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Posts Tagged ‘Cambodia’


He tells me a story about his life under Pol Pot. I imagine palm trees and the hot, humid weather. I imagine the fear. He’s in his fifties but I think he’s thirty-something. His face is at peace and smooth of Western worry. His eyes are warm and do not haunt. Treks have kept him fit. His body is lithe and free of indulgence – he eats just enough to survive. He is here with us. Standing like his name, like a tree, straight and quiet.

He tells us: They came to our village and lined us up.

We sit around him, a group of trekkers, silent, listening to him. We look up to him, like school children would to a teacher.

He tells us: They tied our hands with rope. My mother, my father, my brother, me and the rest of our village all lined up in a row. I am small so I am at the back. I am blindfolded so I cannot see anything but I hear the sounds of chopping. A deep thwack and a stifled scream. Then I hear the whimpering of those in front of me as they await their fate. I am only ten but I know death when I hear it.

We sit silent and still. Fear has gripped us. His nightmare, still so clear in his mind, is now in our mind. We share his fear. He shares his soul.

He tells us: My blindfold is loose and I can see a little out of it. I turn my head up to see men hitting their machetes into people’s heads. Sometimes they hit them a number of times before they fall. I hear the falling bodies. I let the blindfold cover my eyes again as I don’t want to see anymore.

He tells us: I have never been so afraid. I am small and so afraid. I feel them coming closer and I hear the sound of my mother, father and brother dying. I don’t look at them. I can’t see them but I hear them dying. I feel the men come closer. I feel the rope go slack around my wrists.

We don’t know how he’s standing in front of us, like a tree, unmoved by his horror. Imagining his fear is almost too much for us.

He tells us: The rope goes slack and I quickly look out of the gap in my blindfold. The men are distracted and my legs run towards the jungle. It is not far and it is thick. I run into the jungle and hide. I hear them yelling and running after me. I find a spot, well hidden and don’t move. They search for me until dark. I remain frozen under a tree. Frozen by fear and frozen by the fact I have escaped death when my family did not. I am alone.

We look at this man who is not defined by his fear. His name is fitting. Like a tree, he is strong. He is probably the strongest man I know even though he’s barely five foot four and weighs less than me, less than a woman.

He tells us: I spent a year in the jungle. Eating and living off the jungle. It was my friend and it was my enemy. Then the Vietnamese army captured me and I fight with them. I try to escape but it was hard so I stay with them. I saw America bomb Vietnam and Cambodia and I saw lots of land mines. Sometimes up close. Sometimes after someone’s leg had been blown off.

He shows us a scar from a land mine. It is a river etched into his skin, deepened with time flowing through him like a beautiful tattoo. It is smooth and holds no hurt or anger. Like Tree, his skin has showed defiance over tragedy to tell us it is only temporary and all things can heal in their own way.

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Image: Arthur Rackham, 1907

I imagined when Alice fell down the rabbit-hole she fell elegantly. A gentle drop, floating down toward the unknown.

Down,

down,

down.

She had time to think as she fell slowly and wonder what would happen next. She wondered how many miles she fell and if she was getting near the centre of the earth. Indeed, she wondered if she would fall through the earth.

Down,

down,

down.

In a dream-like state she wondered if anyone would miss her while she descended towards the centre of the earth, elegantly falling and floating.

Down,

down,

down.

She had time to think nonsense. Do cats eat bats? she wondered. Do cats eat bats?

?

I thought about Alice today as I remembered when I fell down a hole. I wondered how she managed to fall so elegantly.

I was in Battambang, Cambodia. It’s a crumbling old French provincial town, lined by the murky Sangker River. It is smaller and less congested than its sister city Phnom Penh and the children have bigger, whiter smiles.

Like Alice, I was in awe of its beauty and wanted to follow its magic. Husband and I had drinks at the two-storey Riverside Balcony Bar. The bar sits on the banks of the murky river that snakes its way through the city, and bubbles and slurps quietly. It’s nice being close to the water. Watching it flow quickly through the city is soothing. It didn’t need to be blue. We sat and drank, played a game of cards, ate pizza, listened to the crickets chirping, breathed the humid air and watched the water move.

Some take a taxi back to their hotel. We walked. Like Alice, I’m curious.

‘What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?’

I wanted my pictures to speak of the city that I saw for myself, walking through it. We walked back along the murky, moving river. I felt almost dream-like, like Alice. It was dark and there was little lighting along the river but I could hear the water flow. The moonlight was bright and the trees made shadows on the path we walked on. It was hard to see the dips and cracks in the poorly maintained path. I saw a big dark shadow in front of me. Husband was in front so I thought it was okay and I stomped my heavy trekking boot down on the shadow. I felt that if I stomped my foot down with confidence, the path will be more secure and real.

And I fell.

Down,

down,

down.

Except there was no white rabbit to follow. I immediately panicked and wondered how deep the hole was. My hands flew out in front of me to grab something. What had I got myself into? I wanted to protect my face so I turned to try land on my back. It ended as quickly as it begun.

Thud. I didn’t float.

Down, down, down, thud.

No time to wonder how many miles I’d fallen. Two metres all up. I didn’t wonder if cats ate bats. I didn’t have time to wonder at all.

Husband stopped in front of me. I cried out some sort of incoherent word. I wanted to cry like a five-year would cry when they fall over and scrape their knee. Silence and then a loud and sudden cry. I remained in the hole in shock.

This wasn’t how Alice experienced it. I wasn’t in England, tripping over grassy hills covered in English wildflowers. I didn’t fall elegantly. My shoulder burned where I fell on it. I tried to move and it was agony. I thought I’d broken my arm or shoulder. I wanted my mother there, stroking my hair and singing ‘you are my sunshine’ like she used to when I had a fever.

Ex-army husband went into soldier mode. ‘Get yourself up, check your vitals.’

I still wanted to cry and couldn’t move. I felt the burning on my palms that comes from scraping them on gravel and I knew there was blood. I gasped in the humid air like a winded five-year old.

‘I think I broke something.’

‘You’d know if you broke something. You’d be screaming.’

Husband helped me out of the hole, still in soldier mode.

‘Check yourself out. Just cuts and bruises, I’m sure. You’re fine.’

And I thought, Alice didn’t have to do this. She landed in a heap of sticks and dry leaves, and the fall was over. She was not a bit hurt, and she jumped up on to her feet in a moment: she looked up, but it was all dark overhead. I looked up and it was dark but I was a bit hurt.

And I didn’t float. I just fell.

I should have read Alice in Wonderland before the trip. ‘Come, there’s no use in crying like that! I advise you to leave off this minute!’ she would have told me. It just sounds better coming from her (rather than husband).

© running with the beagle 2010

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