Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Bamboo Train

This, I promise, will be my last post about Cambodia for a while. You will have gathered that I love the place, and its people - and maybe I go on a bit when I talk about it.

But I can't leave the country without talking about, no, not Angkor Wat. Though Angkor Wat, of course, is spectacular. I spent a week there, pottering about temples and soaking in the enormity of the place. (Yes, there are enough temples to keep you enthralled for a week! That is how big it is).

Most visitors to Cambodia fly into Siem Reap, spend a day or two at Angkor Wat, and fly out again. A few may make it down the Mekong to Phnom Penh, to sit by the riverside with a coconut ice.

But the really inquisitive head for lesser-known towns. (Not into the countryside, however, tempting it looks. There are too many landmines there; even straying behind a bush for a pee can cause and explosion.) Which is how I ended up in Battambang, on the bamboo train.

Imagine, if you can, a fence panel on its side, an axle at each end, and an engine no bigger than that powering my lawn mower. There are cushions for wimpy tourists, and even a small rail to hold onto (at the front, not the sides.). The driver is barely old enough to shave. And the rails - they were constructed when the French were here, and built this track so that local farmers could take their goods to market. The track once extended from Battambang to Phnom Penh, and most of it is still in use. But the rails, subject to tropical sun and monsoon rains, have warped over the years. In places they have disappeared and the wheels lurch, somehow, over the gaps. Bridges over irrigation canals might once have been sturdy, but much of the structure has worn away and one bridge we went over was nothing but track balanced at each end with nothing underneath.

It is, of course, a great game to frighten the tourists. Drivers race along, the whole thing clattering beneath us, the wind in our hair, while bottoms bouncing over every gap in the rails. Health and safety - pah!

Something coming the other way? This, you see, is a single track railway. Drivers come to a quick agreement as to which train has the least cargo, and then dismember than one - putting the pieces to the side of the track - the fuller train chunters through, and then the first is reassembled. (I was excused train-construction duty; tourists who are young and fit are expected to do their bit!)

Even now, it is used by local people taking goods to market. We were there for fun, but still shared our little train with a man wearing an unlikely smart hat and his bicycle.

If you click here and scroll down, you'll see a picture of the train. Don't you think commuting would be much more fun if we did it this way? Treat yourself - imagine Paddington Station, or Waverley, or Penn Station in New York, full of bamboo trains ...

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Phillay - what happened next.

Thank you, everyone, for the wonderful reaction to my little poem about Phillay.

The Khmer Rouge were in power for four years, and then there was a long war with the Vietnamese, who invaded as a liberating army, before the regime fell and Cambodia could begin to rediscover herself. 

Phillay escaped through the minefields to the refugee camps in Thailand. And here is where his recovery began. I've seen the same images of refugees that you have: rows of tents, people sitting around with nothing to do, waiting for the next meal to appear. Yes, sometimes it is like that. It takes time to provide everyone with the wherewithal to cook for themselves. Central kitchens, clean water, medical centres - all need organising, if people are to stay alive.

But UNHCR, who ran most of the refugee camps in Thailand, see their job as much more than warehousing survivors while the rumpus dies down. Lying about waiting to have essentials provided is no preparation for a return to one's own home, even if you are traumatised by what has happened.

They regard education as fundamental to recovery - and particularly crucial in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge closed all schools and regarded writing as evidence of bourgeois thinking. Education - we take it for granted. But for refugees it is precious. Not only are reading, writing, and basic numeracy essential, but practical classes make it possible for people to consider how they might earn a living, feed a family, on their return. There were workshops for motorbike maintenance, the use of sewing machines, how to construct a simple dwelling.

As well as basic skills, many people were taught a second language. Why, you might ask, learn a language? Don't they have enough to deal with without coping with language lessons. But these lessons served several functions: they gave people who felt totally helpless in the face of everything that had happened to them a sense that they could achieve something. If they could learn English, they could do anything. Some still use it - working with tourists. (Wherever I went in Cambodia, people wanted to practise their English.) In addition, the discipline involved in learning a language helped to quieten fragmented thinking: by filling their minds with words some of the terrifying images of the last few years took a different shape.

Phillay spent two years in a refugee camp. Meanwhile UNHCR negotiated land deals, ensured that everyone returning home had a basic shelter and a cow (he also had a wife, met in the camp, and the first of his ten children. He is a happy man.) As the country settled, and opened for tourists, he sold his cow to buy a tuk tuk (he calls it his tuk tuk cow) and makes money by careering all over Battambang. (His driving is, er, interesting. He warned the short cut might be bumpy. He did not say we would be hurtling through a cemetery!)

He is a man of great courage - yet doesn't recognise it. Though he does acknowledge his gratitude to UNHCR, without whom he would have no home, no wife, no children, no tuk tuk, no language. Next time I whinge about winter, please remind me just how lucky I am.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Poem from Cambodia

I've been asked to blog this.

I met Phillay, driving his tuk tuk, last time I was in Cambodia, and he told me his story of survival from the  Khmer Rouge. (I'm assuming you all know something about the terrible times that the Khmer Rouge brought to Cambodia.)

I promised to tell his story when I came home - this is an extraordinary tale of terror and courage that we need to hear it, however uncomfortable that might be. But when I came to write it, as a story, I found it simply too painful. I couldn't hold it together in the boundaries of a story - somehow the horrors fell out of the edges and contaminated everything.

But I could write it as a poem. By attending to rhythms, and line lengths, and the general sound of the piece I could, at last, give his story a shape. This is not everything that happened to him, but it gives you a flavour of how his life has been. (You need to know that Pol Pot was the President of the Khmer Rouge, and that Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia.)


His father was a military man; with house and car
and uniform and no defence when Pol Pot knocked.
Phillay, then seventeen, was driven from Phnom Penh
to dig canals from daybreak, with the promise of
just one small bowl of rice at nightfall and
anything else that might float by:
fish; crabs; snails; leeches.
His body soon cadaverous.

Malaria bit him. 
A friend carried him to hospital, protection
from the last indignity of dying in the fields and heaped,
like compost, in stinking ditches.
He found a brother and a sister there,
shared their bed, kept breathing
while they died beside him and he ate their rice
until the smell betrayed their non-existence.

It saved his life.  He tottered from his bed to glimpse,
across a compound wall,
the Director’s daughter.
With his eyes he loved her; and in his head:
he rested on her breast and slept.
Yet dare not touch her, knowing babies
would be ripped from her, swung by the ankles
against a tree, their brains in offal fragments
lest they tell the tales of loving

They moved him on, the men in black,
to jute mills, to the rice paddies.
But love hung, like a window, above the fields of bones.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

New website!!

I've got a brand new website!! After all my whinging, I've actually done it. You can have a look at it here and there is even a link on the blog page that will bring you back here! You will forgive me if I'm a little smug for a week or two - this has been the steepest learning curve.

There are writing pages, with examples of my writing (but no advice - I am far from qualified to offer writing or publishing advice). And travel pages, with plenty of photos from recent trips, and I have included an advice page for travellers (I have learned a bit about looking after myself in unexpected places).

But please remember - this is still a baby site. There will be hiccups - and I'd really appreciate your help in finding them. That includes typos, links that don't work, photos that are just little blue question marks - anything that looks a bit wrong to you. (Apparently some browsers work differently; I know this works in Safari but if you are in a parallel cyberworld it may look a bit wonky. Please tell me - there is a 'contact me' page which should send me an email. At the moment my email-connecty site is free and drops an ad on you. If this is truly irritating let me know and I'll subscribe to one that takes the ads out.)

You might also notice that there are very few travel-site links, and no writing links at all. I have a few ideas of links I'd like to add, but this is where I'd really like to hear from you. If you'd like me to link to your site, or know a suitable site, please let me know here or via the website, with the URL and a reason why I should include it. I can't promise to include everything - but will check it all out. (That is unless you are obviously spamming me. Which would be unkind, as well as a waste of your time and mine.)

And, while it would - of course - be wonderful if you linked to my site, that is not a prerequisite of my linking to yours. I've never been good at the back-scratching game, and I'm not going to practise now.

So - do go and have a look. I think it's one of my better efforts. (And it's fine to disagree - just let me down gently!)

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

I'm not good at winter.

This is a purely personal view. I know there are plenty of people who look forward to cuddling by the fire on short days, with the wind howling outside and smell of soup in the kitchen. Or putting on every garment they own and trudging through the snow, like Good King Wenceslas, resurrecting memories of every snowy winter as a child.

Not me. And it's not simply that I have the wrong clothes. Indeed, I have plenty of the right clothes. Thermal undies, sturdy Gore-tex boots, a down-jacket that took me almost to the top of Kilimanjaro (it's minus twenty degrees up there). Given that I have no car (my choice) I have enough clothes to stand comfortably at bus stops for ten minutes or so, and can keep going for much longer with a bit of foot-stamping.

But I wish it didn't take so long to put them all on. Dressing in the morning is an event in the winter. half a drawer-full of clothes heaped on the bed; then that terrible moment of taking off the night-things. Why is everything always back-to-front? Why do I leave my socks till last - when the layers of vests and jumpers mean I have to curl round rolls of clothing to reach my feet? And then - it's time to go out. The first decision, do I need to loo before I get togged up - peeing is so much more difficult with a winter coat to negotiate as well as all the thermal what-nots. Coat. Oh help, now I've got to get boots on. Hat, scarf, gloves. But I can't manage the key to the front door with gloves on . . .

Okay, all that is a pain, but manageable. But the dark - who likes the dark? It's not that it's scary - I have no visions of things going bump in the night the moment I pull the curtains. Rather, I resent pulling those curtains at half past three, knowing that's the end of daylight for another sixteen hours. If I have an evening event, that's not so bad. But on too many days I shut out the day in mid-afternoon and am faced with hours of dark to fill. I cannot hear the birds singing. I cannot take a sudden decision to have a quick stroll through the forest (well, I could, but even I'm not that bonkers). Even deciding to treat myself to a bath with wine and candles is rarely available, given that my bathroom is colder than an igloo.

No, I'm not good at winter. Which is why I try to go away at this time of year. But this year I shall have to wait until the end of March. So I must stop grumbling and get on with it. Yes, you may remind me I said that.

What about you - am I alone in being grumbly at this time of year? Tell me what you love about winter - maybe I can learn to see it differently.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

On not making Resolutions.

So, how was Christmas for you?

The decorations will be down in a few days. The walls will look bare - though pine needles crunching in the carpet are a reminder of the jollities that have passed - the glee of children at four in the morning; the bleary eyes of parents reaching for the wine by eleven (that's not too early, surely?). The game playing. The joy of connecting with those we love, and the relief of silence when they leave.

Done for another year.

Now - into the New Year. I've dipped into some other blogs - and found so many that overflow with Resolutions.

Don't get me wrong - I envy anyone who can make Resolutions and find that they propel them into the New Year with a sense of purpose. That they find tackling a list of worthy behaviours is a means to serious change.

But this is why I shall not make Resolutions.

Somehow I am unable to make Resolutions that I can actually keep. For instance, why should I forego the nightly glass of wine - any Resolution that suggest I give that up I can keep for, let me see, all of twelve hours. Why would give up the glass of wine, unless a doctor insists it's doing me actual harm? It gives me pleasure. It reminds my body that it's evening.

And then - I must get fitter. Go walking every day - my exercise of choice. Should I go to the gym? Really? Have you been to a gym lately - and seen many older women trying to work out the rowing machine? I could, of course, swim. I have a pool within talking distance. But I hate that 'getting in' moment - the toes, and calves, and knees, I can manage them. It's the gasp of cold as the water hits my bits that puts me off. Please don't suggest golf. Unless it's the miniature kind with little hills and a windmill and I can play with children. So - I should walk every day; and I live in beautiful Wiltshire, so I can't complain that there is nowhere to go. And I walk on some days. But not when the wind is howling, or the rain pelting down, or the paths are icy, or the clouds in the west are full of snow. And this is January, for goodness sake. Any Resolution to walk every day will be out the window by the 2nd.

Writing Resolutions? I write because I love it, not because of some Resolution that tells me I should write more. Reading - ditto. I should submit more work? - Why? I know the edict - if you don't submit, then you can never be published. But I shall continue to submit work that I feel is good enough, and let the rest of it languish in the 'could do better' file.

So, if there are no Resolutions - I cannot fail. There is no point in setting myself up to fail.

Instead, I shall continue to devote myself to the pursuit of pleasure. I shall spend time with friends and family, play with my grandchildren. I shall write because I can think of nothing else that satisfies me in the same way. I shall walk the Wiltshire Downs when the weather is kind, and curl up by my fire when it isn't. I shall drink wine in the evenings and read in bed in the mornings. I shall travel when I can.

Hardly hedonistic. And you? Do you make Resolutions, or leave that to others and sink back into familiarity, as I do?