Thursday, November 26, 2015


When you come home from running errands and find the cleaning lady in your apartment, not on her usual day, coming out of the bathroom where the washing machine is kept, arms full of other people's laundry.  Instead of being embarrassed at the idea of having been caught, she smiles up at me, says "Xin chào!" and briskly walks out of the apartment.  This was after being sat down and lectured by the landlady and our real estate broker only last night about our high usage of electricity.

When you go shoe shopping, spend a good 10 minutes looking around, turn to the salesclerk who's been hovering over you like a hawk only to have her tell you (before you've even gotten a word out) "We have nothing for you here".  "But I haven't even told you my size!", I exclaim.  "We have nothing for you here", she repeats, smiling broadly.

When you're standing in line at the checkout and a lady blatantly cuts in line, then looks around at everyone else daring them to say anything to her.  Everyone looks away, pretending they don't notice, except for me; I'm glaring at her.  The guy in front of me turns to face me, staring me down, as if he's wishing I would stop glaring at the lady.  I don't understand this attitude; they don't mind instigation, but they don't like confrontation.

Ah well. Just a few things I need to get used to I suppose.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


approaching Angkor Wat through the trees

"The Frenchman Mouhot discovered Angkor quite by accident as he was chasing a butterfly", said our guide as we walked down a wide dirt path. Though this is technically untrue - the Angkor temple complex in Cambodia had never really been 'lost', just covered by jungle - these words hung in the air and added to the mystique of an already strange day.  The sun was out, but clouds were drifting in; and the occasional monkey would scamper by looking for something to steal from you.  We were walking the back way up to Angkor Wat, a path much less populated than the main front entrance which is indeed grandiose but elbow to elbow with tourists, hawkers, and street urchins selling beads for a dollar.  As I looked up through the trees, the main tower of Angkor Wat peeked through; and I was overcome with the greatest sense of awe i've ever felt, and complete peace. I was so bowled over by this that I almost started to cry. "This is fucking cool," I said to Larry. "This is the best thing i've ever done".

We sat down on a rock facing the temple. Our guide Rottana was recently involved in a motorbike accident, so he walked slowly with his head tilted slightly.  Over the day, his story would come out. His father, a university professor, was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Since his two older brothers spoke English, they were accused of being part of the CIA and sent to the Killing Fields.  Rottana grew up in a monastery and learned Sanskrit and Mahayana Buddhism. He was reunited with his mother in 2003 after both thought each other dead. Yet as he told us of these horrible memories, his demeanor was calm, and he exuded an air of serenity. Perhaps this was his Buddhist training shining through.

A guard and a monk take refuge from the rain. Angkor Wat.

While we sat and Rottana spoke a little bit about the history of Angkor Wat, we noticed a noise in the distance getting closer and louder every second. I turned my head towards it. "What is that? Is that rain?". "The monkeys are coming", said Rottana, cryptically. Larry and I jumped up as the few tourists behind us started to make a run for it. Rottana smiled at us as we started to walk faster and faster then broke into a run and barely made it to the covered archway into the temple entrance. It rained on and off for the next few hours, but this only added to the sense of mystery of the place. Plus it didn't make the heat feel so oppressive.

There really are no words to describe how surreal Angkor Wat is. Even the obnoxious Japanese tour guide shouting at his tour group didn't mar the atmosphere.

the Center of the Universe. notice the 0 degrees on the compass.

Later in the day while visiting the Ta Prohm Temple, best known as the Jungle Temple or "Tomb Raider" temple where one small scene from the movie was filmed, we stood in the middle of a courtyard of sorts flanked by enormous banyan trees crushing the temple walls, and Rottana smiled. "Of all the Angkor temples, this one is my favorite", he said.  "I am happy here". If everyone could be as lovely and forgiving as he is, the world would indeed be a much better place.

Banyan tree, Jungle Temple.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Vertigo in an uncertain world.

For the first time in over two months I am watching the news on TV.  CNN in the hotel bar here in Siem Reap, Cambodia, trying to find out more about what's happened in Paris, trying to wrap my head around it, hoping my extended family is okay. And when the bar manager came up to ask me what was going on,  I realized that he and his staff did not know. So I explained. And I suddenly felt so foolish. I've come, briefly, to a country mainly to renew my visa but also to play tourist, and I know next to nothing about what these lovely people have been through in their own lifetimes. Today when talking to our guide about the Paris attacks, he said, "Oh. We had ISIS thirty years ago. The Killing Fields". 

We all know about the Killing Fields, but we don't sit down and really think about how close that happened in our past. And our guide, who grew up in a Cambodian monastery (we're guessing he was orphaned during the civil war) learned how to speak English from an Australian UN soldier in 2000. I don't know, maybe I'm being silly, but I'm overwhelmed by how small I feel in the universe, and how far away I feel from my family. Tomorrow I go to Angkor Wat, a trip I've wanted to do as long as I can remember, and I hope I can find some peace and understanding amongst the symmetry and holiness of the structures.