Two Weeks

I have been in my beloved Ubud for two weeks now. The time here seems to evaporate, like rain. I don’t know where it goes. I can only remember a series of moments. Sitting on the bright, round cushions in front of my room furiously trying to finish the amazing The Undoing Project, being immersed in the lives of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and being amazed and questioning all my life choices (again). Then I’m just meters away listening to director Vikram Gandhi (who starred in this documentary that I wrote about a while ago) talk about his new film Barry, about the college years of one Barak Obama. He (Vikram, not Obama) spoke after we watched the film together. Of course I had to pinch myself that if I was in his presence. Some days later (how many, I really don’t remember) I saw another Obama film about his first date with Michelle. What an interesting, complex, high maintenance man I thought. Let it be known that I do crush on the former president, but just imagine living with someone with a law degree from Harvard who feels the need to question everything.

Since there’s not much to do at night, there have been more movies. And yoga. But not as much as last time. Yesterday while ‘practising’ under the guidance of a Jewish yoga goddess, I felt how my fitness level had decreased and how sad that made me. I struggled through, consciously trying not to let that second arrow (how could you get so unfit? why don’t you exercise more? you’ve become so lazy…). Another night, I found myself on a dark, rainy night slipping into a traditional health resort and ended up having an incredible massage, guided into a boiling hot sauna then gently urged into a freezing cold jacuzzi for ten minutes while listening to the music from a ceremony at a nearby temple and looking up at the blinking stars. I’ve been riding around on a bike, taking in all the green. I’ve been hanging out with my friend who has been kind enough to introduce me to her friends. We have been debriefing after her days of anthropological fieldwork, gossiping about the ridiculous fairies that wander around seeking enlightenment from raw food and dreadlocks. We’ve been walking in the mornings through rice fields, dodging stray dogs and eating breakfast together. In stark contrast to Cambodia where I spoke to maybe one person in five days, it feels really good to have a friend.

There are the characters from my previous visits – I know where to find them, they are so predictable in that way. At the same cafe, at the same studio, giving the same class at the same time, with the same people, in the same clothes. But, appearances can be deceiving, for they have come so far in the year since I’ve last seen them. New relationships, marriage, divorce, new businesses, new travels, new opportunities, life and death swirling around them as it should.

I ride my bike down the main road, past the locals dressed in their sarongs for their ceremonies. I bump over a dead snake and see a monkey sitting on a motorcycle. I dodge ugly mating toads. When it’s really hot, I crash the pool of the hotel next door and try to block out the obnoxious Australian accents. It’s hard to get annoyed here, though, amongst so much vitality. There’s literal jungle, blue skies, giant clouds, and an abundance of delicious flowers whose scent evokes the word paradise. Every afternoon it rains, but of course, even rain in Bali is beautiful – the way it falls over the temples, feeling of it on an overheated body is sensual. There’s not long to go now and there’s still a volcano to climb, yoga to learn, online study to be done, oh and a novel to write. Everyday is a battle between discipline and freedom. But this is a lifelong battle and I hope that I can at least, if not win, then make some progress.

Winding down

Over the past ten days I have had highs and lows and things have not gone to plan (do they ever?). Alas, it is my second-to-last day in scorching Phnom Penh before heading to Bali where at least I have some friends. Cue violins. I have spent countless hours scurrying around the streets of central PP, with my mind in a near-constant state of comparison – the city I came to know and love a few years ago and the city as it is now.

The changes are obvious and predictable. They are more or less from my own subjective point of view. Slightly rundown yet charming traditional structures have been bulldozed and replaced with towering apartment buildings and office blocks. The unique Khmer and colonial-inspired architecture is being replaced with slabs of glass, steel and stacco. Cranes line the horizon and everyday at 7am I am woken up incessant banging, crashing, and hammering in the name of progress.

I type this from a brand new Scandinavian-inspired Starbucks, one of only three in the city (all new). It is huge and probably a little neighborhood of family-owned and operated businesses were demolished. I hope, at least, this gentrification of an entire city has some trickle down effect and offers opportunities to those less fortunate.

Unfortunately, there are still the “couples” of old, overweight, unattractive western men and extremely young Cambodian girls seen in bars, restaurants, hotels and just walking around the downtown area and along Riverside. There are beggars and street urchins and I’m ashamed to say I walked right on by one young screaming child that had been abandoned on the street.

As a traveling introvert, it’s hard to meet people, but luckily I did encounter some interesting expats through yoga and capoeira: a Ukrainian architect, a Brazilian NGO consultant, an Australian NGO worker, a yoga teacher who is the daughter of Cambodia’s most revered architect. All seem to be happy enough. And the French. There are so many Frenchies here, not surprising given the colonial connection.

The locals are still kind, sweet, friendly and curious. The groups of men who sit outside cafes compulsively smoking and yelling are not so endearing, however. Neither are the tuk-tuk drivers who are constantly on the lookout for their next passenger. There’s still some kind of racial hierarchy: the lighter, whiter-skinned Cambodians don’t do the dirty work. The darker-skinned Cambodians from the provinces seem to be the ones banging away shirtless at the Chinese-owned construction companies day and night.

This time, I haven’t been out to the slums, where the roads are strewn with trash and people live under tarpaulin tents. I can only hope that some of the development the country is experiencing is being channelled into the areas and people that need it most.

A New Year

A puppy who joined me for meditation on New Year’s Day

Heraclitus reportedly said that, “No [wo]man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and [s]he’s not the same [wo]man.” And so it is with this in mind as I stroll around Phnom Penh, that charming and peacefully chaotic city that I spent two months in several years ago. I had an urge to come back, and on the urging of my friends, I came back. I had almost two months of happy memories that compelled me. Not necessarily happy in the hedonistic, saccharine sense, but in the sense of accomplishment, moving out of my comfort zone, and doing what feels right.

I threw myself into a new situation, followed my heart by working with an organization I had long admired, led my a man I would consider one of my heroes. The students were great, the experience was challenging but incredibly rewarding, and personally, I got to meet fascinating people (including my hero), and travel to some amazing places (Holla Angkor Wat!).

Everything worked out so well and all my boxes were ticked. And so I wanted to come back and experience it again. Alas, as we read in the opening lines to this post, things don’t work that way. I booked my ticket a few weeks ago then contacted the organisation I worked with before. They didn’t reply for a week, which was unusual, but when they did, they said they were so sorry but they didn’t need me as a volunteer at the moment. They had grown so big and become so popular that they were now only taking people for long periods of time. I understand it’s better for the organization (and probably the volunteer) to stay for a longer period of time, but I was a little miffed and disappointed.

I thought I would find another organisation to work with but now that I’m here, I don’t feel like it. I don’t need to do that anymore. I will resume my idealist, do-goodery-save-the-world shtick when I’m sixty, like the other single, divorced ladies I met who last time who had property in New York and LA and could afford to now devote themselves to causes they cared about.

And how about Phnom Penh? I was disappointed to see my quaint little neighborhood, while still teeming with unruly trees and flowers and the chaos of motorcycles and tuk-tuks, had developed in the wrong ways. Now there are endless construction projects from Chinese companies building McCondos for the privileged. The incredible masseur who diagnosed all my old injuries with his mere touch has disappeared and in his place is a longterm expat hairdresser. While I went in to see if my guy was still there, two Korean guys came in with little English, read the menu and insisted they wanted Brazilian and bikini waxes respectively. The hairdresser told them to come back soon and there would be a guy to do it. No, no, they insisted, they wanted a woman. I wonder what exactly they think they’re in for.

The spa around the road where I went almost everyday for pampering has been turned into a wedding dress shop. The funky little pizza place has been replaced by a techno-playing bar and flashpackers while the indie venue where local and expat bands played and where there was salsa dancing on Wednesdays is still there, it’s just that it’s been closed and chained behind an iron fence for months, waiting for someone to buy it and turn it into another guesthouse.

Indeed, it’s not the same place and I am not the same woman. That is both good and bad. In those almost four years since that time I’ve had a few different jobs in addition to my current gig. I’ve travelled to all the continents except the big white one. I’ve developed emotionally and I’ve definitely matured. I’ve struggled to learn a new language and I’ve loved and had my heart broken, survived it as well as the demise of friendships, a large amount of money being stolen, the death of acquaintances. Life is long. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, but the turtle and the hare both need to keep moving forward, regardless of how fast they do so. I have sat on my laurels when I shouldn’t have. And of course, with all this time on my hands, there’s plenty of time for self-flagellation. I’m trying not to go there.

Where will I go? I’m not sure yet, but I don’t think I’ll be staying here.