New Year’s Day
Coughing, sneezing, and severe respiratory congestion are not as much fun as the holiday week celebrations would have been. I won’t bring my germs around the monks, children, or general public so, except for short food runs to local markets, I stay home. Two weeks of sudden isolation, after two months of whirlwind activity and immersion in a very strange culture, provides an interesting insight. It has come to light that in contrast to several other wonderful qualities, I can be an ungrateful pinhead. Many things that other people would regard as miraculous good luck are things that I have not been appreciating enough.
It seems that the deep gratitude from my experience with the chanting monks has triggered an even deeper train of thought. Not every car in that train is firmly on its tracks. This leaves me a bit derailed and uncomfortable with myself. There are obviously a few pieces missing from my puzzle, but I’m not sure what they are.
I prefer to be healthy but the illness gives at least one benefit. It lays me flat for long enough to trace the problem to a source.
It all starts with gratitude for being alive. I don't have much of it. A severe bout with cancer pushed the envelope of death so far that the seams of that envelope tore open a bit. What I experienced through the cracks was beautiful enough to make verbal description impossible. I have had some trouble coming completely back to and thoroughly loving life ever since. This must be remedied! It doesn't matter what is on the other side of this incarnation. If I am indeed going to be in a body for a while, a much stronger appreciation of what “alive” can mean needs to be rebuilt. I will have to stop referring to my body as a meat prison.
I also haven't been grateful enough for the money my parents left to me. It will last at least another year and has already afforded me several years free of financial concerns. During that period, there were two books written. Travel was done in relative comfort and a lot of live music shows were enjoyed. There was an expensive natural treatment of cancer. Death would have been a certainty without the resources that the inheritance allowed.
After a lifetime of sub-poverty and homelessness, you might think I get up every morning and kiss pictures of my generous deceased parents. Such is not the case. The money, in my father's own words, was his way of apologizing for the damage done to his children. Mother did far more damage to her children than father did, but was still too arrogant and narcissistic when she died to admit a similar motivation for leaving us her money.
I emulate some of my mother’s arrogance and some of my father’s weak character by spending any time focused on their faults, rather than appreciating their better traits and parting gifts.
It goes further. The real friends I have had during this life, the good people I have met, the places seen and things done, the current plentiful supply of food, the nice place to live, and so many other things are not being given as many “thank you”s as they deserve.
It makes me feel a little bit like a jackass. I am going to change that right now! A good first step seems to be a walk around the Dragon neighborhood on New Year's Day. A walk with a much greater awareness of, and appreciation for, things that haven’t been given enough attention and appreciation recently.
I often start the day buying a coconut from the coconut lady a quarter mile down the road. She always smiles as she chops the top off with a machete and sticks a straw in it for me. She speaks to me in her language and I speak to her in mine. Neither of us understands a word of what the other one says, but we both have fun. We laugh at ourselves and each other. When I leave her today, I add a “thank you very much for your kindness and coconuts” to the end of our conversation.
Next stop on my New Year's Day tour to reestablish gratitude is the Peace Café to meet Neill, a recent acquaintance, and his family. This bit isn't much different today than it is on any other day. I am always thanking the Peace Cafe people for who they are, what they do, and how they do it. The place is an exemplary venue.
Neill De Kort is an exemplary human. He is a Dutchman whose family relocated to Canada when Neill was in his teens.
We ran into each other at the bank. I never had a bank account, in America or anywhere else, until I was over fifty years old. If my parents hadn't left me money that needed to be processed through a bank, I still wouldn't have an account. To this day I‘ve never had a telephone or driven a car, and have spent the past forty-five years without a bill in my name. Friends tell me to expect technical trouble throughout the twenty-first century because I haven’t adapted to the twentieth century yet.
The Cambodian bank requires me to have a telephone number in order to open an account. The account is required in order to get money sent from America. My funds are running low. The irony of beating cancer only to possibly die homeless and hungry on steaming Asian streets makes me giggle. The facts that it could happen because I don't like telephones, and while having several thousand dollars in an American bank, makes me laugh out loud—for a minute. Then it makes me argue with the bank officer. Neill is in the bank and walks by us while that discussion is going on.
He comes into the conversation out of nowhere, intervenes, and gives the bank officer his phone number. I didn't know that Neill and his Cambodian partner had owned a coconut farm here for years. He recently sold it and is now into Cambodian real estate on the side, although his main and more global business is textiles. That would account for the pull he has in the bank. They must handle a lot of his business. My account opened without any further hitch. Neill and I had never met. He just saw someone having a problem and became the solution.
Neill’s father was also in the textile business, so the younger De Kort has two generations worth of related business connections all over Asia and the rest of the world. Neill is six feet five inches tall. He is a twenty year student of boxing with arms the length of a giraffe’s neck. I’m guessing he has won more fights than he’s lost. This is also a very intelligent, resourceful, accomplished guy. We hit it off well after hanging out a bit in the bank and arranged to have lunch at the Peace Cafe so that I could meet his family.
We meet on schedule. Neill’s gorgeous Dutch wife is named Bo. The legendary Bo Derek, in her prime, was no lovelier. Mrs. De Kort is graced by blond hair, green eyes, and two beautiful preschool aged children. She is probably five years younger than her thirty-five year old husband.
We all talk for several hours. It is by far and away the best conversation I have had, with the most like minded folks I’ve met, since leaving New Mexico. Mister and Misses De Kort have both used Rick Simpson Oil, as I did for the cancer. He for asthma. She for Lyme disease. Both had positive outcomes. Both have gone through health and attitude changes similar to the ones I went through. We share many common ideas and mutual attitudes.
Sometimes you don't realize how much you miss something until you get a little taste of it again. I do well by myself. My days are filled with activities that are mostly solitary. These activities are usually productive, or at least harmless. Some are very interesting. There is rarely a sense that anything important is missing.
But folks like the De Korts make me remember that a real connection with other humans is an essential part of being human yourself. I appreciate the differences in people—but it is always a booster shot for the psyche and a strengthening of the heart when we find someone else who is on same wave length. It adds just a little concrete credence to the “we are all one” thing. That phrase is very obviously true on certain planes of existence, but it usually gets more lip service than validation in every day life. Folks who can make it blatantly real for you don't seem to come along every day.
The De Korts will be leaving Cambodia on January second. Loneliness is a feeling that does not visit me often, but I feel its potential lurking nearby. I resolve to get the hell out of the house more often and go to places where people congregate. This should increase the odds of finding more people like the De Korts. Inexpensive living and adventurous surroundings are wonderful, but the company of kindred spirits is like water in the desert. I have no problem being grateful for this. Kindred spirits make gratitude easy.
The next stop on the New Year's Day gratitude walk is the Domo Café. The Domo is a three block walk down River Road from the Peace Café. I silently thank the sun for the light and heat, the folks passing by for being so beautiful, the people who built this sidewalk under my feet, and the river for giving life to all the trees on either side of it.
At this point I have to wonder if this is all a lot of pretentious bullshit running through my head and I am just plain full of crap. But gratitude toward everything in general, as well as many things specifically, has been away too long. A little overkill may be necessary to bring a proper appreciation of life back to balance. I thank the crippled dog a few yards away for using the riverbank as his toilet instead of this sidewalk, then head into the Domo for my muffin. They are sold out. I thank them for saving me from the sugar consumption and move on.
The pattern of thanking everything and everyone continues for a few more stops. Gratitude is still not coming readily enough for me to feel altogether comfortable with myself. I appreciate my good fortune, but the glow around the memory of near-death still overpowers that appreciation.
Sometimes gratitude takes an unexpected shape. The coffee shop lady is spaced out and gives me a cup with very little in it. I am grateful for the ability to stand up for myself and tell her so. Language problems and the feeling of being a guest can make it too easy to become a sheeple when one is in a foreign culture. She laughs at herself, apologizes, and fills the cup.
The next stop is the White Rose massage parlor. It is a strictly legit place where they always give a good rub and never approach clients to buy semi-sexual extras. Semi-sexual seems to be a good term for how far they go in the places that do offer such services. At six dollars for a well done therapeutic full hour massage without need to explain my sexual habits in sign language to a non-English speaking stranger, there is no problem feeling gratitude here either.
Speaking of sexual activity that is not my particular preference, it is time for another adventure! I have to get the clog out of my chest. A steam room is essential. It is among the best things a person can do for their lungs. Being prone to upper respiratory infections, like the one I have right now, I look in every travel spot for a sweat lodge, hotel, or health club with a steam room. Taking care of the lungs is even more important than usual in this city where most citizens publicly burn garbage that includes rubber and plastic while thousands of motorbikes pump additional toxins into the air as well.
My research shows that the only option for a steam room in Siem Reap is the city’s lone gay bathhouse. Gotta think about this one!
Within a minute’s thought, it turns out to be a no-brainer. This is no problem for me—and it shouldn’t be one for the other guys frequenting the place. I have no interest in sucking a dick myself, but I'm glad folks are having fun with it, if that's what they want to do. No one has the right to tell another person how they should enjoy themselves. It takes a lot of the wrong kind of balls to tell people how they should live when those people aren’t hurting anyone or anything else. Many of us New York City basketball playing kids have carried a “no harm, no foul” attitude into adulthood as a way of life. It might be the best notion that growing up in Brooklyn gave me, and one of the few I decided to keep. If the rest of the planet shared this attitude, a lot of other problems would solve themselves. If the rest of the clientele in the bath house shares the “no harm, no foul” notion towards me, my experience will be pleasant and medically helpful.
It also seems logical that I am too old, unattractive, and worn for any gay guy in his right mind to hit on.
I go, and am right. The Men’s Resort and Spa is on a back street flanked by apartment buildings, a couple of temples, and a theater company’s office. The folks here are young enough to be my grandkids, and certainly looking for someone in their own age range. It seems peculiar how they walk around wrapped in towels, just staring at each other. There is no audible conversation and no visible participation. Something must happen between some of them eventually somewhere, but I see no actual interaction.
The steam room has eucalyptus. It does great things for my lungs. After three ten-minutes shifts, I silently thank the steam and the gay dudes, then catch a tuk-tuk back to The Dragon.
The Other Side Of The Coin
As is true with nearly everything else on this two-headed planet, the gratitude thing has tripped that trigger in my brain that looks at the other side of the coin. There is some tarnish on parts of paradise.
1— In general, gender equality has further to go in Southeast Asia than it does in The West. Part of the problem is the Cambodian male attitude toward local women who take up with foreigners, which resembles the mind-set of a horse with blinders on.
While it is true that some foreigners are here only for sex with younger women, this scenario only works because the older-men-with-money-keeping-young-mistresses thing has always been part of the culture here, and probably in most of the rest of the world too.
Many Cambodian males hide jealousy behind righteous indignation, prejudice, and sometimes even anger. Men in the company of their wives or girlfriends have occasionally stared at me with dagger eyes. They assume that because I am a white foreigner, I must be trying to buy or steal their women. As is true almost everywhere, media does its part to fan the flames of divisiveness and distrust. There are Southeast Asian soap operas on TV depicting evil, mustache twirling, devilish looking white men literally showering money on gorgeous, innocent, very intimidated looking Asian women.
But the local men here that assume the worst about tourists are not the majority, and they are not exactly knights in shining armor defending the honor of their maidens. Southeast Asian culture defines one of a daughter's most pronounced duties as the care of her parents in their old age. It is not uncommon for a young woman to look for a man with money as a way of guaranteeing that she will be able to successfully fulfill that duty. “Arrangements” are as common as marriages. The practice of paying family support in exchange for devoted female company is not at all limited to foreigners.
It also seems that foreigner/native couples work out well for both parties, and the children that are usually involved. There are a lot of single women with children here. Almost every foreigner I know that is in a relationship with a local woman has at least one child attached to that relationship, and treats that child much better than daddy did. The foreigner usually treats the child’s mother better than daddy did as well. But the attitude of many Cambodians towards that foreigner, and even more so towards the woman he is with, is often far from warm and fuzzy.
2— Most of my Buddhist study has been done with Tibetans. In most cases, to enter the Tibetan Buddhist monastic order requires some very serious commitment.
In Southeast Asia, kids go to temple and become monks for a month as if it was summer camp. Most folks routinely spend a month as a monk in the temple after a close relative dies. An advantage to the Southeast Asian system is that it allows a much broader access to both foreigners and natives. I was able to live in a Thai Temple for half a year. That would not have been possible for a person like me within a Tibetan monastery.
A disadvantage to the Southeast Asian system is that, with the mesh in the net being so wide, more bad fish can slip into the organization. There are some monks with some very un-monk-like qualities.
I have never heard of pedophilia, homosexual or otherwise, within the Buddhist system. I should also say that, as in Catholicism, the majority of priests are well-motivated, morally admirable, and dedicated. But they are all human. Some falter. Instances of a Southeast Asian monk using his position of spiritual influence to take advantage of a woman happen occasionally. Much more often the trespasses involve money and business.
Although the following is just a rumor, it came from a very reliable source—enough so that I feel comfortable repeating it. If true, it is certainly not the first instance of corruption within the monastic system. Similar reports reached my ears every month or two in Thailand during my year and a half stay there.
The latest sad story involves a couple of humans in one of the Siem Reap temples. One head monk is reported to have stolen thousands of dollars from his temple. Most followers are poverty-stricken but the contributions from rich local businessmen, political hopefuls, foreign ex-pats, and even tourists can get hefty—especially by local standards. This head monk was fired, then cried and repented to the congregation. Instead of pressing charges, the congregation forgave and reinstated him. This will tell you something about Southeast Asian people. They often take that biblical, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” thing more seriously than most Christians do.
The other current rumor is of a deputy head monk who was caught stealing and was fired, but then reinstated by his head monk friend. He continues to own and drive a car, and operate a business out of his monk house. These are all definite no-nos for a Southeast Asian monk.
It may not kick you in the gut as hard as learning that TV’s saintly Cosby is a serial rapist in real life, but knowing that your spiritual guides can be as corrupt as your politicians isn't fun.
3—This place is almost exactly on the other side of the world from East Coast America. This is true figuratively as well as literally. A lot of the differences are wonderful. Some just seem fuggin crazy. Communication is difficult. A lot of the problem stems from misinterpretations of language, but many communication problems happen due to conflicting interpretations of reality! Time and space themselves are looked at differently here. Any meeting arranged at a certain time has a very slim chance of actually happening at that time. Cambodians would be right at home in Latin America, as they seem to operate on manana time as well. Locals who speak English very well have told me such things as, “We will do it every Sunday, twice a month” and “I can do that thing but I cannot do it.” Either/or questions often get answered with “yes.” The folks here have no concept of north, south, east, or west. Really!
4—It is ninety-plus degrees and humid even during winter.
There are bags of garbage all over the place. This garbage is eventually burned and includes toxic materials within the ever-present smoke.
Much of the food is fried and much more of it is heavily sugared. Cambodia is still two or three generations away from Whole Foods Markets and increasing life spans.
Many locals look at a foreigner and see only money, not human. Charging foreigners more than locals is standard in many markets.
It may be safer, friendlier, and saner in many ways than most of the world. Southeast Asia is warmer during winter than almost anyplace else on Earth. It is less expensive to live comfortably here than it is to live at all on most of the planet. But some of the things that make up a paradise are blatantly missing. I love all the wonderful things that Cambodia and Southeast Asia are, but Pollyanna couldn't pull off her act here.
I am usually very grateful for my ability to see both sides of any story.
Sometimes, not so much.
***If you missed the Intro to this third book (that the above piece is from) and would like to see it or other previous pieces, go to the Puppy website blog section, or send an email request to email@example.com, or check out fearlesspuppy at Wordpress. This is a book in progress. You are seeing it here as I write it! And as it says in the Intro, it is a totally true story and may be the only book ever written by a corpse! I don’t know what the next chapter is going to be about either!***The books Fearless Puppy On American Road and Reincarnation Through Common Sense by this same author, as well as sample chapters by, very entertaining tv/radio interviews with, and newspaper articles about him are available at www.fearlesspuppy.info