Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Written DAYS Ago, While Waiting in Japan

I’m sitting in a modern art/strange white-cushioned room in Tokyo International Airport trying to ignore the constant flight announcements broadcasted in a language I don’t understand. With five hours to sit and watch the rushing crowd come and go, I feel sad, missing my travel companion already, stunned that our nine weeks in South East Asia has come and gone...

As my plane took off at 5:30 a.m., I looked out into a burning sunrise and thought about all that has come and passed on this epic adventure: I thought of my father in Tonsai, cracking mangosteens open with his hands, sucking the sweet, velvet insides out while scowling at me, so filled with hurt; I imagined my first climb, the slippery-smooth stone at Firewall, Ethan encouraging me from below and the feeling that I could do anything. These memories feel both near and far away. The engine wheezed, our upward motion eased to a steady straight and the sun illuminated the farmland outside of Bangkok. Goodbye, I whispered into the window, pushing tears away with my wrists… goodbye Thailand, goodbye Sweet Fox.

I last left off in Cambodia, where the enchanted ruins of Siem Reap meet their modern counterparts (think massive five-star monstrosities). Each morning, before the sun rose, we set off, hoping to beat the crowds and see the temples bathed in morning light. My favorite of all the sites (there are so, so many Temples in Angkor, each in various states of disrepair) is Ta Prohm, where the forest has taken over, where huge white trees have entwined themselves with stone. The trees, their roots weaving between the careful carvings of Hindu Gods, remind me of snakes. It’s as if the nagas, the six-headed snakes that guard the temple’s entrance, have taken life in these roots. They wind and coil around the temples, breaking their foundations and pushing them over. I see Ethan; he is taking pictures, so many pictures, trying to capture the majesty of this place. I am tracing shapes—touching the round hips and breasts of they many Aspara figures, the dancing women carved into the walls—dragging my hand from stone to tree and back again. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” “There is nothing quite like it.” “It makes me hopeful.” “How so?” “Can’t you see the world this way, trees taking over, reclaiming what has always been theirs?”

The Temples of Angkor are Hindu and Buddhist. As we wander we see hundreds of depictions of Vishnu, Krishna, Sita, Hanuman and Buddha. In the great bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat, legends are carved in stone, stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, along with tales that immortalize the great Kings of Angkor. All are delicately drawn into stone. One of my favorites (Ethan’s too) is the relief depicting the creation of the world, “The Churning of the Sea of Milk.” Gods and Demons pull on a massive serpent that’s wrapped around a mountain. As they pull the snake’s body churns the sea – the source of all life. The Gods and Demons are fighting for the elixir of life, a magical potion created by the serpent and the churning. The relief is unbelievable. Nine-faced, broad-chested monsters fight the Gods, who are equally muscular but have only one head. Ethan and I point at the carving, eavesdropping as a tour guide recounts the famous legend.

Ethan and I spent three days exploring the temples, climbing so many flights of stairs, amazed that these relics of an empire long-since passed are still standing. Our second day of exploration marked a very special occasion, as we celebrated our one-year first-date anniversary. We treated ourselves to a glass of wine (our first in over two months), and clinked glasses. We sipped slowly, sheltered from a soft rain. Our week in Cambodia passed too quickly… Before I knew it we were on our way to Bangkok, lost in a long, dusty immigration line and exhausted. But we were so warmly welcomed in Bangkok and stayed with Ethan’s friend Elle (a Thai woman he meet in India while studying to be a yoga teacher) and her wonderful family. Her two-year-old son, Alex, is so amazingly cute, and is filled with energy. He is in constant motion and never seems to sit still. In Bangkok we went to an enormous market (selling orchids, pets, food galore, clothing, shoes, antiques, you name it, it’s there). We walked around for hours and still only saw a fraction of the stalls and vendors there. In the evening on our last night, Elle’s family took us out to MK, a popular restaurant where you cook your own soup, which is boiled on the table in front of you. “Do you think this would take off is Asheville?” Ethan asked. “Maybe. I’d eat there.” “I wonder if there are laws in the U.S. about serving raw meat?” “Probably. What’s that you’re eating?” “A dumpling filled with fish eggs.” “Good?” “Yes, good,” he crunches, “but salty.”

And suddenly I am here, killing time in Tokyo, looking into a sea of faces… I still have five hours to wait… then seven hours in the air, then three more hours to wait, then 37 minutes in the air. I am somewhere in-between, halfway between coming and going, between Ethan and my home on Kauai. Limbo. I left Bangkok on September 13th, at 5:30 a.m. I will travel for 23 hours and arrive on Kauai on September 13th, at 11:30 a.m. I am halfway between two worlds, remembering and waiting….

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mambua, "Lotus Seed," of Lao and The Kingdom of Cambodia

In the south of Lao the Mekong fans wide. Scatted throughout the raging river are a series of sandbars and islands called Si Phan Don, or "Four Thousand Islands." The Mekong is truly a force in the wet season, a powerful, flooded river, running muddy and thick with sediment. At the end of Lao and at the Cambodian border, the river turns to rapids. From our grass bungalow on the island of Don Det, we could always hear them - a constant roar, an ever present  rushing in the distance. Don Det is a skinny three-kilometer stretch of land occupied by lazy, hammock-lounging tourists (myself included), fisherman, rice farmers and cross-eyed buffalo. There's not much to do, but that's the beauty of it. During the days I wandered over the muddy path that draws the island's circumference. I waded through a lotus field just past its prime and stepped over soft, pink-white petals. I saw children fishing at the river's edge, naked from the waist down and tugging at their bamboo poles. I cycled over a bridge connecting Don Det to Don Khon (another island) and sat beside the rapids. I read the last of the books we brought while swaying in a hammock.

From the deck of our bungalow, which overlooked a bend in the river and faced northwest (the direction of the monsoon winds), we watched rain swallow land. The monsoon storms were so intense and so ferocious that we were forced to hide in our grass shelter. On our last night on Don Det (also our last night in Lao) the sunset was absolutely breathtaking. The Mekong reflected the setting sunlight in the sky, its surface a rippled rainbow, an abalone shell of color in motion. The sky sparkled, orange, indigo, red, an opal of iridescent light sinking slowly west. On Don Det we ate mambua, fresh from the lotus field and sweet as sugar peas, and admired a mighty river, we read, rested, looked upstream, imagined the villages and cities that rest along the Mekong's bank and said goodbye to Lao.


Now, we are in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Cambodia has been so devastated - by bombings during the War in Vietman, from Civil War/Pol Pot's bloody regime (the Khmer Rouge) and from the years of famine that followed. And yet Cambodian people are so, so kind. I am constantly taken aback at the warm welcome we receive, both in the city of Siem Reap and outside of it, where life is certainly much harder. Siem Reap is a bubble in Cambodia, a bubble surrounded by poverty. Though we are met with kindness - with wide smiles and shouts of "Hello! Hello!" - it's hard for me here. There are so many people scarred by war, so many landmine victims - children and adults - without an arm or leg, or both. Every time we go out to walk the streets of Siem Reap we see the hard history of this country, and I want to weep. I don't understand why landmines were buried in the countryside in the first place... I don't understand why the Khmer Rouge killed and tortured so many people... and the questions weigh heavy and all around us.

We bought a book from a man who lost his arms as a boy. He carried a sign that told his story. "I am not a beggar," he wrote, "I am a proud man who wants to work to support my family. You can help by buying a book and will make me happy man." I placed my hand on the stub that should have been an elbow and said, "Good luck to you." I sat, pushing food across my plate, wondering how he ate, how he dressed, washed or made it through any of the daily motions we so depend on hands for. We walked passed a band of musicians (all victims of landmines) playing traditional Khmer music, a simple repetitive beat played by elbows, knees and wrists. At dinner we met a man, our waiter, who told us a little about himself: He rides his bike 20 kilometers to a village outside of the city; his father was killed by Pol Pot; he is now responsible for his brother, sister and elderly mother; he makes $40 a month. But, he is learning English and is hopeful. So, we see much pain (sometimes overwhelmingly so), but we also see resilience and pride.

Of course, we came to Siem Reap to see the Temples of Angkor (Ethan's second journey to Angkor!), and wow, they are beyond words, but we are also learning about and confronting the complexities and struggles of a world so completely different from our own. We have decided to take a rest day, a break from the majestic temples in the forest, and spend the day in town, getting lost and found, open to whatever the day may bring.