Friday, May 22, 2009

Alan Loves to Shop

She is dark, like velvety chocolate and terribly faithful, having gone through many good, confusing, over-indulgent and even hair-brained times with us. Alan and I were having a discussion about her, wondering exactly when she had come into our lives. We both remember being in Hong Kong in 2006 catching a train from the airport in the hope of getting off at a stop close enough to our hotel. We failed miserably in the process and how much we laughed at ourselves.

I remember the way she hobbled along, behind Alan as we got off the train. Walking in the swift way Alan and I have mastered as we weave in and around people in the underground stations of places like Singapore and Hong Kong. I kept turning around to smile at her keeping up without making a fuss. Yes – the girl has seen many adventures with us - accommodating others without complaint, as being bigger than the rest, she always begins our holidays as our lone suitcase.

It was no different on our trip to Indochina, except on this occasion we did not pack a second case inside her – only the two pull-on cabin bags because the plan was to buy a new friend for her at Ben Thahn Market. I know the holiday happened late last year and I have already made three entries about the trip, but you have yet to read about the shopping.

As a general rule, we very seldom do any shopping in the air-conditioned shopping centres when we travel. Instead we tend to allow our combined susceptibility for local bazaars, crowded markets and the endless rows of street stalls lead the way. The first sightseeing we do whenever we are in a new place is the walking tour or part there of as recommended by the Lonely Planet Guide for that city. Along the way we include shops and markets that have been recommended, where mostly we check out prices to get a feel of the value of the items that have caught our fancy. And yes, we always weaken even further at the sight of inviting cafés where we will stop to relax, refuel and make use of the restrooms.

Most people know how passionate we are about our home. Shambhala is a reflection of who we are, where we have been; of our beliefs and our obsessions. People always think that it is mainly my love for interior decorating that has filled our home with the colours and textures, the smells and ambiance. I might be the driving force but as I began writing this entry, I came to realise that Alan has made a significant contribution of his own. And I don’t just mean in just the numerous handyman things he has done around the house. You see, Alan like me thoroughly enjoys holiday shopping.

This of course is altogether different from the years of unnecessary shopping that I indulged in before. Back then it was my searching for my true path and unskillful thinking that led me to believe I could fill all the empty space inside me with the things I constantly had to go out and buy. Those of you who have been with me through my blogging journey know how India cured me of that acquisitive misery. These days I really only buy things we actually need to live on or to make a living with. I believe I only drop my guard when lush plants beg me to take them home. *smile*

So when we go on holidays … we shop big-time. It becomes a festival of buying clothes, shoes and beautiful pieces for our home. Alan is the best partner I could ever wish to be on holiday with. We generally have similar obsessions and so we have tremendous fun together. History, people, food and coffee are major interests. We love walking - and walking is the best way to meet the locals. Locals generally love to chat - and chatting is the best way to find out the top places to eat and do an unadulterated amount of shopping at.

In Saigon, Alan lost his heart to the variety of lamps they had on offer. I had to literally drag him out of the little shops because he was relentless. In total he managed to convince me, that we would find room in our home for eight more lamps. Everyone knows I am the reining queen of soft-lighting in our neighbourhood, we already had a houseful of lamps. So initially I only agreed to buying three more. But de Souza Saab was adamant that I would severely regret it if I did not agree with him that our home required the other five. They are gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, the man has taste and this is not the first time we have bought lamps while on holiday.

Like me, Alan also likes object d'art.

Our present collection of Asian religious deities and prayer items began in 2004 with a beautiful bronze icon of Green Tara in a dancing pose. She is rather sensuous and really quite a heavy piece. Alan had insisted we buy her when we were in Dharamsala and that she would fit into our suitcase together with a bulky lamp he had already bought in Hong Kong. On that trip Alan also bought a Kashmiri handmade silk embroidery throw rug, two Tibetan thangka paintings although I had the final say in the choice of paintings, two Himalayan singing bowls and two handmade hanging Tibetan paper lamps. He also chose the most ornate Tibetan Prayer Wheel on offer. You can see how this is a pattern, can’t you?

So it came as no surprise to me that while in the Buddha country of Siem Reap, Cambodia, Alan grew attached to a very heavy and beautifully sculptured silver statue of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. It was tucked away in a very humid claustrophobic maze of shops that we only happened upon by accident. Before we left for Indochina I had made a wish-list of items. One of the items on that list was 'statue of the Buddha'. We saw literally thousands of statues in Vietnam and Cambodia but I soon began to lose interest in looking because none of them really appealed to me - until this silver one appeared.

Now the problem was … being made of silver on bronze, he weighed about eight kilograms and was quite expensive. I am very paranoid and do not like the worry of being overloaded with luggage – also I knew Alan was going to go back to Saigon and want to buy the other five lamps and the statues of the iconic Three Ladies of Vietnam that he had seen in a shop outside Ben Thahn Market. I immediately made a decision not to buy the silver Buddha. Touching his beautiful face, I gave him my love and knew I would think about him for a long time. Then I walked away. Not my Alan – he obviously wanted the statue. Walking back to the tourist area of Siem Reap and sweating profusely, he was wiping his face and saying to me how beautiful he thought the statue was and that we had not seen anything quite like it. I remember telling him that was because it had been handmade by an artist and was not cast from a mould or constructed of poor quality materials. “That is why we should buy it!” he insisted.

I quickly made an offer of food to distract him – you see sometimes that strategy works.

Our last afternoon in Siem Reap arrived and we decided we wanted to enjoy another meal and then heavenly fruit drinks at the two cafes we had come to like very much along the main eating stretch of that dusty and very friendly town. After two drinks each and lazing on the bed and pillows for longer than we should have, Alan said he wanted to find that shop with the silver Buddha. “To say goodbye?” I teased him knowing full well he wanted to have one final look only to confirm his decision to purchase it.

It took us thirty five minutes of wandering, making wrong turns, copious sweating, a need for me to find a toilet which of course does not seem to exist in such areas in Asia and then lagging behind and grumbling under my breath before we finally found the shop with the silver Buddha. I could see how delighted Alan was and could not begrudge him the indulgence. Besides, the Buddha really is an exquisite piece. We just had to find a way to take him home with us.

And so together with the five extra lamps which we did end up buying, the Three Ladies of Vietnam in a deep shade of jade, a large red and black lacquer tray with mother of pearl in-lay and all the clothes and shoes we had fought through crowds and after serious bargaining purchased - we set out on the final day in Saigon to find two new friends to keep our terribly faithful brown suitcase company. Alan had a wonderful time buying those as well.

Next trip Paris and London.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Madam is looking for a sari?

As the weeks drew nearer to my leaving Catholic Education many people would come and give me a hug at lunch or morning tea. The general consensus I gathered was that they were really going to miss seeing my colourful saris roaming around the building and the beautiful grounds of the Centre in Leederville.

People have been so very kind and sweet to me and I have really enjoyed all the cuddles. Being told how much they cared for or loved me was truly heart-warming. Several asked if I would wear my saris as often since I would be working from home. "Do you wear them while cooking, would you wear one when taking photos?" Well, of course the answer to those questions is sadly... a practical no. "But have you not grown up wearing saris?" (A very common question.) To which someone would always reply "... of course she did!" You can imagine how such questions and speculations always make me smile.

Okay, so remember I once said I would devote an entire blog entry to this beautiful garment? I've decided that today I would like to tell you the story of my very first sari, it happened in Malaysia and I remember it like it was just yesterday.

Would you like to take a moment to light some incense? Go on ... I really think it will go down well with this entry.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On a seemingly insignificant street somewhere in Malacca, after a genuinely scrumptious breakfast of Masala Dosa, I drank the last bit of my Chai Tarik. Wiping my fingers one by one with a moist baby wipe, I glanced at the small TV suspended on the wall of peeling green paint, the black wiring haphazardly tacked onto a strip of wood that led to a power-point. Ceiling fans twirled slowly above circulating the humidity and at one corner of the room two lizards ran in their peculiar zig-zag fashion - to disappear into a little hole above the door that led to the kitchen.

It was a typical early morning scene that could be found at any coffee shop in Asia. A newsreel was on, but the sound was lost completely due to the usual morning exchange that was taking place within the little shop – Malay, English, Tamil, Hokkien and a yellow canary singing in a colourful cage. I sniffed my fingers to make sure they did not smell like curry, turned to Alan and told him I was going to pop into the fabric shop a couple of doors way while he and Donny finished their meal.

How do I remember such little details? It was 1996 for heaven's sakes! I even had to check the year with Donny before I started this entry. I could not tell you where this coffee shop was either, and I guess that is because I have Alan to remember directions. But everyday things that catch my eye like lizards and peeling paint, sounds and smells - I just love. I will indulge in all things sensory. And usually the more complicated a setting, the more the smells and the sounds ... the more I take in and hold onto.

An Indian lady with gold bangles in the fabric shop wagged her head and welcomed me with a smile that almost made her seem familiar. I slowly made my way through a meadow of flowering prints, ran my hand over what my dear mother would without hesitation refer to as 'Malay-looking' lace, gaudy patterned velvets and practical cottons. Then I caught my breath as the most iridescent raw silks and satins; sequined and beaded georgettes; and a sheer rainbow of flowing chiffon saris that had been pleated and suspended from the ceiling - came into view.

Inhaling the scent of what probably was jasmine incense, I noticed a little shrine dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth. I counted 1 2 3 4 5 6 sticks of incense and marigolds arranged dutifully. The altar was by a narrow flight of stairs that led, I imagined to the area where the lady with the gold bangles probably lived with her family. Shophouses. That is what these terraces are called, isn’t it? For a moment I found myself lost in my thoughts about the whole concept of shophouses and Hindus actually having a Goddess of Wealth.

“Madam is looking for a sari?”

I turned around and there standing behind the glass counter on the other side of the shop was a man with a red tikka on his forehead. I smiled and told him that I have always wanted to wear a sari, but putting one on just looked too complicated. Plus I had visions of it unfurling as I boarded a bus or even worse of the pallu getting caught in a moving escalator. I began laughing and remember a clock ticking somewhere in that brightly florescent lit shop. He smiled, wagged his head and called out in Tamil towards the narrow stairs.

A young woman came hurrying down, and I remember how the trails of incense smoke dissolved around her, as she came towards me.

“No problem Madam, her sister can be showing you.”

Indicating first to the lady with the gold bangles and then to the young woman, who was now also smiling at me and wagging her head in agreement. I looked beyond her to the older sister and yes ... you guessed it, she was wagging her head with the same degree of enthusiasm. I wonder if they'll teach me head wagging too? It's such an art form.

Just then, Alan and Donny came into the shop. Before I could even begin to explain to Alan that I was about to be given sari draping lessons, the man with the tikka flung in quick and expert succession several colourful, flowing chiffon and georgette saris that he pulled out from under the counter - over all the bales of suddenly insignificant satins and silks. In mere seconds he managed to remove from my mind forever all thoughts I might have earlier entertained of buying fabrics to tailor into western-style outfits.

“Sir, I am just telling your missus she can be learning now how to wear sari … it is not a problem. You want Coke? 7-Up? Arre, tambhi …(continued taking in Tamil towards the stairs at no one in particular.)

A little boy came running down those stairs for instructions and then quickly up again. In an instant I was six years old once more, in Mr Majeed’s shop being offered a soft drink. (Refer blog entry Fun with Clothes) I have to smile as I type this. The polite technique employed to prolong our stay in their establishments, in order to entice us to buy ... Indians really do know how to be hospitable in business.

And so it began. I felt the women gently lead me towards the back of the shop one of them rubbing my arm in an affirming manner while the other began making friendly conversation - all the while wagging their heads gleefully. I felt my head wag back unskillfully. Back then, I always marvelled at an Indian persons ability to move their heads so effortlessly. Alan quickly turned on his video camera saying he would record each step so I could watch the instructions when we got back home and was trying to dress myself.

It was a red chiffon sari with a black pallu that had gold sequined flower patterns. I can still see the look on Alan’s face when the pallu was finally pinned onto my left shoulder and I turned around to walk towards him. He had been looking through the video camera and then he slowly lowered it and just stared at me. The two ladies and the man with the tikka - who respectfully by the way, only joined us when I was ready - began animatedly talking in Tamil. Wagging their heads, smiling and making the ‘ok’ hand signals in unified approval. Other members of their staff/family suddenly appeared with smiling eyes and wags of what appeared to be endorsement.

Sometimes, when you try something on at a store the salesperson tries to convince you that you look fabulous. But the mirror hangs there screaming at you "Harlow ... you are looking idiotic. You feel uncomfortable. Don't listen to them ... they are only trying to make a sale." Ever been in that position? Well, that morning at the fabric shop with the ticking clock and the heady perfume of jasmine incense - that was not the case. I felt like I belonged in a sari. I felt an identity emerging. There was genuine appreciation on all their happy faces. The fabric shop on what I thought was just an insignificant street in Malacca, had introduced me to a spectacular ritual that would become really significant in my life. Sari draping.

The man with the tikka turned to Alan and triumphantly wagged his head:

"See sir ... madam is looking beautiful. Hundred percent total Indian."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Illusion & Light

It has been six months since my last entry and I've missed writing my stories. Let me begin with a heartfelt salutation to all of you.


derived from Sanskrit ~

I honour the place in you in which the entire universe dwells. The place that is of light, of love, of truth, of peace and of wisdom. I honour the place in you where when you are in that place, and I am in that place ... we are One.

A great deal has occurred in my life since our return from Indochina. It has occupied time and contemplation to the point that I never managed to find my way back here to finish our stories from the holiday. I had intended to devote an entire entry to Alan and how much he enjoyed the shopping.

And so it is now May 2009. I would like do a quick rewind to the time I created this blog and wrote my very first entry in April 2008, I Love My Life. In my profile at the time under occupation, I had with a smile, a wish and reflective resolve typed – A photographer, someday. I then wrote the introductory entry with exploration and new beginnings in mind.

Here is the final paragraph from that first entry:

Now at 45, I'm thinking I want to retire. I want to venture into something new. It's time to take my art out of these personal quarters.

I am happy to announced that on Friday May 15 2009 … I celebrated my last working day at Catholic Education.

In this new chapter of my life ... I am a photographer.

That I could turn my dreams of being a professional photographer into a reality only struck me as an actual possibility when we returned from that last holiday. It was so terribly humid in Saigon and Siem Reap, and I had a very difficult time drumming up the energy to carry my heavy camera equipment around, even though it would have been Alan that did the actual lugging. I still felt exhausted at just the thought of him doing so. It was as if I had lost all interest in travel photography. You see, I was not coping with the rivulets of perspiration and the severe water retention in my legs and hands. So mostly, we never bothered to take the equipment with us. It was enough for me that we managed to leave the air-conditioned comfort of our hotels to venture out and keep our wandering spirits at adventure seeking levels each day.

I believe we only took photos on two maybe three days of the total holiday. Yet, when I began to upload all the photos, I felt that regardless of our sweaty deficiencies in camera time … somehow, something that spoke of the essence of Saigon and Siem Reap had been captured. I knew I had made photos that told individual stories and that Alan had captured wonderful moments during the times when the weight of the camera and the Canon zoom EF 28 – 300 mm lens had made me surrender in swollen weariness during those two or three days.

If you have read my description of Siem Reap you may remember my comment: Cambodia is Buddha country. My friends, it really is and being there made me want to be Maya, so I began using my Buddhist name when I introduced myself. It is difficult to explain, but amongst the lotus flowers and the Theravada community, I felt like I had successfully navigated my way through a course. That after the last few years of Dhamma study I was finally worthy of a new title. Using my Buddhist name was perhaps my illusion of a graduation.

Maya truly is the spiritual part of me who is stretched with new experiences and ever mindful of everyday miracles. She is the artist, the creator, the one who reminds me that I am free and keeps me in the present moment. Maya is my Indian spirit. She is Light. Upon our return home, I did not want to give up being acknowledged as Maya and it saddened me.

“Work as if you do not need money.” she whispered to me as I looked at the photos from our holiday. "Be Maya. Stop hiding, girl."

What a concept ... to work as if we do not need the money. Could I leave Catholic Education and the work I had done for so long? Would we manage financially? It was Alan my pillar of light and love who reminded me that we had already made it through our 'hungry years'. He could see that the rewards of my leaving would be a sound investment in my spiritual well being, for I have for lengthy periods wrestled in spiritual conflict while at Catholic Education. Yes, I love photography and art but I also enjoy the part-time work I did at Catholic Education, it was not in any way stressful or difficult. I truly loved my friends and immediate boss endearingly as well.

But almost every day since 2005, I have increasingly felt that I was not in a position that met with one of the aspects of the Eightfold Path, that of Right Livelihood. I could easily do my photography within the time I was not at work ... but I would never fully embrace Maya as long as I remained. For when I was there, I had to so often hide that very real and very significant part of me.

And so I began to till the soils of my new business. I planted seeds of interest by showing my photographs. I spent a few minutes each day reading and digesting articles online from a digital photography school. I spent hours staring at the way the light hit different surfaces. And I started thinking of a name for the business. Maya ... something ... Photography. I wanted something Indian and beautiful. Now might be a good time to remind you that Maya means Illusion … a fantasy, a magical apparition, an image. Very much like a photograph, for isn't a photograph just a skillful mix of illusion and light?

I went through so many names and nothing seemed to fit, even though the right one was staring at me all the time. Then one day as I was doing my ironing and re-watching Indian actor (and very yummy daddy) Hrithik Roshan play Emperor Akbar on Jodhaa Akbar - it suddenly struck me. I went into fits of giggles.

Roshan (m) Roshni (f) from the hindi word Roshani. Meaning ... light!

Illusion & Light. Maya Roshni Photography. I reckon it works.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Travelling Children go to Indochina (Part 3)

Im Kunthea, his cheerful smile and a 2 litre bottle of water arrived bright and early on the morning we had planned to visit Kampung Phluk. I felt the pores on my head begin to perspire as I tied my hair into a pony tail and greeted him. It amazed me that he never seemed to break a sweat even though he told us that he always wore long sleeved shirts and long trousers. I glanced at Alan - dressed in shorts and a sports singlet. He had only just two minutes before stepped out of our air-conditioned room and was already mopping his face and neck with one of those microfibre gym towels. Nobody sweats like my Alan.

We handed Kunthea and Mr Yuteney a Cadbury chocolate block each (careful to caution Mr Yuteney to go slow on consumption as he's a Type 2 Diabetic) and found out that all of us had slept very soundly and enjoyed a filling breakfast. Good old Aussie vegemite on thick toast for us, rice and a side-dish for our Cambodian friends.
“Ready, Maya?” Kunthea asked me.
“Yes, Thea. Let’s go to Kampuuung …” I trailed off the way Kunthea did in his teacher-style way of phrasing sentences.
“Phluk!” he replied, without missing a beat, breaking again into a big smile that revealed his even white teeth.

The journey to Kampung Phluk is indeed a very pretty one. Again along the way, on both sides of the road for the first fifteen minutes of our tuk-tuk ride, we were sandwiched between waterways. Unfurling their pink tipped petals as they swayed their heads gently in the breeze greeting the sunshine and the traffic – lotus blooms at different intervals shared their sodden dwellings with water lilies and little children. The children beautifully brown from the sun appeared carefree and happy as they squealed in delight catching tadpoles and dragonflies or just splashing around in the water. Out of the past, I heard my grandmother's voice calling, "Juuude, you are going to get hookworms, stop playing in that pokaria (dirty) water! "

Mr Yuteney began to signal and then turned right onto a narrow dirt-road. To our delight we were suddenly in a deep shade under tall leafy trees and treated with the company of Khmer-style kampong houses raised on stilts. Pigs, goats, cows and all manner of poultry roamed around freely. “Free range chooks” Alan said to me pointing out to the chickens running across the road. I looked at them and realised they were quite skinny. I wondered if it was due to all the exercise they enjoyed. Even though the road was bumpy, the ride through the kampong was truly a gift of nostalgia and I secretly hoped we would be on it for a while. It reminded me of the days before Singapore had raced ahead of all its South East Asian cousins in its determination to cast off all that it deemed old fashioned only to loose a great deal of its natural charm. We would have encountered hundreds of children, some completely naked running around happily while their older brothers and sisters in school uniforms were leaving for class. Many of them looked at us and waved energetically; the biggest smiles you could imagine on delighted little faces as high pitched voices called out hello after hello.
After about fifteen minutes of waving and calling out to the children – we were told by Mr Yuteney that he could not go any further for the road was in a very bad state due to all the heavy rains – he had been weaving around massive pot-holes filled with muddy water for a good eight minutes. We got out with Kunthea and walked a short distance to where a long boat was waiting for us.

Our boatman looked fifteen but he assured us with a large grin that he was seventeen, finished with school and as Kunthea added reassuringly, excellent at his job. Our concern albeit unvoiced was not that he was too young to take us on the long ride to Kampung Phluk but that he probably had to leave school at a young age to help supplement the family income. He held out his hand and helped me on board, he was small but obviously strong.

Alan and I could probably live on water. We enjoy being out on a boat and every time we travel, we include a tour or part of our journey on water - be it just us on a sampan enjoying the cool breeze or on a bigger vessel with others. The first time we traveled together was on our honeymoon and it was a cruise through the Straits of Malacca, to Penang and Phuket. As the present adventure on water began, we started to tell Kunthea (who by the way, loved learning about other cultures and religions) about a couple of our water journeys. One, in Hong Kong around a fishing village on stilts and my all time favourite occasion so far – the crowded ferry-crossings that we made from Cochin to Ernakulam and back on our last trip to India. Why would we choose to take an air-conditioned taxi when we could travel like the locals, right?

For those of you who have read our entries from 2006 you may remember the comedy of it all; where men and women had to queue separately for tickets. Then to our amusement, finding ourselves with the same men and women pressed against each other from the lack of space, before being herded on board when the ferry arrived. It was so ridiculous and so Indian. On our last crossing, it was pouring with rain while we were trying to catch the second last ferry for the night. The employees at the terminal on the Ernakulam side pushed us together with the other men and women onto an already fully packed ferry. We were exhausted, soaked to our skins and laden with shopping bags slung over our shoulders. I still remember grabbing onto whatever rusty pole or handle I could feel between all the bodies and seeing the look on Alan’s face. We were in the moment and loving it. How we laughed at being sardined like locals on that rusty boat. Nobody complaining, a young man singing a song from a recent Bollywood movie, people smiling at our amusement – the kind of moment I usually take a mental snapshot of, to pull out and indulge in every now and then. Okay, I've indulged. *smile*

Suddenly we realised that the boatman had taken us out to what appeared to be at first a vast ocean. It was Tonle Sap Lake. Kunthea told us that at its fullest - it is 135 km long. It was truly magnificent – there was nobody else around, just faraway boats and us bobbing around on ours with its homemade motor parts. I say homemade because it was so obviously put together with odd bits and pieces and a whole lot of imagination. Because the waters in many areas around the fishing villages were shallow at most times of the year, the boatmen had come up with their ingenious tilting of the engine block and extending the propeller to prevent it bottoming out. The boats were built narrow and long to manoeuvre the narrow channels and had garden hose tubes that ran along the inside of the boat acting as water pumps. The steering wheel on our boat had seen a previous life in a Honda automobile ... even in Cambodia, like other Asian countries, Honda is held in high esteem.

We sat there enjoying the view and the cool breeze for a few minutes before Kunthea told our boatman to head to the fishing village. He turned to Alan and me, smiling. Keeping up with the teacher to student prompting “Kampuuuung … ?”
we replied like good Travelling Children.
This made our 17 year old boatman giggle.

The homes on stilts in Kampung Phluk were eye-catching. Built out of bamboo and coconut tree products – many homes were decorated with bold coloured curtains and other soft furnishings. Several had hammocks or swings hanging off their verandas and some obviously ate their meals alfresco as tables with pretty tablecloths graced many of these verandas too. Little sampans filled the waterways between the rows of homes where children played, swam and filled the scene with sounds of laughter. Like the children we had passed in the morning, the hellos and energetic waving began. Splashing around, swimming up to us or just swaying side to side on their verandas trying in their gentle manner to get our attention.

We spent a good length of time in this little kampong having a coffee at one of the homes taking in the sights, sounds and smells while the people went about their daily activities all around us. Later, we visited the floating temple and primary school. Alan and I found ourselves surrounded the entire time with the village children and loved every single moment. We were impressed with their creativity in finding ways to make toys and floatation devices and most of all, their ability to have fun. At the school many were so tiny, they looked like they were only 3 or 4 years old, and I wondered at what age they started school. The children around us laughed at my questions as I sat on the steps talking to them, the tiny ones were around 6 years in age. The girl who had greeted us when we arrived was exceedingly intelligent and the only one in her family of 8 children to be given the opportunity to have a secondary education. Her day began at 4.30am as she went to high school on the mainland but had chores to do at home before leaving. The reason she was at the primary school that day was that it was her turn to perform duties at the temple. I pictured her each school morning, getting on a boat in the darkness making the long journey. How I admired her. Alan and I were astonished at her knowledge, her decorum and the way the little children looked up to her. She explained to us the reason for the small stature was that they ate mainly rice, vegetables and fish; and they did not take vitamin supplements. But she told me, the reason she was tall and strong was that her family made many sacrifices in order for her to have better food. I realised this young girl was her family’s hope for the future, they knew how gifted she was. Alan and I exchanged glances, knowing that the other was thinking of all the education opportunities the children in Australia have, and take for granted.

I hugged her as we got ready to leave. She and some of the other children ran out and jumped onto the other boats that were tied to the pier. I felt my eyes mist as I sent up a prayer for all of them.

What an honour it was for us to have been a part of their lives for those few short hours.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Travelling Children go to Indochina (Part 2)

Siem Reap, Cambodia had emerged though thick clouds quite suddenly. From the air, with the sun reflecting brilliantly, it looked like a never ending patchwork quilt made up mostly of mirrored lakes and sequined waterways interlaced with fresh green fauna. Mother Nature’s handiwork held together by woven threads of terracotta dirt roads. It was enchanting, and made me think of my beloved grandmother and Karikal Lane. (Previous entries refer: Mama’s Friends, I am Indian - Part 2 and Peace One Day.) I was back on the dirt road on which I would run barefoot with her chickens and geese, the one lined with the Flame of the Forest trees and ferns leading to the convent by the sea. Waving cheekily at the nuns who mostly looked strict, starched and sweaty under all that unnecessary fabric in the tropical heat; and old Merlarni and Uncle Caretaker pretending to admonish me for being sassy. Yes, definitely Singapore in the 60’s, during my early childhood. I like this place, Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat.

Angkor International Airport, with its traditional Khmer architecture and lush tropical gardens was like a jewel that men had creatively inserted into that patchwork - it was positively stunning. Inside, it was thoroughly modern yet maintained its local flavour in its choice of artwork. We were especially taken with the contemporary iron sculpture of Buddha sitting majestically under vibrant red umbrellas, high above the baggage carousels. Alan was equally impressed with the level of efficiency (despite the customary sourness of its customs officers), while I marvelled in admiration at the abilities of their cleaning staff. The floors and the floor-to-ceiling windows were immaculate.

A smiling man in his late 50’s with a purple sign that had my name correctly spelt (and in neat handwriting too) had been waiting 2 hours for our arrival. You see, unfortunately our flight had been delayed.
He placed his palms together (like doing Namaste) and with a slight bow said,
Haaarllow welcome to Siem Reap, I Mr Yuteney. Come, come.”
He took our lone suitcase from Alan and led us outside. Walking, walking … past all the vans and all the cars, still walking. Alan looked amused.
Kyo? Kya hwa?” I asked in Hindi. (Why? What happened?)
Alan, smiling replied in patio Portuguese Hmmm, yo lembra isti elee se roda roda! Ola!” (Hmmm, I think those are his wheels! Look!)

I realised what mode of transport was to be our pre-arranged airport transfer and immediately began my bouncing side to side, hands waving thing that I do when I get excited. We were expecting the mandatory car or van and instead the Australian couple, who ran the place we were going to stay at, had sent … a tuk-tuk.

Cambodia is Buddha country. The single-laned dusty road that led the way to the next three days in the lives of the Travelling Children, was lined with narrow waterways on either side that were filled with hundreds of pink lotus blooms. I love the lotus flower. To the Buddhist it is the symbol of enlightenment, and to a Christian it could so easily be a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. The lotus comes to bud out of the still muddy waters (ignorance and worldly attachment, even death) rising above the surface clean and pure (enlightened, resurrected) ready to open its petals and share its perfume with mankind. I felt so deeply happy and I allowed my imagination to believe they were forming a guard of honour for Alan and me. What a beautiful welcome.

Every tourist goes to Siem Reap to see the sacred site of Angkor Wat. It was built during the early 12th Century by King Suryavaram II and stories of the site captured our imaginations when Alan and I were just children playing badminton at school and eating nasi lemak (coconut rice) after Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour Church. It always had a fairy tale adventure sort of quality … the idea of an ancient city of temples built in a jungle for the Hindu God, Vishnu – second member of the Trimuti, the Hindu Holy Trinity. But back then, there was also Pol Pot, the insanity behind Year Zero and his decimation of culture and traditions through genocide. It seemed like for most of my school days Kampuchea was always in the news and it terrified me to the point of having nightmares. So before I write about our tour of the temples, please allow me to share something with you about the people of Cambodia that I have come to greatly admire.

There were a couple of lines I remember my father had said in revulsion on several occasions, during the evil reign of Pol Pot, which had become the catch-cry of the Khmer Rouge. I looked it up on Google the other day. “To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss” and “Bullets are not to be wasted.” This was in reference to the thousands upon thousands of starving people who were taken out to dig their own mass graves, then beaten with shovels and metal pipes, and buried alive. Not a pleasant subject, but we never visit a country with disinterest in the people, to relax in a bar and drink beer at 50 cents a mug. Cambodia IS a difficult place to visit and we wanted to know more when we got there. I allowed myself to peer into the past … the past that was over. And even though the pain still lay in the present and old ghosts will come back to haunt, the amazingly resilient people of Cambodia were transforming the present. We saw how they did not chase the past and that they refused to be overwhelmed by it. They speak about the stench and the horrors, for it will remain a part of their history and should never be forgotten. But I admired their ability to plant their feet so firmly in the safety of the present - the peaceful times of now, and to move forward without allowing the uncertain ghosts of the future to overpower them either. That they have achieved this state of mind without professional counselling, is indeed a powerful lesson, one I hope to always be mindful of.

The road to Angkor Wat is called quite simply … The Road to Angkor Wat. And what a beautiful ride it was in Mr Yuteney’s tuk-tuk, getting to know Kunthea our guide. We quite suddenly were no longer in a built-up area of any description and stopping to buy our tickets. We each took turns to stand in front of this little one-eyed ball that flashed and were within mere moments awarded with tickets that included the most terrible photos of Alan and me that we have ever had the pleasure of having.

We had planned to be at Angkor Wat for the sunrise that morning but it had poured with rain overnight and then even more heavily through the sunrise we never witnessed. I looked at my watch as we got back onto the tuk-tuk with our precious photograph ID tickets; it was close to 9am. There were pools of muddy water in the pot-holes along the side of the road; a road that I soon realised was coursing through a beautiful jungle. The muddy pools continued to present themselves and I began to feel thankful that it had rained, for even though we missed the sunrise, we were being rewarded now with a very wet tropical jungle experience. The leaves in the trees all freshly bathed were dewy and in gorgeous shades of brilliant green; the textures on the barks of the trees were more prominent and a shade or two darker from the dampness, every minute detail seemed to just jump out at us. This is how God does Photoshop. I smiled to myself and inhaled the wet jungle smells. The ground was giving off that earthy after the rain smell, which is different in Asia than it is here at home.

Kunthea invited us to step out of the tuk-tuk when the area opened up before us and revealed a man-made moat. We walked towards the stone wall that surrounded the water and he began his stories of the area and how Angkor Wat came to be. It was fascinating. As we walked along listening, I asked him what it was I saw across the moat in the distance – I knew it had to be the famous centre piece of Angkor, but it didn’t feel majestic like the hundreds of photographs I had seen. Kunthea’s eyes lit up and confirmed it was Angkor Wat. I felt my heart skip an immediate beat and then slowly sink, I felt terribly childish for reacting that way.

I did not tell Alan how I was feeling as we began to cross the long bridge. Kunthea went on filling our minds with information and I kept telling myself to keep my mind and my heart open. My eyes kept going back to the centre-piece as it got closer. Where is that feeling of awe that I should be having? I was listening to Kunthea so I can give you statistics. The Angkor Archaeological Park is around 400 sq km in size, the size of Manhattan. Angkor Wat itself being about 12 sq km. The very long bridge that takes you across the moat is guarded on either side by seven headed nagas (mythological serpents). The Travelling Children know that the naga represents water, fertility and power in our ‘homeland’ sub-continent but I believe Kunthea said this seven headed expanded version represented the seven races of Angkor. He also told us that during the time of Pol Pot landmines were strewn all over the vast jungle and the moat was filled with death.

There are several carvings of closed mouthed smiling dancing apsaras (heavenly feminine creatures) on the outer walls, while the galleries along the façade to the right and the left of the main entrance contained carvings depicting stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and everyday life. Although built for Lord Vishnu and a massive statue of him greets visitors when you enter through the main arches, Theravada Buddhism co-exists today in harmony with Hinduism within the same complex.

Angkor Wat (12th Century) is perhaps the most important archaeological site in South East Asia. It is commanding and beautiful in its own right, and I know if we had never been to India I would have felt it was majestic and it may even have taken my breath away. I believe that perhaps if the design was not so similar in structure to the Dravidian temples we had seen in Ellora (8th Century) or Khajuraho (9th Century) I would not have allowed my mind to make the unfair comparisons. But wasn’t I comparing apples with apples? Were these not all Hindu temples? I could not marvel at the carvings even though I kept willing myself to get excited. My mind just could not let go of the beauty and deep intricacy of the carvings of Khajuraho (9th Century) and Ajanta (1st – 2nd Century). I was completely irritated with myself. How will I share with Alan my disappointment when this has been our dream since childhood?

Next stop after a very filling lunch was the city of Angkor Thom, built by Jayavarman VII - the ruins with the mysterious faces. Like Angkor Wat, a man-made moat ran all around the city. There were five gates; North, South, East, West and the Victory Gate - we made our entry by the South Gate. It was guarded on the left by statues of the Buddha and other Enlightened Beings and on the right by statues of Mara, Lord of Death and other demons. The giant faces over the archway entrance were those of Buddhist Bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara. It was beautiful. I whispered to Alan “His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” Tibetans you see believe that the Dalai Lama is an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan).

As we entered the walled city, we approached what looked like piles of rubble and right in the middle of it was the state temple called Bayon. Angkor Thom is definitely different. It looked like a child who had much inspiration but never seen Lego, had been collecting bits of rubble that he patiently sanded down into square blocks. And one day, when he had an ample supply sat down and decided to fit it all together to build something special. That he completed it by topping towers and arches with faces of himself, Buddha and Avalokiteshvara was both unique and narcissistic. I liked it.

This time because I was so interested in everything around me I cannot give you much statistical information, of which our friend Kunthea had lots. The poor man could tell I was not listening and a couple of times he even repeated information like a school teacher would ... without completing a word or sentence ... eyebrows raised looking directly at me and waiting for me to fill in the blanks. I wonder if he thought I had too much coffee at lunch. Little did he realise my real reasons for giving him my undivided attention at Angkor Wat earlier in the day.

Our final stop was Ta Prohm or Tomb Raider Temple as it was the set of the movie Angelina Jolie made with Daniel Craig in 2000. I was working at the time with Daniel’s uncle, Terry Craig at Notre Dame University and Terry used to tell me stories from the filming. I remember feeling so happy that Daniel was in such a big budget movie, albeit one he only did for the Hollywood ‘big break’.

Ta Prohm Temple is fascinating as it is completely overgrown with massive trees sprouting in, around, on top and in between the ruins. The walls were covered with patches of moss and lichen; in some places so thick it was spongy. Ta Prohm went beyond fulfilling all my childhood fantasies from my imaginings of the fabled Angkor Wat - it was fairytale enchanting and was built as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university by King Jayavarman VII. Other than a few safety precautions put in place for tourists, Ta Prohm has been left thankfully in the same condition it was in when it was discovered - uncleared, full of mystery and atmosphere. It would have been wonderful if we could have gone back there the next morning – just the Travelling Children; picnic breakfast and a chance to reflect on the sheer expanse of time that it took for the power of nature to initially ravage and disfigure, but now exhibit such beauty and symbiosis as nature turned man’s work into her own.