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Monday, March 21, 2016

The 4 Winds Converge as the Sun Sets on the Kindom

The Four Winds Converge

Last month a friend suffered from high fever, vomiting, skin rashes, joint pains and extreme fatigue. After getting her test results back from an outpatient visit, her red blood cell count was low and  she was admitted to the hospital.  Further tests showed that she had an "unspecified viral illness", a common malady here.

A moving day in Cambodia. 
"Maybe it was the wind", my colleague said. For many Cambodians, ill-health and strong emotions are characterized like forces that blow through your body and impact your physical and mental health.

In the final week of my departure,  I had dinner on Saturday night with my noodle seller friend, Ratha, her parents and 2 other friends, a English-speaking brother and sister that help her with the 2 food carts she operates each day and night. We were set up at their evening soup stand location on Norodom, just up the street from my old apartment, which I had just moved out of that afternoon. Traffic whizzed by as the breezes were brisk and cool. We sat around a table filled with river prawns in lemongrass sauce, slices of bony duck and a pizza(my contribution).

Ratha looking relaxed at an enagement party in Aretkesat across the river

Ratha at the temple in Kampong Speu, when I took
the day off to visit on Buddha's birthday in 2014.
I became weepy as Ratha presented me with a braacelet she ordered from the local market silversmith: a chain with three blocks of etched letters across the wrist: Ratha Love Ellen.  I was now on a train pulling out of the station.

No turning back, buffeted by emotions: Relief, Sadness, Frustration, and Fear.

"What will you miss about Cambodia", the friends ask. It is mixed feelings,

A surprise going -away party. hosted  by the clinical teams of
my key projects.  Dr. Rin,(R) is the lead diabetes doctor.
Dr. Nara(L) is the lead for Women's Health. I raised over
$250,000 for their programs and am so rpoud of them. 

I will miss the plants and flowers everywhere, sheets of bright pink bougainvillea spilling off balconies. The sounds and sights of the street vendors: balloons and doughnuts sold from bicycles, push carts of  household goods and the line-up of banana leaf-wrapped roasted sticky rice packets. Monks: jammed into a tuk-tuk (monkmobile!) or walking the streets in the morning under their burnt sienna umbrellas, both resplendent and understated in their bright orange robes. One morning in my last week, a brief surge of emotion rocked through me as I heard their chants from a streetside funeral ceremony.  The groups with whom I found community: writers, stitchers.and friends.  I will miss the smiles of people,who I would often try to engage in traffic: a small wave, or a friendly hello. The spirit houses everywhere, bunches of incense and bananas as those offerings of gratitude.  Cheap everything.

Evening traffic at Independence Monument. 
There are many things I will not miss: the small piles of burning leaves and plastic bags that pepper the streets in the evenings, the stagnant, sticky and oppressive world of traffic at rush hour. After a long day of brain-jangling questions and problems, I would sit surrounded by heat and exhaust in the back seat of the tuk-tuk. All I wanted to do was to calm myself and breathe deeply, yet it felt so unhealthy and destructive to do so.  The sights on the streets: beggars of all forms, enormous cement trucks dwarf the toddlers squeezed in among their 2-3 or 4 family members as piles of sand and rebar spill over into th roadway, men peeing everywhere.  Texting or and talking while driving(a moto), near misses, frequent minor crackups. Last week I saw a moto swipe another and 3 boys on a bike went down, the youngest at the rear had his ankle pinned against the exhaust pipe. The burn, pale and large on the inside of his ankle as the boy wept and staggered to the sidewalk. His slightly older friend takes some icecubes from his drink.  I could do nothing to help.

Storming the Cyclo in early 2014 with co-conspirator
Monika. Stitch and Bitch reconnected me with knitting again
and even better, helped me make new friends.
Discussing specs with Monika and Glorianne.


The Sun Sets on the Kingdom

The last week is a blur of tippy tappy typing, deadlines, final connections with friends and colleagues, last meals at favorite places, sleepless nights and a numb adherence to my checklist. My colleagues and a friend join for sunset cruise that I'd organized instead of the hospital's typical expat farewell that is filled with speeches.  I am left without words, for if I start speaking my emotions will overpower my ability to speak. I can only suggest a few key messages: change is inevitable- and in change the only thing we can control is ourselves.  So focus, learn and grow, have the courage to try new things. Lean to positivity. We watch the small bundles of water hyacinth drift by as the sun is low and red on the horizon.



With Mr. Vanarith at the Khmer New year Party 2015,
who joined us asa volunteer for
 his first job out of college.
I taught him how to work. 
I realize then that leaving is easy. I am a little frustrated that I couldn't stay longer (the leaving date was determined by a retreat start date) and there is palatable fear around the fact that my replacement wasn't identifed before I left. There is a bit of relief, leaving before the really hot season begins and when I lose all ability for crisp and responsive action and thinking.  There is genuine sadness. I left a part of my soul in Cambodia, impact on friends and colleagues.  People asked me, "What is the plan?"  At this moment, I try to avoid the vast and expensive reality that will be repatriation.


I am leaving during a tumultuous time- for the country and for the organization. It would have been more courageous to stay, but the tremendous pull of the tide toward home is strong and will carry me through a whole new series of unknowns. My international experience over 4 years in southeast Asia was rich, transformative and satisfying.

Riverfront and the Royal Palace.

I board a boat this afternoon, crossing the Bass Straits over night. Tomorrow, afternon I will enter the Sangha of Dhamma Pabha, a community on the foothills of Mount Dromedary north of Hobart for 10 days of hard meditative practice-- and a nice hike along the shores of the Tasman Sea.

Sunset on my departing flight from Cambodia