Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Glimpses, Stories, & Reflections

I’m on a bus in Cambodia, from the northeast town of Ban Lung to the south central city of Phnom Penh. It’s a 12-hour ride (if I’m lucky) and looks to be a very, VERY bumpy one. We’ve now traversed the bit from the northeast down to the "main road" and are now heading south. I’m realizing that I had somehow assumed this would be some sort of major roadway (i.e. highway-like), since we’re heading to a major city. I chuckle at myself now. Two months in SE Asia has not erased the conditioning and assumptions I acquired from living so many years in the U.S. Not only is this not a “main roadway,” there are often times when the road is, suddenly and temporarily, unpaved – with loads a potholes and massive amounts of dust (it is now dry season). Makes for difficulty sleeping or reading (my 2 favorite pastimes on a bus), so I thought I’d take this time to do some blogging. Lucky you! J

It occurred to me yesterday, as I was quietly trekking through the Cambodian countryside, that up to now my posts have been largely itinerary-based: filling you in my comings and goings and describing the places I’m seeing (complete with visual aids, of course). And while that was actually the original intent of my blog – to enable you to “travel along with me” – I’m realizing that there has been so much more to this journey than visiting a series of foreign and beautiful places. I’ve been writing some of my stories and impressions in my personal journal and would love to share some of them with you. So I’ll save the update on my travels from Laos to Cambodia for my next post and, instead, take some time now to muse a bit about my experiences and impressions thus far.

I’ve spent time in several small towns and have continuously marveled at how little these people have – how simply they live – and yet how absolutely happy they appear to be. In much of the countryside, houses do not have bathrooms or showers inside the houses (even though most of the guesthouses now have flush toilets). Their “kitchens” are open pit fires (sometimes inside, sometimes outside), with dishwashing facilities either in the nearby river or at the spigot (i.e. pipe) sticking out of the embankment on the side of the road. One day in Nong Kiew, Laos, as I walked back to town from seeing the caves, there was a young woman “showering” at said pipe. She washed herself while wearing her underclothes and then, when finished, had a very well-honed manner – using a sarong – to dry herself off, take off wet underclothes and put on dry clothes – all without baring any “private” parts. She seemed quite relaxed about it and, I imagine, she does this nearly every day. It was really quite something. Another afternoon, while sitting in a café above the river in the tiny town of Mung Ngoi, I watched an older woman (70 yrs, maybe?) disembark from a small boat and, before walking up the hill to town, step a little ways from the boat and squat down to take a pee, talking to her friend (behind her) the whole time. She was wearing the customary long ,wrap-around skirt and I saw that she had (the equivalent of) boxer shorts underneath. Even though there was no doubt what she was doing, as she squatted, her skirt effectively covered her lower body so that nothing was revealed. And, again, she (& others around her) seemed utterly nonplussed by the whole thing. Love it. Countless times I have watched children gleefully play together … running, laughing, creating something, riding bikes, etc.  They are often barefoot and absolutely filthy (by American standards, anyway) and are having the time of their lives. They know a few words in English – like “Hello!”, “bye-bye”, “how you?”) and are excited to shout out these phrases  -- and even more excited to get a response. As I walk past, their curious looks give way to huge smiles as soon as I smile and wave. Frequently, I pass a house and see a family sitting at their (generally outdoor) table, sharing a meal and laughing. The joy in this simple scene is so evident. They have so very little (again, this is based on Western standards) and yet happy. We could take a lesson from this.

These are all little glimpses of what I see nearly every day here. And as I witness these things and interact with people here I find my heart breaking open. I’m so endeared to them and so impressed by them. While they do indeed work hard, they also seem to put a high value on family time and spirituality, and therefore take time for these things every day, It’s a beautiful thing.

All that said, tourism and consumerism have definitely made their way here – and, hence, I have had a few incidents of, at best, harassing to, at worst, cheating/stealing. I don’t want nor need to describe these situations, but suffice it to say that I continue to walk the line of compassion and understanding coupled with a healthy does of caution.

Everywhere I turn there are many, many (did I say many?) dogs and cats. It’s nearly impossible to tell whether they have owners nor whether said “owners” would consider these animals their pets in any way similar to the way we Americans do. But somehow, some way, most of these animals find food (unless they don’t and, well, there are plenty of the those too). Dogs are truly street-smart. If a dog is not sound asleep in the middle of the street (a VERY common scene), he/she is clearly on a mission. Dogs cruise through town – often in two’s or three’s –with very determined looks on their faces. I often make up stories, like “those guys obviously are headed to meet a few buddies to go pick up on some bitches” or “she’s obviously headed to the market on the north side, where she heard there was some great food on the ground” etc. They’ll glance at me as they pass – like “don’t bug me, I know where I’m going (but, seriously, what’s up with the white skin and excessive height, dude?)” and move on quickly.

Must pause here for a little update: At this very minute we are going across a very high, narrow bridge, whose sides and surface I cannot see from where I sit. Sc-sc-scary! But I digress…. back to my stories.

Cats are different. They never move determinedly; rather, they stroll around (everywhere!) looking like they’re always scrounging for food. I’ve seen more than my share of emaciated cats & kittens – truly only skin & bones – meowing (bawling, really) continuously. It is absolutely heartbreaking. Even thinking about it gives my heart a tug. But, no matter what a cat looks like, I rarely can stop myself from bending down and giving all of them some loving scratches. They often shy away from at first and then most always lean into my rubs, purring loudly. If I sit down, they’ll often crawl into my lap, close their eyes and take it in. I doubt that they get that kind of attention from locals. Oh, how I’ve wanted to adopt so many cats while I’ve been here!

And before I leave this subject, one more anomalous tidbit about cats here …. ever since arriving in Don Dhet (one of the islands at the Laos/Cambodia border – see Jan 7 post), all the cats I’ve seen have (sort of) cut off tails. Actually, their tails are definitely shorter, but they're also kind of “lumpy.” It’s weird. I’m almost certain that it’s not natural and that something has been done to these cats. But a western couple (albeit extremely hippy and not firing on all cylinders, due to a teensy bit too much pot-smoking) who run one of the guesthouses there, insist that these cats are born this way. I highly doubt that. This strange feature continues, so far, in Cambodia. We’ll see if it continues in Phnom Penh.

As you may have gathered from my posts, I’ve met tons of people in my travels and have also traveled for several days with many of them. I meet people in cafes, on the street, in markets, on tours, in my (many) modes of transportation, at guesthouses, while hiking, in a restaurant… in short, everywhere. It’s easy… and natural. As soon as you’re in close proximity with another traveler (it’s pretty obvious here who’s a tourist and who’s not), you begin a conversation. You know, the usual: where are you from?, how long are you traveling?, where have you been?, where are you going?, any tips?, what did you pay for that?, etc. People want to talk, want to connect and it seems like the most natural thing in the world. And it makes me wonder: why don’t we do it at home? Why do we seldom even have eye contact with the people around us? These are not rhetorical questions; I’m really curious, as I’m guilty of same when I’m in the states. Just pondering.....

Well, I'm gonna wrap up this post now, as the bus is about to stop for lunch and I'm hungry! Hope you enjoyed some (slightly more detailed) glimpses of the things I've seen and experienced. I'll post this when I arrive in Phnom Penh.......

Um...oops. Here it is, now two days since I wrote the above post and I haven't published it yet! Got to PP and love the feel of this city so have been doing some heavy exploring for the last two days. I'll publish this now and will be back for my latest travel post in a couple days.

One little update before I go: Just as mysteriously as my camera stopped working, it started working again!! So I'm back in business. My next post will include many, many pics.

Until next time!

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