Monday, July 31, 2006

Pictures from the Road (Part II)

So I was castigated soundly the other day by a friend in Korea for the misleading nature of my "Pictures from the Road (by request)" post. It seems that the text bears me out as a total tease, with promises of adventures illustrated and exposed but no real juicy details to flesh things out.

Apologies, and perhaps a slight nod towards remedying the situation!

Angkor Wat. I wasn't joking when I said it leaves you at a loss for words. But there are intellectual and emotional touchstones that can be extracted from my memories to hopefully satisfy curiousities that may or may not abound. I could start in Bangkok to really tie this whole experience together, or I could include the long and jarring journey from the Thai border to Siam Reap and the amazing scenes we bounced and jounced past. But instead I will begin in the temple complex itself, picking up the narrative in midstream so to speak....

I think the words that I used in my last post on the subject remains the most apt - Angkor is an intensely personal encounter with the past, communing through so many senses.

There is the sight and touch of the rough weathered stone, pockmarked with the bullets of modern warfare and carved with testiments to acts of heroism in centuries past. Creeping with lichen and crumbling back into the dust beneath your feet. These senses become particularly engaged when one looks closely at the many female figures with breasts rubbed to a polish like glass by hands eager to commune with the essence of life - mother-earth through her stone surragates.

The smell of the musty corridors in the literal mazes of halls that criss-cross the temple complexes. An earthy scent that is moist and tinged by mosses and fragrant vegetation that thrives in the fine lines between stones and on the verges of the surrounding canals. This mixes with the incence burned by the faithful from worlds away that bow to say prayers in this place. But above and beyond all of this, I can convince myself, is the smell of stone itself.

The sounds of the huge complex, which are a blend of the modern shuffle of tourist feet with the attendant shutter clicks and the sounds that must have been heard even by the stonemasons as they worked. The shrill cry of the cicadas, which has been a regular part of my yearly cycle for so many years but has fallen silent this summer in Portland. The frogs in the ponds and moats and canals and the gleeful cries of the Cambodian children as they throw their near-naked bodies from the stones into these bodies of water.

And the bittersweet sound of those children that are working rather than playing - begging for the money to go to school, eat a decent dinner or just be welcomed home. And the attendent moral obligation to help that is often stymied by the suspicion that nothing will come of it than another night of sniffing glue or by the weight of the need to choose who among the throng is worthy of the handout.

And the taste of the cool fresh water that soothes your parched body after hours of exploring in the sun. Or the fresh fruit juices that give you the energy and drive to climb that next flight of stairs or cycle on to the next stop on the tour of ancient treasures - mango, watermelon, orange, papaya, pineapple, lychee. Or the steaming bowl of fish Amok that waits at the end of the day.

But where is the promised tale from the road? Where is the essence of the oft-hinted intimacy of the experience? I am not sure that I can give you that my friend - but I can try.

Have you read "Swimming to Cambodia" by Spalding Gray? If not I highly recommend it for a few great laughs and a lot of exploration of how we experience our lives on a moment-by-moment basis. The stream of conciousness of a man fighting mental demons that unfortunately led him to suicide in 2004.

Gray writes in "Swimming to Cambodia" about having a perfect moment. Something I have had the pleasure to experience on several identifiable occassions - one already chronicled in my story from the church steps and another coming at you from the temple complexes of Angkor Wat.

Cycling against time with Troy and Michelle - two truely wonderful people from New Minas, Nova Scotia - we raced to find Ta Preom before night fell and the park closed to the foreign occupiers we really were in one sense. Ta Preom was a must see not because of the fame brought to it by Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in the trash blockbuster "Tomb Raider", but because of the uneasy coexistence of this temple with the massive trees that are slowly ripping it to pieces.

Instead we ended up a Preah Kahn - fortuitously it would turn out, as the guard that attempted to usher us out for the 6:00 close finally relented and agreed to let us pedal our way around the complex to view a huge tree entangled with the rear of the structure. What a massive piece of ashen white, ossified timber! How could we resist coming closer to experience this site with all the intimacy explained at (too great?) length above?

And then, how were we to avoid entering a long stone hallway that turned out to bisect the entire massive structure from north to south and east to west, probably following some geomantric lines of energy divined by priests of another time. We were, after all, welcomed with open arms by the Apsaras dancing on the carved lintels above each opening.

And once the elation of being alone, in the rapidly darkening Cambodian jungle, in this piece of timeless significance, hit us, how were we to stop running at full-tilt back and forth, up and down those long corridors? How were we to stop from climbing to the top of those temple mounts and drinking in the sights and sounds of the mysterious area that we inhabited alone?

We came to the exact center of the complex as the darkness reached a particular poignancy, with the shadows cast at an artful angle across the geometric lines of the carefully wrought corridors and cubby-holes. There was a carved, round pillar of stone perhaps 8 feet tall marking that spot, and at that moment we fell silent - each with a hand outstretched to rest on what we could only imagine was the marker of a spot of great power and significance.

And we stood silent and let the sounds of the jungle wash over us and purge the rest of time and the world from our minds.

And it was a moment of pure, unadulterated perfection. There was nowhere else in the world I would rather be, and nothing about myself or the world that needed to be changed. The pure goodness that we hope is the core of humanity was plain and clear.

And then it was gone. Words were spoken, time resumed, and the deepening shadows and encroaching forest were suddenly stripped of perfection and imbued with a hint of fear. A shiver ran down my spine as we suddenly gave ourselves to what can be best described as a feeling of vulnerability. A counterpoint to the earlier peace coming in the realization of our foreigness in the verdant jungle of this strange land.

And Michelle's bicycle chain was jammed into the rear fork - and was not coming lose whether with my handy Swiss Army or the frustrated kicks of our sandle-clad feet. There was nothing to it but to get out of those deep woods and closer to some form of civilization.

Troy, a long-distance runner in another time in another land, took it upon himself to run that bicycle God knows how many thousands of meters until a crew of Cambodians on a motorbike stopped to do a quick repair job for us. I will never forget standing holding the light over those two toiling men as every bug in the jungle vectored in on my lamp - huge moths colliding with my face, mosquitos buzzing in my ears and fire ants biting my toes and feet.

The ride back to town was fairly uneventful. Maybe there was never any real danger, but that was irrelevant in the face of our perception of danger. Equally, there may never have been a "perfect moment," but if that's the case, I'll take the mistaken perception any day over the absence of that experience that the alternative would suggest.

I don't know if I have captured anything here that is accessible to you from your distant lands and different experiences. But I am not someone who often manages to anchor myself completely in the moment - and the value of those seconds of our perfect moment are truely indescribable if you have not experienced it yourself - albeit in your own place and time.

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