Saturday, February 23, 2008

The spirit of forgiveness...

It is rare that I find myself so inspired to write and share ..I am up at 6 in the morning right now, my head spinning with thoughts, ideas, and memories already conjured from my 2 days of visiting Cambodia thus far…I have another week to go here before I begin my journey to Vietnam.

I am in Siem Riep right now, a wonderful, vibrant, (and incredibly inexpensive) city situated just a few kilometers from the nearby archeological world wonder, Angkor Wat. I am finding it a fascinating place , filled with the many nuances of its rich cultural past.

I must admit that I never knew much about Cambodia before I arrived here. Aside from all the publicity that Angelina Jolie has given to the landmine victims here in recent years, I hadn’t really been too aware of all that had gone on here not only during the Vietnam era, but also in the many hundreds of years before then during the most incredible era of the Khmer people.

My most basic (and very vivid) thoughts and memories of Cambodia had to do mostly with my sitting in front of the television as a young girl in 1974, watching the people of Cambodia literally being bombed and killed right before my eyes on my small black and white color TV in my family den.

I remember often crying as I watched the evening news and asking my mother, “how can people be so mean to each other ?” She could never give me an answer to this question; It was almost as if she, too, wanted to cry with me, but knew, as a mother, she had to be the strong one here.

I learned at a very early age that violent behavior rarely has a good reason to occur, especially when it is acted out against the most innocent of people.

So as I flew into this tiny country of Cambodia two days ago, I looked out at this beautiful and seemingly very peaceful country, laden with rice fields and paddies, and wondered how the people of this country had chosen to move on after years of so much violence and destruction

I believe it is one thing: the spirit of forgiveness. These people have moved on. It shows in their almost ever-present smiles; it shows in their humility when dealing with the often demanding Western tourist ;It even shows in their ability to laugh at things that perhaps many westerners would call “in poor taste”- just yesterday a local girl shared with me a joke (in English) that made an “armless” woman part of the punchline- (armless landmine victims are a common site here).

The poverty is evident here like in no other southeast asian country I have visited thus far. It is much poorer than Vietnam, Thailand, even Laos. Only 5% of the population has cash (which, incidentally, is mostly in American dollars- something that totally shocked me when I first went to an ATM yesterdat to get money and saw crisp little greenbacks spit out from the machine) . And there is an illiteracy rate here of about 85%.

Yet I feel very much at home here..I can always ask for help if and when I need and I feel very safe walking around here on my own.I get daily smiles from almost every local person I walk by and it doesn’t really feel like it is only about “wanting my money” . These people are mostly Buddhists and I do believe this has a great deal to do with their genuine humility and kindness- it is just inherent in their cultural philosophy.

The owners of my guesthouse just cannot do enough to make me feel at home here. They met me at the airport in a wonderful red “tuk tuk” (with the driver holding up a sign with my name wonderfully typed on it-tuk tuk above in photo)and quickly sped me off to my guesthouse where I had a free massage upon arrival.

I have just returned from a visit with one of the worker’s mother today for “a casual visit” in her home down the road from where I am staying. The mother knows no English, her husband left her 18 years ago and her 5 children are all now working in local businesses to support her and each other. The mother is now a practicing "lay monk" and has kept her head shaven now for the past 5 years. They were wonderful to be around and even though they knew no English, we managed to smile and exchange a few messages thanks to Danay, her daughter, and my tour guide for the afternoon.ONe of the daughters (pictured far left) was especially excited to know that I was from Hawaii as she was just studying about Hawaii in school and was learning how beautiful of a place it was. I pray someday she will be able to come visit me.

My newfound freind Danay, who spent a couple of hours with me today showing me "where no tourists ever go" in and around Siem Riep. She is one of THE most motivated and hard-working people I have ever met. She works three jobs, supports her entire family, and goes to school every night to learn English. Her dream is to open up her own travel business someday. I have no doubt she will be incredibly successful at whatever she chooses to do. She truly is special.

I also was taken to a temple today where I befriended a group of wonderfully energetic young "monks in the making". We played a game of "kick the slipper into the goal" for awhile, laughed a lot, and exhanged hugs and goodbyes. Tomorrow, I am going to surprise them with a new soccer ball (they dont have one), badminton raquets (they love to play here), and notebooks and pencils (as they are learning English right now and their teachers , pictured below, said they would be most appreciative of this gift.) I feel like it is Christmas again and I get to do the giving and surprising tomorrow. I can't wait to go back to these children. They have seriously made me rethink about leaving Siem Riep in a couple of days.

It almost seems like a secondary expereince now but less than 24 hours ago, I was walking the ruins of one of the most amazing ancient sites I have ever seen .My day started off yesterday at about 5am when I met my driver (“Mr Vodha” not "vodka" as I first called him) to begin my day tour to Angkor Wat. Again, I had only begun to read about this amazing archeological wonder in recent months so I had really very few notions of what I would I be experiencing and seeing.

Well, was I in for yet another amazing surprise.

Angkor Wat and the surrounding temple should be a must for all to visit in this lifetime. One should also keep in mind that these temples spread out in an area of 100 sq. miles and date back to the 8th-15th century. An architectural feat indeed especially in these days and ages where "extreme makeovers" of home seem to be almost a yearly occurrence.

I will spare you now of every little detail of my Angkor Wat expereince and try to share my there there with pictures alone..though, I do admit, even this wonderful visual medium of photography doesn’t always do justice to the actual FEELING of just being there . You get my drift.

the details on every single piece of stone here absolutely boggles the mind. This was a culture of much patience and perseverance !

The locals take much pride in maintaining the essence and many structures of Angkor. Here is a temple worker helping in the renovation of one of the larger temples.

Man and nature in a beautiful dance.

These smiling faces seen everywhere in Angkor literally brought me to tears at one moment; the loving energy in this place is so very palpable.

This monkey obviously knows where he is loved.

This local man had just changed from his "casual slippers" to more formal sandals seconds before this shot was taken. This was no doubt an important picture for him.

The downfall of traveling on your own sometimes is that there are not always people around to snap a shot of you. Alas, my attempt at a self portait at Angkor Wat, just as proof that I was actually there !

This is one of the most riveting pictures I feel I have taken in a long while. If you click on this picture, you will get a closer look at the amazing look on this boy's face. It was difficult to figure out if this dog was playing or ready to bite the child. The dog eventually left and the child began to cry. Luckily, his mother was nearby to rescue him.

a seemingly most special day for a few local Cambodians to visit their pride and joy,Angkor Wat. Every single person in this picture took a special picture on their own in front of this temple. This was just a wonderful moment to sit back and watch the pride of these people come through in their smiles.

yet another amazing stone relief of a man and wife depicted during the Khmer regime.

the glorious entrance to Angkor Wat.

It was just me alone here as I ran from the masses of tourists and entered the temple on my own as the full moon was setting and the sun was slowly rising- quite a magical moment indeed.

The downfall to poverty is that children are often used to make money for their families. Here a young girl is being pushed to pose for passing tourists in order to get her picture taken for money.

every where I turned, there was always a picture to take, even in the simplest of designs and structures..

the famous temple Angkor Wat, one of the 7 archeological wonders of the world.

within minutes of me sitting down in a small dark temple, this young boy came up to me and lit me incense to offer to Buddha.

I should also mention that I went to a most inspiring free concert last night by a Swiss doctor and musician here. His name is Beat Richner and has been practicing medicine here as a doctor since 1974, when he lived in Phnom Penh during the Vietnam War. This life-altering concert/talk brought me to tears within the first few minutes of being there. Between beautiful cello pieces of Bach and Beethoven, I learned through small vignettes and film, that Cambodia still has some of the worst health care situations in the world. Just last year alone, 24,000 cases of dengue fever were reported amongst children under the age of 12 .Yet most of the Western World was so focused on the SARS epidemic as the World Health Organization chose to “spill” this information about SARS into the news instead. The ‘logic’ was, we were told by Dr. Richner, was that even though there were only 850 SARS cases reported around the world that same year, the disease was affecting the Western World more and dengue fever was not, at least at that time. Thus, this Cambodian health nightmare was given no coverage whatsoever and most people in “our part of the world” just didnt have a clue of this health tragedy that was and still is occurring..

I also learned that 90,000 children would die each year if it was not for the hospitals that this most brave doctor has set up and organized in Cambodia. There are now 3 hospitals, both here and in Phnom Penh, that provide free health care (yes, you heard that right future presidential candidates !) for over 85% of the people of Cambodia. The mortality rate has been reduced from 5% from just 4 years ago to .75% now. Lives are being saved, there is no corruption in the hospital system (no cash is exchanged within the buildings) and children are now being given a second chance to live. If you want to read more about this amazing man (who, incidentally was voted “man of the year in Switzerland in 2004), go to You will be inspired.

I walked away from this concert last night feeling both incredibly moved by this man who has given his life to these people and also angered and saddened that most of the Western world has either shut its eyes to this significant health problem or just doesn’t have a clue to what is going on in this part of the world. I have vowed to do something to help, whether it is through a basic donation or to raise more awareness back home . Perhaps I can also use my music to help .

So yes, what an amazing past day it has been…the wonders of Angkor yesterday morning and afternoon, the inspiration last night from a man who is saving dozens of lives and informing hundreds of people every day, and the experience of visiting a local family today and befriending a group of young energetic monks.

Not bad for a 24 hours period.

Once again, I feel amazingly blessed.

I hope your day is also filled with awe and inspiration and the spirit of giving is alive and well in your world.

until next time..

Friday, February 15, 2008

"I come from the land down-under.."

So I am in Sydney at last...and oh so happy to be with my wonderful brother Tony for a couple of weeks for some fun in the sun...

It has been wonderful being in this vibrant city, filled with so much culture, beautiful scenery, and wonderfully freindly (and amazingly fit and healthy!) people...

Instead of writing much for this blog, I decided just to enter pictures in with a few captions...I hope it will give you a good sense of the sights and sounds that greet meet on a daily basis while I am here...

I hope you are all well..

hugs from Bondi Beach..
melina :)

me and my "baby" brother Tony...

at breakfast after swim practice..

me and my Greek/South African freind Basil....

Aussie lifeguards take their job ever so seriously !

the coastline the greets me every morning..

there is an amazing coastal walk for about 4 km that I walk along almost daily is magestic, magical, and mystifying...

the friendly local parrots on the balcony feeding freely out of our hands !

a special "night flower" that only blossoms after the sun goes down..

local "sydneyites" on their way to a costume party..

cant help but feel I am in Hawaii at times with scenes like this !

the view from the apartment where I am staying at...tough life, I know...

I am off to Cambodia this Friday, followed by my trek up the Vietnamese coast...I am looking forward to share more soon..