Monday, June 8, 2009

On the other side of the glass

I am on the road between Saigon and Phnom Penh. My belly is full of Khmer noodle soup and my head full of thoughts that loop around into questions creating a mess not unlike the rice noodles that I've got swimming in my stomach.

I remember Michael telling me about these very buses which careened in front of her ,Cambodian home, kicking up dust. A blur of white faces protected by glass from the hot dusty existence of rural Cambodia as they raced between HCMC and Phnom Penh. This was back when I was still in C.A. I must have been in Guatemala at the time, because I remember telling her stories of seeing similar buses cramming themselves into the twisty streets of Solola, and it all caused me to think about what it means to have experienced a country and the insulated nature of tourism. My passengers are always talking about “doing” countries or even whole regions after spending a few days in them, “Oh yea, I did Laos, it was fantastic.” Maybe the very act of claiming to 'know' a place we admit to not knowing it at all. Or maybe we only know our very unique personal experience.

I can't claim to know every twist and bump of this highway, and yet I feel attached to this stretch of pavement, for I feel like it might lead me back to Micaheal, someone I miss very much. Or maybe I feel it leads me to a type of authenticity that I feel is so often lacking on the traveler's path. Regardless I find my eyes scanning each hamlet for that familiar ordering of mobile phone shops, market, soy bean juice ladies, and sugar can juice vendors which add up to Svay Chrum. I search to place the memories I have from those days that I spent with Mikee, suffering from the heat, from sleeping on tile floors, from being so far from the comforts of air con, of regular electricity, western food, and western comforts.

I remember our arrival back in Phnom Penh after just 5 days in Svay Chrum, the moment we walked into our $12 a night hotel room with air-con and private bathroom and thinking, money or wealth means you are able to afford comfort. You can insulate yourself from the pains and discomforts of poverty: from rocks in your rice and beans, from mosquitoes, from heat, from cold, from the sun, from physical labor. But the thing those uncomfortable 5 days also taught me was that in all our insulation we have lost contact with some of the things that make humans human. Westerners have a disposable outlook on life, something breaks, you buy a new one, something is lost, you can always replace it. Teeth, marriages, hips, ipods, rain coats. We are so wealthy that we have replaced food which is meant to provide calories with calorie free counterparts, we don't have to move to produce wealth so now we pay exorbitant funds to burn off all our material wealth which lays itself down in the form of a protective layer of adipose tissue, insulating us further and further from our environment. We have shaped parts of our environment so extremely that in places it is unrecognizable. And this is a spreading phenomena, driving into Saigon yesterday I awoke from a cat nap and was lost as to where I was. The suburban sprawl that covers the United States has reached its hand around the globe and has begun to sculpt parts of southern Vietnam. Do we want to live in a world where it is hard to discern between Michigan and Saigon? Is that the goal?

And this all leads me back to my initial thought about these air conditioned bubbles shuffling 'intrepid' travelers who have dared set out to such a wild untamed country.

Svay Chrum slides by as a smear of buildings, how can so many memories be linked to just another collection of same same corrugated tin buildings? Isn't that the strange thing about life? There is beauty, magic, and treasures beyond all belief, the trick is opening your eyes to see them as they are often hidden in strange places: in soy bean juice bought at a muddy market, in the laughing eyes of a vietnamese bus driver, in the unexpected views of the grenadine red sun rising over the gaggle of ducks as your scifo Vietnamese government train rolls past. And I am starting to believe the key to hapiness is being able to see these treasures, to be appreciate all the tiny minutiae that will eventually add up into a joyful existence.

I'm not sure this entry leads anywhere, but maybe that is a good thing, the nectar ,after all, is in the journey.

1 comment:

Sarah Norton said...

I love your posts. You say so well what many of us feel! I'm glad you took some time to get to know Cambodia and not just "do" it!