Monday, March 22, 2010

I Left my Heart in Southeast Asia (Part Deux)

     While the MV Explorer was still docked in HCM I was lucky enough to take a side trip to Cambodia.  We visited both Siem Reap and Pnom Penh.  The temples at Siem Reap, especially Angkor Wat at sunrise were a phenomenal experience.  Being in the presence of something so ancient, and made for love-a holy love- is definitely awe inspiring.  But my love lives in Pnom Penh.
     There was a joke made on the ship recently about how every port is changing people’s lives.  Each time we leave people feel inspired and changed.  The jokester asked, “Well if you change after every port are you going to change back when we get to Fort Lauderdale? …I think we have some serious personality issues here”.
     So, while each port has brought a different side of me out, or encouraged me to think and wonder about new issues, Pnom Penh is the one place I can honestly say has changed me and my view on the world.
     The first night in Pnom Penh we went to an orphanage.  It was dark out and the bus we took was too big to drive down the street so we had to walk down a couple of blocks to get there.  As we walked by, people stared.  It was a little eerie, unsure of where we were and what the orphanage was going to be like.  But even though it was dark and hard to see, when we turned into the orphanage there was a crowd of children, from toddlers to teenagers, waiting to meet us.  I looked around, overwhelmed, and made eye contact with one of the first girls I saw.  She looked at me; I waved and smiled; she smiled back, walked over to me, took my hand, and didn’t let go for the entire visit.
     I don’t remember her name.  It was a Cambodian name that started with an S-I felt too embarrassed to ask her what her name was again after we became friends.  She was eighteen but she looked like she was twelve.  She gave me the tour of her orphanage and first of all I need to state that these conditions were wonderful living conditions for Cambodia, but I guess my girl knew that I was taken aback when she showed me the bedroom she sleeps in with tons of other children.  The floor was bare when we went in and when I asked what they sleep on she showed me her mat, she said, “It wouldn’t be comfortable for you but it’s good for us”.  Sheesh, break my heart.
     Eventually the two of us sat down on a bench in the courtyard and watched the rest of the kids play soccer.  We talked for the rest of the time, just getting to know one another.  Although she was eighteen, she was at a ninth grade level.  She was thinking about leaving the orphanage in May to go to training school to become a receptionist or a maid.  She said she would love to finish high school and then go to college but it would take her eight more years and by that time she would be too old.  Break my heart again.  I want her to live in a world like I live in a world where you can do anything. 
     Our common ground was love.  We both discussed our relationships, past and present (well her present, and me, well…me on a ship that is 30% men).  But we understood.  She giggled when she told me that her boyfriend tells her he loves her.  I think the concept was a weird one for her nonetheless one to talk to with an almost stranger.  But we still laughed, and shared, and she taught me how to say I love you in Khmer, and she made me realize that love is the energy that keeps us alive.
     After a walk that night through the streets of Pnom Penh I got to thinking about our human needs in relation to our human happinesses.  The houses we walked past looked so shabby from an American eye-but they were normal, middle class houses-just made from metal scraps and only big enough for one bedroom—the kitchen is outside.  So people cook their meals sandwiched between the street and their home, their families gather together, they talk to their neighbors, and when the meal is through the mother’s wash the dishes on the sidewalk and the children dance and run around-barefoot.  So why don’t we do that?  Why do we lock ourselves into our four bedroom, three bathroom houses, and set the alarm when we walk through the garage?  Why do we hide from our neighbors and keep the kids in the living room watching TV?  Why don’t we live openly, freely, and quite simply, basically?
     We are human beings.  We require love and attention.  We require contact not four TVs with DVR, not a garbage disposal, not even an indoor shower.  The Cambodian people appear to have nothing to us, but they have appreciation.  They are grateful for what they have and happy to have it.  They laugh, they smile, and they live how they need.  This is my new American Dream.

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