Monday, December 2, 2013

Waking in Pnomh Penh

The view from the Tuk Tuk 

The Presidential Palace in Pnomh Penh

The Presidential Palace in Pnomh Penh

A small boat along the Tonlesap River where it meets the Mekong River 

A street vendor sells lotus flowers as offerings for Buddha

A child holds to a large balloon overhead on the lawn of the palace

A small boy pulls and releases the tether of a large balloon, making it dance overhead
Construction workers on the street pass materials from window to window

So happy this morning. Maybe that's the wrong word. Content. Sometimes the biggest luxury of travel is feeling like you're right where you're meant to be in the world, even if it's somewhere you never imagined.

The voices of Cambodia outside my window. Builders working nearby. Housemaids in the hallway. Tuktuk drivers calling out to those on the street. 
Cambodia is beautiful. The city is filled with details. Bouganvillea and candles floating in pots of water are fragrant homages to artistry and beauty. Intricate carvings, statues, and wood totems embellish even the most humble of dwellings and businesses. Even the very language, printed out, is a beautiful script, involving artistry to undertake.

Walking along the waterfront at the Mekong, colonialism and asian artistry coincide. We walk along the sea wall and there are people in droves coming out into the cooling evening. Incense fragrances the very air, interrupted at intervals by the wafting smells of street food and garbage, sewage and sea air, mixing to assault the senses. 

Golds and reds, greens and yellows, mahogany and metal make up the city. Elaborate artistry in the form of metal gates and pagodas. Rooflines run every which way and jolt the eyes seeking to find a skyline. Clouds are billowing and darkening in the humidity but the wind is cooling and the large, oversized balloons tied to the lawn in front of the King’s Palace have children pulling their tethers, causing them to bob and weave in a dance on the expansive lawns. Families and friends gather and it would all be idyllic if not for the sight of middle aged,  men strolling with heavily made up women in tow, teetering on their high heels and short skirts, trying to look confident in their vocation but somehow still emanating the aura of childlikeness and victim.
I seeth at these men, in their middle aged baldness and high waisted jeans. Those who somehow believe that they are entitled to the rape of these women simply because they have the means to pay for it. I find it hard to mask my disgust as I watch a man, who by western standards would be considered averagely unattractive, wield his power over a heavily made up young woman. Even the way he holds her hand is assertive, not affectionate. Leading her away without speaking to her, purposefully, her purse in his other hand as if she would have to give up the rights to it to even change her mind. Her heels are high. Her hair is lacquered into a tall, french roll. Her dress and tights are made for a dance floor not an evening on the river walk. 

They walk past a shrine to Buddha and the street vendors selling flowers, incense, and caged birds. Offerings to earn merit with Buddha. Golden snakes line the sidewalk and as I watch this couple walk decidedly past, I wonder what this young woman has to tell herself to reconcile selling herself in sight of the Buddha. How many 
caged birds would she need to free to build merit back up for what she has to do to survive. Who will free her?

I know many are working in the country to do just that. NGO's (non government organizations) made up of ex-pats and Cambodians alike, working so hard to give families options that will prevent them from selling their daughters, their very flesh and blood, and their futures out from under them. I watch this young woman teeter away and she is very still within herself, only her feet move, not her eyes, not her face, not her hands. She walks beside the one who has paid for the rights to her as if she's hidden somewhere inside herself, or not even there at all. 

Returning to our hotel,I get ready for bed, cool and content in an air-conditioned room. Laying in the dark, I feel blessed. Cambodia is already conflicting for me. It’s jarring. It’s comforting. It’s welcoming and yet alien. I don’t love the western attitudes I represent when I walk through the streets, approached by beggars, one man so burnt and disfigured, I wonder how he can see me to ask for change. Grandmothers with betel nut stained teeth carry tin cups and smile, trying to beguile but only revealing the distress of a life lived out in difficulty and humiliating poverty. On the way home from a beautiful dinner, our group is approached by a mother carrying a small, sleeping child over her shoulder. Dirty and disheveled, using English words between her chant-like entreaties for money, words like “family” and “sisters”, “children” and “hunger”. I look her in the eyes and apologize, having no cash on me. I want to be respectful and treat her well. I want her to see compassion but I wonder if empty hands and bellies preclude it. I never know what to do with poverty that boldly encroaches on my space when I'm unprepared. I'm only walking by. I haven't any money but I feel I'm cheating her. I feel challenged again and again and I’ve never come to a comfortable agreement with my conscience on any of it.

I feel Cambodia stretching into my heart, the glimpses of history opening my mind in ways I didn't expect. I'm learning as I go and for every observation, there are hundreds of questions attached as well. Peeking into a country and a culture is an absolute privilege but I am the first to admit that for all that I've seen and learned and shared in these notes, it's only a simple snapshot. I can't speak on Cambodia. I don't know Cambodia. I haven't slept in her communities or shared meals with her people. Until then, these are just observations from an outsider, much the same way someone who was invited into your home would have just a glimpse of your life as opposed to someone in the family who stays regularly and sees the ins and outs of your daily life, eats your food and hears your family argue around the dinner table. I'm hoping to be invited into life here. Share meals with her people and hear the family arguments. Just like a welcomed guest in a hospitable home, I'm hoping to return and be welcomed into deeper relationship with those that live here. 

A lotus flower, peeled and folded, an artful offering on our table.

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