Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Dispatch from Cambodia, 9 // So Much Reading

I’ve said many times that I don’t know what I expected this time in Cambodia to be like. It’s mostly true-- except for this sliver of me that did imagine it might be some kind of grand adventure. That I'd come to know Phnom Penh like the back of my hand, that I might rent a small room in the middle of the city and spend my days writing and walking and maybe even scooting around on a moto. That’s how imagined the two months after my parents left would go. 
Fear begets fear. Power begets power.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail 
It’s been almost the exact opposite. I’ve allowed myself to stay in the warm, occasionally-stifling care of my aunts. I now understand that one of the reasons I keep myself at a distance from family is to avoid absorbing all their worried energy. I love connecting with them and discovering all the things we have in common and learning about their lives, but the degree to which they worry about me is debilitating. I don’t feel like my best self when I’m infected with so much fear.

On the other hand, it’s also nice to have a time of quiet and routine. There's a satisfying rhythm to the process of washing dishes in the backyard, using the minimum amount of water necessary. I'm getting better at wringing out my clothes to hang-dry. Nightly lessons in Khmer have me reading almost at kindergarten level. I’ve a room in which to write, and a nice cafe nearby for occasional internet binges. 

In the last three weeks, I’ve read six books: the first four books in the Game of Thrones series (which at times feels like a train wreck I can’t tear my eyes away from), The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevarra, and Wild by Cheryl Strayed. The latter two are both good books about journeys. I related to each of them. I’ve never been able to bring myself to indulge in marginalia, but I am wont to write down passages from books that strike me, and I've gathered quite a few from each. 

The last book about writing I read said that sometimes reading is an escape from writing. Hm. I’ve read eight books so far during this trip, and after a one-day pause, I started on the ninth: The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin. But I am writing, which I can say for certain is one of the things I came here for. Soon after I arrived, Zen Pencils released "Air and light and time and space" and I remembered that there is always time for writing. As I veer closer and closer to my return to California and all that's waiting for me there, I'm holding that  thought close.
One of my writing spots at the farmhouse.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Dispatch from Cambodia, 8 // The Farmhouse

I rode a tuk-tuk the thirtyish kilometers from one aunt’s house to another’s, southward through the crowded streets of Phnom Penh to Setbo, a small town on the western bank of Tonle Bassac.
You can see me in the right-hand rear-view.
The six days went by more quickly than I expected and I was torn about whether to extend my stay or leave as I’d scheduled. I was enjoying the peaceful time with my aunt and uncle, their little dog, and the chickens that roamed about each day. I read The Motorcycle Diaries, got Khmer lessons from my uncle, wrote a bit, learned to make Khmer sticky-rice desserts, went on a few joy rides on the moto, and itched. My aunt told me stories about growing up in the area: how their house was right over the water, jumping from the porch to the river during the rainy season, getting whooped by my grandmother after sneaking out to play. It sounded not a little idyllic. We laughed a lot together.
The pup in the basket was not my idea. We were both a little terrified.
Banana trees at golden hour.
My uncle washing dishes by candlelight. The power goes out often, sometimes several times a day. 
So much lovely papaya.
One thing I’ve had to adjust to while spending time with family is having three square meals a day. I've had to abandon my usual routine of morning coffee followed by light grazing throughout the day. My aunts tell me in Khmer to “Eat large!” at nearly every meal, and more often than not I find a big scoop of rice or soup or fruit or something in front of me before I had a chance to protest. On my last full day, we went on a long tuk-tuk excursion to Phnom Saang and Tonle Bati via rough rice-paddy roads that left all of us sore, and I actually managed to convince my aunt to let me skip dinner (which she probably only agreed to because she herself was also feeling frighteningly full). 

Passing a duck farm between Phnom Saang and Tonle Bati.
I considered extending my stay, but I was being fed farmhand portions without the accompanying calorie-burning work, making me fear that my stomach would burst. Refusing food somehow feels akin to refusing love in a Khmer household, and I had accepted as much love as I could from my sweet-toothed aunt. So I ran off back to Phnom Penh, promising to make an effort to return before I leave Cambodia.

My last breakfast involved these two gorgeously orange-yolked fried eggs.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Dispatch from Cambodia, 7 // Used Books & Motorbikes

I plan to head to Vietnam by bus near the end of this month, so I sought out the used books stall on the top floor of the Sovanna Mall. I had only planned on getting perhaps two books, but of course by the end I had six books in hand, and finally walked away with four books for eight US dollars:
Obasan by Joy Kogawa
The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara
Eating Chinese Food Naked by Mei Ng
Asian Americans by Joann Lee
Oh, hello UCI.
The last time I traveled far from home for an extended period of time was in 2009. I spent most of that January in Canada, and snow kept me indoors instead of heat. I drank tea and wrote flash fiction daily. This time, I’m reading a lot, drinking packaged coffee, writing a little poetry, and by turns making my 2-year-old second-cousin cry and sing her A-B-C’s.

Today I leave for Setbo, where my grandparents are from. My grandmother and grandfather grew up on opposite sides of Tonle Bassac, I’m told, and both came from well-to-do families. When they married, the river was crowded with boats bearing gifts and fruit and fish.

The Bassac
I’ll be staying with another aunt, at the farmhouse where I learned to eat duck embryos last month. I look forward to even cooler breezes through the trees, bigger and more plentiful mosquitoes, and trying to ride my uncle-in-law’s motorbike less awkwardly.
My dad being my training wheels. My mom is off somewhere worried to death that I'll crash.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Thailand Excursion

In an attempt to find relief from the stifling heat of Phnom Penh in late December, my family decided to take a World Pop Tour to Thailand. 

Our tour guide had a soothing voice and some funny stories, and the daily meals and schedule were relatively well-coordinated, but beyond that, I was disappointed that we were taken mostly to tourist traps (including a swallow's nest outlet, leather dealer, and jewelry factory) rather than to any historical or cultural sites. We managed not to set foot in a single wat nor visit a floating market. It was an odd tour. I'm burned out on sitting in moving vehicles.
Bangkok sprawls.
Bangkok: The Los Angeles of Thailand?
My favorite part of the trip was the two hours we spent on a beach in Pattaya, swimming, drinking coconut juice, and watching a seemingly endless stream of jet skis and speedboats whiz around. It was incredibly smoggy, though, and made me long for Kampong Saom.
Apparently these coconuts are injected with flavorings.
At an "Orchid Resort" where we watched an elephant show that made me very sad for the elephants
Coconut as compensation for indignity.
On the way back to Cambodia, we stopped at a Tesco Lotus, what I gather is Thailand's version of Target/Walmart.
Everywhere is becoming just like everywhere else.
(Read The Machine StopsPaul Davis tweeted about the short story many weeks ago and I finally got around to reading it when I got to Cambodia.)

On the bright side, it was good to spend time with Khmers who currently live in Cambodia, France, Australia, and other parts of the US. Despite my recent increase in social awkwardness, I managed to have a few pleasant conversations by the end of the trip, and even got to talk with a Cambodian-born Aussie named Adam about being a writer.

And then, I became a happy hermit.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Dispatch from Cambodia, 5 // Olympic Stadium

My aunt speaks wistfully of the days when Olympic Stadium was surrounding by a vast field of grass, and the insides were shining and new, ten years before the Khmer Rouge took over the country. 

Phnom Penh is crowded, dusty, and traffic is chaotic, so it's been hard to muster motivation to explore. I'm not sure whether I would have visited this architectural must-see had I not been searching the internet for rock climbing in Cambodia and heard that a small bouldering wall had been installed here.
It's free to enter on foot, 1000 riel (about 25 cents) to enter with a car or motorbike. 
I spied the bouldering wall right as I walked to the stadium.

People walk or run round and round the field, up and down the stands, and inside.

People play soccer on the pavement outside the field; I suppose the grassy field inside is reserved for official games.
Along the upper walkway, various groups hold aerobics/dance sessions in the evening.

The wall gets a good breeze in January.
Trying out the holds.
Sunset atop the Stadium.
Be sure to pick up this carb-tastic sticky-rice/crepe/coconut dessert on your way out.