Living in Cambodia Part Two: More Reflections

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I’m safely back in Seattle, USA. White clouds loom over me thickly. Green trees are in every corner. The air is brisk and biting. I have to wear layers. I have to squint to see through the brightness. There is no sweat. There is noise, lots of noise, in the restaurants and bars. There is space and quiet outside. The roads are smooth. The hills are steep. The cars are many, and they are orderly. It stays light out until 9 or 9:30 at night.

It has been a difficult transition back to this town, this place I called home for three years. In many ways, I sincerely and severely miss Phnom Penh. I miss the heat, I miss the crowds, the busy streets, the regular cycles of day and night. I miss the dust. I miss the dirty streets. I miss the constant movement, the constant activity. In some ways, I miss the lack of shade and the unbearable lightness of urban sunlight. I miss the friends I knew, and the many faces I didn’t. I miss the fruit and the meat and the fish and the strange vegetables. Obviously I miss the cheap food and the cheap cost of living.

But here I am under the many conveniences of American life. I’m once again back in the landscape of the fancy, where I can get Starbucks 5 minutes from every location, where I can get in a friend’s car and just drive. There’s freedom here. But there’s so much more, so much more uncertainty.

When you first live abroad, you think, “Wow, there are all of these things I took for granted where I come from.” You’re not only surrounded by the perspectives of the majority (in my case, the Cambodians), but also the perspectives of all the other minorities–Australians, Europeans, South Americans, Canadians, other Asians–and everything comes together into a new range of perspectives, a new melting pot, that is absolutely fantastic as it is horrifying. The “island” of your homeland, of your home country, becomes one that is fantastically strange. “Oh, wow, Americans are loud, and we use credit cards to buy almost everything” are a couple statements you might make when you get into the superficial contrasts in culture.

When you return home, you start to see the deeper differences in the world around you. You start to project everything you came to value in the foreign experience onto everything that surrounds your homeland. You start to realize the gaps between the two. You start to think about what was missing from your previous life. In Cambodia, for example, collectivity and community and individual sacrifice is normal under professional, family, and personal contexts. There is a degree of “giving” that is unmatched by many people in many subcultures of America. Though there are certainly “giving” people here, and very, very kind people, that they are not the norm makes them stand out, sure, but makes them seem flanked by the majority ideology in a landscape of supreme individualism and, to be drastic, selfishness.

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Even the language of “I” (using “I statements”) was completely different over there. Among Westerners and Cambodians alike, talking in conversations was normally inverted. Statements involved commenting on others before commenting on yourself. The “you” statement (“You actually talked to him?”) versus the “I” statement (“I can’t believe you talked to him”) seems simple but is foundationally different, and of course I grew completely self-conscious of my own linguistic behavior and adjusted accordingly. And since being back I’ve constantly noticed the self-centrism in communications. It’s a good thing, because it means I can continue to make myself less self in an attempt to translate my previous comforts of community into the communities I previously known.

There is something maddening about the face of despair and disease in the USA that I don’t remember “seeing” as clearly in Cambodia. From the drunks standing in and around bars, to those pour souls screaming on the streets, to the silent, defaced individuals working at the cafes, there is a distance between individuals here that unnerves me. Some of these elements of mental health and social behavior are greater in Seattle than other areas of the country, I realize that, and it’s hard to make blanket/generalized statements, but they are visually noticeable and, in many cases, difficult to deal with. I’m sure most of my friends in Cambodia, and myself too, had extreme disparities in mental health, but there was a general concern for happiness and connectivity, even desperately, but still normal-seeming, that kept me and my crew together in an act of energy, trust, and reliance. Did that exist for me in Seattle, before? Perhaps it simply wasn’t as obvious to see, even if it did exist. Certain illuminations occur when we least expect them, make us turn over stones and reflect on previously-hidden realities of life.

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Cold in the night, it’s been a bit hard, clutching my blankets, to not think of the smiling faces of those who were in my life, both temporarily and consistently, during my time in Cambodia. Penhleak, Kakrona, Yenda, Daen, Andrea, Stephanie, Antoine, Jialing, Eitan, Kristina, Borey, Sok Lak, Vongseng, Sros, Linda, Heng, Khiang, Kara, Tana, Nary, Sokunthea, Ratana, Huy Eng, Saren, Naro, Seila, Try, Emanuel, Eric, Terry, Margaret, Kolap, Wanna, Dana, Chheangly, Chakriya, James, Phally, Soknea, Sok, and all the others, these were the people who allowed me to rediscover myself by leaving myself and entering their lives. The invitations were gradual and amazing. And unforgettable.

It’s difficult thinking about how experiences are different out here. It’s only been 48 hours and I’m not working and I’m living in a moment-to-moment space. I can’t imagine how it will be interacting with my family when I go back home, or how I will interact in working environments, but one of my major skills I’ve learned has been patience. There is so much patience required to switch from the Western to the Cambodian way of life: from tasks at work to meeting up with friends to enjoying a meal. There’s a reason lunch breaks are two hours long rather than 30 minutes. There’s a reason no one expects people to be exactly on time in any given circumstance, for a date or for a casual meeting. So many factors go into “barriers,” where barrier shouldn’t be considered a negative, but rather simply a push and pull keeping people from being so abrupt, so rigid in their daily lives. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve already faced difficulties with impatience, with promptness. I foresee them continuing.

Over the next five days I’ll be perusing Seattle and, when I can, posting new thoughts about new differences I’ve encountered. Then I’ll be in Maine, where my goal will be to write significantly about my many friendships and interactions in Cambodia. I hope to write something, a long essay, or book, that can accurately illustrate what life in Cambodia is like today, something most people probably haven’t a clue about. (I already had to deal with more than two Pol Pot references since being back, which confirms said suspicions.) After a month in Maine, I’ll be driving across the country. All of these activities are so starkly different from my life in Cambodia that I hope they don’t overshadow the past 9 months completely. And yet, Cambodia instilled a sense of humbleness, sincerity, joy, and compassion within me that I don’t imagine will be easy to shrug off anytime soon.

Living in Cambodia: Some Reflections

Here is the first in what I hope is a series of posts on my time in Cambodia. I will be writing a final poem and some additional comments tomorrow, during my last day in the Kingdom of Wonder.

Clutching the bag

like the next corner

could be your next life.

Final days, final hours, final minutes, final moments. I’ve been in Cambodia for around eight and a half months and tomorrow at midnight I return back to the United States of America, from whence I came, from the last life I knew. And yet it will never be the last life, the same life, as Cambodia has provided so much insight, expanded me perspective gradually, fundamentally, impeccably. I will miss Cambodia and what it has taught me and what I have found as a new home, a new lifestyle, a new place of wonder in a Kingdom of Wonder.

I ache thinking about the rising sun

and how it will never be as hot

my skin will never shimmer this way.

I will miss the people most of all. The fantastic people who are all doing amazing things here. I will miss the writers, the teachers, the librarians, the artists, the psychologists, the developers, the dancers, and so on and so on. I will miss the opportunity to so easily look into the minds and worlds of so many different types of people. Through work, through volunteering, through a commitment to creativity, I have seen in my life a place filled with so much life, so much purpose, so much inquiry. Contrastingly different from previous states of nihilism and the annals of the voids of pretention I knew before, Cambodia has given me a glimmer of insight into a space where the have-nots have so much to find, care for, and explore.

Kick, push, kick, push.

The first time navigating the world of motos

on a single speed bicycle.

Risks. I will miss the risks. I will miss swerving out into traffic and nearly getting run over by the motorbikes and the SUVs and all manner of other crazed traffic that dominates the landscape. Risks. I will miss booking my schedule full with exhausting, potentially-heartbreaking meetings, where my experience and inexperience is not enough to find the answers to the problems I encounter. I will miss exploring and trying anyway. I will miss going into situations without the proper foundational knowledge and taking the risk that I can still make impact.

Judging from that pothole,

there has recently been a lot of rain,

and yet the sky is clear.

Cambodia might as well be labeled “land of uncertainty.” You can find surprises anywhere, but there is a particularly staggering degree of uncertainty and discovery here that never gets old, that continues to astound no matter where you are. I will miss it. I will miss it in its beautiful poetry. This poetic world we float through, new smells, new fumes, incredible vibrations and incredible patterns of images. Every moment, whether I was in the comfort of my room, enjoying conversations over beers or coffee with friends, or out traveling the dusty streets, I found myself being delightfully reminded that I could know nothing. For me, I never created a structure, a pretense that “order exists.” Despite my own relatively stable daily existence, I normalized the strange, the unknown, and the lack of patterns over the patterns themselves, in an attempt to unravel the mysteries surrounding me. Did it help to always be on the edge of my seat, become as shocked as often as possible?

There is no shade and so you will burn

but you will stop naysaying the flames.

You will grow to love the discomfort.

I have always felt some anxiety in Cambodia. Some degree of fear has touched me on a daily basis. From conversations to bargaining to sickness to my interpretations of the world around me to the potential to get robbed, even, my nerves grew startled and uncomfortable living here. But in many ways, these defense mechanisms slowly became tolerable, fine. I stopped losing sleep over it. But part of the love for Cambodia is in the fear. Because, like so many who have visited other places before me can attest, the idea of exotic can be found in the differences between what you know and are used to, and what you don’t know and might never fully know because, well, you’re always translating. As with language, eventually there is a point where you stop translating and your understanding is natural, internalized and smooth; however, as I have never learned a second language fluently, I cannot say anything more than this assumption. I can, however, comment that life did get easier, and many elements of daily life slowly became unconscious, slowly stopped invading me on a meta-analytical level. I stopped giving a damn about being cut off in traffic. I stopped worrying about getting sick when eating street food. I stopped caring so much about how much that tuk tuk ride would cost. I even stopped freaking out about money problems. Life slowly became “Cambodian” to me.

You will be as the statues are:

centered and observed,

though still, filled with joy and aging.

I think a lot of foreign people like Cambodia because you can be quite individual here. Despite all the collectivity going on with expats and local Cambodians, the pressure to conform simply doesn’t feel like pressure. You slowly become culturally sensitive (or not) and observe certain norms and engage in certain practices, but in many ways, that’s where it ends. From the junkie and the sex addict, to the God-driven missionary and development-driven NGO worker, to those remarkable unemployed folks who somehow manage to coast along in a deep sea of whatever it is they have, there is a place for you here. And nobody’s going to pop your bubble unless you want it to be popped. One of my first friends here enjoyed a lifestyle of extreme bliss and absolutely no employment for four or five months. Another friend was unemployed for almost a year. I’ve met travelers who have decided to just “stop by” for a few months without any larger ambition to contribute as an employee to any organization, or even as a freelancer. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who are so driven by work (I’m guilty of this) that they have multiple jobs, and also provide consulting, and also volunteer and host events and activities, and can’t-stop-moving. There are those that come here during their retirement. There are those who are escaping something from where they came. There are those who are young and are looking for adventure and room to grow. There are those who are raising families out here. There are those that came for Cambodian love. There are those who have no idea what they’re doing. The fantastic elements of Cambodia is that it’s a land of personal opportunity.

What do you want to do? She asked.

All I know is I want to keep talking to you.

She looked at me like she’d heard it once before.

I found love in Cambodia. I told myself I wasn’t going to look for it, so perhaps it found me. On numerous occasions. Love transcended my greatest desires to stay focused on myself. And in staying focused on myself it was obvious that love was unavoidable. Love has come in such varieties here. People who have loved me, people I have directed love toward. An intricate exchange, a fantastic gaze. There was the first friend I slowly knew would forever be more than that to me. There was the gang of friends I would never stop thinking about, would attempt to spend time with every day. There was the woman I knew only briefly, who I created the perfect art piece with, only to watch it be destroyed, because we did not deserve it. There was the friend I abandoned after learning to know and love for so long. There was the other friend who somehow managed to love me and then immediately stop. There were the people I loved like family. There were the people I loved like lovers. There were the people who were best friends. There were the people who came and went but always branded an image.

She countered my doubt with another message.

“And be at peace with loneliness.”

My glass as empty as the sky, my lips spread open in a smile.

I have always been lonely and have regularly felt alone despite the countless faces and voices and communities existing to support me wherever I have been. I have always been maniacal, the door of my sanity slightly ajar. It’s been that way in Cambodia, too, though in many ways, Cambodia life has been like university life. It has been a source of personal growth and education, one concentrated. In many ways, the people that entered and left my life were all in similar positions in life, similar open positions that allowed them to ask big questions and find answers, great and small, in response. I spent the first half of my time in Cambodia living alone in an apartment on the ground floor of a quasi-residential apartment in a shady street in Phnom Penh’s south end. I then moved into an apartment, also in the south end, to the west, near Toul Tom Pong, or Russian Market. I lived with two wonderful roommates, a Belgian working for an NGO, and a Polish freelancer. In many ways, I saw my own loneliness confronted on a regular basis by invitations from friends and loved ones who were always around the corner, always excited about life, always willing to do things. In many ways, the promptness of social living has been different than any other space I’ve lived in, but perhaps it’s because I’ve finally started letting the friends come before me.

“Will you come back?”

I really want to. There was a cool breeze tickling my arms.

“You’re going to be missed by a lot of people.”

My life has been a life of movement. I have put significant thought into “settling down” since I came here, despite how a life in Cambodia often provides the conflicting viewpoints of people settling and people in flux (as does anywhere else, of course, but particularly so here, with significantly strict cultural norms and the entering and exiting of so many individuals from foreign lands). I have thought of what settling can do for me. What can happen if you downsize certain elements of your life? What can happen if you focus, put greater attention into certain ideas, values, systems, projects, works? What can happen if you slow down a bit? Will that help life? Yesterday I watched five movies and packed my bags, getting rid of a lot of my things, preparing a lot of clothes to be donated. It felt relaxing to invest so much time into being an observer, rather than a creator, the “active principle” in the situation. Some of my favorite moments in Cambodia have been those on a beach, or at a pool, where every other activity in life vanished. Other favorite moments were on the dance floor, where I could transform into the crazed dancing dude I am. Our most highly-prized inner natures are sometimes those that we don’t talk about that often, those we reserve for the unique experiences that inspire them.

Difference comes in many forms.

Count the types of mangos grown.

Beggars and the elite dance on the same streets.

Surprisingly, I thought a lot about American poverty while I was in Cambodia. Poverty and class struggles and economic struggles exist everywhere, of course. In many ways, my time here has been similar to my time in Philadelphia; however, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I can make a difference, how my actions help (and don’t) and I have lived with societal difficulties much easier here. I don’t love the struggle here. I don’t want it to continue to exist. But I respect the history and the structures that need to be changed and I believe in the many people who want change here. It will come in due time. As you come to know more people in Cambodia, and you realize that many people have found joy in their life despite their shitty situations, a certain degree of respect for the culture grows. Perhaps I have developed a complex here since I have access to those who are well-to-do and those that are in poverty. Obviously I have the privilege to move around and see the world from many angles, like a god, but perhaps having such mobility has also allowed me to learn and continue to be here without growing incredibly depressed and fleeing due to my inability to cope (that’s what happened in Philly). One of my first friends here, a tuk tuk driver, who invited me to see his world from the inside. Most days he only made enough to survive, and could only save $1/day. Another one of my first friends here owns a car and had a job that will most likely allow him to enter in and continue to live as a member of the “emerging middle class.” I have met teachers making hardly a living wage. I have met wildly successful business owners. I have met farmers. I have met garment factory workers. I have met poets and song writers. I have met visual artists. I have met barristas. I have met advocates and political champions. Everyone has expressed to me their critiques of Cambodia, and everyone has expressed a gratefulness for life here. I have enjoyed investigating happiness.

Your favorite pair of pants rip, so go put on new pants.

Your party’s playlist ends so download some new music.

Your life chapter ends so you go write the next one.

When I think about Cambodia and me, I think about it being too short. Less than a year in a place, I’ve been arguing since I got here, is not enough time. I’m grateful I had the chance to at least experience 8.5 months here. The experiences I’ve witnessed and the knowledge I’ve gained have incomparable to other chapters in my life. I am going to truly miss the life I’ve had in Cambodia, a lot, and I know I will return, but for now, this is simply the trajectory I have to live with. How one deals with transience, movement from one space to the next, is a difficult concept. At 28 years old, I haven’t the slightest clue about movement, except that I know I’ve done it before and that it was successful and fine and it will most likely be successful and fine again. People I’ve met who have lived around the world say that while it’s always hard moving, it’s also something that gets easier. I hope so. Travel and transience have always been inspiring and have provided significant insight into myself, and I can’t see myself stopping my movement around the world, even if I run out of money, or I get my limbs blown off. I’ll find a way. But moving from Cambodia back to the USA, which is so, so different will be a challenge. In many ways, I hope to retain as much as I’ve gained from Cambodia as I can once back to the Empire, and yet, I believe that a lot of the beliefs I’ve fostered here have been directly linked to the cultural contexts here, and thus I will need to really think about what life out here has been, and how I can translate my life here into the new contexts. Reverse culture shock will most likely shock me, as well, so I will plan on reflecting on that, too. But for the next 36 hours I have in the country, it will be about cherishing what I’ve already felt and experienced. Let the re-appropriation happen later.

More comments and reflections this afternoon and tomorrow. You can also check out my reflections on library work in Cambodia here.

Friends of Cambodia, a “Going Away” Poem

I leave Cambodia Wednesday night. I’ll be writing a long post on my experiences before I leave, to finalize this blog. Before that, however, I’ve decided to post a poem I wrote yesterday. It took a significant portion of the day and involved sitting in cafes, my apartment, and god knows where else. The poem is mostly composed of tercets (three line stanzas), alluding to my old mentor Michael Gizzi who, along with my biological father, actually, surprisingly provides influence on what “social emptiness” can mean. As I saw with Gizzi, friendship was key to support and life. My father always used to tell me “find friends, they are the most important thing in life.” And in most cases, friendships are pivotal, as they certainly have been in Cambodia. I decided to represent them in this poem. Each stanza is about a different person I grew close to in Cambodia, but I trust the ambiguity of some of the allusions will apply to multiple people, and it will be more of a personal exercise for the reader.

I will miss these people greatly. The degree of generosity, kindness, aid, and overall love I have encountered over the past eight months has provided fuel for ambition, creativity, and all elements in life. In many ways, my friendships here have been fundamentally different than those in the USA, more sobering, more adult, and more child, and far more attached. That’s probably due to the environment as well, as Phnom Penh’s expat scene is not too large, like an ethnic enclave, in a way.

My rant aside, it will be hard to leave these people, but they are friends for life.

Friends of Cambodia

If all the eyes were shut

and all the landscape cruel and craggly,

people alone with their breaths, scraggled, raggedy, managing,

people succumbing to the heat, mangled, real people, their noggins ruffled.

Images of people and images of breath, breathing, a ruckus, a rambling series,

through images of ungodly, stifling heat.

 

If all the eyes were shut

our canvas left to rot, left out to blot out present and past in the dust

there would still be the heat.

 

If all eyes were shut you would still be too.

And beautiful though dusty and hot you would be.

 

Closed eyes. Sounds etching across, forming pictures through black voids, mental skies,

the waves of light branded between human lids.

The memories organized, bidding the watchers to come forth and observe the people.

 

Breathing fire the smoke as wires blending the perception of the night.

Skin underneath those splendid rags, the way we claim

is the way everyone claims. You’re either in or you’re out.

 

Come to me oh caramel flared in silk, your skin the vision of ethereal wonders and shyness,

dreams layered on, lavish, with your narration in a stubbed tone coming from beneath a snubbed nose.

Your ache at once a loitering, and me lately hanging out with latency through this fantasizing.

 

Come to me gangling, your body forgiving, your chuckle bemusing,

you giving up what others have given to you over, and over again,

as you stand and wait calmly offering suggestions like one might pass on an extra mango.

 

She waits nearby for a sudden acknowledgement, a response,

her face weathered with the beauty of an age not yet old and not yet young,

her smile disabling my mature demeanor, like a drug, or a tickle.

 

In her nails, the shrieks of a thousand kisses reflected,

each connection between the lips at once dry and wet, like a vision of satin.

Strange the way the moonlight doesn’t exist like our knowledge and love exists.

 

He is committed, cooperating, and casual. Like the elements of the river

his eyes move and assess the rhythms of speeches, of our shadows.

I am moving forward towards him hand outstretched like a brother.

 

And then, eons later, calling forth, the storm above,

her tones long and elastic blasting through rooms, courageous,

mimicking the corners of our hiding places where we smile the broadest.

 

His eye left in the capsules we left to dry in the sunlight,

sprouts connecting with tissues amassing in clumps.

“Hold on,” he says, almost anyway, “Before we make you angle otherwise, in another direction.”

 

She is right there with him, her golden features frail and determined,

paging quickly through the pages in languages she understands.

Yet there is a quiver to her thought process, as though she was pondering life after a disaster.

 

Beyond, in the distance where I wash my hands,

I think about the freshness of the rainstorms.

And the gripping of hands on the a bicycle’s bars as potholes emerge,

ghosts of a forgotten construction,

creatures from the depths of a deadpan he never saw or got to hear me speak of.

I have seen him in all of you. I have moved my jaw in your direction.

 

She holds the scythe like a pendant to ward off evil.

The tufts of earthen growth climb up her legs

and you can sense the clever cry of dolphins calling in the distance.

 

And she morphs into a cat writhing in an ecstasy of a hot sun she never sees.

The last curtain was pulled in the evening when she set off through causality,

when she started defining her movements as forward momentum.

 

I have a memory of his black eyes pushing forward into my skin.

I have a memory of riding the bicycle but not touching the pedals.

I have a memory of trees hanging low, the leaves not moving at all.

 

He says, “Frazzled you will betray yourself before you find stability.”

There are looks of confusion and the roads moan past us.

His helmet reminds me of tiny neighborhoods in tiny towns with parents yelling loudly.

 

It was as easy for us to meet and it was easy for your lips to curve

while the music exploded behind us and the people melted into puddles

and there was a strange man with glasses watching our hips shake.

 

In the cold confines of an A/C café there are the pink tides cascading,

slowly filling the room up. I find myself in these situations

and I slowly, slowly start to listen to everything she confesses, almost cries.

 

And at once the world vanishes, gets folded up into tiny squares.

The origami a complex coordination, a ritual, a reaction.

She begs to be free but for now it is not her decision to make.

 

He makes decisions as frequently as he makes friendships.

His body is a beautiful piston, a measure of performance.

When he emerges from the aquatic cloak I hold my breath.

 

When she emerges from the stairwell I hold my breath.

Light scatters in correct places revealing incorrect postures.

Her hair is greasy and short, and I watch her and wait as she speaks sparsely, like a bird.

 

The mosquito that held itself so close to me before darting away.

Like when you held me yourself, before giving me back to the mosquitos,

my hollow intentions no longer a weight worth bearing.

 

And bearing truth like you bear your name, you got up and left.

You took our history and paced down the steps, the hallways, the to and the from.

My mouth is agape like a cave glinting with gold through this day and all future days.

 

And we will be born again as we have our conversations.

You, standing there, shortest hair, the look of a maniac, twisted features,

and I, slumped over, dangling, dragonflies in my hair, my head, my eyes.

 

And so will he live up to his reputation

laughing at the same joke over and over again

and I pushing him on and on again, like a son, or the carrier of his ashes.

 

She meets to reveal that which is serious.

There is a significant buzz of transition in the breeze.

I have seen no one hurt on the streets today.

 

She is still skinny, and she stares at me while seated on the floor, waiting for some signal,

or perhaps I wait for her signal, wait for her to raise her hand,

or her head, or her eyes, while the nightlife scrapes across the café windows offering no assistance.

 

There is little resistance except in the mind of the device

you carry like a child in front of you on this rooftop, your claws offering protection,

and my claws wanting to reach out and pull you close to me.

 

There is little to say of you sometimes, and yet then without thinking the flow of goodness ripples open.

As you hobble along the stairs, I catch my breath and attempt to unravel your mysteries, your histories.

These neon lights are distracting, as is your faint call for me to help you yet again.

 

As though this light emerging in morning was good for you, to you,

and the sweat covering my body as second skin liquid could only be alive,

could tell us something more about the habits of my calves on the streets.

 

These habits are not forced habits, but those we share and speak of like family,

those understandings and the awareness of owning something larger.

Something bigger than we know how to describe accurately, like how we all hate this building.

 

Back home, you sit and then stand and then listen.

And then you move, you own the space that glides you.

Your rapture is as calming as a plastic and metal fan eternally on setting number 3.

 

Her eyes open and shut and the world is forever more complex.

At what point do you crush your explorations of relationships?

At what point, do you take the hit and exhale a renewal of exuberance into the urban air?

 

I wish I could ask: what do we think about together amidst the chill?

Whose actions mean more: yours to me, or mine to you?

I ponder that our faces are rarely masks; they always reveal our true internal tigers.

 

She stayed as a statue stays. Filled with love and loved by many.

Her voice carried to me once but now she does not speak.

Her age, her life, continues to be as marvelous as a rain storm at midnight.

 

It is midnight in Phnom Penh. I turn on the nightlight,

turn the room’s lights out, spin the knob, push the bolt, locking the doors.

I squeeze and hold my pillow like a lover or a friend and think of what thanks to give.

I think of what dreams tonight’s sleep will carry me to giving thanks.

There are lines of faces and lines of trees:

papaya, rubber, rambutan, mango, cashew, and so on, and

there is the equivocal grace of the creation and destruction all around us.

There are the memories of the limits of desire,

and there are the memories of the extents and horizons of camaraderie.

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New Free Online Book: MOMENT, Benzoned, and Vaster Landscapes: Ratanakiri Poems #Cambodia

MOMENT, Benzoned, and Vaster Landscapes: Ratanakiri Poems is my new online publication. It includes three books of poems. Please email gregbem at gmail dot com if you have any recommendations, comments, edits, questions, etc.

Download PDF

You can also view this publication on Slideshare below (though resolution is not optimal and internal links do not work):

Further reading: Nine Nights in Cambodia

Garbage Collector, #PhnomPenh

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I don’t usually take pictures of the poor. I think the famous ones you see in magazines are enough as it is. Also, after you live in a place for long enough, you take for granted the more grotesque realities that surround you that you are not directly working with.

This is a picture of a worker, a garbage collector, taking a lunch hour rest near Koh Pich, otherwise known as Diamond Island, in Phnom Penh. This type of scene isn’t only related to the lowest-paid workers in the city. You often see tuk tuk drivers sleeping in their tuk tuks or on a hammock connected to the environment.

One thing I do think about a lot is the lack of park space in the city. I am used to go the parks in the USA where the public, poor and rich alike, go to enjoy themselves. Rittenhouse Square comes to mind, in Philly. Cal Anderson in Seattle too. I wish Phnom Penh had more parks, and maybe someday it will.

A Jungle Trek in #Kanlai, #Ratanakiri, #Cambodia

Our final day before the day-long trip back to Phnom Penh (which won’t be covered on this blog) saw us visiting the Kalai village roughly 1 hour outside of Banlung. It’s both (apparently) a commune and an indigenous group. We did not exactly learn much about the village as “tourism” is frequent but not formalized. Our guide, who we met milling rice before the trek, carried a machete and a bottle of tea the entire time, and occasionally pointed out objects of interest. The jungle, though not as awe-inspiring as my time in Malaysia, was still extremely enjoyable, and really hot (just wait until the last group photo, where you see my entire shirt soaked through). First, the obligatory cute animal picture from Tree Top:

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Let’s Explore #Ratanakiri, #Cambodia. Photos and Recap.

Warning: this post is long. We hired the tuk tuk driver for the day and explored a lot of the area’s offerings. Ratanakiri is a strange place with many strange things, and a quiet tourist culture very similar to Battambang. Before any crazy adventure, however, we needed to check out breakfast.

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The Road to #Ratanakiri, #Cambodia, is Long But Worth It

If you want to visit a region that’s unlike anywhere else in Cambodia, visit Ratanakiri. I imagine it’s what most of Laos looks like, though I haven’t been and I don’t really know. In a way, it reminds me of a little bit of northern Thailand, but with the dust and dirt Cambodia’s known for. We chose Ratanakiri not only because it’s hilly and supposedly cold (which we confirmed) as it’s a higher elevation than the rest of the country, but also because it is home to most of the indigenous groups and ethnic minorities in the country, and it’s also one of the most vulnerable locations for deforestation and rubber plantations in the country.

Though I eventually will write about concessions and the ecological damage being committed to the country through land exploitation, I’m not going to do it here, in my vacation post! What I will describe is what happened regarding transportation. I finally got the chance to see “real Cambodian transit.” And that’s the “minibus.” You see them all the time, jam-packed with Cambodians, who are packed in, 25-30 per bus, with some on the roof or hanging onto the back, motos attached and all that too, but never would we have dreamed of actually being in these contemporary clown cars. Thing about Kratie is, not many people go though it, and thus transportation options are limited. For us, we learned the night before that we’d be packed into a minibus. We requested, politely, to have our own row because these things are notoriously over-packed, but we didn’t really get that. Here’s the minibus before we got in, probably 60% full:

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Let’s Visit Kratie. Photos and Recap.

Kratie (pronounced “kraw-ches” with a silent “s”) is a province and “town” in “Northeast Cambodia” (it’s lumped into tha region, though it’s more of a central eastern province. Check out the map of the country and see for yourself. Anyway, for my last “major trip” of my time in Cambodia, I decided it would be a good region to visit. Originally I wanted to check out four provinces in five days, and while probably technically possible, I’m glad I stuck with two: Kratie and then Ratanakiri (posts on the latter coming soon). I had five days off due to more national holidays (do they ever end?). I went with friends Pinkie, Yenda, Eric, and Stephanie. It was diverse but really awesome travel group. Everybody seemed to get along and we really enjoyed our time. Anyway! We took the early bus the first day and it took quite a while to arrive (around 6 hours). But we made it. Kratie is known for its freshwater dolphins, which is really the only reason we went there. There were distant temples and an animal conservation center, and a huge island apparently delightful to visit, but we simply didn’t have enough time to do these activities, since we had to leave bright and early the next day. We did enjoy our time in this sleepy, sleepy town though. Let’s start with a picture of a puppy in Phnom Penh on the way to the bus station:

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Let’s Visit Koh Rong

I’m going to do some streamlining in this post and put all the Koh Rong pictures in one place. Usually I break up the galleries to be better managed, but in this day and age, it’s hard to tell if viewers prefer the batch or the bulk. As to this particular gallery, this past weekend I visited Koh Rong, an island off the coast of Cambodia, specifically off the coast of Sihanoukville, where I celebrated my friend Stephanie’s birthday with Stephanie, Andrea, Daen, and Emanuel.

Though I am still sunburned as I write this, and though I am missing the paradise that is island life, it’s safe to say the entire weekend was a joyful one. It wasn’t without its absurdities (like the very high number of puppy encounters we faced, and some of the sexpat and drunk and drug addict characters we stumbled across), and it was with its reminders that I will be gone from Cambodia very soon and will be missing an all new set of friends. First up, we have the girls: Daen, Stephanie, and Andrea (in the front).

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