Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Retrospective 7: on the trip to Banteay Chma

The authorities are getting ideas--
the woman who plants chilies
and the man who plant mung beans
have been told that they must stop
using the degraded field around
the U-shaped muddy moat that
encircles the jumble of stones and
precarious tower of the ancient
Khmer temple Ta Prohm.
Four giant serene faces gaze out upon
the landscape in the four cardinal directions--
the fourth face is splitting upwards from its chin,
gravity tugging at its supporting lintel.
The authorities are returning on the 5th of September,
to discuss these matters, these sliding stones.
The woman knows the type of wood that has been
used to shore up the four lintels and the bowing arches;
she gives me a handful of green chilies, bundled into a
pouch made from twisting her sarong. I put them into
the front of my shirt for the walk home under the blazing
sun in a humid sky threatening rain. Someone unknown
has been uprooting the shrubs that have taken root around
the dilapidated towers, burning the undergrowth. The smell
of hot ash rises as I slowly circle the tower to gaze upon all
four faces. On my way out I pass a structure
like a chicken shed
and see pieces of carvings, stacked haphazardly--
a lotus flower pillar,
three partial statues of meditating Buddhas--
the bases with the crossed
feet and the cradled hands
resting upon them remain, the heads and torsos
are gone. They were probably victims of the 1998 debacle
that allowed the Thai military to loot Banteay Chma,
the vast broken sister
of this small temple. These fragments
surely have great value,
but no one is guarding this precious rubble,
and I stand in the ashes
and reach out and lift one of the blocks--
a curving shoulder.
I look for its companions, but find nothing.
It is startling heavy, this
piece of ancient stone, and I feel like a looter,
toting around the Buddha's shoulder,
stroking the toes on one standing foot. Hewing off
these stones heads, these shoulders
would have required great strength
and heavy tools. These pieces of the twelfth century,
dismembered, stolen,
lie now in my insignificant hands.
The block scrapes against its fellows
when I lay it back down. It was the fighting that destroyed the temples,
a woman argues. The Khmer Rouge were at one temple, the resistance
was stationed over there. Originally she accused the Vietnamese,
but then the group of interested onlookers agreed that this fighting was fifteen years ago,
long after the Vietnamese had gone.
Time has become elided here, in these places
where years were marked by battle after battle.
We hid in trenches, she said. Airplanes
shelled them. They even cooked rice in the trenches.
Her grandfather was too afraid
to open his eyes.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Retrospective 6: the middle of August

The toads are going wild tonight,
Heart and Nga have been unfairly labeled gangsters,
the air is blessedly cool and I am back in the village,
joyfully so.
Grandmother Muon is better
and lavishing love upon
the sole remaining ginger kitten,
to my grateful surprise.
A candle burns on my trunk,
Sombath and Pin laugh with their mother,
we will go to that great old temple Banteay Chma together,
and my heart is glad.
Today, my 100th bird in Cambodia--
those lovely lovely rufous treepies,
hopping about in their sleek suits
of colors--grey and peach and white and black--
crying out and flying with the tips of their wing feathers
extended like fingers, soaring over the top of the ploughed field.
And the chestnut bee-eaters stalked me, following me on and on,
and unseen birds raged in a tree.

Retrospective 5: Grumblings on Volume

I am tired of the yelling
whenever anyone wants anyone else.
There is no thought of disturbing others--
my host father shouts at my host sister,
fast asleep in her small room,
to come and catch the pigeons.
It was half past ten.
They awakened me too,
demanding I come and hand over my torch
so we could catch and eat the pigeons.
It is not lost on me that I have been complaining
rather a lot about these broody pigeons,
but shouldn't sleep be somewhat sacred?
Whoever was up at half past five this morning
began noisily stacking wood,
my host brother Jane turns on tractors and leaves them to idle
at all hours--once it's light, it's daytime,
and when there's a task needs doing, it's my host sister they call for,
even in the dead of night.
I'm tired of it.
And I'm tired of loud music blaring from vast speaker systems,
first the flying horse evenings,
the carousel with terrible disco tracks,
then three nights of hideous wedding music, and today,
the day of penance at the temple,
monks chanting and megaphones squealing from four a.m. onwards,
at intervals.
I'm in essence tired of the VOLUME.
Why must everything be so loud?
Why must we all be forced to hear each other's events?
And how can earplugs,
which were Designed for ears,
be so absurdly uncomfortable?

Retrospective 4: in Kampot at the riverhouse with friends

Ah, Lord,
here I am.
Slowly clumsily surfacing--
my head aching
and my limbs heavy
from that drugged afternoon sleep,
here in the still hot sun of four o'clock,
in the soft shurr of a broom sweeping,
listening to the wind in the dry palms,
watching shadows shift,
feeling the world's glory.

My obsession with newness,
my boredom, my desire to hunt,
to know, to number, to accumulate,
these things threaten
the pleasure of my birding--
I don't do well with sameness,
with ordinariness--Katie's book recommendation,
the spectacular ordinary life--
the very title makes me nervous.
But surely it isn't all bad,
wanting to know,
to see as deeply as possible
the world around me--
what is the red winged hawk
that hunts over the Frenchman's spring?
What is the red capped brown ball of feathers
that vanishes into the reeds of our farm's pond
whenever I steal up close?

My thanks for a morning--
for flooded fields of water still as glass,
for tiny fish swimming over the hoof prints of cows,
for small bays cut into the thick stiletto palms
crowding the river's edge, covered with crab tracks,
for the yellow flowers with red hearts
that float along the meniscus of the brackish riverworld,
for grave mounds covered with thin strips of white cloth,
for rollers high and bright and fearless in the trees,
for wind in the papery sighing of the sugar palms,
for small bridges and boats that pass beneath them,
for all the many knit muscles of our arms,
that we can push an oar through the water, and row along--
for the possible treepie, and the innumerable brown bulbuls,
swooping from one bush to the next,
for a mighty fig tree towering above the forest,
for generous friends with quiet hearts--
and for last night's walk in the moonlight
along a river under the moon,
watching mountains against a starry sky--
for all these things,
my thanks, my praise,
my devotion.

Retrospective 3: Silence in Mondulkiri

And all I want are the green hills and the feathered things,
the quiet of this morning's tramp--
not a human soul but myself for three blessed hours.
Just the alarmed birds,
and judging by the packs of small boys with slingshots
glimpsed on my way home,
good reason for that fear.

Solitude from people
and the presence of the creatures,
mute, instinctual, wild--
more resonant--
ringing like bells,
tolling the energy and passion and creativity of God,
bringing us back
to a better understanding
of our place in the order of things--
loved, yes, cherished,
but merely motes in the vast rushing universe
borne aloft by God's undying love.

They praise better than we do--
they praise simply by being.
They return my awareness to being a creature,
a creature of God, that lives and must die.

Henri Nouwen wrote:
Silence is the way to make solitude a reality.

Yet in the heat and the noise
and the unrelenting presence of others
in the Cambodian village--
how can I pray?
I who become alive
when alone and away
from the hum of human activity.
Teach me to pray, Jesu,
in the midst of the world.

Retrospective 2: blazing heat

I cannot stand the noise--
the horrible music with the bass throbbing
the clashing of another music from across the street
the rumbling of diesel generators
the cries and yells of the dubbed Chinese films
the frantic barking of dogs
the hoarse crowing of roosters
the screeching claws and incessant cooing of the doves above my bed,
the popping of the fire of the burning corncobs,
blazingly hot and terrifyingly close to the house,
a single bucket of water propped beside them,
the wooden boards of the wall hot to the touch,
the sparks roiling and rising.

Are you enjoying living in the wilderness?
the commune authority said to me today--
it's fully forested, this place.

Relatively speaking.
But the burned logs roll out in wagons every day,
smoldering in the charcoal pits,
ending up as charred black lumps for sale
in old rice bags on the side of the road.
The poor feed off the forest.


It was a long year, my year spent largely in the village, and I spent less time writing in a journal than I have ever done. I took fieldnotes--jottings on my world and its events and people for my thesis, but I filled only one thin journal with thoughts on my own soul, my own self. I was lost to myself in some ways, which is perhaps necessary for being turned inside out, for trying to understand other lives. Yet I knew myself blessed by God--every door I needed to live in northwest Cambodia swung wide open and all I had to do was gather my courage and walk through them. And walk and walk, for it was a year, an entire year, of my one short sweet life. I am looking through this past year's slim journal tonight, and I have decided to post some excerpts in the coming days in this long neglected forum, in honor of that year now gone forever.

it's bad when you forget to cite someone, but I did,
and here were their ringing words, given to us
to reflect upon at a February retreat:

Whoever is on a journey towards God
goes from one beginning to another beginning.
Will you be among those who dare
to tell themselves: Begin again!
Leave discouragement behind!
Let your soul live!

Wednesday, 7 April 2010


I just called my village family. In the village where I left them at the end of January.
I'm still spinning from it.
I begged them to summon my grandmother
from her little house,
who says water comes from her eyes when she thinks about me,
and asked when I'm coming back again.
I said in two years
and forbade her to get Heavily Ill.
My host mother and I discussed
the many layers of clothes I'm wearing,
the phone card I had to buy to ring them,
the dry hot season they're having,
and the fact that my sisters
had dreamed of me the night before,
which was clearly now
an omen that I would be in touch.
My brother Jane and I discussed
his fever
and the young papaya trees now growing
on his farm.
My niece Srei Leakh
informed me about her birthday
and the gifts she was given,
and asked about a hundred times
if I missed her.
The village chief, my adopted father,
said he's tired of working for no money
as the village chief,
but the authorities won't let him resign,
and asked when my wedding was scheduled...

Which brings us to my Lie.
I felt bad about this Lie all year.
It was an attempt to go into the village
as a respectable and comprehensible unmarried woman.
I said I had left a fiancee back in Scotland,
who I'd marry after I finished my schooling.
And then by the time I started feeling really guilty
about this whole lie,
it had already been passed all the way up
and it was too late.
I figured that if the entire district
found out I'd been telling stories,
they would assume that nothing
about me was as it seemed.
So now I had to kill this Lie,
this albatross of falsehood.
This involved More Lying.
I said that our hearts
were no longer in agreement
because I had been away too long,
and the wedding was off.
So. Lies upon lies.

One of the gentlemen farmers,
this rich man who has a farm
and a job in the capital
and comes up occasionally
to faff about and get very drunk
with the village chief,
had informed my host family
that I had severed my heart
from them all
as evidenced by my not calling.
I felt quite annoyed by this.
But now they can tell him
he's wrong.
They dreamed of me,
and I called
from a cold land,
to a hot place
waiting for the rain,
and about to welcome in
their new year.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010


I have a confession to make.
I'm no longer a bad birder.
One thing led to another...
and I got in over my head and started hanging about
charming and esoteric people who could say,
O, western marsh harrier, that's a first for southeast Cambodia
when a large brown hawk-thing dashed by...
and I let my deep and pressing need for knowledge to get involved...
and I've become a half decent birder.

Hallum has informed me that I must resign my post as the head of the Bad Birder of Cambodia (and Friends). I said that surely as the founder of the whole glamorous endeavor, I couldn't be made redundant. He said that I was now actually a Birdwatcher, and would actually get up early in the morning for the cause. I admitted that this was true. He said I can remain a sort of spiritual director of the thing, but he is taking up the reins. I said that he needed to start using his binoculars if he wanted to watch birds. He said that this sort of talk is the reason I've been summarily promoted out of my own society...

I still don't take photographs of birds. My apologies to those dear (and sometimes annoying, yes, Eli, Ornithological Brother-Friend, I mean you) friends who keep asking why I don't. I really think that one either watches birds or photographs birds, and I would rather watch them. Someday, if I ever have a good camera again, I will reconsider this state of affairs.

I am, however, going to learn to draw birds. I've become disgraced by my own field notes, which occasionally have a badly scrawled cartoon-like head of a bird that doesn't help me in the slightest when I identify it later. And I need things to do to keep me sane this year, and I can't just up and go the far reaches of Scotland in pursuit of birds anytime I leave the office. So. Birds. On paper. Drawn with pencils. And maybe some Markers.

I bought a book about it. The main problem with the very gorgeous book that I bought is that the guy thinks we should all be drawing birds in the field. As in on the wing, on the wire, in the pond. This takes me back to the far reaches issue. And it makes me think that I should maybe then just get on with the photography... This whole birding thing just keeps getting more complicated. I have good binoculars now, and now I feel my life would be infinitely better if I had a Harness to wear them on. I have finally started using a birding notebook, and now I'm supposed to be dragging art supplies out to the lagoons? Honestly. I'll be living in a caravan soon, surrounded by archaic tomes on birds of the world.

All of this to say that the BBC (and friends) might need rechristening. Suggestions welcome.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

stripping the church

We had our last supper this evening,
and then we stripped the church,
together, in silence.

We yanked down these lovely sailing ships
the children made out of cut-apart plastic bottles--
their pennants sailed gaily above our heads all this Lent
while we thought of the food we eat
and the waste we make.

We took away the altar cloth, which was brown,
with small white squares covered with the thumbprints of
our congregation.
It was all bundled up and dragged off.

We took away all the stones
and the clay candle-holders
and the fishing net strung full of empty bottles and cans.
We carried out the cross.
It was all stuffed in the back room.
It felt like a kind of violence,
like we were killing things.
And I realized that each time
we deal in death
or act in cruelty
or turn from mercy
we abandon him.

Our vicar read that
the disciples abandoned him
in Gesthemane,
in the garden,
with the mob that had come
to take him away,
and I wanted to say, no,
no, let's stay this time,
let's stay with each other,
let's keep watch with him,
let's stay awake,
let's hold his hand
through the long dark night to follow.
But they didn't,
and nor do we.

Little Xanthy got confused when asked to blow out
the tea candles that represented the disciples,
and also blew out the big candle that represented Jesus.
Her brother Sebastian whispered loudly,
He's dead.
And Xanthy looked alarmed,
as if she had killed him,
and I thought, no, my sweet,
it wasn't you,
we did it.
We all did.
We blew out the light
and we walked away.