Our very own Jurassic Park

Standard

We’ve been talking about the Catlins now for many years.  It’s become that mythical place down south, that others have visited. They have regaled us with their journeys, marvelled, and mentioned the rogue waves at Cathedral Caves. How the water rose suddenly, possibly waist height or perhaps they or I have exaggerated this. But still, the Catlins sounded wild, other, and we kept promising ourselves to go there.

Back in 2005, we got close. We flew to Invercargill and grouped at Tuatapere to set off on the Humpridge Track. A luxury walk, with a helicopter carrying our luggage aloft, dangling from the craft in a large net-like basket. A celebrity accompanied each group and our celebrity was so low level that none of us had heard of him before, and I still can’t recall his name.

But, this Easter after our usual mulled wine and home-made hot cross bun festivities on Good Friday…

IMG_1733

… we finally flew south to Dunedin enroute to the Catlins.

I caught up with an old school friend whom I hadn’t seen since Form II (the sixties and now we are both in our sixties). John indulged this re-connection made possible through Facebook initially.  My friend has become a talented artist and somewhat of a recluse.

Dunedin was cold and chilly but the railway station was a revelation. Such splendour and beauty and we’ve promised ourselves to return and take the Taieri Gorge train trip someday.

IMG_1742                        IMG_1740

We set off in our sweetly named Tivoli hire car. John who’s had a love affair with cars over many years, conceded that this compact, toy-like vehicle was actually a great machine with all the digital accoutrements that our cliched Subaru Outback lacks. We listened to podcasts as we headed to the Coast.

18118945_10154562850213634_3529087247096747130_n

At first, approaching Nugget Point, I was underwhelmed, comparing it to Kaikoura and Cape Foulwind, claiming they were more spectacular… but then we climbed up to the Lighthouse and looked out at the expanse of sea and coastline in all its glory.  I scanned the water prayerfully, hoping to see a whale, held my breath, wishing it into existence. No whales, but the water mesmerised. I have this weird issue that I suffer silently whenever I’m on high cliffs or looking into any kind of chasm or abyss… my brain tells me to jump and it’s not a death wish, it’s a weird and strange thing I’ve endured all my life. I know that I won’t jump but still this little battle ensues in my head and sometimes I have to just step back, close my eyes and gather my breath, alter my thought patterns.

John oblivious with his camera is always teetering at the edge, taking risks to capture the best photo, so I’ve learned to stop watching him.

We stayed at Owaka the first night and what hospitality. Our motel was mainstream budget with a room next to the laundry so we could hear the hum and throb of the other occupants washing. We had a goat tethered outside our front sliding glass door, eating the shrubs and sheep grazing out another window. We walked that night to the Lumberjack café. There was a warm fire to greet us, friendly staff and one of the nicest meals ever – John had steak and I had a lamb rump – maybe it was the proximity to the grown food, or just the expertise of the chef, but the food was mouth-wateringly good.

We walked home to the smell of coal fires and a clear sky, reminding me of my 50’s childhood. Under the canopy of the Milky Way we watched for falling stars and texted a friend in Niue to find to our surprise that it was the day before over there.

I took a quick snap of the teapot museum as we were leaving Owaka and we hit the trail for Cathedral Caves. Ever the dramatist I had concerns about us being trapped by the tide. Instead we had the most beautiful sunlit morning and easy access both in and out of the caves. A small posse of tourists got caught just after we left, as a rogue wave stranded them on rocks, but they loved that. The great beauty of these caves is their natural un-enhanced beauty, unlike the neon-lit caves we visited at Halong Bay a few years ago in Vietnam.

17917820_10154562946078634_9184868157716003094_o        18056161_10154562846143634_8331716129662740803_o  17952636_10154562848783634_3653585185519541087_n

Then it was onwards to Curio Bay. I have memories from a marching trip in the sixties, being on the train, heading to Invercargill and we looked out the window at what we were told was the ‘Petrified Forest’, so I had images of upright trees, etched into my brain, ghostly, devoid of foliage, but standing.  Everyone I tell this story to shakes their head in disbelief and tells me I got it wrong. And they are right. The Petrified Forest at Curio Bay is our very own Jurassic Park but very different from this memory etched image in my brain and indeed, the train did not run anywhere near this piece of Coast (or so they tell me). The forest was washed by the tide over 180 million years ago. It’s impossible to take in or truly imagine. John was once again lost in his photo lens stooping to capture the petrified markings on the trees.

18056883_10154562846438634_7873910925018396915_n      18057829_10154562847803634_3595589214597713406_n 17991105_10154562848428634_3252578639116751148_n

I think of Ancient Messini in Kalamata and how we marvelled at the uncoverings, but these petrified trees are unimaginably older. I still can’t believe that tourists have free access to wander at will, and too, there are the nesting yellow-eyed penguins (we didn’t see any wildlife, and we’ve been told that late April is too late in the season). So, we may need to return.

After Curio Bay, we at lunch at Niagara Falls Café, housed in an old school building in a charming bucolic setting. The café is run by a family whose daughter is a medal winning Para Olympian and her medals are there on show, casually amid the food cabinets and bric-a-brac – no high security required for such precious memorabilia.

We spend the night in an overly spacious (expensive, but all that was available), four bedroomed house right on the peaceful harbour at a place called Waikava Harbour View, and yet the settlement is called Wakawa, the discrepancy we couldn’t quite fathom.

The promised Wi-Fi didn’t eventuate and here are two brilliant comments from guests which caught my fancy!  You gotta love the Visitors’ book.

IMG_1764 - Copy      IMG_1765

In the morning, after a very comfortable stay, we packed up, put our suitcases in the car and then returned to sit and enjoy the view and sunshine, only to be disturbed by a local coming, we think, to clean the house… she stood at the door, tapping her watch saying, ‘What’s the story – you’re supposed to be gone by 10.’

Like naughty school children we scuttled to the car and fell about laughing in the car at having been scolded so old-school style.

Naked in Tokyo

Standard

It was our first trip to Japan this September. We had planned a trip back on 2011 but the tsunami hit and we felt it was wrong to be a tourist in a country so stricken. On that occasion we made a detour to Cuba, a rather lengthy detour, but unforgettable.

But, the time had come. We were visiting our son in Seoul and Japan is a near neighbour, so it was long overdue. We had ten days which is not long, but long enough to plan an exciting and eventful time. Hubby plotted our course, booked the bullet trains and we managed to cram in Tokyo, Nikko (home of the three wise monkeys), Hiroshima and Kyoto (a highlight).

dsc_1873

In Tokyo we tried to do everything that we’d read about. Hubby got up at 4 am to ‘do’ the famous fish market. He left me sleeping and grabbed a cab. Shortly after I had snibbed the lock on the hotel door and fallen into a deep sleep, he returned with a crash and a bang, trying to break down the door. Alas, only the first 100 people who turn up on time are admitted to the market. In spite of his early (as he thought) departure for this event, it wasn’t early enough – it was a Saturday and everyone was there waiting – no bribes taken – just the first 100 in the queue.

We conquered the metro. How easy it is with both the Japanese scripts plural (goodness, and I tell my ESOL students English is difficult) and the English equivalent, easily read and understood. Not only is the metro fast and efficient, it is startlingly clean. We found the Shibuya Crossing made famous by the movie ‘Lost in Translation’. It was fun to cross with all the crazy tourists now perpetuating the myth or reality of this crossing being the busiest on the planet. I have to say, a week or so later, I was in Hongdae and Insadong over Chuseok, in Korea and I’m certain both places were even more crowded that the Shibuya Crossing.

dsc_1792

We then, naturally, had to watch a rerun of ‘Lost in Translation’ and to our dismay, saw just how racist and jaded the movie appears, in retrospect. The Japanese characters have stereotypical bit-parts and Tokyo, the city itself doesn’t get to really flaunt its stuff enough.

I was dead keen to see the crazy fashion on Harajuku Street but alas, although we trawled the side streets and followed our map, the extreme street fashion I was hoping to photograph didn’t eventuate. Too we visited the National Museum and I was most eager to view the netsuke collection (having read the memoir of Edmund de Waal ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’).

All this is leading to telling you about my being naked in Tokyo. I’ve always wanted to go to a public bathhouse and naturally Japan seemed like the best place to do this. We read up about the various bath houses and found one on our on-line Lonely Planet guide. It was in a rather ugly shopping mall but we were told to overlook this, because it was a really good bathhouse, the perfect place to experience Onsen.

image

And it was. Hubby went one way and I went the other. Into the public bathhouse. It was the first time I’ve been naked in public among so many strangers and yet it was simply the loveliest most normal and beautiful thing. What a pity I had to wait until I was in my sixties to experience this.

I might well have been the only non-local, but I can’t confirm this, as once you are there, and naked there is an extraordinary kind of privacy that pervades. I was surrounded by absolute beauty. I will confess to initial shyness and discomfort. This led to me entering the main bathhouse and heading straight towards a small shallow pool in the shape of a semi-circle above which was a TV screen. I headed there because it was empty of people and sat down. It was very shallow and it wasn’t long before I realised I was sitting in a foot bathing pool. Alone, self-conscious, I began to giggle. I looked over at the big pools where the grown-ups were and I lifted myself with dignity from the paddling pool crossed the wet stone floor and descended a ladder into a deep bath with water jets and serious bathers, some chatting, some just luxuriating and one person seriously washing with great care.

I saw what looked like perhaps a grandmother with her granddaughter, young women in their teens, older woman like myself, the whole cross spectrum of naked female beauty in all its dignified glory. But the thing that struck me most was the absolute lack of self-consciousness and complete naturalness in nudity. I compared it to my preconceived ideas of say a nudist camp with mixed genders, which to me seems a bit comedic. Instead, this felt like a celebration of womanhood. I hesitate to add this, but bush was in abundance, beautiful undressed womanhood. No tattoos or piercings are allowed. I wonder if that will change with time, but without being judgmental, I kind of liked the idea. Both my sons have tattoos, so they would be turned away.

Now I’m back home in New Zealand and I’ve thought about what it would be like to go to a local bathhouse here in my own community. I feel all the old barriers rising to tell me it would be awful, embarrassing, and uncomfortable. I wonder was it because I was anonymously naked in Japan that I felt so comfortable, and that no one knew me, or was there some ancient ritual that the bathhouse routines have rendered into the atmosphere, changing what would normally be a socially uncomfortable experience for me, into something very beautiful.

Questions about Appropriation – My Greek Novel (The right to write fiction)

Standard

It wasn’t until days before the final print run of my Greek novel that any sense of audacity crept in. Up until that moment, I’d been so focussed on the story, certain of it in the way that only an author can be when in the grip of writing fiction. My novel took seven years to be ready and to find the right publisher. The writing of it, the revising of it and finding a publisher, consumed me as a writer. I believed in the story. But now my book is out and about, it’s not doubt that grips me, but the realisation of what I’ve done. You see, I don’t speak Greek. Yes, I travelled to Greece for three months in 2007 to do my research. I was fortunate. There I was, a woman of a certain age, alone in a foreign city, seeking stories from the locals about the Greek Civil War. It’s only now in hindsight that I can see with clarity, the audacity of this venture. I met with resistance as you can imagine and then too through circumstance and happenstance, I stumbled on opportunities, including an extraordinary invitation to the home of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor on the Mani, to celebrate his Name Day, in November that year.

Why did a Kiwi author want to write about the Greek Civil War? It started with my father. He was a lad from Kaikoura who ended up on Crete with the 22nd Battalion during the Second World War. I’ve written an essay about this in Landfall. In the 1980’s the Greek Government offered a Greek Medal to Kiwi veterans still living. My Dad was still alive and with the help of my Greek friend Maria I applied for his medal. At that stage I had a young family and we’d just moved next door to Maria. I had no idea of her own amazing journey from Kalamata to Wellington during the 60’s but I was eventually to find out.I’m a writer, so what did I do? I realised very few people knew about the journey of the young Greek girls (most of them from Crete), to New Zealand in the sixties, as part of a special scheme between the two Governments. The girls had to be under 30, unmarried and work in the hospitality industry. The established local Greek community were less than impressed with this sudden influx – the thought of any scandal.And so, using my imagination, I began to weave a fictional account of a young woman who leaves Greece to live on the other side of the world. I’m a baby boomer, born in 1950, only five years after the end of the Second World War. It’s only now that I recognise the very proximity of that war to my own parents’ lives at the time I was born. Back then, ‘the war’ seemed like a very distant affair. I began to imagine what impact not just the Second World War, but the ongoing Greek Civil War might have had on the lives of some of these young women. My story is purely and simply imagined. It is not any one girl’s particular story. Through research and reading, I’ve woven a story which at the heart is a mother and daughter story. It is a story of immigration. It is a story of war and its aftermath.

My local Greek friends have embraced my story and I am grateful. I’ve had generous feedback. The novel has had very good reviews so far. While writing this novel, I had so much help from the Greek community. My intention was to bring the story of these brave young women to the fore, to honour them and to re-imagine the possible circumstances that might have propelled them to travel so far from home. And yes, it is only now, that my novel is out and about, that any sense of doubt has arisen, that a writer who doesn’t speak Greek, has dared to write a Greek-Kiwi novel. Did I have the right? Have I got it right? Who has the right to write a story? During the editing process, one of the super smart young editors working at Whitireia made the observation that I needed to be careful with the use of the Greek language, the insertion of Greek phrases, lest I strayed into the territory of ‘exoticising’, and thus undermining the integrity of the story.

I recall my book group, reading Alex Miller’s ‘Lovesong’, a story I loved. Two of my book club friends were unhappy that within the story, two male characters had appropriated the story of the main character, a woman from Tunisia. Not that the author had written about a woman from Tunisia, but that he’d allowed two male characters to tell her story.

My second novel ‘Turbulence’ was about a middle-aged man from the suburb of Lower Hutt. He worked in manufacturing. He was a stepfather in a new relationship, with a broken marriage, the result of his child who had died in a tragic accident in his driveway with him at the wheel. Did I know this man? I knew aspects of him, but he is a fictional character. I had worked in recruitment for many years in the Hutt Valley and so I felt I knew this man, an ordinary man, the sort of man who doesn’t always make it into fiction – not an artist, a doctor, a lawyer, but something rather more ordinary – a man running a factory.Did I have the right to write with the voice of a man? It never occurred to me that I didn’t. And I was heartened by the first review on Radio NZ by John McCrystal who felt I’d nailed it. Unfortunately, the ensuing reviews from two younger, academic women, did not concur. We bring to our reading our own experiences. Many of my women friends didn’t enjoy ‘Turbulence’, but almost all my men friends did.

My first novel ‘ About turns’ was about book clubs and marching girls. This is territory that I know well. It was about a sixties working-class childhood. Yes, I mined my own experiences and many people who’d known me during my childhood claimed to recognise characters. But the book was also about a transgender character, female to male. Did I have the right? This book is fiction with experiences rendered to represent truths, both my own and other peoples.

I won’t have got everything right in my Greek novel in spite of all the support from native Greek speakers and spouses of native Greek speakers. But I’m hopeful that being an outsider, has enabled me to write with a different sort of clarity, that of the observer. But this begs the question. Did I have the right to appropriate a foreign language, to use it and many of its sayings, without being a speaker of that language? All the mistakes (if there are any and there must be) of history, time, place, language and ideas of what it is to be Greek, and how to express this, are entirely mine.

Links to reviews of ‘Daughters of Messene’
http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/books/75331829/Sizzling-summer-reads http://www.listener.co.nz/culture/books/my-big-fat-greek-family-reunion/ http://www.odt.co.nz/entertainment/books/365679/story-greek-womens-voyage-nz-informs-book

The simplest words

Standard

For Christmas, I bought myself a copy of Alex Miller’s memoir ‘The Simplest Words’, a series of sometimes quite short personal essays. I’m only part way into reading them but was struck to the core by his essay about the death of his elderly mother. He begins with a low-key description of a week they spent together when she was 86 years old. Indeed, he points out, that she pointed out, that this was the first time the two of them had ever spent a week alone together. He lives in Australia and left home aged sixteen to follow his Antipodean dream, and then became a writer. This essay-vignette, one week, ends with Alex and his mother walking home arm in arm from a pub after polishing off a bottle of Spanish wine, ‘Bulls Blood’.

6924866-3x4-340x453

I was reading this sitting at a café overlooking our beautiful local bay. The water unusually calm, one person swimming, a grandmother towelling down her granddaughter, and a motor boat noiselessly edging towards the beach. A woman beside me was talking loudly on her mobile. I frowned first and then decided I would eavesdrop (I’m a writer), but she stopped before anything useful was uttered. I returned to Alex Miller.

Tragically, after spending this memorable week with his mother, a few weeks later when she was dying, he had to choose between returning to the United Kingdom to see her or his commitment to a new job at La Trobe University, Melbourne, teaching creative writing. He explains that he chose to stay with his students who had given him the gift of their unpolished first drafts – and to abandon them would be to betray that trust. He then goes on to say that it took six weeks for his elderly mother to die and when he returned some time later and caught up with his sister, she told him that his mother had been waiting for him to come. It’s quite brutal to read as her death was horrible, her spirit fighting to hang in beyond her physical pain. The sister tells him “It’s all right, you know, Mum understood that writing meant everything to you.”

It revived my own memories of my mother’s death. I was living in Sydney at the time and my aunt phoned to tell me my mother had suffered a heart attack and was in hospital. I’d just moved to a new flat on the North Shore and gone through an emotional romantic break-up. I stayed put. My Aunt phoned again three days later telling me I should come quickly. Reluctantly, I packed up my flat and job in one day and flew home. It took my mother a couple of weeks to die. She wasn’t in a lot of pain as far as I know, but she was very tired. A few years earlier my eldest brother had committed suicide. The last time I saw her, a nurse urged me to stay, but I had a bus to catch and a dinner date, so I said I had to go. I know now that the nurse knew my mother was dying, but she didn’t tell me. I made my dinner date and my mother passed away less than an hour after I said a cheerful goodbye to her. I often revisit this moment and wish the nurse had told me but too, I regret my own callow youth – I was impatient with her – she’d disrupted my adventures, I was anxious to be on my way.

So now there was just my Dad and me. One sibling was dead and the other was missing. As the hearse pulled up outside our modest Jerry-built post war weatherboard house – I was standing in the hallway with a view through the open front door – the phone rang and it was the missing child – not in a position to attend the funeral. I was used to life being askew, and this was just another permutation. We were a small team, my Dad and I and my Aunt and it took me motherhood, teenagers and becoming a grandmother to really know what happened that day. My grief came in unexpected moments over the years, tinged with regrets, and I was grateful, when my father died, that I was encouraged by the hospital to stay close, to sit still, to be there, and I was.

The Virgin birth and a faux Chinese chest

Standard

The Virgin birth and a faux Chinese Chest

Christmas. It used to have a religious significance for me. But that was a long time ago, the fifties and sixties when I believed almost everything, anyone told me. And I was a dutiful sort of person, obedient, willing and looking for a story that would explain the strangeness of ‘being’, human.

Then I had a family and Christmas was nostalgia and the creation of my own new story, a family story. It was sewing Christmas stockings that we still use, in spite of my limited skills as a sewer. Each year, I bring out the stockings for a brief cameo and then I stow them away in a faux Chinese wooden chest where we keep newspaper clippings and the Christmas lights.

DSCN0033

A virgin birth. It never occurred to me as a child how odd this was. How could a child be cynical about the Angel Gabriel arriving on a beautiful cloud? Mary so pious (in various versions, possibly a little startled), but attractively compliant. You have to remember, I was a Catholic girl who read her Catechism and could recite the Apostles Creed in English and possibly parts of it in Latin. The Angel Gabriel arriving at the annunciation was a powerful fairy-tale.

I had no sympathy for Mary who was to carry this unplanned pregnancy. I was filled with the light of El Greco paintings on Colomban calendars, sermons from a small church in Richmond – Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. And then after abandoning my faith, and travelling for a few years, eventually I married the man I’d been ‘living in sin’ with for almost five years.. and became that very Lady of Perpetual Succour… a wife and mother.

I’m older now, and there are decades between my love of filling stockings at midnight, baking the cake weeks before, writing cards, attending Midnight Mass (merely for nostalgia and now not at all), buying a real Christmas tree, decorating it, making food that will please everyone, and then, finally, realising, that it’s not up to me, and you cannot ever please everyone.

El_Greco_-_The_Annunciation_(Japan)

I no longer weep when Christmas music (Snoopy’s Christmas) comes on the radio. I still dance to the Pogues ‘Fairytale of New York’ because my granddaughter has been dancing to it with me for seven and a half years…

In my life-time, I have celebrated Christmas in Richmond, Nelson, Wellington, Washington DC, Norway (Santa arrived on Christmas eve in the snow), Edinburgh (practically alone), Istanbul (snow again) and Laos.

I’ve experienced joy and disappointment and one of my most memorable gifts was a swimsuit from an Aunt when I was about eight years old – it was covered in Christmas pink bon-bons and had a pink bow placed strategically at the base of the bodice where it flared into a cute skirt – prior to that I’d worn my Mother’s seersucker, over-sized swimsuit (with bra cups that possibly kept me afloat).

DSCN0032

It’s New Year now in our bay. The Pohutakawa next door is flowering. We’re re-united with our son who has been living overseas for ten years. We had a happy Christmas family breakfast and thoughtful inexpensive gifts under the tree. We were almost sitcom material on New Year’s Day with everyone on their best behaviour. Our granddaughter is besotted with her Uncle and we’re all besotted with her.

This year, I want to embrace being human, and to recognise the glorious potential of difference, rather than indifference, the beauty of the individual rather than the duty of togetherness, the magic of family in all its inordinate incarnations.

Old friends and Cape Foulwind

Standard

Old friends and Cape Foulwind

When you’re from Wellington, travelling to Cape Foulwind holds no concern. After all, it’s the West Coast of the South Island, New Zealand, renowned for its weather. You share a bad reputation, it endears you to each other. But, we arrived at our accommodation, the dramatically appointed “Steeples” Cottage, on a calm sunny day. Our splendid front lawn runs right out to the cliff edges overlooking the sea. There’s a garden seat of driftwood under a wind-shaped macrocarpa. There’s also a darling garden of chaotic colour, old-fashioned flowers in full bloom, which belies the wind-shaped trees. And a fence and a child-proof gate at the perimeter, as our hosts have local grandchildren.

View from the cottage

Our modern and well-equipped cottage is named Steeples, because of the superb view from the cottage of the limestone steeple-shaped rocks jutting out of the sea in front of us. The hosts feted us with freshly collected mussels, the fattest, sweetest, we have ever eaten. And then we head to the local pub, just along the road and everyone there appears to be related in some way, either by marriage or birth. We’re served freshly rarely cooked and tender venison morsels, as almost tapas with our beer. Where else? Our fish, when we order it, is grilled Turbot, shaken in flour and crisped just a little with oil and lemon pepper.

Cape FoulwindSand in my shoes

We’re running away. It’s what you do when life serves up parcels of grief. How lucky are we? We could have stayed home and wallowed, but we chose to travel instead. The spirit cannot help but be revived in this rugged landscape. I’d spent five days in Kaikoura with my sister on the trail of family secrets, stunned yet again by the jewel-like aqua of the East Coast sea. It was the first time probably in perhaps 50 years, that we had spent this much time together. We ate scallops as fat as your fist (almost) but missed out on the crayfish as it was the end of the season and the last of the crays were especially expensive. We met a first cousin for the first time. This adds to our collection, having recently found two aunts and an uncle we never knew about and who didn’t know about us either. We talked as sisters do, about our one successful family holiday in Kaikoura, where we hid in the hawthorn hedge and threw plums at passersby. We found the old house, almost unchanged on the corner, parked our car and sat and reminisced.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura

Then, my sister returned to Thames and John joined me. We visited old friends in Nelson, and Lake Brunner, saw the night sky in Tekapo and visited Christchurch. There’s something grounding about old friendships. People who know your story and whose story you know. Friends who forgive you your faults as you forgive them, and the comfort of familiarity. As for Christchurch, I was blown away on the sunny Friday by the sense of renewal and spirit of optimism down by the container shops, and then Saturday dawned grey, cold and sad and I saw the central city spaces in a new and sadder light.

DSC_0021

The beautiful church at Lake Tekapo

The beautiful church at Lake Tekapo

View from inside the church at Lake Tekapo

View from inside the church at Lake Tekapo

Cape Foulwind
The cliffs at Cape Foulwind

The cliffs at Cape Foulwind

John takes a great photo. So, I’ve decided to share some of his best with you on my blog. While I was travelling, I was reading a very good novel by Coral Atkinson, soon to be launched called ‘Passing Through’ which I am going to review for Beattie’s blog. There’s nothing like a good book to keep you company on a road trip. I also read the short stories of George Saunders, ‘The Tenth of December’ – a much heralded American short-story writer – it took me a while to ‘get’ the voices in his stories, but once I did, I was hooked. ‘The Semplica-Girl Diaries’ both startled, surprised and wowed me. And on my bedside is a new collection from Vincent O’Sullivan that I’ve already dipped into – delicious.

Siem Reap – where I left a part of my heart

Standard

IMG_0063

Recently, I spent three months as a volunteer ESOL teacher in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’ve left a part of my heart behind. Some people said, before I left, what a grubby little tourist town Siem Reap was and that I wouldn’t like it. How wrong could they be? I loved it. I love the red dusty roads that erupt whenever the rain falls; the smell of the Monsoon and dust, the sound of motos, the choreography of traffic, tuk-tuks, motos, cyclists, pedestrians and the occasional big black Lexus.

IMG_0073

I love the resilient spirit of the people of Siem Reap, their optimism, in the face of endless rejection – from the girls on massage lane to the tuk-tuk drivers – always hopeful, up for a chat, and the cries of ‘teacher-teacher’. Where else could I possibly find so much (possibly undeserved) affirmation and respect? I can’t imagine being embraced so affectionately at my local coffee bar back home, nor having my eyes wiped by an attentive waitress (who just happens also to be my student), when I choke on a chilli over dinner. Or to go out alone, and find each time I enter a café, that one of my students is waiting tables there and I’m suddenly the most important customer.

IMG_0423

IMG_0342

I loved the one dollar out-door foot massage where I watched endless reruns of the story of Angkor Wat on a large open-air screen… the foot scrub for two dollars, the pedicure that ended up a brighter pink than I chose, and the nail polish that was very poor quality, so the finish was less than smooth, but the effort and focus gone into painting my toes far outweighed the less than perfect outcome.

The people of Siem Reap put their hearts on the line for the tourists. They offer up a piece of themselves for a small price. They work long hours for little return and the tuk-tuk drivers spend more time waiting for customers than they do actually driving anywhere. In the heat of the mid afternoon they sling their hammocks and rest. They are waiting for the balmy evening when the tourists will begin swarming down to Pub Street and maybe they can nab a newcomer and sell them a trip to the temples tomorrow… always tomorrow … the locals here believe in tomorrow in a way that is heart-warming and admirable.

IMG_0408

Madame, you want tuk-tuk, maybe not today, maybe tomorrow, maybe the temples, not today Madame, but tomorrow maybe, you call me, you have my card, tomorrow, tomorrow, I take you to the temples, Madame, Madame…

It’s one sentence, because they anticipate your rejection and already they’re moving with a smile to the next potential customer.

I loved the Old Market, the Night Market (there are several Night Markets) and the food – the food loved me too. I ate the juiciest mangoes I’ve ever tasted, sweet pineapple, longans, dragon fruit, and I never tired of the Khmer vegetable curries and the chilled 50 cent Angkor beers, not to mention the one dollar Margaritas on Soksan Road.

IMG_0704

I found French pastries at the Blue Pumpkin, a designer cupcake café and the New Leaf Book Café where they make the most delicious banana blossom salad while selling second-hand books. And too, minus the food, D’s bookshop (both second-hand and new).

D's Bookshop, Siem Reap

IMG_0338

IMG_0337

I admired the ‘flower girl’ as I christened her. The same girl every night, plying her flowers along Pub Street, her witty patter, her sassy street-smarts and who knows, she looked fifteen, but perhaps she was older. I admired too, the young man (whom I decided ran away from the circus), who ran his own one-man-band sort of circus, swallowing fire, and juggling outside the cafés in the balmy evenings, his shiny naked skinny torso and the young boy who made the chocolate banana pancakes with such flair, one hand wiping, the other hand swiping, cooking and cleaning at the same time.

And yes, I stood with all the hundreds of other tourists at dawn, waiting for the sun rise at Angkor Wat.

IMG_0174IMG_0182

But it wasn’t so much about the temples for me, as the local people. I enjoyed a cycling alone to the temples on the school bicycle. The first time I’ve ever cycled close to an elephant or a monkey for that matter. I tried to imagine a quieter time, when the temples were abandoned and overgrown but not with tourists, the eerie mix of nature and man-made stone grandeur, uninhabited.

IMG_0233

IMG_0273

IMG_0223

One of the highlights for me wasn’t the temples, but the evening I rode pillion on a student’s moto into the balmy late afternoon-straight-into-evening – along the canal to Road 60 for a Khmer-style picnic with one of my classes (barbecued chicken with yummy seasonings from the local roadside stalls) and being one of only a handful of barangs.

As for the circus. If you never do anything else in Siem Reap, go to the Phare Cambodian Circus which describes itself as uniquely Cambodian, daringly modern. Be startled and astonished by the amazing acrobatics, the sheer energy, talent and something else… delight at its best, in its best form – delight from the performers and delight from the audience. This is what I found in Cambodia – you think you’re giving when mostly you are receiving.

But most of all I loved waking at 5.00 am to chase the frogs from the kitchen after the Monsoon and once too, a cheeky rat ran out from behind the portable gas hob. I would make porridge and drink black tea in the make-shift outside dining room. I’d feed the school cat in the hopes she would keep the rat at bay. And then, after gathering my lesson plans, at around 5.50 am each morning, I would pull the shiny yellow curtains in my bedroom open and see my always-early student Phanna, on his moto heading towards the school gates. He never failed me. And soon after, the rest of the class. At 6.00 am the Elementary One class would begin, with the fans going and the doors wide open. I would watch the dawn break as I taught. That moment between dawn and morning, the shifts in colour. Magic. But more than that, the amazing energy and affection that my students rewarded me with. There was no ‘class management’ required, I had rapt attention from hard-working, motivated, interesting and hugely admirable young adults. What more could a teacher ask for?

What I most admired is the extraordinary spirit of my students and all their golden hopes for tomorrow. I felt humbled by their resilience, their hard work, their generosity and their humour. It is hard to imagine a country with such a recent tragic history, where there is such a spirit of optimism.

I’m not forgetting though, there is much more to Cambodia than Siem Reap and my students. I saw the poverty between Siem Reap and Phnom Phen when I took the Giant Ibis bus journey between the two cities the weekend of the water festival. The way people live with their rice crops drying at the side of the road, no fresh running water or electricity, relying on oxen and water buffalo instead of modern-day farming methods. I was reminded of Cuba. I know the Government is corrupt, the recent elections weren’t fair and that people live in abject poverty. I read Joel Brinkley’s ‘Cambodia’s Curse’ before I left for Siem Reap and while I was there. It is without doubt a very sobering account of Cambodia’s history. I know it’s time for Hun Sen to go and democracy to have a fair chance. But somewhere in my heart, I have great hope, if the young people I taught, are an example of what lies ahead.