08 August 2018

So Glad To Be Back That I Want To Go Back

It's been two weeks since my trip to Cambodia and Laos.  Everyone to whom I've mentioned it is convinced that I will go back.  So am I.  Any experience that brings me tears of both joy and sadness is worth repeating.  Of course, I wouldn't try to replicate the trip I just took:  That wouldn't be possIible.  But I could return, I believe, to what made the trip so memorable.

First among them is the people.  I already missed them during my flights home.  When I visit my friends in France, I miss them when I leave.  But I can't miss the familiar in the same way I miss the people I just met because, I guess, re-connecting with those you know can't change your perspective in quite the same way as people who allowed you into their lives,even if only for a moment, the first time you met them.  Plus, the only people I've ever met in the US who can match the vitality--who, purely and simply, have the heart and soul, for lack of better terms--are either African-American, immigrants or very old.  People in southeast Asia--especially Cambodia--have survived going to hell and back.  

I thought about that, again, the other day as I was riding back from Connecticut.  The temperature reached 34-36 Celsius (92-96F), and the humidity ranged from 80 to 90 percent.  Just before I crossed the Randalls Island Connector, I rode through the South Bronx.  Three of its ZIP codes--including 10451, where I work-- are the poorest in the United States.  Many residents indeed live in conditions most Americans--certainly those of my race and educational background--will never even have to imagine.  I know: some of those people are my students.  But even they have, if not luxuries, then amenities, that are completely out of reach for most Cambodian peasants and even city dwellers like Champa, the young woman who works at the guest house or  Sopheak, the tuk-tuk driver who took me around when I wasn't cycling.  As an example, the young woman told me she can't even stay in touch with me by e-mail because she doesn't have a device of her own, and she can't send personal messages on the guest house's internet system. 

Of course, you might say they were warm and friendly to me because I'm a tourist and they wanted me to spend money. But I experienced all sorts of helpfulness and friendliness--and a cheerfulness that's not of the American "it gets better" or "when one door closes, another opens," variety.  Perhaps the best expression of it came from a young woman at a gas station, where I stopped to ask for directions. "We are here," she said.  "We are alive.  We have today."

Then, of course, there are the things I saw.  While the Angkor Wat was the main reason I took the trip, and I spent about three full days in it, I could just as easily go back for Bayon or Banteay Srei--which, I admit, is my favorite temple--or to walk along the river junction or side streets of Luang Prabang.  And, naturally, eat the food--though I won't order a fruit shake, delicious as it was, again:  I think the ice used in it came from tap water, which unsettled my stomach on my penultimate night in Cambodia.

I must say, though, that I am glad to be riding my own Mercians again.  And, as hot and humid as it during my Connecticut ride, or on the Point Lookout ride I took yesterday, I wasn't nearly as tired because, in spite of the heat, the sun is much less intense.  And the road conditions are better, even in places like the South Bronx and Far Rockaway.

Hmm...Maybe, next time I go to Southeast Asia, I have to bring one of my own bikes--though, I must say, riding local bikes made me feel a bit more "native", if only for a few hours!


  1. Ice? No no no! Notorious and not just in Asia.

  2. Justine, I experienced similar feelings after I returned from spending some time in Haiti a few years back. To see such joy and love in the lives of the Haitian people amidst the poverty all around them made me see a lot of things differently. I felt such peace when I was there.
    I enjoyed reading this today, thanks.

  3. Coline--I knew not to trust ice. But it didn't occur to me that it was being used to make those fruit shakes!

    Chris--Some of my students are Haitian, and I have heard about the poverty. As one woman explained, "You can make a living here, but you give up some of your happiness--and your family."