I saw him at the Foreign Correspondents club last night, Al Rockoff, the wartime photographer that John Malkovich portrayed in The Killing Fields, a move I still haven't gotten around to watching. (I've been to the killing fields; I just haven't watched the movie.)
The Foreign Correspondents is basically Phnom Penh's premier upscale restaurant, not the hoity-toity gin-and-cigar type place that the name implies; there are always a lot of foreigners there, true, but the only correspondence going on is usually between the slightly tipsy dudes and dudettes at the bar asking for another beer. Oh, and when a place is classified as 'upscale', that's just code for 'ridiculously expensive'.
Al Rockoff was here when the Khmer Rouge took over the city back in 1975 (only a few weeks before I was born, I believe), and he's still here. Not always, no, but six months out of the year, perhaps, you can find him hanging around town, drinking beer, probably taking pictures.
He was here when everything fell apart. He was here when the nightmare began, to sound a little melodramatic. And he's here to watch the backpackers come and go, sunburnt and holding their Lonely Planet guidebooks like the Bibles that they are.
What brings us to a place? What keeps us there? What makes us come back, again, again, then again?
The people, the food, the weather, the sights, the streets, the sounds, the adventure, the romance, the intrigue -- all of these, none of these, a combination. We go to someplace new to allow ourselves the hint of mystery; we stay where we are, we plant, to gain perspective.
Tricky thing is, in gaining that perspective, we lose it. Stay anywhere long enough, and you don't see anything anymore. You don't witness it. It just drifts by. Spend a few days in Japan and Cambodia and your brain, psyche, emotions and spirit undergo sensory overload; spend a few years, and something else settles in for a spell.
Call it comfort. Call it familiarity. Call it whatever you want, but you know what I mean. At some point in time, a place becomes your place. You don't have to like it, or enjoy it, or even understand it, but you endure it, and it endures you. You grow around each other.
These might not be the places you call home, no, but they're certainly the places that take you under their wing and carry you away; they serve as mentors -- not to a trade, or an art, but to that elusive combination of both, that undertaking we call 'life'.