Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Cambodia's Word

"What sort of future is coming up from behind I don't really know. But the past spread out ahead dominates everything in sight."  ~Robert Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 

I walk among the ancient ruins of Angkor and through the narrow passageways of the temples--old and empty and silent. I climb up steep, steep stone stairs and over the roots of strangling trees wrapped around the still standing structures. Stone figures sit cross-legged on snakes, their heads all decapitated now. Giant Buddha faces tower at the top of some temples and stare out over the region. I try to picture what this place was like hundreds of years ago, back during the Khmer Empire, back when these temples were first constructed and life vibrated throughout them. But all I see is the haunting afterthought of what was.

The only people lingering in Otres this time of year are the locals and expats--those long term expats who keep coming back again and again until they just never leave. Like a few places I've been, I can see how never leaving is easy to do here--life is slow and easy and cheap--the Gulf of Thailand in one direction holding secrets and stories of privately owned gun patrolled islands just beyond the coast, and in the other direction, long stretches of nothing beyond the village. I talk to a group of young expats one night--broken dreams and nothing to lose in a big world.

A guy from New Zealand sits across the table from me and talks enthusiastically. "I'm broke as fuck, but this is where it's at, this place has potential. Thailand's ruined, Phnom Penh's a dump, Siem Reap's a tourist trap, Sihanoukville's way too seedy, but here, Otres, this is the spot. I can do things here." He reminds me of a few characters in the Beach which is both amusing and terrifying. He flicks his cigarette and stares into space for a moment then abruptly points at me. "Stay out of Australia. Everything there is trying to kill you."

And in some sort of mysterious cross wiring of conversations, the guy to my left from somewhere Eastern Europe now whispers to me--a mid-conversation confession. Between his thick accent and drunken rambling, I could only catch a few key words--tattoo, prison, brother, spy. There were a few different ways I could put it together. Later when the group dispersed he looked at me with his icy blue eyes through his shaggy black hair and thanked me for listening. Anytime, I had said. Though I hoped not anytime soon.

A few nights later walking back to the village from the beach, I stop at the darkest part of the path and look up, and for the first time ever, I see Scorpio clear and full and on the rise. It really hits me then that I am literally in a very different point on the planet looking into space, into the past, from a whole new angle.

On the bus to Phnom Penh the kid sitting behind me says loudly, "Are we there yet?" His mom tells him no, of course we aren't. And in the most matter-of-fact way, he then states, "Well, it sure looks like we are." I gaze out the window--at the rain pelting down on the flat stretches of fields--vast emptiness in every direction.

Nothing can really prepare you for a silent walk through fields where mass genocide took place or through the halls and rooms of an elementary school turned secret torture prison. I didn't have to wonder about anything. The man narrating through the headphones I wore left nothing to the imagination--images that will haunt for days or weeks or years or much much longer if you're from Khmer lineage.

I've given a word to every country and every town I've lived in on this journey--an all encompassing word that captures the essence of the place. Cambodia's word is haunting--an unsettling quite that lingers over Angkor and Otres and the killing fields and S21 prison of Phnom Penh. I take all these stories and all the old energy that came up in Ubud and release it into the haunting. It vanishes along with all the old ghosts, and I continue on my path toward the unknown.

Do you agree with Persig's quote--do you let the past dominate everything in front of you? Does it haunt you and prevent you from moving forward? How do you let go so you can continue moving toward the unknown?

I absolutely loved Cambodia and will miss it terribly. I will definitely go back to Otres and linger a bit longer one day, but today onward to Gili Air! Also, watch out for a future post on the words I've given to all the places I've been on this journey!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Strange Paradise

I carefully walk along the muddy roads of Otres Village down to the beach. I pass half constructed buildings, shut down businesses, and a tuk tuk parked along the side of the road--the driver stretched over the back seat sleeping, his leg dangling over the edge. A few motorbikes pass me splashing puddles and dodging potholes. The entire village is eerily empty.

The long stretch of beach that sits between Otres I and Otres II is even emptier--not a soul as far as I can see in either direction. The air is warm, the water even warmer. My eyes scan over the Gulf the Thailand--dark waters and reckless waves, thunderstorm afterthoughts.

In-between the storms and black looming clouds, these moments of sunshine feel like a strange paradise--vast and empty, like driving down a Montana or Wyoming highway--a never-ending, limitless expanse into the unattainable horizon.

Incredible, breathtaking temples, sprawling white sand beaches, devastating war, still buried landmines--what lens do the people here see their landscape through?

Back when I lived in Santa Cruz, I would always walk by this guy who worked right around the corner from me, and we would always have the same exchange--he would wave and say: just another day in paradise.

Early on, I would politely smile and nod. Because I was living in paradise...right? Over time, my responses became--if you say so or depends on your definition of paradise. He might have been being sarcastic all those years. I'll never know. It took me far longer than it should have to learn that one person's paradise can be another person's hell.

I recently finished reading The Beach--dark and twisted and oddly funny. Apocalypse Now meets Lord of the Flies--you know it doesn't go anywhere good. But how could it? A group of people to young to have lived through or remember times of war brought up on pop-culture and video games and boredom find themselves living in paradise--an Eden, a utopian society on a secret beach in the middle of an island in the Gulf of Thailand. What begins in paradise ends in hell because once people are introduced to paradise it ultimately cannot hold--paradise lost. It is a complex story, powerful on so many levels. Read it.

I have seen paradise in every place I have traveled--tropical beach paradises and Himalayan Shangri-La paradises. I have also seen the dark underbellies of some of these places. The only difference between me and the locals and long term expats is that I can pick up and leave anytime. I never have to stay long enough to experience anything but paradise. Another reason (perhaps the only reason these days) to fall to my knees in gratitude.

Have you ever lived in a so called paradise and wondered if other people see it the same way? What do you consider paradise? Have you ever witnessed your paradise turn to hell? Tell me your thoughts. Tell me your stories.

And please folks, for the love of good literature, do not go out and watch the movie. It doesn't come close to capturing what the book does (not to mention it leaves out a main character, changes relationship dynamics, and waters down the ending). Skip the movie, read the book. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

Six Months Gone

Six months ago today (on January 4th) I boarded a plane at SFO with a one way ticket to India, and I have not looked back. I made a leap into the unknown with full faith that whatever awaited me was where I was meant to be and what I was meant to experience.

Two things have become very clear in these six months gone:

1. Letting go of expectation unleashes magic--all that blank space will be filled in with things better than you could have imagined.

2. I have been absolutely blown away with how different all the places I've been so far are from what I'd always heard about them. This is the magic of traveling--seeing for yourself what these places are all about and what they can bring out in you.

When I arrived here on Otres Beach I was stunned at how deserted it was--long desolate stretches of beach with nothing but trees and clean sand and clear water. The monsoon rains not yet set in making it truly feel like a deserted island--though I'm not on an island and there are still a few guesthouses and food shacks up and running at either end of the beach and in the tiny underdeveloped village that 3 years ago didn't exist. No yoga studios or workshops or classes to take, no night life to explore, no winding streets or alleyways to get lost down. Where have I landed?

I have landed in the perfect place to reflect on these past six months. I have nothing to get involved in, I have no distractions, there's no intense energy to move through nor too many things to choose from. I really wasn't sure why I chose low season Cambodia to spend this month--now that I'm here, I know.

Deciding to take the leap into the unknown has been the best decision I've made in my entire life. And each time I get on a plane or train or bus I take another leap and always land where I need to be. I don't know where things will go from here, but I do know that I can never go back to the kind of life I came from. And the only plan I have is to keep moving forward toward the light.

Do you ever take the time to reflect on your life--on the choices you've made, where they have gotten you, and where you'd like to see them take you? Have you ever hit a milestone and really thought back on how far you've come?