The eye of the storm:

Hall of Hindu temple dancers – the Apsaras

As typhoon Wute is about to hit the mid-coast of Vietnam, where I am at the moment, it’s a great time to pause and wonder about the emotional cost of travel.

It’s easy to travel and stay glued to one’s electronic device, such as one’s iPhone or laptop. Now that WIFI is pretty much everywhere, it’s just as easy to travel to remote corners while remaining emotionally and physically disconnected from the environment. I would say this is especially true when traveling alone. These devices can be a protective shield between you and the foreign environment.

I’m posing this question for myself: How do I remain open as travel rolls on and fatigue begins to set in? I’m savoring staying attentive. But generally, I’m one of those people that enjoys being on the sidelines and drifting off when socially exhausted. The kind of traveling I’m currently engaged in doesn’t seem to allow for that. I would like to remain in the front-seat, paying attention, and to combat this exhaustion–especially, when it involves understanding a new culture and relaxing into it.

Having just arrived last night from Siem Reap, Cambodia, into Hoi An, Vietnam, (an impossibly picturesque village!) it seems like a good time for reflection. At first, Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital seemed an intense shift of gears from laid-back Thailand and its cosmopolitan center, Bangkok. Landing in what appeared to be a decadent city, with a lack of rules, no visible infrastructure that’s heavily steeped in a dark history and colonized past – I was frightened. Even though my first impression was of dislike and fear, I felt a pull to understand why my reaction was such. What was once the pride of French colonization, with extensive boulevards and Arc de Triomphe type monuments, is now the home of sprawling fortress mansions next to dilapidated buildings intersected by narrow streets lined up with food carts and people. The streets of PP are littered with garbage. Motorbikes and tuk tuks dominate the chaotic roads, while the very wealthy have drivers with fancy Range Rovers.

When the Khmer Rouge took power, in 1975, they emptied the city sending its inhabitants to work the rice fields, while desecrating Buddhist art and colonial French buildings, as well as torturing their citizens. It is estimated that between 2-4 million Cambodians perished during this time. Once that period was over, the vacuum left was to be filled with political instability, bad taste and poverty.

The current political atmosphere doesn’t help. While in PP, the election’s unrest was going on, and I met a vibrant expat community that have made PP their home base. Many journalists and photographers have settled here. It seems that the English speaking expats do business under the table (not paying Cambodian taxes) and until recently, the government was not getting involved. With the spread of the Internet, and more online readers amongst the Cambodians, that seems to be changing. Still, social media doesn’t seem to be censored yet, as people are tweeting and posting on Facebook about the political demonstrations. But, you can be sued or incarcerated for any sign of defamation or protest against the regime.

Confronting Cambodia’s lack of have has been quite a surprise for me. I realized I suffer from a common western malady called: I want, I want, I want. And not only do I want, I also believe I deserve. This has become apparent when on the third day in PP I took an excursion to Phnom Tamao Park with the Wildlife Alliance Tour, an organization dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals. About two hours south of Phnom Penh, in the midst of a rural area, 5 km into the park’s entrance, many beggar farmers of all ages, were lined up at the road’s edge. The older ones, curved into 90-degree angles were holding on to canes. I haven’t been to India and it’s probably not news to more experienced travelers, but it broke my heart and sobered me all the more to Cambodia’s present situation.

In the past, I may have used my ego to deflect the pain and substitute it by: being grateful for what I have compared to their lack. But, this isn’t the emotion I would like to take away from this and other encounters. Letting the feelings be and the storm to pass through without the need to compensate it by my ego making me feel better. It’s not up to me whether the storm will pass through… but, it is up to me how I sway….

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4 replies

  1. Thank you for sharing your trip… and places that I probably will never see. Colonialism and cruelty have left their marks on the Cambodian landscape, but I suspect that you found that the people were like human beings everywhere else. Your antidote about the beggars reminded me of my father. On the way to serve in China in WWII, his unit was in India, where he was appalled by women begging with their dead babies in their arms. As a result, he refused to travel to India even though my mother very much wanted to go there.

  2. Leslie, thank you for sharing your memory about your dad’s experience in WWII. Yes, as human beings we share a similar emotional landscape, no matter where we come from. It is unfortunate though, that even so, we keep finding ways to cause pain to ourselves and others.

  3. Beautiful, Gaby. Keep writing and riding 🙂

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