You snooze, you loose

Women with flowersThe wheels on the bus go round n’ round and so does the same Cambodian film showing on the tiny screen above the driver’s head but that doesn’t seem to deter the passengers (nor us) from watching and re-watching. Outside, the clouds are forming dark overbearing masses as a rainstorm prepares itself to shower the countryside just below. Grey streaks mark the sky where rain presently falls.  I look out behind the pastel blue plastic curtain into the vastness where life seems totally undisturbed by the quarter size droplets of rain and the thunder that roars in the background. It is part of life. C’est tout!

While gazing out my little window watching the scenery jump from one image to another incapable of capturing the beauty of the countryside with my digital camera, I feel frustration. I yearn for time to stop,  just to take in what lays before but the speed of the bus makes the images flash by quicker and quicker and my frustration grows greater and greater. That feeling of yearning is a familiar one, one that keeps me from being totally in the moment much like that old saying goes ”you snooze, you lose”. I notice how grasping mentally to one fleeting image I miss out on the next, it cuts my breath in half, my jaw contracts and my thoughts pick up momentum. I remind myself ”there is no need”. I surrender, letting the fast moving images pass before my eyes absorbing each one individually and then just simply letting them go. Much like one watches the mental screen of the mind during a ”sit”, unattached, totally present and fully absorbed.

The rain did its thing, and by the time we arrived in Siem Reap the sky had fully cleared leaving large puddles of muddy water where dozens of children splashed  happily. Capitol dropped us and its 30 or so other passengers off by the Central Market only to be greeted by hoards of tuk tuk drivers all fighting for the the right to transport us to any given guest-house for 2 USD. A frenzy, like sharks savagely fighting for the same small piece of raw meat. We opted for the uncle of Philippe’s new best friend that he met on the bus which infuriated the other drivers to no means.

We were tired and filthy. Arriving at the River Garden was blissful. Off the road well travelled and away from modern noise we recharged our batteries.  Every little thing was graced with gratitude and planted in the present moment. The simple fact of breathing the freshness of clean air (after PP), open space, being received by a  familiar face, Deb, the co-owner of the guest house whom we had met last December, a tastefully decorated room large enough to house 2 Cambodian families of 10 and the welcoming sound of frogs croaking from a tiny pond placed just in front of our doorway.  The best of all, a shower. It is humbling to know that the simplest things (for some they remain monumental) in life can bring such pleasure and happiness.

Siem Reap holds a special place in our hearts. Its is mystical and beyond words. It is more a feeling and therefore loses all essence through words.

MarketConfidently, we strolled down the semi-paved road lined with wooden huts and lingering fires containing large metal pots brewing traditional Khmer soup ”samlor” in every fashion. The last hut at the top of the road just before the park was occupied by an old Khmer who spoke a bit of  conversational French. We first met him back in December. He was sitting crossed legged in front of his humble home. His face was marked by years of experience, war, loss, poverty, sickness and memory but his eyes remained open and friendly . During our brief visit, he would disappear for long moments to care for his bed ridden wife. She had spent days that turned into months suffering from some unknown illness. With medication hard to come by she suffered in the presence of her husband. He took out of his pocket an empty vial of some kind of pain killer that a backpacker had graciously left him. We offered to make a trip to the local pharmacy in search of something similar. Unfortunately without a prescription we were only able to provide something equivalent to Tylenol. It didn’t matter to him. He was gracious for what we had to offer. Months had passed since that chaleureux visit on one hot humid day in Siem and life in Switzerland had regained its force but our thoughts were often with him, his wife, his little shack and his warm smile. Today, almost  7 months later, we were eager to see him but the door to his hut was closed and only a dim light shown through the lose wooden slats that separated his world from the world outside. We decided not to disturb him nor his family and vowed to return before leaving Siem.

Into the darkness we walked hand in hand with a determined pace along the Siem Reap River until the lights of the city paved the way to Psar Chas, the Old Market, where restaurants and tuk tuk lined the crowded streets. We shared a delicious dinner of banana flower salad, shrimp curry, a Singha beer or two and some of the best home-made ice cream in the world from Pumpkins, ginger sesame, lime citronella sorbet and good old chocolate mint for Noa. With nightmares a thing of the past I finally slept a peacefuly night.

The local, local bus

Local bus Capitol, the name of the local local bus, leaves every day at 7h30, 8h30 and 11h30 from the Central Market. Luckily, our fantastic suitcases could be instantly transformed into comfortable backpacks making mobility a bit easier. We hopped on the crowed bus, quite rudimentary but luxurious as it had a TV just above the driver’s head. I silently prayed that he had seen the film a 100 times and was more interested in the road than the beautiful Cambodians dancing about. The seats were covered in a cheap plastic of various shades of blue and red but had the amazing ability to fold back into a semi reclining position which made sleep come easily. BA, Air France, AA and the rest of the airline companies could learn something about the importance of comfort for their passengers! The ride was quite painless. Three hours of occasional bumps, endless open fields of emerald green rice paddies, stilted makeshift huts of bamboo and palm, lots of horn honking and cell phone ringing. We overtook tuk tuks, water bulls pulling wooden carts, hoards of bicycles, Lexus, lots of motor cycles and vespas and even a few stray dogs.

The bus dropped us off on the main strip of Kompong Thom which runs through the town and continues on to Siem Reap. During the mid-70’s, this road was severed by heavy bombing in-order to eradicate all contact and mobility between Siem and PP. Surprisingly, we were the only passengers that descended from the bus, which one might consider as not such a good sign. Kampong Thum, is well, sans intérêt to say the least. Off the main-strip, there are a few unpaved roads cluttered with trash, an outside food market, a school or two, 2 enormous trees housing thousands of gigantic oversized bats, a few restaurants and two hotels. Zero charm and super eery especially as we were the ONLY tourists at that particular moment. All eyes were on us especially Noa and in fact his  popularity sky rocketed making him the most intriguing girl/boy (they couldn’t quite make him out) in town. Even the mosquitos loved him!

Hot and overly spent, we found a hotel for 8USD a night. We were their ONLY guests in this huge concrete block which made the experience even more bizarre. Within 15 minutes we had ”done” the town and searched for a restaurant. On a small side street we found Larry, an American living in PP commuting every weekend to oversee his café serving 12 or so items varying  from traditional amok to pizza which all needs to be pre-ordered hours in advance.  Larry’s wife wrote down the ingredients for our order. We made it simple- 3 steamed rice and Khmer curry with fish. Different then anything that we had ever had. A fusion between Indian and Khmer with the sweet taste of licorice. Supposedly, this recipe had been passed down from her great great great grandmother from some faraway village.

Woman with girlAs the sun made its descent, dusk fell quickly upon Kompong Thom creating a soft attractive glow. Groups of elderly women all dressed in boxy button-down pajamas set out on foot for their evening exercise. Marching with synchronized short determined steps their arms swayed exaggeratedly along their sides casting obscure shadows on the cracked pavement below. They innocently giggled as our gaze caught theirs but continued without wavering. Little did we know but these boxy button-down pajamas either in brightly colored prints of well known icons (Mickey Mouse, Spiderman, Tintin) or the poke-a-dotted ones in flowery pastels had become a real fashion statement here in Kompong Thom. From the very young to the respected old, at 10h00, midday or for their evening walk everyone was dressed in these stylish ensembles. It appeared that the only criteria in making them a true fashion statement was that the top and the bottom HAD to match. I hesitated on buying an ensemble but realized that Philippe and Noa would have certainly left me to die in Kompong Thom, not really the place that I wanted to be.

We must say that that night was far from enjoyable. Our 8$ room was worth no more than 2$. Actually, I think that it would have been more appropriate if they would have paid us to stay there! A square with no window and no air, we felt like we had been buried alive. The night was suffocating, uncomfortable, a bit scary with strange noises, calls of geckos and howls of dogs. I wished that I had now agreed for the upgraded room (10 USD) with air-con. We might have slept in bits but no more than 92 minutes total. All we could think of was morning.

Lia hai

Sua s’dei!

Not quite sure what day of the week it is as the hours and even seconds seem to melt into one another creating experiences that are beyond time. Up too early to mention with the ritual gong of metal pots awakening the monks for their morning prayers, my mind spins with thoughts of the girls. We leave today and I feel torn. This short time with them has changed us all and we yearn for it to last. As Noa continues to sleep silently by my side and Phiippe stirring from my restlessness, I slip from under the single sheet, dress quickly, and descend the steep spiral staircase in search of Arun, by all means the nicest and most humble of our hosts- a replica of a Buddhist monk without the orange robe. He greets me with the traditional ”sua sdei”, hands pressed together in prayer in front of the heart.

By bicycleThe rest of the world appears to be in deep slumber until I make my way out onto the large avenue Norodom Blvd via tuk tuk. Pi, the tuk tuk driver who calls me ”my friend” swiftly maneuvers his rusty vehicle through the insane early morning traffic reaching Transitional Cambodia  just before 7-am. Jaya and a handful of the girls greet me at the entrance, eager for a hug and to show me their rooms. Unlike the other shelters that we spent time in, Transitional Cambodia was simple but spotless. Three to a tiny room, each with their own shelf for their personal possessions and the luxury of a toilet!  They have a full schedule of cleaning their space, Khmer and English classes as well as computer and arts and crafts. The girls each have their own yoga mat and a sacred space with pictures of yoga positions pasted on the wall. They learn to develop curiosity, independence and responsibility in hopes that one day they will be able to care for themselves without the risk of returning to drugs and prostitution. N.Y, C.T, D.C, (names are concealed for protection), and Dara are seriously  interested in continuing their yoga studies and hope to teach in their spare hours. For this, we would like to develop a sponsorship program for teaching yoga. I had tears and a torn heart saying good-bye to these angels.

Gril of Cambodia

Sandwiched between Jaya and Dara, we spun through the crowded streets on Dara’s motor cycle (a first in a long time). Thankfully Dara’s long black silky hair waved wildly in my face keeping me from seeing and wanting to control the craziness ahead. Between honks and touts, I listened to Jaya’s  ”story” of her early life and that of some of the girls.. We parted with a few tears and promised to keep in touch ”lia hai, lia hai”.

Philippe and Noa were upstairs on the terrace savouring hot ginger tea, sweet banana pancakes, exotic fruit salad and lemon mint ice shakes. I arrived just in time for the best (well one of the best) meals of the day! Isabelle and Dara met us for the feast while sharing some last minute ideas for future work with us and the girls. We were sad to say good bye but had a bus to catch and an adventurous one at that.