Jan 19, 2019

3 months in Cambodia, but a lifetime's worth of growth

I have neglected writing for a while, but it’s time to check in and talk. I’d like to apologise – we’ve been in Phnom Penh, Cambodia now for three months and I haven’t written this sooner. But it has been three months. Three months full of highs and lows.

Phnom Penh itself is the centre of Cambodia, situated on the meeting of three rivers – the mighty Mekong flowing from Tibet via China and Lao, its tributary the Bassac, and the Tonlé Sap. Last night, the heavens opened up and the long awaited rains finally came, relieving themselves in the night sky amid bombastic displays of lightning.

To a Westerner, its chaotic pace is alien – admirable in some ways, disturbing in others. The motos buzz past in a swarm around the cars in traffic, and the river clam and cane juice vendors carve their path through it on foot pushing their carts. The tuk tuks swerve endlessly from side to side among both the elephantine cars and the hyena-like moto schools. Every once in a while, a massively over-stuffed vehicle makes its way through, piled high with disposable foam takeout containers or construction materials or sometimes livestock, alive or dead.

The reality of this city is that polar opposites can coexist next to each other. A beggar pushes himself on a tiny wooden board with wheels in front of a Bentley car dealership, the remaining parts of his missing legs jaggedly laid out in front of him. A woman sits nursing her two children, begging for money on a bridge full of tourist’s children playing with fancy toys. A massive compound tailor-made for foreigners, sporting office and coworking space, a fancy cafe, trampoline and luxury apartments is one thin concrete wall from a small local market where no sign of imported espresso beans can be found, only raw fish, meat and vegetables for sale under the shade of sun umbrellas.

It’s hard to imagine that this city was evacuated in 48 hours by the Khmer Rouge, its people sent to the countryside to work rice fields in a misguided attempt to create an agrarian, autarky society beyond anything communism or fascism could ever have concieved. I was three years old when The Republic of Vietnam finally decided enough was enough and drove the genocidal monsters to all but a thin strip along the Thai border. The country is still picking up the pieces of its recent past.

The city is also a true melting pot of every kind. The Chinese with their new money mindset, perhaps built on a caricature of what rich Westerners do with their money. Westerners with their NGOs and a mix of idealistic naïveté and good intentions. People from all over the fractured Soviet empire, with their fatalist humour and pragmatic, philosophical way to cut to the heart of this world by reading between its lines. And people like me, born in the East and raised in the West by Eastern parents.

I was confronted with something here – as time passes, and the excitement and wonder of the new thing wears off, the daily routine of life sets in. Several of my friends in Netherlands and Canada that I’ve talked to joke about how I’m on a long vacation. I’m not – I just don’t have a home. And when the sensation of feeling around for the pulse of a new place ultimately resolves to new routines, a person is left with what they started with before they left their life before – themselves.

It’s a hard thing to land face-first onto a mirror, high on travel. Not because I didn’t want to see myself there, but without the aquired comforts of permanently being somewhere stable and its distractions, a person has to confront certain things about themselves which require work to deal with. And the sudden onset of seeing your insecurities and flaws exposed so vividly ultimately leads to a confrontation with oneself.

And the reason is that every time I move, I have to start much of my life from scratch. New friends. New apartment. New coworking space. New things to do. New takes on what to do for fitness. New transportation. New routines. I have to be aggressive to find those things. Because if I don’t, I personally lose – either with being lonely, or overpaying, or with doing twice the work for something than needed. And I made mistakes along the way, mistakes that I am not waiting till the next “cycle” to fix, mistakes that I am fixing now. I see it as practice for the next reset.

For me, that landing was a gradual sense of feeling trapped. Every morning, my son wakes up at 5:30, followed by breakfast, getting dressed, and off to daycare. Then I go to my coworking space to do my work. 10 hours later, it’s time to pick him up again and think about dinner and before getting him ready for bed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. And repeat again, with no respite. It feels like quicksand – food starts to lose flavour, the uncommon starts to lose its wonder and my overall base emotional state begins to resemble a drug addict’s arm, pulsing with poison – in my case negativity. It was my absolute lowest moment when I became irritable, overly negative and unhappy. And as I informally meditated one night with my eyes staring out into the skyline – the lightning cracked the sky, the sudden bursts of light illuminated what was happening to me, allowing me a sudden jolt of clarity.

My emotional state is my own responsibility. No one else’s. If I was to pull myself out of that, it was going through changing my own behaviour and thought patterns. A part of it is the sense of guilt that comes from one part of my life being remarkable, like the travel, and then not enjoying it to the fullest because I find these flaws in it – one might call it the problems of an over-entitled person. Well, that guilt is the most useless and misguided part of it all. There are people that break their backs working 12 hours a day and find a way to be happy, and their happy disposition has absolutely nothing to do with mine. Just because there are people in the world with a missing leg does not mean that everyone with two should be a football phenom.

I dealt with it all. I made sure I did one thing each day that pushed me out of my torpor. I got back to reading, to writing, and to making every moment of my life interesting again. I started being more outgoing with strangers, exercising a bit more regularly, taking the scenic route home. And suddenly, it’s like Jackson Pollock threw a bucket of colour over my days. It’s remarkable how little it actually takes to nudge myself into a positive direction.

Sights and sounds are returning from their periphery during my willful ignorance of having my head buried in being constantly annoyed. Lights reflecting in the Mekong at night, distorted by the surface like strokes of an impressionist. The smell of delicious noodles in a wok from a food cart as I wait on my moto for the light to change. The sun reflecting off a golden temple roof in the distance. The over-dramatised acting in the Khmer-language soap opera on a dusty old cathode ray television above my table as I drink iced coffee with condensed milk.

I’m back. In more ways than one.