Wednesday, February 1, 2012

New Year's and The Next Beginning

In case you aren’t aware, New Year’s is one of the biggest letdown holidays there is. It’s always bigger, shinier, and more awesome in your mind than it ends up being in real life. Even “I spent New Year’s in such-and-such place!” is often cooler in stating than in actual experience. For example, I’ve had New Year’s in Tokyo, and in Las Vegas. In Tokyo, we stood shivering in the grounds of a temple, waiting to hear the bell toll, while TV-host type people went on as if they were a variety show (but that whole thing was, I think, a cultural experience). In Vegas, we went out into the street for the countdown to midnight, or as far into the street as we could get with the way the crowd was pushing us back; couldn’t really see the sky for fireworks, then immediately went back inside to continue gambling (I’m not saying this wasn’t a fun trip, I’m just saying gambling is something you can do in Vegas anytime). At least in my case, the images of me partying into trancelike states that the phrases “New Year’s in [insert big city here]” conjures are mostly on the false.

As for this year, I figured since we’d got up at 4 (again), we weren’t likely to last long into the night, and maybe we could see the first sunrise or something from either some other hill of Angkor’s area, or even from the roof of our building. Yut said that pub street would be full of people, but I pictured a seething mass of American/Australian/European holidaymakers getting wasted and screaming in my ear and I figured it was safe not to expect a big/fun night out for us in Siem Reap. We got Mexican food for dinner, then moseyed over to take a look.
This captures the general feeling well! With Nohea and Brian.
And Yut and Simon
And, happily, as often happens, having low expectations turned out to be a blessing. There was dancing in the streets. Foreigners, yes, but Khmai too, and none so drunk as to be obnoxious, and minus all that horrific toxicity of smoke that fills the air in dance clubs, but music fit for dancing. Yut stayed with us, and some of his friends coalesced out of the crowd and we all danced together behind the speakers until almost 12, when we went in front of the speakers. Shortly after midnight, we progressed in sleepy stumble back to the hotel. A few of our group went on their own sojourns, but of course I like to sleep, so I turned in pretty much immediately.

And then, it was 2012.The next morning, we had hotel breakfast, and rolled out a bit later than usual to travel to Kbal Spien, which is home to the “Valley of a Thousand Lingas.” A linga is a pillar (or phallic symbol) associated with the Hindu god Shiva. “But wait,” I hear, “I thought all this temple stuff was Buddhist, not Hindu!” Good catch, dear reader, and you are correct! But a lot of Cambodian stories and imagery tend to combine Hindu and Buddhist ideas and images together. A good example is that Buddha-protected-by-Naga thing we saw a lot (lot) of. Naga is not a Buddhist image, originally, but was adapted so that one tradition blended with and served the other.

Anyway, Kbal Spien is one of the oldest sites in the area, and the carvings show Vishnu and other Hindu imagery all over the place. There is also a medium-small sized waterfall… bigger, we were told, in the rainy season (of course).

People were playing in it when we arrived, and Yut asked if any of us wanted to go in. I was hot and sticky from the day’s walk, but wasn’t sure how it would be possible to go in, what with my clothes, my shoes, my camera. Still, if I was going to be damp, it might as well be from the river rather than from sweat. Nohea said he wanted to go in, but not alone, so I handed all my stuff to the others, took off my shoes and overshirt, and walked right in. The rocks under the fall were slippery-smooth and made for good water sliding. The fall itself was chill and refreshing. Of course I loved the idea of getting water poured over me in a river sacred since ancient times. This was another of my little magic moments, playing in the waterfall like a new year’s cleansing.

Waterfall as seen from above
I have an image in my mind of standing under a waterfall in Southeast Asia and seeing your path laid out before you, knowing what you want to do or become. This image is borrowed from someone else’s story, who years ago stood under a waterfall in Thailand and knew what he wanted to do with his life. But I saw nothing, knew nothing new, just that I will continue to pursue adventure and learning, and that I will never stay long in something I do not love, and I was very happy with that; it was enough. It also seemed a little related to a September dip in the crystal greenwaters in the Musasabi Canyon in Shikoku once before.

After this, we walked back down the path, stopping at a little sitting area for our Way of the Day with Yut. He told us about Right Livelihood and Right Effort while Nohea and I dripped on the wooden boards; some Korean ladies gave us candies. We trooped back to the van for lunch, where I drank yet more coconut goodness, and we shared yet another round of amazing and delicious food (you might think this would get old, but it never did) in an airy restaurant.

display pieces
Next up was the Landmine Museum, where we learned about the efforts of Aki Ra to find, uncover, and defuse mines, and also the home for injured children adjacent to the museum that he started up. As with a lot of what I saw in Cambodia, it was shocking and intense, but also.. not just a party of pity and blame. I was interested in his unorthodox way of dealing with mines (he preferred to use just a stick and his hands to find and take apart the dangerous items)… methods that got other people killed. Aki Ra (not his original name) was a child soldier years ago, and grew up using weapons, even setting mines. Now he continues to search for and clean up such things. We didn’t meet any of the kids who live at the museum, which is good, because they don’t need to be gawked at like display pieces.

The waiting area for you to wait on the slowest party member.. whosoever that may be.
We went back to Siem Reap, hit the bookstore, and hung out until dinner at our clubhouse, where Yut talked with us some more about the more recent history of Cambodia. Brian re-joined us for a post-dinner drink somewhere on pub street with thumping music next door (I had yet another coconut drink.. yesss) before we retired to bed.

The next day had no particular plans other than to get everyone on their ways after breakfast. Yut took us to the market and we had breakfast at the crowded counters.  My and Kam’s flight to Laos was midday, and we were on the first round of people taken to the airport. We spent the morning writing in one another’s warm and fuzzy books (little notebooks given to use by PEPY at the start of the trip, in which we were to write messages to one another but not read our own til we had gone) and packing up, reminiscing and sharing stories.

And then we were at the airport! Kameron, Miriam (who wasn’t yet sure if she was flying to Laos or heading back to Japan via Korea), and I, all fairly tired, maybe feeling like we were now carrying something rather important even if we weren’t sure yet what it was, or how to share it.

In several of my postcards, I said that Cambodia is farther away than any place I have ever been, and I still think so.. at least about the countryside village; not spatially, necessarily, but in many other ways, it is a place wholly different from where I am from, and even where I live now. Japan and America have a lot in common, actually, and while the differences are important, and are part of the adventure of being here, those commonalities are also comforting.

And although I am aware that there is a great deal taken for granted, in my life, and in the spaces around me, I had never before been to a place where the electricity only runs some of the time, where there is no running water, where objects are reused and repurposed not because their owners are deep believers in the eco movement, but because those are the objects they have, and these are the ways they want or need to use them. People don’t just use things up and throw them away out in the countryside because they can’t afford to, and because a thing isn’t really used up if it can be repaired or reassigned. And that aspect of it, at least, I don’t think is a bad thing.

The downside of subsistence farming is the way that, in bad years (like this one is shaping up to be), there is not a lot of wiggle room, not a lot of margin for error. If the crops fail, by fire or flood, then you are in danger. Outside of that (very real) danger, a lot of people seemed decently happy.

And I’m not trying to say they were happier, with their simple lives (to simplify the situation) than “we” are with our flushing toilets and 24-hour electricity. Just that they weren’t significantly unhappier because of a lack of those things. Their way of life is different than the one I’m from, but it isn’t any better or any worse. Except maybe that one bad year of floods puts their survival at risk, while the pace of consumption in mine puts our entire system at later risk.

But even just personally, going to a place like Cambodia makes you see, irrevocably, how silly 99% of your stresses are, how unnecessary they are, and it does this not by judging you, or by revealing those stressor to anyone, but just by being so full of people whose hopes and whose problems are so different from yours. And not because it’s all a pity party, or because “they have real problems and you don’t” – I think that would have just depressed me.. it’s that they are working on shit.

There are much bigger fish to fry, and methods are being developed on how to catch and cook them. And whether or not you are part of that, you have to respect it. And whether or not you can do anything for them, you can do something for someone. Especially you.

Especially something like, stop tormenting yourself and chasing yourself in circles.

It wasn’t “they have real problems so I should feel sorry for them.” It was.. if they can be grateful for what they do have, then I certainly can too. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot, from all kinds of genres, and between Guns, Germs, and Steel, and The Hunger Games, and coming back from Cambodia, it occurred to me again the other day that I’ve never really been hungry.

In my world that’s something you more or less take for granted because that’s how it’s always been. But that’s not everyone’s world.

And in the same way that the shocking devastation wrought by a tsunami on hundreds of thousands of strangers moves me to silence and tears, but the violent death of one single person that I knew brings me a different kind of mourning because it’s real in a way that numbers and even TV images are not.. the fact that some people in the world are or have been really hungry is much easier for me to grasp when it’s someone I know, and especially respect. Because of war, my grandmother was hungry. Because of hunger, she never wasted food (it’s a habit we inherit). Because of poverty, people are hungry; when he was a kid, it was Yut.
And for me, who has always had enough and more than enough, for me from a culture where thin is in because we’ve outdone ourselves on ‘food production,’ and are in danger of too much intake with not enough movement, for amazingly blessed, lucky beyond all reason me, well… one can feel only gratitude, which diminishes the other stuff to nothing, just as shadows are so naturally decimated by sunlight.

It isn't something permanent. It's not like I went to Cambodia and was 'cured' of taking things for granted, being selfish, focusing too narrowly, making irrational demands on comfort... but it was a little bit of clarity that I will try to remember as I go forward.

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