"Not all who wander are aimless. Especially not those who seek truth beyond tradition, beyond definition, beyond the image."

Sunday, January 4

Genocide, Poverty, Hope, Beauty

Cambodia 27/12/08-3/1/09
Poipet-Siem Reap-Phnom Phen-Battambang

Cambodia has rattled me to my core--in a way that leaves me eager to return. I have heard stories, read books, been warned of the poverty. But nothing would fully register until my own senses were set loose. As we travel down the 2.5 hour red, dirt road, I see things not only in the "here and now", but I also see them, with the help of a memoir by Loung Ung (First They Killed My Father), as they were 30 years ago. From 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in a war that would see nearly 2 million (out of a population of only about 7 million) men, women and children killed in an act of Genocide so horrific, I don't have the words, or the understanding, to do a description justice. As I wander around S-21 Tuol Sleng in Phnom Phen, I look, in horror, at the evidence of a school-turned-torture-prison. Instead of desks, there are metal bed frames used to bind, torture, and kill people the Khmer Rouge saw as a threat. The children here are only learning how to survive another minute, another hour, another day. Learning what it feels like to be tortured, to stave, to be ripped away from their families. I step into one of the make-shift cells and imagine what it must have felt like 30 years before. The recency of it all sends chills down my back. At a time when my own big brother was being conceived, someone else's big brother was being tortured, starved, killed. I blink away a tear and continue wandering. I over hear tour guides giving their story. All are young and all have a story that has been brutally set by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Inside these walls, the memories are impossible to escape, but outside is a Country that continues to fight, to hope, to yearn for a better tomorrow. It would be understandable if they remained broken, but their spirit is so uplifting, it not only carries them, it carries heavy-hearted travelers, as if they are telling the world that they have survived, they will survive.

As I stroll around the ruins of the Angkor temples (built between the 8th and 13th centuries), I'm overcome with emotion. The energy it brings me will be hard to beat and the peacefulness fuels my ever increasing Buddhist curiosity. The pride the Country has for these old sites pours out of every root-entangled inch, out of every ancient carving, out of every bullet-littered lion guardian. And, although the packs of tourists frustrates me, it's a reminder that the persistent hopefulness of a wounded nation is paying off. The Angkorian temples is their pride and joy (for good reason), and the world has finally caught on. I'm left in the most awe at the sites that have been overtaken by nature. Massive tree roots are so intertwined with the ruins that my mind cannot piece together the when or how. They wrap their finger-like branches deeply, tightly, into every crevice, as if clinging to hope while trying to simultaneously suffocate a dark past.

The un-touristed Cambodia passes me by, and I can't help but think of family camping trips. Half-clothed children, permeantly stained a redish-brown from the unescapable dusty, dirt roads, go about their daily activites. Some run back and forth to the water pump, which, thanks to a "clean water act" and generous international donations, is now safer for them to drink. Some bent over a small fire, eating or cooking. Some hanging clothes on the line and others gathering wood. I remember how I felt on my family camping trips--how excited I was when I successfully hung a make-shift clothes line, or gathered the perfect fire wood--how much I loved staying dirty and running around in my little-girl underwear. The memories bring a smile to my face, but when I bring myself back to reality, I remember that this is no camping trip--no weekend of roughing it for these families. This is life. I can't help but wonder what darkness lies in their hearts. Did they too lose loved ones? Did they watch a brother, mother, sister be tourtured? Did someone in their family sacrafice so they could live? When nearly 1 in 4 people were killed in a war that ended less than 30 years ago, there is a high possibility that they would answer 'yes' to at least one of those questions---and that reality continues to haunt my thoughts and break my heart.

In the city of Siem Reap, the newly-built resturants and hotels seem too out of place to enjoy. It's impossible to get through a meal without at least one street kid coming to your table asking for food or water---or a book seller trying desperately to make a buck or two. I find it easier to say no, to continue walking past the beggers in the streets (here or anywhere--) when I know that giving them money is no solution. It becomes so exhausting saying no--to the booksellers with missing limbs (oh yeah, Cambodia is one of the most mined countries in the world), to the kids selling bracelets (12 for $1...MISSS...cheap price for you), paintings, drinks, woven grasshoppers, postcards--that I feel myself getting frustrated. But before I allow that emotion to take over, I ask myself--if saying no exhausts me, what must hearing no do to these kids? This thought kills me, and reminds me to, at the least, keep a smile on my face while saying no for the nteenth time. But when a 4 year old approaches, holding an empty bottle, wearing an infant on her hip, and asking for milk, my heart is all out of 'no's'. It's soothing watching the 2 dirtied faces eat and drink, but I can't help but wonder if my weakness in this situation only did more to hinder the solution--what ever that may be. When I get home that night, the images of the street children are fresh in my mind. When I look down at my white shirt, I notice a face-shaped stain just above my belly-button. It doesn't take long to register that this dirt-print is from the small boy who ran up to me on the street and hugged me---thus leaving an imprint on me---and my shirt!

It seemed only fitting that we would end our trip at a local orphange in Battambang. Before I came to SE Asia, I told people that ultimately, I wanted to end up in an Orphange in Cambodia. I had no idea why. The words just seemed to flow out of my mouth without much thought. But as I fought back the stench of urine in the nursery ward and held an innocent, infant body to my chest, I knew I belonged. The calmness of these babies is something I still can't get over. It saddens me to think that they are so accustomed to being alone, that, even in their few months of life, they have already learned to cope...alone. They lay, unentertained, without so much as a whimper. But, when I took 1 after another into my arms, nature took over. If it wasn't immediately obvious that they still do, as nature intends, crave human connection, it became obvious when their eyes moved from a locked fixation on my (foreign) eyes to a deep sleep within minutes of being held. As if they simple needed that reassurance, that touch, to know that everything was going to be okay. I long to do more---and can only hope that I continue to lose sleep at night. In my heart, I know I'll return. Hopefully as a more long-term volunteer at that orphanage. But until then, I'm happy to be home. Happy to start work tomorrow. Happy for the experience, as hard as it may have been. Happy that the people so openly welcomed me into their Kingdom, into their painful past, and invited me to hope with them for a much brighter future.