Hope For the Guest

If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive, do you think ghosts will do it after?


November 2015

Hospitality On The Edge Of The Jungle

_DSC3265“Oh no, chili…” all three of the guides were looking at my hands. They had just asked me to put some red chili’s into the bamboo we were using to cook lunch in, I had chili all over my hands. It was a little alarming seeing the worry in their eyes, they immediately washed my hands with a long tube of bamboo they had just cut to carry water from the river. I didn’t know there was any problem with getting chili juice or seeds on my hands and I wondered what the problem was. It stung a little bit when it touched the little cuts on my hands from the first day and night in the jungle but it wasn’t a big deal.

I’ve spent a lot of time while traveling just being confused and wondering what people were saying or why they were reacting in the ways they were. I’ve spent most of my time with people in groups that English was not the dominant language so I would be lucky to have the courtesy of having the group use a language that didn’t come as naturally just so I would understand. Many times I just try to listen intently to pick up little things I understand, a word that had a parallel in English or body language  that explained the kind of interaction taking place. It doesn’t always help much. This time however I began to understand what the alarm with the chili was all about rather easily, it took about half an hour to start seeing my skin go red anywhere that I had touched after touching the chili’s, an hour after It was burning to the point where I was worried I was having an allergic reaction that would close my airway. It was hard to think the feeling of heat and pain was very consuming of my attention. I ate lunch but I couldn’t tell if I was full or if the food was spicy, it was hard to be aware of things so subtle compared to the weird burning on my stomach, hands, and side.

It subsided everywhere except my hands by the time we crossed the river and headed for the home stay. The pain grew until I lost feeling in my fingers even though there was no visible sign of injury, even the redness was gone. It wasn’t horrible, it hurt but it didn’t seem like it was causing any lasting damage so I could try to ignore it without letting myself be scared.
When we arrived at the home stay the guide who had taken a liking to me put his arm around me and led me over to one of the little huts on stilts ” Me, you sleep here tonight” he said with apparent relish of the idea. I was confused why he would want to sleep just him and I in the bungalow. He had been handsy with me the whole trek but not in an uncomfortable way, it was just an uninhibited way. The way I’d imagine guys would touch each other back home if there wasn’t so much fear of appearing gay or un-masculine. Even when he introduced himself he just held onto my hand gently and looked at me in such a genuine way, he didn’t seem to feel any awkwardness about it. I really hoped it was just in a buddy sort of way, I think its a shame that touch between guys back home has to only be in “manly” ways like patting someone on the back or giving a firm handshake. This little native we called Mowgli seemed more a man than most of the people back home while still touching gently and staring unabashed. Its hard  not to enjoy seeing someone so free.

The families compound had one big building with a raised eating and sleeping area and a ground level area for a couple motorbikes and the tools a family living on the edge of the jungle would need. They gave us a few hours to relax, swim in the river and get settled before dinner was served. We were ushered onto the raised platform to join the family there, there were people of all ages sitting around bowls of rice or tucked away behind the eating area so they could watch and listen to the evenings events. I sat closest to the father of the family and his wife, if there were a table they would be sitting at the head of it. I took several bites before eating something very spicy and not being able to eat for 10 minutes, no one else seemed to run into any spice at all in the meal. It was a simple meal of rice and a sort of pork stew. I finished my first bowl after bearing through the spice only to have Mowgli and the women around me peer pressure me into more. “More rice, enjoy” they kept repeating. We had joined with another tour group for the evening and one of the guys spoke Khmer. He was gracious enough to translate some of the conversation and give some background.

He told me that when the Khmer family that he lived with had someone over for dinner they would comment not on the quality of the conversation  but on how much rice they ate, he said it was like a sign of the amount that they enjoyed their stay. It had a greater meaning than simply enjoying the food. I decided since I did not have the words to say I enjoyed their company or the experience I would eat a lot of rice. Some of the group  had bought beer from the  shop a couple kilometers away and most of us had a beer with the food. I took a beer but noticed the father of the family didn’t have one so I gave him mine, he naturally tried to give it back but I insisted he should have it. I really didn’t know if it was polite or pushy to give him something that he may or may not enjoy but in those situations I usually figure its safer to try and offer a gift even if its unclear whether or not its the right kind of gift.

Pretty soon the famous rice wine was brought out in a large ceramic jug with a long wooden straw in it. Mowgli put his arm around me and explained that we would drink together, we would each have one cup of rice wine. It sounded like a lot to me, the only kind of rice wine I had before that evening was said to be 60 percent alcohol and was sold like moonshine in old plastic water bottles. He took the straw and drank as long as he could before handing it to me. I drank and found it to be less intense than the rice wine I had tried before, it had a vinegar sort of taste. It was not an unpleasant flavor. We drank a long time, each time we stopped someone would say “One more cup” and we would try to drink what seemed like a cup. We finally passed it on to the next pair for them to enjoy.

I learned some very interesting things while we all sat around chatting, drinking and laughing. I learned that the frog I had eaten the night before was poisonous and one of the guides was nearly blind in one eye after catching a frog that squirted its poison into that eye, I really need to be more careful with what I touch. I also learned that the buddy culture is very intense in Cambodia, guys can be very close and they aren’t afraid to show it physically. They hug and walk with their arms around each other, they sleep in the same bed and its all very normal. I was relieved to hear this since Mowgli had been reassuring me throughout the whole evening that he would come to sleep with me that evening in my bamboo hut.

Finally the festivities started to slow down as a few people drifted off to bed, it was still early but Cambodians seem to get up early and go to bed shortly after dark so it was getting late by their standards. I was getting a little worried that I would not feel very good in the morning if I continued to drink, I didn’t realize then but the longer you drink out of the jug the weaker the solution gets. They pour water in and that mixes with the alcohol already in the jug so after a while its mostly water.
Mowgli brought another bowl of rice and one more bowl of stew for the few still left chatting. We ate more rice together, and I was told that Mowgli was explaining how much he enjoyed drinking and being with everyone. He seemed so content, it didn’t look like he required many things to feel happy. I enjoyed watching the men talk and eat chunks of rice as we sat in a close circle together. I was very hesitant to go to bed after such a lovely evening but I finally stood up and said goodnight and thanked everyone for the evening. I was expecting Mowgli to come with me but he stayed and in a few minutes I was laying in bed wondering how I could possible consume so much rice in one day._DSC3391

BBQ Frog and Rice Wine

_DSC3239’13, 14, 15, good luck’ I whispered to myself as I turned and tried to catch up to the light that was already out of sight. I was near the back of the group and the ranger just behind me had stopped to take a call on his little red cell phone, by the time I noticed he wasn’t right behind me he was only visible by the glow of his phone’s screen. My tour group had been hurrying to get to that nights camp  for an hour, ever since it started to get dark. We were suppose to be at camp before it got dark but plans change and this time it meant that our jungle guide had lost his phones and had to run back to find it, it took him nearly two hours. At the time I didn’t know it would mean we would have to traverse the last hour and a half in darkness.  When the ranger stopped behind me I knew that if I waited for him too long I would not be able to find the group, the path we were following was too faint and they were walking at a fast pace. I counted to 15 and went on hoping that the ranger knew what he was doing.

The trail that day was sometimes only a trail after we walked through it, the ranger in front slashed a path and our feet flattened the undergrowth. I was confident that on my own I could not find my way, the guides knew what they were doing but even they occasionally went the wrong way. They would say “Back.” and we’d all turn around until they found the correct way forward. The jungle was thick and even the trails we did find were made for the smaller native people. It had only gotten more difficult when darkness fell, everything seemed to loom closer and it would have been easy to feel claustrophobic. Once I finally saw the headlamp of one of the people in my group bobbing and disappearing behind trees ahead of me I was relieved.

Walking into camp was beautiful, another group had arrived first so there were cooking fires already lighting the circled humans. People were talking and preparing food, it was so familiar. It was like meeting someone I was friends with as a kid but haven’t seen in years. It was such a human feeling to walk in and take a seat by the fire. I usually have some difficulty relaxing in a group of people but I felt at home immediately. It wasn’t long before I found my place gathering some firewood and than hunting frogs. The guides had a fishing net in the stream next to camp and they managed to catch four or five small fish. I was hearing frogs close by so I wanted to try and contribute to dinner. I managed to track three frogs down by their chirps and I caught two. I brought them to the guide to ask if they were good to eat. “Ohh, good job. Yes barbecue”, the guide seemed excited. He immediately killed one frog by hitting its head against a rock and than threw it into the coals where it started jumping around as if  it were still alive. Despite catching numerous frogs through my childhood I hadn’t ever eaten a frog, but before they were done the guide pulled them off so the rest of the meal could be cooked.

_DSC3273By the time dinner was ready everyone seemed to be very ready to eat. It felt so satisfying to sit down together after a little bit of shared challenge from the days long hike. I don’t know any better meal than after a long days work, around a fire, and with a good group of people. Rice wine was served in the local custom, using one cup and passing it around the circle. I finished the frogs but I still don’t know what frog tastes like, my taste was numbed by the spicy food and hard alcohol. The texture was about all I could notice.
“My friend, more rice, enjoy.” one of the rangers told me, he seemed to have taken a liking to me. He was very devoted to helping me to eat as much rice as I could possible stomach.

As everyone started to climb into their hammocks the guides and rangers gathered into a circle to eat the fish they had caught, it was only 9pm but it was feeling much later. It was easy to see that they had done this kind of thing many times before, most of them lived in only a few miles away and the majority  were from ethnic groups of a thousand individuals or less, people that had a long heritage of jungle living that is still being passed on. It was a pleasure to see them finish cooking the fish and prepare a sauce out of green onions, chili’s and some soy sauce. It was all done like people back home use a microwave or lock the front door.

“Eat rice with me?” one of the rangers asked. It was how they asked if I wanted to eat with them, saying eat rice seemed to be the same as saying eat food. None of them seemed to like wearing pants or shirts when they weren’t trekking and I was still in my underwear from swimming  before dinner so we all squatted around the plate of fish, passing rice wine and I listened to them chat in Khmer. I didn’t know what was going on but I felt honored to share the meal with them.

I was starting to yawn after the meal so I said goodnight and found my way to my hammock.I was so thankful for the days events and so excited for the coming day, I heard myself wishing I had more nights like this one. It made me realize that I had no real reason to not spend every night like that.When I curled up in my hammock I was very full, full of gratitude and rice wine, full of questions and of happiness that was so happy it was almost sadness. It was the fullest I’ve felt in a long time.


The Most Honest Story I Can Tell

_DSC2823I’m depressed, but to say I’m broken would not be the right word to use.

Yes waking up some mornings feels a lot like lifting a very heavy blanket over my head long enough to see that I’m not still in the nightmarish dreamscape my mind  fabricates when I close my eyes long enough to dream. Most nights my mind creates a problem that at first seems solvable, I gravitate towards fixing problems in my waking life so naturally I try to fix this problem. It doesn’t work, I get closer and it gets more complex, I  It’s like the classic dream where you try to run but you can’t ever run fast enough no matter how quickly you move your feet, except for me it’s with any problem that relates to my real life worries. It’s usually a general anxiety not necessarily the problem that was at the forefront of my mind when I fell asleep. One of the worst things about my dreams is they often involve gruesome violence. Some bad entity or group is trying to hurt or kill people I’m trying to protect, I don’t usually see the violence they commit, I just see what I do to them. Somehow my mind creates scenes nothing like anything I’ve seen. Sometimes I get quite close to defeating the problem or “bad guys” but then I wake up before a resolution. I wake up just before I know if I live or die.

Its this world that I wake from each morning, somehow it’s still hard to wake up, I often wonder why I don’t jump out of bed as soon as I’m free from sleep. It’s so normal that I usually don’t even remember the dreams, I just keep the feeling of helplessness. I lay in bed wondering if I should try standing up, or drinking some water. I wonder and wonder just to stall, it should be an easy choice, like 1 2 3. Open eyes, drink water, dress and go out for breakfast. But to think of it as easy is to forget the challenges already faced just to get into the waking world.

It is so easy to feel weak when getting out of bed is so hard.
When the easiest of actions become such real struggles it is easy to stay in doors. Some days the idea of smiling at a stranger or crossing the street feel miles away and between me and them is a haze I can barely see through. Even small steps are in themselves long journeys, journeys without life in them. The spirit is dulled and hidden until the reasons for the most basic functions of life are unclear. Why eat, or go for a walk do or do anything when nothing seems to produce results. It was just a dream and the feeling is just the depression talking, I know it and I tell myself it’s not true. I try to convince myself that it will be worth the effort of opening my door but I can’t feel it. I have an amazing ability to know something is true without believing it. I just can’t feel the reasons when I’m looking through the tinted window that makes everything a darker version of reality. 

But I do get out of bed, I do walk out my door and I do find reasons to enjoy my life.
It is not unconquerable and I am lucky to have a manageable depression, I know there are some people whose brains are filled to the brim and they cannot get out of bed despite their undoubtedly powerful will. I can get out of bed with some specialized tools, so I am lucky. I am not stronger or weaker because I struggle with depression. My tombstone won’t have the word  “Depression” anywhere on it. Maybe it will be there despite my best efforts, and if that is the case it won’t say anything about my character. Depression has nothing to do with strength or willpower.

Depression is not sadness, I’ve heard it used as a synonym for depression many times but to confuse the two is like saying it’s raining when in fact it’s snowing. They both might be kinds of weather, and might have to do with similar elements but if you bring an umbrella outside to protect from the blizzard it’s unlikely that it will keep you warm. If I try to think of something happy it will only feel hollow, if I try to listen to my favorite song I might not have the patience to hear it, if I try to meet up with a group of friends I may just feel alone and unable to engage. It takes much cleverer tricks to turn my depression towards the door. It doesn’t listen to logic and “trying” to be happy is as useless as trying to eat without moving my mouth. So I slowly turn the tides with the only part of my mind that works pretty much the same whether I’m feeling depressed or not: my logical mind. It’s true that depression doesn’t listen to logic, I can’t say “Hey be happy because your life is easy and you have everything a person could want” but I can do little things that I know in my logical brain will help me feel better over time.

There are six things that seem to help me, I didn’t discover them on my own. Its part of a program called TLC (Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes), it’s a very generic name and the elements are just as generic. Sleep, light exposure, social support, omega 3 fatty acids, exercise, and anti rumination strategies. It is these six things that make up the majority of my daily maintenance.

I sleep enough, walk everyday, endure the blistering SE Asian sun, eat a varied diet, think too much, and spend too much time alone. I don’t think there is a problem with taking stronger drugs for depression but for myself I’d prefer to avoid it if I can. My plan does not cure anything and I don’t know of any other plan that cures depression, some things can’t be cured. I feel like our culture hates the idea of incurable things, the idea of always having to maintain a certain state sounds like so much work. I’ve read that the ancient Mayans believed that they were already living in heaven and all they had to do was maintain it with rituals and by appreciating their beautiful present heaven. I think there is something excellent in the idea of continual maintenance.

Some things cannot be driven away, for this reason I search for ways to use my depression and ways for it to make me stronger. It’s hard to find anything that’s worth a second of appreciation but there are a few small things. One is that it creates some strange drive for the highs to be as extreme as the lows, feeling alright is no consolation for feeling horrible. Another is that depression makes learning about happiness essential to ever feeling happiness.  When I’m in a dark hole I need to know myself well enough to know which way is up, that knowledge in turn will allow me to create a vibrant life that suits me better than if I never needed to learn what suits me. There are a lot of ways to look at problems, that still doesn’t mean they aren’t problems.

I hate when a depressed person is seen as a weak person, the idea that I have some deep brokenness is like poison to me and I won’t swallow it.
When its I’m not incapable because I deal with depression. I have plenty of weaknesses, depression is one of them and that is too normal to be called broken.  It’s too dangerous to think of myself as broken, it may lead to all sorts of lowered standards. It might even lead to self loathing.
I’ll keep my standards, thank you very much, they are what keep me moving forward. If I lost my willpower I would spend every day in bed until I melted away completely.

My standards aren’t outrageous, they are simple. I give each day a fair try, I rate my achievements on their own scale and my efforts on that same scale. If I want to stay in bed all day I at least leave the house once, even if it’s just for a few minutes. I might feel inclined to go for a proper walk after that and if I don’t that is okay, I can’t learn to like myself if  I continually demand unreasonable acts from myself.
I build on my achievements in steps, writing a word becomes writing a paragraph and that often becomes a whole story. I don’t start by demanding a story when writing a single word already looks like a wide moat to cross. In this way I eat away at my depressions ability to control my every action.

However, even with every effort I make their are still days that go from bright to dark without time to dig my heels in. After  days or weeks of feeling alright through careful effort and planning there is one inexplicable hitch and the plan goes south, it’s an infuriating feeling watching all the meticulous work go away without any way of holding onto it The only way forward is starting from scratch, and sometimes it takes a few days in the dumps for me to raise the effort to force the first small actions in the happiness plan. It’s a heart sinking feeling and it happens rather often, it hasn’t gotten easier and the only thing that makes it any easier is to learn from it each time so that maybe I can prolong the periods of time spent in happiness.

I’ve tried to fashion a life with excitement, full of the kinds of things I enjoy most and with room enough so I don’t  feel forced into situations that I won’t be able to sustain. I struggle most with social situations when I’m depressed, in some areas of life I can function almost normally when I’m feeling depressed  but when it comes to engaging with people it is very difficult for me. The idea of talking to strangers or groups of people when I’m not feeling happy is terrifying. When I’m forced to I don’t even appear the same person, I don’t speak confidently, I can’t remember what I’m saying, and I usually get a headache from the stress. I can do physical tasks okay but my ability to focus for long periods of time or sustain motivation is diminished. I’ve learned a lot about myself since I’ve been studying my depression. I’ve learned to plan social occasions ahead of time so I have something to look forward to and because when I need a friend it may be too late to make plans. I’ve learned to find hobbies and to quit jobs when they start eroding my spirit. I practice something everyday, I might be imperceptibly closer to my goals each day but it helps keep my motivation when I feel some forward momentum.

I’m traveling because it is the easiest way for me to follow myself. Maybe other people don’t need to know themselves because they are content but I’m not content. I need to learn who I am so I can find the place where I fit. My search is a profoundly needed journey and it is so hard for me not to stagnate at home. I see new places everyday while I’m traveling, I try new food and walk new streets. I have all the choices and barely any of the influences of home, I can explore the things that I think I might like. I don’t have to compromise for the sake of the people around me. I’m not lost, I’m not aimlessly drifting. Traveling is a way for me to explore my interests freely and thoroughly. It is intentional and planned, I’m purposefully moving towards a goal and traveling is the way I’m choosing to represent that journey.

“No journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within” Quote from House of Darkness House of Light.

I’m ten thousand miles from home and that much closer to my internal destination.

The Boy That Woke Early

Once there was a boy with a normal life. For awhile everything continued on its normal course, he grew older in a regular way, he found work to do and people to live close to. It was a reasonable life and he didn’t want for anything. A million lives he could live passing by like cars in the night. It didn’t occur to him that these could be his. He wasn’t oblivious, in fact he was clever and resourceful. Its just that he was busy so his awareness went into his friends, family and work. Usually he felt as if a movie after a long day of work was life enough for him, movies were so realistic after all and he needed to rest his tired brain.

He woke up early with enough time to eat and get to work but there was no excess. He liked it that way, and over the years he had found it was easier if he had an efficient routine. He enjoyed his coffee and the talkative radio hosts. It wasn’t hard to get lost in work and by the time he got to bed in the evening he felt thoroughly spent. Nothing was wrong and he had no complaints.

One morning he woke before everyone else but before he fell back to sleep like he had always done in the past he heard a strange sound. It wasn’t his alarm like he was used to, he had been woken up by his alarm every morning that week. As far as he could remember the whole month was the same. He was so surprised that he stood up, pulled on his carpet slippers and walked into the kitchen where the sound seemed to be coming from. But when he reached the kitchen it seemed to be coming from somewhere further away, he followed the sound out onto the street. Normally he would have been far too self conscious to walk out to the street without his work costume, or at least his leisure wear but the sound was rattling at a piece of his mind that he wasn’t normally aware of. It was reminding him of something he heard a long time ago, long before he donned a suit and tie, something he had heard even before being given his first phone. As he stood in the street looking around for the source of the noise he suddenly heard it, it was silence. But more than silence, it was space, like an emptiness that wasn’t filled yet. A piece of time without needs, or desires. He heard this space like a sound even though it had no physical presence, it was so blaringly loud to this man because it was so foreign to him. It was like seeing the one frame in color in the entire black and white film. A moment was before him, unplanned, no routine to guide him and all 360 degrees of choice were within his grasp like he hadn’t felt in years. He didn’t Have to do anything, he Could do anything.

He stood in silence unsure of how to act. He took in his surroundings like he hadn’t done since he was much younger, he spotted what he was looking for: a good climbing tree. He was just about to take the four long strides to the tree when he heard his alarm go off in the distant room. It snapped him out of his reverie as if he had woken up a second time, only this time it was to a very familiar life. He knew he would be late if he didn’t return indoors.

He walked back inside to make his cup of coffee and fry two eggs in the fifteen minutes he always planned for breakfast before work. The moment he had experienced minutes before was lost in the routine, its impact dulled until it was only a flea holding on for dear life.
Even A flea can cause quite an impact on the right animals skin.

Maybe it was the tiny moment still holding onto the back of his mind or maybe it was just a random choice among the multitude of any persons day, whatever it was, he chose to go a different way to work that way. He was ten minutes late to work that morning, he had stopped on the tallest hill between him and his work to watch the sky change colors.
No one noticed he arrived to work late and no one noticed the difference in his eyes.
The real beginnings are rarely noticed.

At The War Museum

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“They call me Cat man, I’ve died 13 times but I’m still here.” I thought I misunderstood him but he went on to tell each story. He stepped on landmines, got shot several times, stood too close behind a rocket launcher, and had his heart stop during the surgeries to get the shrapnel out. He showed each scar and laughed at how he was lucky that the wound on his thigh wasn’t 5 inches to the right. I looked at it all and listened with a strange feeling of shock, not the kind of shock when something happens suddenly. It was an eerie curiosity as to how anyone could talk about such tragedy the way Cat man was talking about the Khmer Rouge and his own tragedies through the war.

Cambodia has evoked many emotions in me in the week I’ve been here and I have the feeling that its not done with me yet. Wandering through the war Museum in Siam Reap with Cat man telling horrific stories of things he had live through made it hard to ignore the feeling of quiet terror that people can do such horrible things to each other. I don’t try to ignore the reality of death, suffering and grief, especially here in Cambodia but even so there are so many kinds of pain I know nothing about. A story about a distant land doesn’t feel like seeing a person who has lived through it while standing in the place where it happened. Despite America being involved in wars my whole life I have not seen war, its easy to be insulated from the degree of cultural pain that war creates when my only reference to it is knowing a few US military veterans and a few stories of their experiences.
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Cat man led my group to a great hunk of metal that used to be a war vehicle. “I had friend, he died in that.” I assumed he was saying his friend died in a machine Like that one. “Look there, that’s his shoe, and over there is his femur.” I couldn’t see inside at first but I could see the faces of the other people in my group. It wasn’t surprise on their faces, their faces said ‘what the fuck, Why would his bones still be there? How could that machine be here? How is this in a museum?’ It was bizarre and it explained something that was hard for me to see. The suffering happened here, to these people, very recently. Seeing that mans leg bone still in the vehicle he died in showed me how real it is, not was, it didn’t happen in the past or in the jungle miles from town. During his talk about landmines Cat man told us that someone had died at 9am that morning from a landmine, he told us that every week people die from landmines. Not in the war years ago but today in 2015 people die from landmines still all over Cambodia.
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“I hope it doesn’t happen again” an older woman said to our guide after the end of the tour. It felt like a cruel separation and such an insensitive thing to say, I didn’t blame her for saying it like I wouldn’t say the same thing just to say something. What can you possible say after looking at a wall full of pictures of children crippled by landmines?
How can you show sympathy for someone with one leg and one eye when you have been well fed and safe your whole life?
I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing.

White People “Problems”

_DSC2392 (2)“Its expensive, sometimes I can only eat twice in a day” I felt how wrong my words were before they had even finished leaving my mouth but like a train trying to stop before the broken bridge ahead they still tumbled out of my mouth. I felt like such a pretentious asshole, eating only twice in a day was seen as leaving meagerly back home. I don’t even see that as hard, but for me to say that to a man that had just told me he had 13 dollars left each month after supporting his parents and five family members that live with him seemed cruel.

The conversation started after I booked a tour to see Angkor Wat, before I knew I was learning the kind of details I am very curious to know but don’t usually feel like I can ask about. He told me his nickname is “Mr. Badboy”, he works from 7am-9:30pm every day. When he said everyday he means he works every day, there is no weekend, no time off. His fathers motorbike is broken and he hasn’t had enough time for a month to fix it. He supports his family with a ferocious work ethic.

“How do you eat when you run out of money?” I asked. “I drink a lot of water.” he answered with a laugh. He then went on to explain to me how sorry he feels for people who can’t work. He see’s the beggars without arms or legs from the mines here in Cambodia and he gives them what help he can, he values his own ability to provide for himself and his family. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself, for him he is lucky to be capable of caring for his parents and the rest of his family. At 25 Mr. Badboy has a huge sense of responsibility, his family depends on him, he uses more strength for his family than most people I know use on everything in their life.
He might have 13 dollars a month for his own food but he is willing to give some of that away to those less fortunate than he is. 13 dollars, I’ve spent close to 13 dollars a day on food for more than two months. A meal at a restaurant here would cost about a dollar for something simple.

“You know about the refugees? in Europe.” “I see them and I cry, its so sad they have to leave their home” He told me all this after explaining to me the hardships of his own life. He went on to tell me how his girlfriend is from Japan and she doesn’t visit very often, they only talk over the internet and he has so little time because of work. He told me how they might only see each other once a year. Every morning they send each other a message to start their day with, sometimes she can call during the day and they might get to chat at night for half an hour. He said its hard and he misses her but he’s happy that he can talk so much with her. I was amazed by each story he told, he piled high his hardships so that I couldn’t even see mine anymore. He went further and tried to bury his own in the stories of other peoples struggles that exceeded his own. I know it is not good to compare struggles when it disregards the experience of the individual but the comparisons are so useful to help me appreciate my life and feel more compassion for the other people of this world. There are billions of struggles on earth, probably more and it is amazing to me that some people can have such compassion for others when their only food that day was a few liters of water.

So when I said to this force of nature that I sometimes can’t eat more than twice a day I showed to myself that nothing I could say could compare my struggles to his. That is okay, its good even but it is a powerful lesson. Some problems are not problems, some struggles are not struggles but when your life is easy the hardest easy things in your life are called “struggles”.
I won’t say my life isn’t hard, it is hard sometimes but even I ever start to feel sorry for myself feel free to remind me of Mr. Badboy.

Pity Party

_DSC1859“3 for 1 dollar, its a good price” She told me as I tried to walk by her. I looked down and saw she had 10 bracelets tied around a section of bamboo, it was undoubtedly her way of helping her and her family eat. Her eyes seemed so big and I think she knew how easily I could pity her. She held her bracelets out and made her face into a pleading expression, I considered giving her money even though I didn’t want what she was selling. I could feel my instincts reaching out, so many parts of me wanted to help her. She was too young, she didn’t even have shoes, how could I not give her a tiny portion of the wealth I was born into. I didn’t give her anything but my attempt at a smile.

Today I saw children begging for food or 10 cents. I saw a man dragging a cart so old and broken that it looked as if it were held together by tattered plastic bags, there wasn’t an unbroken piece of wood in the whole cart. I saw a child bathing in a mud puddle and a man without legs begging for his dinner. The effects of poverty are everywhere I look, every house is built on plastic and bits of rubber or sharks of glass. It is poor and the contrast from the city I am from is stark.

Its easy to feel sorry for the people I see around me but I don’t think many people want to be pitied. I think the general idea in America is that people that live in poorer more economically depressed countries need our pity. Sometimes we act like they could not possibly be content with their lives, as if a hot shower is the gold standard for an excellent life. I catch myself feeling sorry that I have so much and they have so little. There are parts of my emotional response that are warranted but the part I don’t think they need is the idea that my life is inherently a better or more worthwhile life because my home in America has a carpeted floor and a fridge that makes ice. My life is amazing and I really value the privilege that I have, I have a million opportunities and most things are easy for me. My life is a good life in many ways but I won’t let myself feel like my life is more valuable than the people I see around me here in Cambodia. Having sympathy for other human beings is an excellent trait in a person but when that makes you feel better it has gone too far. Someone can live in a mud hut and have a beautiful life, a flat screen TV is not one of the needs of a human being and eating only what you can fish for or gather is not inherently poor. I have seen too many happy faces here to let myself believe that these people live horrible lives just because they don’t have the luxuries I’m used to.

Cambodians have suffered greatly and I cannot imagine the kind of cultural grief they hold. I can only admire their strength more with every new lesson in their history. The kind of terror these people have lived through must be a burden, and it makes their smiles even more shocking. I’ve heard stories of the great depression in America, people struggling to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads, those stories would have been fairy tales to the children here 30 years ago.

It is easy to be humbled by the people of Cambodia, I have an easy life but I don’t think I am happier because of it, poverty doesn’t mean sadness. Economic depression does not entail actual depression. I’ve seen many struggles made lighter by their positive attitudes and community support. I love how close to their community they seem here, some of these towns aren’t small but the people still seem so connected to each other. I don’t think there are many communities in America that are as close as the ones I’ve seen here. I know back home I don’t know any of my neighbors, it just seems normal to live inside a house and not be connected to the things immediately surrounding it. Maybe the people here don’t have the luxury or maybe their shared daily struggles bring them close, for whatever reason I see a lot of close bonds between people. It’s a beautiful thing to see these thriving communities.

I really hope the western world will support Cambodia in the ways that help Cambodians. I bet if they had the kind of help that let them help themselves they would grow into a thriving economy very quickly. A way of making money is much stronger than a one time handout. Tourism is one way for a country to get back on its feet but it hardly seems like a sustainable economy when a earth quake or a few bad stories can stop the flow. I’m not an economist but I like to think about how to help people in the ways that support their future. I don’t like making someones life easier in the moment only for them to face the hard truths later, always want my efforts to make the person more capable of dealing with their own life. That’s what I hope for Cambodia and the other countries in the world that have a low standard of living.

I am keeping my eyes open for the lessons I can learn from Cambodia. I am so curious to see what the rest of my time in Cambodia holds. I strive to treat the people here like human beings, and not to give into pitying, I will strive for compassion and sympathy.
I think I can learn a thing or two from the Khmer people.

Solo Travel

_DSC2024Traveling on my own is an interesting challenge. It gives me more time and less constants in my day. I’ve had days where it would be nice to have someone to talk to and I’ve had days where eating alone seems pretty glum. Sometimes it takes a little extra courage to go for a hike in the jungle on my own or to arrive in a new town after sunset. It can be weird to get a hotel room with two beds when I only need one and sometimes its a lot more expensive to hire a taxi or a tour. I’ve even had days where I wish I didn’t have to make every single choice on my own.

But most of the time I wake up in my hotel room excited to start some music and make a rough plan for the day without needing to ask anyone for anything. I can listen to the same song every morning and no one gets annoyed and I can have the worst plan possible without effecting anyone’s day but my own. I could be on the bus to a new city, see a town that looks neat and get off the bus right there. Its simple to plan and as I learn more what kinds of activities I enjoy it becomes much easier to structure my time to enjoy more of it. I have all the choices and when I make good ones it feels great to enjoy the fruits of my labor.

The freedom is only one aspect of solo travel though. I am pushed out of my comfort zone every day just to get the supplies of life, water, a room or a bed and a couple meals. This morning I had to walk into a restaurant and order by pointing to my mouth and saying yes to every question even though I had no idea what was said. I looked like an idiot in front of at least 15 people, they laughed and I smiled. I had to put myself out there just to get breakfast, I can’t rely that someone else to support me even when I feel stupid or scared. I just have to do my best and use my own inner voice to say encouraging things. I’ve been in many scary situations where that inner voice has been the only thing to keep me calm. The challenge of facing challenges without someone to fall back on when it gets tough can make everything a lot scarier. It also makes the learning and personal growth so potent. I have been learning like a wildfire eats grass, every experience is intensified and the lessons come out easily with so much time to think. I love the way solo travel makes me rely on myself, I love how it gives me time to wander deeper into my thoughts, and I love the kinds of experiences it lures in.

One of the things I didn’t know before my first trip is that leaving home alone does not mean you will be alone while traveling. There are many opportunities to meet fellow travelers. I’ve met people because of shared hardship or confusion and I’ve met people because of hostels and other close proximity situations. I’ve had amazing conversations with people I knew for two hours and I’ve made good friends after 24 hours. Traveling has a way of converging paths if you let it, I’ve been in places or moods where I don’t meet a single backpacker and I’ve met 20 new people in an evening. Being someone that really enjoys  getting to know new people I love talking to so many different sorts of people, I’ve been inspired by so many stories and little pieces of each person I’ve met I will remember and over time those pieces will become part of my personality. It is an incredible thing to sit at a table with ten people from ten countries and talk about politics, or music or education systems. I’ve learned a lot about other parts of the world that I have never been to just by talking to people from those places.
It’s also dangerous how much hearing about someones home country makes me want to go there. I feel like traveling alone usually means having the ability to choose who you are surrounded by everyday, it doesn’t mean your days are spent in solitude.

Tomorrow I will wake up and start my day knowing that every disaster and every triumph is mine, I will talk to whoever I want and walk wherever looks like my kind of path. By the time the sun goes down and I find dinner I will have plenty to ponder, I’ll ask myself how my day went or I’ll make a friend out of a stranger and ask them how their day went. Whatever happens I know it will be made up of that special recipe: one part choice and one part chance.
There’s no feeling like going to bed after a completely amazing unplanned day.

Borders Aren’t Boring

For me cross the border into a new country is about as boring as jumping out of a helicopter onto a moving train. Its going from saying hello and being understood to pointing like a child asking for a glass of milk. Borders can be fun or very stressful, they can be agonizingly slow or too fast to process. Most of my experience has leaned towards a bewilderingly fast pace. Crossing into Cambodia from Thailand made for a story.

The day started out weird, I got up and out the door in 20 minutes but was stalled at the bus stop for an hour waiting for the number 3 bus to Chatuchak park. I got on it within the first 20 minutes but the bus lady told me several things too quickly, I was pretty sure she meant I needed to wait for the number 2 bus. She pointed back to the bus stop and I stepped out of the moving bus to wait for the next bus. It came but the driver was talking on his cell phone and didn’t stop for me or the other lady that waved at him.
After watching every number bus go by twice I got on the number 3 again, this time there was no bus lady or anyone but the driver. I guess this usually is a good thing since you don’t have to pay but for me it meant by the time I asked the driver where I should get off I was far from the first bus stop. He told me to get off and he swung his arm in the usual way that means it is a long way with many turns….

After a few seconds of walking an elderly lady handed me three bags of dried corn and told me to give it to the birds, when I didn’t she opened all of them and forced me to do it. I had no idea why that was important, I was just walking to find the bus station. But apparently it was the most expensive corn in Thailand, her and one other lady started yelling for money so I gave them some to get away. It probably was enough money to buy a ten pound bag of corn or more, but I’d probably pay more to stop old ladies from yelling at me…

At this point the only thing I knew about where I was walking was that It was in Bangkok. I got myself to a new part of the city and no closer to anywhere I wanted to be. I was going to take a tuk tuk but the hostel employee told me I could take the bus…. so there I was on my way to Cambodia walking through a park in Bangkok. I got through the park and flagged a motorbike taxi down. He happened to speak exactly zero English so he used the help of the guy standing next to me to translate. It took me saying Chatuchak at least ten times or them to search their memory banks and find it there. They both said “Chatuchak!” to my ears almost exactly how I said it…. The driver held up three fingers to tell me what it would cost, 30B sounded like a good price to me so I jumped on way before remembering that I’m terrified of dying in a brutal motorbike accident.

“I didn’t quite think this through” I whispered as my driver nearly smashed my kneecap on a car mirror as he sped between two cars. I’m afraid of many things but luckily I can sort of switch off some of my emotional response. It was a beautiful journey except for the insanely close calls every couple seconds. He got me to a giant market and than looked at me expectantly after I handed him 40B. I realized he meant 300B or about 9USD. It was probably three times a decent price for the journey. It took me five minutes to realize that I wasn’t even close to the bus station, I asked a security guard and he told me it was still 5k from where I was. I paid another (much nicer) motorbike driver 60B to get me the rest of the way. He explained to me that “la-korn” was not the right way to say goodbye, he said “Chok-dee” was the right way. Chok-dee means good luck, and I found it so ironic that I only learned how to say goodbye in Thai on my way out of Thailand.

By the time the bus reached the Cambodian border it was dark. My sarcastic inner voice made several comments about how much more fun borders are when everything is harder to see.
Immediately people came up saying they would help me find the check points, they play a scam where they help you but it costs more. Their help isn’t needed at all but they prey on the confusion of travelers. I was confused but I just kept walking and asking people that didn’t have any reason to lie to me. I did my one act of goodness by helping a couple Americans find the border with me.

By the time I had gotten through the border and was walking in Cambodia I had been asked possibly hundreds of times if I wanted a taxi to Battambang or Siam Reap. I did not but when I got to the Cambodian side it seemed like the people didn’t mind me saying no, they actually smiled at me as if I was a human being just like they are human beings. I wondered if it was just something I saw because I wanted to see it or if people were nicer.
I found a hotel that reminded me very much of some old palace in a middle eastern country then went out to get some food. I found a lady with a cart that was piled high with various meat-on-a-stick options. I picked one and gave her a bill that seemed like a decent amount of money, I couldn’t understand what she said at all. She handed me back 40% of the money I had given her so I figured it must not have been a bad guess, I still had no idea how much money I had given her. I knew it was less than a days budget but it could have been 20USD or 2USD. I went from a ratio of 1USD-35 Thai Baht to 1USD- 4,050 Cambodian Riel.
In the dark, with the steam of her cooking obscuring her face and the roaring of cars made it hard to think or understand her faint words. I gave her too much money twice and she gave me back the excess.

I have been given so many genuine smiles already. The border threw me through and after that I found those smiles, it all seemed like a small gauntlet  for the kindness I found in their eyes.
I am so excited for the light to come back so I can walk these streets again.

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