyoga body, vibrant skin and styled hair that looked carelessly expensive.  She was well-kept: ironed, fresh and stylish.  For me, I fear that I have turned  downright frumpy. I'm  dressing the part as a middle-aged missionary, I have lost some gumption for getting very primped.  Of late, I am feeling tired.  It could be all the women in pajamas that I see everywhere.

Because I hate to spend too much time complaining, suffice to say that I've been stressed out and in physical pain over the past couple of months.  My maintenance regime is feeling overwhelming.  Not only exercise, healthy foods and regular social engagement are required, but also fingerpricks for blood glucose tests, the injections of insulin and the never-ending triangle balance of exercise, food and insulin.  In recent weeks my teeth were sensitive and my right shoulder, hand and elbow were in a constant undercurrent of stiffness and pain. I was really discouraged. 

Mentally, I was caught up in an unfulfilling and repetitive internal tape of loneliness and boredom.  I have been slipping into drinking a little more than usual and indulging in the wonderful whole meal baguettes and European cheeses from the shops around the corner.  With the additional stress at work generated by donors that re-strategize in the middle of a grant term and the ever escalating pressures on the core, unrestricted operating income we receive from individuals and community groups around the world, I've been restless and unhappy. I'm longing for a creative sabbatical.   I want to run away from it all.   

My experience of late is reminding me of the escape from the trauma and urban life that surrounded my first job as a street outreach in downtown Boston's high-risk neighborhoods in 1989.   The Combat Zone,the hustlers circling the block around  Arlington T stop and the punk rockers of Harvard Square were all on my case load. HIV was hitting our kids hard. Three young people died in a year: one a 17 year old Passamoquoddy tribal member that I met several times, each time nearly unconscious from intoxication.  He was killed with a broken bottle in a homeless camp under an highway overpass.  I read of his death in the lifestyle section of Saturday's Boston Globe. He was the straw that broke the camel's back.  It was time to go.

Just before I hit the road, I had extensive periodontal surgery done on my front four teeth.  In the ensuing months, I did not follow whatever guidance was provided in the noisy and crowded long rows of dental chair cubbies that comprised the Tufts Dental School teaching clinic. I sold nearly everything and began working my way around the US and using my little Toyota station wagon as the mobile storage unit.  Life was filled with new experiences, short-term jobs in wacky and creative communities: Key West, the Everglades, and the stunning isolation of Big Bend.

Then there were problems.  A combination of my cavalier approach to perio maintenance, not getting regular check-ups  and neglecting the ball and chain of diabetes.  After a year or so my front teeth were wobbling in their sockets. 

 I settled in at my friends "little storage shed with a window and a doorbell" in the North Boulder Trailer Park, picked up a couple of  jobs  and met Dr. Jaques De Lorimier, who happily traded me a hand-knit sweater for a tooth extraction and a denture.   When I was back in Boston at graduate school 8 years later, the denture split in half when I bit into a bagel turkey sandwich the day after Thanksgiving.  $8,000 later, I had a new fixed bridge across my canine teeth.  The most recent verdict, another ten years later, is that I need to be vigilant about maintaining the teeth upon which that bridge is secured.   I have to follow the program. 

Now, in my fifties, I am much more diligent and mindful-- in some ways more sensitive to maintenance needed to steward the balance of health and stress. The recent pilgrimage to Bangkok for medical consults is done.  I got a dose of steriods into the tendon that threw my blood sugars in a tizzy for a few days, but I am not longer in pain.  I must stretch, relax and brush after lunch.    

I also think its good to have a giggle over this crazy expat life.  So here's a few tidbits of my current reality that made me giggle from Phnom Penh Tuk Tuk 

 After a meeting with my Khmer colleagues

What happened when I bought cheap "Champaign" to celebrate 

Whenever I pass by a Chaly      only 50 cc and really cute!       

Regular driving for a Cambodian taxi 

Just hanging out at Serindipity Beach

The first time that I saw the Phrare Circus Show    I have now lost count how many shows...  

When I saw a Khmer carrying his own transfusion while being on the motorbike 

When the Oknha goes to the gym room we wait for his son to finish his sport session before using the machine

When my friends from abroad are coming 

When I managed to get home just before the rain 

When I am explaining the direction to the tuk tuk

When I am finally out of PP and can see nature and wildlife in the province

When I go back to my homeland put on 3 kilos

When I go back to my homecountry I keep old habits from PP

When I am back in my homeland after a long time in Cambodia 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The neighborhood

There was a bit of commotion in July over the appearance of Google's street view car in Cambodia.  Tasked with moving around the capital city and capturing the temples of Angkor Wat, the street view car captures moments in time for a rapidly changing city.

Here's a few shots from the neighborhood just outside my door.  The streetside vendors sell phone cards, gasoline, compressed air and minor repairs for motos and bikes, cold drinks and snacks for the students.

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.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Balancing on a Perch Amid Great Change

A five way intersection:  pagoda, LED display board,
large face on a billboard  and two construction sites. 

For the second time in a week, I saw very young boys working on a job site  of one of the many "western-style" condo complexes going up around the city. They were loading the rubbish trucks, wearing flip flops and long shorts as they hauled broken bricks, sheet metal strips and chunks of cement. On the next morning ride on the sometimes precarious perch on back of Mr. Pichada's motorbike, I counted 20 construction projects, both buildings and roads, within my view.

The most monstrous and, in some ways telling of Phnom Penh’s tsunami of change, is “Olympia City: the miracle of Phnom Penh”. The Chinese construction firm has orchestrated six cranes, at least three elevators and kilometers of green netting over the  towering 11 floors of cement to become retail and condominium complexes. Many of the units are pre-sold, primarily to Chinese, Malaysian and Singapore buyers. The expats look to each other with incredulity, “Who will live in these places?” The private sector replies, “ASEAN is coming. And Cambodia will become a LMIC (low to middle income country.)”

ASEAN is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, uniting was formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand to promote political and economic cooperation and regional stability. It now includes Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Brunei Darsallam and Myanmar. If it achieves the goal for economic integration in the region slated for the end of 2015, the number of workers and shoppers from those countries will increase as goods, services, labor and investment capital is facilitated. Apparently tariffs will be reduced and administrative procedures streamlined. It could be all talk, but there is definitely movement afoot.

Last week, I was waiting in traffic while a parade celebrating ASEAN unity and road safety went by. Mud-splattered trucks emblazoned with ASEANUNITYTOUR stickers and festive with Malaysian flags fluttering whizzed through red lights and the large men at the wheel waved and honked as the police held everyone back for the dignitaries ( a common occurrence here.)

When I was in Malaysia a few months ago, I heard a lot of public service announcements cautioning parents not to let their children stand up on the seats so that they could stick their heads out of the sunroof. Just last week, I saw the same thing happening with one of the many gold Lexuses that frequent the roads here.

Rolls Royce just opened a dealership here in June 2014.. The Minister of Industry and Handicraft said at the opening press conference that “I believe there is room to sell Rolls-Royce in Cambodia. There are many Oknhas now who can afford them,” he said, referring to people granted the honorific by the King in return for assisting Cambodia’s development.

The ranks of the Oknha-- once a highly esteemed designation slating back to the early days of the Kingdom- have grown considerably in the past ten years, going from only 20 in 1994 to now over 700 as reported by the Phnom Penh Post a couple weeks ago. The designation comes from the Royal Palace, with the payment of $100,000 and a commitment to building or supporting charitable projects. However, the increase in numbers generates suspicion that the title is not used to support the poor, but instead to gain favor from the government. Son Chhay, opposition party leader simply said, "it is now a badge of wealth, corruption, of deforestation and of land-grabbing,”

I have heard the NGO and government sector leaders caution that Cambodia will move from a low income country (LIC) to a low middle income country (LMIC), probably within the next 10 years. Naturally, the behavior of the Oknha and the other overseas investors are driving these advances. The implications of this shift for government are clear- estimates are that 30-40% of the central government's budgets are funded by donor aid, and this will dry up when the transition is official. In the past few months, I've noticed the tax department is rigorously collecting, work permits (with back payments required) are being enforced and the price of a tourist visa increased to $30.

The rich are pursuing the quick profits of resource extraction and demonstrating their wealth with prestigious cars, yet the poor largely still wait patiently on the margins and silently acknowledge their perceptions of their destiny. The middle class squirms to define themselves, seeking the trappings of private schools and a decent vehicle while living within modest budgets.

The shift to prosperity has now fully manifested in the Aeon Mall a tribute to all of the trappings of the rich and upwardly mobile. The mall comes with its own lending division, that now sees 3500 people a month (with an average monthly income of $500) come in for loans for TVs, refrigerators and other appliances.

I understand the hunger for discretionary items. I replaced my notoriously incompetent discount phone a couple of weeks ago.  The damage was just over $300, a little less than her monthly take home salary. She noticed it and commented, "We usually buy secondhand."  My heart sagged a little, recognizing the disparity of our respective ages and incomes, and social/cultural backgrounds. This little sag happens to me nearly every day in various contexts, recognizing the myriad of struggles I see every day.

Over and over,I see both the very poor (the people we serve)  and young, emerging middle class families (our staff) hanging on for this wild and terrifying battle between the cost of living and the adequate wages. The people who come in from the rural provinces try to eke out a rice harvest amid the vagaries of a changing climate. They urban poor find themselves evicted to make way for high-rise shopping malls or speculative schemes, then often relocated to places far from education, a job or medical care.

The White Building: one of Phnom Penh's examples from Vann Molyvann.

News released earlier this week states plans for eviction and demolition,

with reports of an insider deal on new construction in the works. 

On the daily morning rides to work I sit, trusting and balanced, as Mr. Pichada weaves among cars, past the construction sites and among all the people having a start to their day.  Some days he stops a little abruptly and occasionally we breeze through green lights with a near miss against the errant crazyboy.   
There is a constant attention to the maintaining the internal reserve to keep my balance in this mad, chaotic, rapidly changing environment.   It is for this reason- while waiting in traffic-- I often find myself looking skyward to the terrace gardens that are prolific on my commute.   I remember the dragonfruit tree that I noted on the side of the White Building in one of my early accounts of Phnom Penh living-- the brilliant pink of the fruit heralding growth and stability among a decrepit looking building.

The residents of the White Building- deemed iconic and housing a community of civil servants, many who have been there since it was built in 1963-- are not going without a fight. I know all these young families- now focused on providing fair opportunity to their children and disgruntled with the patterns of greed and corruption-- will have a chance to rise up too.  But in the meantime, life in Phnom Penh is a wild ride.  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

These Are My People

It was magic hour on the beach.  The sun setting low and casting a long heeled aura of golden hue over the out-wash of the waves in the sand, the sky and the people. My sister Barb, nephew Ian and I were settled in lawn chairs, watching the scene and waiting for o-dark thirty and the annual fireworks show to begin.
 Adolescents milled about,chattering about the double dare to dip in the brisk Atlantic ocean before the sun set.  Young children polished their sand castles. Parents joked and chatted.  It was small town America and the national holiday, of celebrations and place, of peace and prosperity.  Red white and blue striped bunting hung over the high streaming alpenglow-touched clouds.

Growing up in Poughkeepsie, New York---the suburbs of which were a company town of IBM--the fourth of July was a drive to a large field overlooking the Hudson River.  The massive crowds forced our family to stick together on the reclaimed golf course, hanging in the waiting for the show. There were long lines of taillights to follow on the way home.  Later in life, while visiting a friend whose husband was playing a gig, I attended a swank party at an estate overlooking the same Hudson River.  Luanne and I sipped a cocktail and smiled when the the bass guitarist played a ripping version of the Star-Spangled Banner in the moment the first rocket went to mid-air.  

The music was different one morning in Alaska on July 4th, 1996   I stood in the kitchen of a campsite along Russel Fjord, making breakfast for the group I was leading.  Below me, the outgoing tide and hundreds of berglets from the Hubbard Glacier created a parade.  Immense in the power of all forms: the strong tidal current icy cold water from the Gulf of Alaska, the jostling, jamming and tumbling of the bergs and the raw elemental power of it all mingled with the rich aroma of the final stages of a frittata. 
View from the campsite. Photo Ben Hamilton, Pioneer Videography.

I’ve been back from my crazy leave-taking of Alaska for over a month and reflecting on the aspects of home and community. I am without mortgage and using a rented physical address.   My belongings are stacked in plastic crates and duffel bags.  I still define myself as Alaskan, where I lived for over 20 years, but now I  have shifted to “snowbird” status.  My roots are shallow.  Currently I have no investment in building soil for my own garden, just focused on pots with plants.

This is not entirely uncomfortable; I have always been my happiest moving around.
But nothing replaces the feelings that arise when you see friends of a long time and that shared history.   Or when you connect back not only with a physical place-- but with the spirit of who you were in the past and how far it has been since.   The space of a land, people and the moment in time that mixes into a special, irreplaceable gem of memory, thought and sensation: home.  

The trip back to Alaska was an upwelling, a deep clear basin filled  by deep source water seeping toward the light. The experiences built my character, cemented friendships, pushed boundaries and formed irreplaceable networks and directions for relationships, careers and connection to the land.  And it all began with a copy of Alaska magazine. 

I’d gotten a wild hair to said to myself after my second season as a river guide on the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park, “If I am going to be a wilderness guide, then I need to be in Alaska.” After a series of letters to advertisers in Alaska magazine, I got an invitation to apply.   Instead of writing the staid response to the “Introduce yourself” question, I went on a creative limb and structured the piece as a TV talk show interview.   I got the job.

Months later, I was battling with the US Coast Guard and won- becoming the first diabetic in Alaska to receive at US Coast Guard commercial boating 6-pack license to traverse the notoriously unpredictable Skilak Lake.  I was on the fast-track of learning Alaskan ecosystems and surrounded by a group of like-minded peers all giddy with the endless sun and frenetic pace of summer.  Across the lake, the ridges of Knuckle Mountain punctuated the skyline. The only way up was a steep, rugged trail that popped up into glorious tundra and vistas of the lake. 
The view from up there. Courtesy Alaska Wildland Adventures.

As I was contemplating what to do on my Alaska trip, the place returned to me.  An inquiry and luck resulted in an invitation and a chance to revisit.   On that same place of expansive tundra in 1992, I'd had a  chance encounter with one of Kenai Peninsula’s caribou. In that moment, I made a promise to myself and the caribou that I would go to the Arctic.   On my last river trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2008, I’d promised myself that I would go to Africa.  In Tanzania, the network opened up for development work in SE Asia.   Now, supine in the nostalgic aroma of laborador tea and wistful memories, I could only face the vistas and wonder what was next. 

In the evening walk last week, the rumble of thunder was not unlike the rolls that punctuated many a childhood night in the Hudson River valley, where  legends of bowling old men and Rip Van Winkle's very long sleep were a part of the local yore.  The weather and chance urban wildlife encounters I experience here are,  in the aftermath of a torrential rain, the glimpse of a rat that makes a frantic, desperate swim across the flood in the street to scramble to the high ground of sidewalk and generating shrieks from shopkeepers.

This stage-- a determined yet still far off departure in sight-- is one of testing and exploring, researching and collecting ideas.  A waystation, as it is for so many expats here, that results in one of the first questions that comes up in introductory conversations, "How long are you planning to be here?"

 I'm mulling over if my next house will have wheels or just be a plot of land, or maybe a few plots of land in different places or maybe no house at all. I'm forming goals, plans and inquiring on ideas.  I have a keen idea of what community I want, but the place is still an wispy fog on the horizon.

However, on one of the many flights over the wild,unfettered wilderness of the Gulf Coast in the mid-90's, the expanse of wilderness between Yakutat and Cordova spoke to me in such a very touched me so deeply.  As one is want to do when flying over vast spaces in a airplane cockpit smaller than a Volkswagon bug and considering the scenarios, at that moment I felt that I wanted some of my ashes dropped from the door of a low-flying Cessna.  Alighted and scattered amid wild places. Home.

Street 214, where I live.  After a big rainstorm. 

Monday, July 28, 2014


In the end, the toaster stayed along for the ride.  In the mere 9 days I was in Anchorage, I managed to clean out my storage closet, re-gift a lot of belongings and hone my possessions down to a two duffel bags (camping gear), four Rubbermaid tubs and a few boxes.  All of this was conducted with a honed project plan punctuated by welling bouts of both stress and sadness.

Phase One of the stuff shuffle was my review the assumptions that forced the pack in the first place.  At the time,  I’d kept the bare minimum of the house (no furniture) in place in case I wanted to return, hoping that I would return from world travels with a someone else. I kept the trappings of the home together, hoping to rekindle. Remember July 2011?

Phase Two was to consider what I might "need" next.  The mindset with which I sifted belongings went to an image not yet formed, a the tiny house somewhere here or there, hither and yon.   A place of which I have yet to create and is percolating to form a richer and more fuller vision in the future. There were many times I considered a home, especially on the road. 
2009, with dog and visiting nephew

Between 1989 and 1995,  I worked as a seasonal guide year round, spending time at the front desk of ski resorts in Colorado in the winters, tromping around in the tundra in Alaska in the summer and  rowing rivers in the heart of the Chihuahuan desert in West Texas in the spring.  

One season,  I’d suggested to the boyfriend at the time that we build a tent platform for our megamid home, a pyramid shaped single pole tent on the hill behind the boathouse.  It was a windy, dusty shelter.  Our neighbors were fellow boatman whose primary goal of each evening was stumbling up to the tent after a night of beer drinking. I came off from the river one day after a particularly blustery day and found my inflatable mattress impaled on the downwind barbed wire fence.
Representative photo. From:

 After hours and hours on the river, I would often ascend the hill and fall asleep fantasizing of clean cotton sheets on a forgiving bed, a gentle breeze through gauze curtains and a single daffodil on the bedside table.   Throughout many of those journeys, I longed for a familiar turn of the key in the lock and the reassurance of my own physical space.  Years later and when I could, I bought my house.

Returning to my house in Spenard made me realize how much I’d changed since leaving it three years ago.  I was perturbed but resigned with the untended state of the gardens, astounded my how much I’d left behind and pleased with the tenant’s paint job.  I was ready to let go and thus the gleaning began. 

Over the days, I reviewed and evaluated objects.  Was it small and irreplaceable enough to keep?  Would someone else like it and appreciate it more? How many boxes would be a burden to my friend’s allotted storage space? I remembered some things that were considered very precious at a time, but were lost over the years and for which I have always regretted: a diligently crocheted bag bartered for knitting goods , my grandmother’s bracelet, a miraculously artful beaded winter hat I knitted.  What is my attachment to these things?  What would I have to gain by letting them go?

In that questioning of those relationships between our belongings and ourselves, there was a reassurance about identity and self.    We are created with a soul, which is then influenced by our relationships, our experiences and the places where we choose to spend time.  I had to say goodbye to the house forever, permanently end the 16 years of investment that entailed both significant and minor self-taught home improvement projects, a dedicated cultivation of  microbial soil and the conscientious creation of community.
Late one afternoon, enmeshed, overwhelmed and surrounded by the piles of stuff, I stopped bending over and stretched to look at the sky.  That moment, a huge Alaskan dragonfly alighted on the roof of the storage closet in the backyard.  Emotions welled up and I breathed deeply to say hello. 

Years ago, while I was working in the bowels of downtown Boston as a street outreach worker in 1986, I took solace in a weekend volunteer caretaker job on the Saco River in Maine.  Each morning and evening, thousands of dragonflies would hover to feed on the prolific mosquitoes.  Since then, I have surrounded myself with their image.  Seeing this totem alight was a reassurance that I was on the right path.  I was completely and totally enmeshed in this moment of transition, of letting go, surrounded by the objects of my history and those tools and objects that defined my self for so long. There is a vast unknown, strengthened by character and deed, of possibility and of fortune, destiny and luck.

 Now I knew--  only when we let something go can we allow something else to fill its place.

What was left for the next step.