Monday, April 18, 2005


What am I doing here? Why am I still here?

These questions, more or less, were recently posed to me by Jenn ( in response to one of my postings, and they are actually quite good questions, valid questions, complex in their simplicity and difficult in their essentialness.

There are a thousand answers I could give, or none at all, and the silence would be just as telling as the abundance. (But if I offered silence, then this would be a blank blog, sort of a Buddhist approach to blogging, perhaps, but ultimately not that satisfying, I think. I've actually heard the sound of one hand clapping, I have, and it's not as interesting or fulfilling as the sound of two hands typing. I swear. Silence has its limits.)

Was it Einstein that said bodies in motion tend to stay in motion, and those at rest tend to stay at rest? (It was either Einstein or Elvira, queen of the night, but I'm not sure which.) The thing about travelling abroad, living abroad, is that you are simultaneously in motion and at rest. At rest, in the sense of having a home, a place to work, a city to live in. In motion, in the sense of being constantly bombarded by people and places, things and stuff, that alter your trajectory and instill a sense of wonder at the world that is not impossible to find at home, no, but is more difficult. More elusive and transitory.

It's easier to find wonder here, even amidst the poverty, perhaps because of the poverty. On the weekend I went with a friend and a few others to the province of Kompong Speu, about an hour outside of Phnom Penh, to a village whose name I no longer remember and could never pronounce, and we stayed at the house of a student at my old university, a gentle young man kind enough to invite a few foreigners to his house for the end of the Khmer New Year. (The Khmer New Year lasts about a week or so, and is filled with drinking and dancing and dousing, using water, of anyone and everyone who happens to be in sight. Said water often seen hurtling from the hands of a delinquent youth on the back of a moto or the side of the stree6; said water often seen slamming into your face and your neck and your chest.)

The village was another world -- in this one, but not of it. Located about an hour from Phnom Penh, accessible by a main road that gradually, windingly leads to smaller, divergent paths, it is small and dusty and dirty and green and lush and, above all, fasincating. Populated by 150 families, all of them farmers, it is a reminder that the world can, and often is, a small and contained place, oblivious to the grandmasters who plot and plan our lives.

The houses are wooden, often two stories, suspended on stilts above the land, overlooking rice fields and dirt fields and home to six, seven, eight and more people per plot. There are no cars or motos; people travel by bicycle, or they walk. They have animals to lead, pigs and dogs and cows and chickens. An abundance.

Being a foreigner in a place like this is to be a guest and a celebrity, a curiosity and a marvel, all in equal measure, simultaneously. We participated in various games that, even now, in
retrospect, seem distant and unreal, a memory viewed through a foggy glass. I was blindfolded and given a large stick; up ahead, twenty or so feet in front of me, hung suspended on a rope tied between two poles were three small pots filled with water. I had to walk five steps, then swing, three times. If I was lucky enough to hit a pot, well, it would break, and water would fall, and I would avoid the falling shards of pottery, and a group of happy Khmers would make some money while others would lose it (as even the poor love to bet).

Alas, it was not to be. I swung three times, but failed to hit a pot, knocking only the horizontal beam. In my darkened, blindfolded state, I thought it was a ceramic pot; I thought I was half-way lucky. Only when I the blindfold was removed and I was faced with the laughter and applause of a hundred and more Khmers did I realize my folly.

There were more games -- sackraces, amongst others -- followed by a night of eating and dancing, with the adults and children enjoying the last few, lingering hours of the Khmer New Year in an open field, with a blaring soundsystem, with endless beers, with laughing children and adults and teenagers dancing, dancing, dancing, as only the Cambodians can do. There was a wide and dark sky, a half-shrouded silver moon, the sounds of laughter and youth; there was all of this, and more. (I'm not even mentioning the night spent sleeping under the gossamer spread of a mosquito net.) Another world was exposed to me, and I eagerly, almost greedily, took a look. And another. And another.

Even the flat-tire on the car ride home couldn't dampen the good feelings that had been gathered and cultivated the day before. (Chaos is mandatory in Cambodia.) The sister who studies English so hard, in love with the tangled syntax and grammar; the fierce hugs of the commune chief; the smiles and respect afforded to us by the townsfolk, who have nothing, and yet willingly gave us it all, and more -- this is what I recall, what sticks. These images, and the strange, almost mystical fabric of Asia itself, its superstitions and people, the hazy fabric of reality that seems to tear and glimmer more often, more brightly, than back home.

Why do I stay? If I wanted to be anywhere else than I would be somewhere else. If I was supposed to be in a different land, or my homeland, than I would be there. I stay because in two months, two years, I might be gone, and I need to live now, here, in this place.

I stay, for now, which is all I have, because I want to advance -- or, if not move forward, at least expand the paths of my inertia, broaden my stability, dig a trench not longer, no, but deeper, wider, stronger.

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