All day I travelled through a wasteland: once fertile agricultural lands destroyed by decades of foolishness, now just empty fields filled with weeds and drift sand.
The beaten up bus I travelled in was forced to stop for a few hours.
´Mechanical problems´. Wouldn’t have been the first time.
At one stop, an area of asphalt, there were the remains of a bus which had been burnt out – or bombed.
I missed my connection to a distant place well known for its historic ruins and had to spend the night in a slum city – another very different kind of ruin.
A monstrous place, an urban nightmare: rows and rows of flaking, decrepit apartment blocks. Old run down factories filling the air with thick black smoke. Crowded streets pot holed, littered with plastic bags and gaudy foil wrappings. Trucks and old motor cars leaving behind them clouds of dense fumes.
People walking passed like zombies, grim faced, dour.
Accommodation was hard to find especially for a foreigner. I walked into a dingy excuse for a hotel only to be dismissed with a wave of a hand. Then another, then another.
Eventually I found a soulless, run down room. A dungeon.
What did I do to deserve this?
As the sun neared the horizon and darkness enclosed the city, I walked the streets in search of a meal.
And walked, followed by furtive stares, derisive laughter.
One of them.
On my part, one thought occupied my mind as I ate a greasy excuse for a meal:
What it would it be like to live here?
The country I had come to in search of difference, diversity, had never had a free and fair election. It produced nothing. Beyond its borders, its currency was worthless. Corruption riddled it at every level. Its human rights record was scandalous. It’s prisons crammed with those suspected of not being totally loyal to a brutal dictatorship. Minority groups were living a precarious existence. The role of women was to bear children, cook and submit. LGBT’s didn’t exist. Whilst gladly accepting foreign aid, the same regime blamed the rest of the world for its poverty. There was only one source of information, the state controlled media.
The people were told that they were blessed, never had it so good.
Did they believe it?
Did they have any choice?
The truth was: this place was hell on earth.
Then again, who was I to judge?
Me, a foreigner, with my ideals of freedom of speech, social justice and human rights?
When I went traveling, I wanted to see another way of life, to experience strange sights, to be disorientated, culture shocked. To escape the feeling of being one of ‘us’.
Well, here it was. I was amongst ‘them’ and the view was ugly.
What the hell was I doing here?
On the following morning I got a bus out to the ruins of an ancient empire. Stone walls, columns, statues chipped and pitted, lines of script which had only recently been deciphered. All of it unearthed and given importance and meaning by foreigners. Now a handy cash cow for the government.
It was incredible. I walked around as if in a dream. I was suddenly transported miraculously, as if on a magic carpet, to a time long ago, when a civilization, an empire, rose out of the earth like a vigorous plant, bloomed, and then died.
Yesterday I´d wondered what the hell I was doing here, in this hell on earth, and today, that question was far from mind.
Overwhelmed by the sheer wonder of being alive, I knew why I was here.
Walking amidst stone relics, some of them bearing the symbols of a strange script, Percey Shelley’s famous poem echoed in the desert:
‘I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…..Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
We had arranged to stay at Francine’s place for the night.
We were on a bike ride through Zeeland, a province of The Netherlands which lay west of Rotterdam.
Francine was a member of a Dutch organization called ´Friends of the Bike´ (Vrienden van de Fiets) and so were we. It worked like this: people offered to put up bike riders for the night and provide breakfast the following morning for a set fee of 45 Euros. The bike riders paid a nominal fee to be in the organization and received a book listing places to stay all over the country. Friends of the Bike was an inherent part of a national bike riding culture – and a country with the best system of bike tracks in the world.
Sometimes the people offering the accommodation were themselves also bike riders and felt obliged to contribute to the system they used. Sometimes they liked to meet strangers and talk. Over the years we had met some amazing people via ‘friends of the bike’ and had some memorable conversations – and Francine certainly fell into that category.
Thirty years on and he knew the coast of south-west Cambodia like the back of his hand. And what a coast it was. Lush jungle covered islands of different sizes and shapes, some of them no more than big outcrops of rock, others taking minutes for our boat to pass.
On the horizon behind the islands was the mainland, wild jungle covered mountains sweeping down into long stretches of white beach lapped by aqua blue ocean.
He pointed out each island, told me its Cambodian name, and gave a short explanation about it.
See that one over there?
You could stay on that island for as long as you like, there’s plenty of water and fruit.
See that one there?….yeah its big ok, but there’s not much water on it so you know, you could only stay there a night or two.
See that one there, the one that sticks up like a building?
There’s a big reef alongside it, under the water, but you’d never put a net down there, the bottom’s real bad you know, lots of sharp rocks and potholes, tear up your net like knives…’
Leaving the portal, we entered the monastery grounds.
There was no one about. The silence hung heavy in the air.
An early morning sun glanced over the perimeter wall.
What was once a fortified monastery built in a time of war and inhabited by hundreds of monks was now more like a museum.
There was a wide area of grass on our left, whitened with frost. On our right, there was a church with high turrets. We went over there and circumnavigated it slowly like two children making a new discovery.
In these precious moments of solitude, it was possible to reimagine the past and the generations of monks who had lived and died there over the last 5 centuries.
Then the silence was broken.
The sound echoed in the cold air.
It took us a while to identify where the yelling was coming from: in an alcove next to the wall was an old monk sitting in a chair basking in the early morning sun. Dressed in black, a grey beard and a walking stick. He motioned for us to go over there