The Year That Was

As 2015 draws to a close recurrent flashbacks plague me.  It’s a very pleasant affliction.  Six weeks back at work and I remain well and truly in a chilled out frame of mind.  Eventually the memories and mood will fade, but in the meantime I continue to soak up the constant flashes of spontaneous memories from a most amazing year.

Prior to departing Cambodia two months ago I had my hard drive erased and refreshed for $5.  I only remembered to back up documents and photographs, losing all of my emails including a travelogue saved in my draft folder which chronicled the timeline of my travels as they unfolded.  While the memories are fresh I have written them down here, mostly based on the flashbacks I keep having.  They are not in accurate chronological order.

Given my obsession it’s interesting to note that in the year between October 2014 and October 2015, I was actually outside of Cambodia for six months.  The below map gives an idea of the various places I managed to take myself across the globe throughout my year off.  From aeroplanes to trains, buses, cars, tuk tuks, motos, bicycles and on foot, I really did have an adventure, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, which was life changing in many ways.

World Map Aus Centre 02

Even the world’s wealthiest, most capable and most energetic people cannot aspire to do, see or experience everything.  Assuming zero financial obstacles, the world is infinite in places and possibilities for travel and experience.  No matter who you are, time is always a hindrance.  Not just in the linear sense that we are all growing old in the direction of death, but also in relation to the normal interruptions of everyday obligations and needs.  The desire to be near your family and friends, to have a stable place to call home and not live out of a suitcase, are normal human senses that will sooner or later, override desires to travel.  Everyone has commitments requiring us to be in a certain place at a certain time, even if we do not have to turn up for work or family.  Travel has also taught me that no matter where you are or what you are doing, you’re just the same person, the same insignificant dot in the universe.  I love travel but it does not solve problems.  Your imperfections and your difficulties continue to exist no matter where in the world you happen to be.

A few months before I left Australia in October 2013, I met with my accountant to complete my annual tax return.  He told me that “from a purely financial perspective”, my plans to take two years at a combination of half pay and without pay, were unwise.  It crossed my mind that I may be making a mistake.  Returning home broke but memory-laden, I can confirm categorically that no decision should ever be “purely financial” in nature!  I am also – constantly – aware that the fact I can say this places me in a position of utmost privilege which most, surviving day to day, can never consider.

When I began planning my two years away from work I had no idea where I would go.  At one point I thought I would spend a whole year living in New York, at other times I romanced going to so many places that it would have been physically impossible.  I always knew the two years away from home, which seemed endless at the start point, would come to an end and I wanted to make the most of it.  The planning stage was very exciting but I could never have envisaged what lay ahead, in my wildest dreams.  Reality eclipsed all imagination and in fact, “you couldn’t make this stuff up” describes a number of events which unfolded, not least of all the infamous lunch in Provence!  My below random memories are long and probably not particularly interesting unless you were with me, so I’ve tried to break it into compartments, so you can find yourself if you were there.

Returning Home

After my year with MSF I returned to Sydney for a few weeks, entering the Spring Cycle Challenge and MS Sydney to Woollongong charity bike rides.  With my cousin’s trusty bike complete with basket at the handlebars, in which my green backpack was perched, it was hard not to laugh as I pushed my way through the streets of suburban Woollongong to shouts of encouragement singling me out, such as “good on you 4657!!”, allluding to the number plastered across my t-shirt and the apparent lack of vigor in my pedalling!

From Sydney I headed home for  a month with Mum.  We had time in various locations including Christchurch, Akaroa, Kaikoura, Blenheim, Picton, Wellington, New Plymouth, Thames, Coromandel, Whitianga and Napier on a road trip in her little car.  The highlight was definitely the Cambodian fundraiser organised by Rae where I spoke to an audience and we raised over $800 for the children at Phter Koma Children’s Home.

New York Festivities

Flying from Wellington to Sydney to Los Angeles to New York, I discovered Taylor Swift’s new release “Welcome to New York” on the Qantas music channel between Wellington and Sydney!  (You couldn’t make this stuff up!)  Greeted in SoHo by Karen at her fabulous apartment which was to be my home for the next month, we promptly cracked open the wine, adding alcohol to my jet lag as we caught up and made plans with great excitement.  For half of each week I had Karen to hang out with and for half of each week I had her magnificent brick-walled loft-like apartment to myself.  I even blogged from the window-box-adorned bay windows looking out over the cast iron stairwells of neighbouring brick buildings.  After fantasising for years about pretending to be a New York based writer with my own loft apartment, this provided more couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up moments.

Walking the streets of Manhattan, especially SoHo and Greenwich Village, but also Central Park, Downtown, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ground Zero Memorial Museum, The Cloisters, Art Gallery Walking Tours, a family Christmas in New Jersey.  On Boxing Day we drove to the utterly charming and very American town of Lambertville, on the shores of the Delaware River.  Here we strolled through streets of pretty multi-storey homes decorated with lights, wreaths and trees and walked over the bridge from Lambertville NJ, to New Hope Pennsylvania.  We had a night out in Jersey City.  Nights on Broadway and at live comedy in Greenwich Village.  Thank you, Karen!

Cambodia

I returned to Cambodia on the evening of New Years Day, arriving on January 4th and staying for three months.  Many blogs were written during that time.  Trips outside Cambodia for visa extensions included a few days in Kuala Lumpur in February (I think) and a bus trip from Siem Reap, to Poipet where we walked across the Thai border before continuing on to Bangkok, where I spent one night before flying back into Phnom Penh, sometime in August.

England

In anticipation of Hannah’s wedding I flew to London at the end of March via a 6 hour stopover in Kuwait.  This looked like a long and painful wait until a group of Pakistani women awaiting a different flight noticed me.  Without any shared language we wiled away a few hours working out that I in fact, have no husband, that I should come to Pakistan where they have suitors lined up for me, and having Henna designs tattooed on my hands and wrists.

An entertaining visa approval met me at Heathrow Airport before being greeted by Kate in Arrivals.  We headed home along the outer London motorways in her swank sports car which a few weeks later drove us to France.  I stayed for a week in Hampshire, an hour out of London, before deciding that I really wanted to be nearer the city and moved into a YHA hostel at St Pancras on Euston Road.  Directly over the road from St Pancras International Railway Station, my room overlooked the imposing and magnificent St Pancras Renaissance Hotel which I fantasised about every time I so much as glanced in it’s general direction.  Some weeks later Karen informed me she would be staying there and I soon found myself dining in their ritzy restaurant the night before we took the Eurail on our sojourn to Provence!  You couldn’t make this stuff up!

England holds untold memories for me and I fell in love all over again.  After a 12 year hiatus, perhaps the biggest surprise was the unrecognisable skyline of London with so many new and unique skyscrapers.  I stayed in London a number of different times, with a variety of trips from a day to weeks, breaking up my time there.  Twice to Norfolk for days to a week, ten days in The Lakes, a day trip to Paris, a week in Prague, three weeks in France and Spain, five days in Linolnshire, day trips to Kent and West Sussex and various other trips.  The memories still come at me from nowhere of all of these travels.  But London deserves special mention.

Allegedly haunted Mabel’s Tavern became my local where I blogged from when I wasn’t chatting with travelers and/or locals at nearby tables.  I sat in on a murder trial at the Old Bailey court one morning, walked many miles of London’s historic streets alone and with long lost friends.  One lunchtime Lesley and I met my old boss for a leisurely and nostalgic lunch at Leadenhall Market.  I returned to Blackheath and visited my old home overlooking the heath and All Saints Church. Strolled through Greenwich, Regents, St James, Green and Hyde Parks on different days.  Strolled through South Kensington and Chelsea which was home for a year in 2002-03.  Went to the theatre to see Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre, where at interval we stood on the first floor deck overlooking Old Compton Street’s old Tudor style buildings.  Pubs of London were once havens of meat with chips or mash but today they are in competition with each other, serving gourmet meals at sometimes rather hefty prices.  London oozes museums and I touched upon some of them including the mammoth British Museum and a photographic exhibit of Victorian London photographs at the very low key London Metropolitan Archives.

Last there on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral when the girls were very young, I found myself once more in Lesley and David’s beautiful suburban garden, lazing in the sunshine with their daughters, including my god daughter who is now a law graduate with honors, and their boyfriends.  On another day we drove into the countryside of Kent to attend a guided tour of historic rambling old Godington House set in beautiful English gardens.

Oneday I took a train to Hampton Court Palace where actors dressed in Tudor fashions mingle with visitors and put on dance shows and recitals in the palace and throughout the gardens.  Locals visit to picnic on the lawns, boats power past on the river flowing beside the palace, a maze, ponds, herb and flower gardens, an ancient grapevine, Tudor and Georgian architecture, rooms furnished as they would have been during Henry and Elizabeth’s reigns, digital photographs and text fade in and out on a wall in what was once a reception room.  You could spend all day here and still not see everything.  The same can be said for the Tower of London, where I spent hours one sunny day exploring the walled grounds and buildings steeped in historic traditions, tragedies, dramas and mysteries.  Yeoman Warders guard the coveted Crown Jewels and give guided tours while costumed performers enacting scenes from well known historic events.

I traveled the length of England by train and repeated part of the journey by bus when I returned to Norfolk for Hannah’s wedding.  Sue drove me through rural Norfolk.  We sat on the banks of one of The Broads watching boaters traffic past us in a pub garden as though it was a most natural backdrop.  She took me to her father’s old parish church.  We rounded the corner to a shock of yellow tulips drowning the churchyard, hiding tombstones and painting sunshine onto the grass.  Hannah took me to Norwich Castle and through beautiful Norwich Market, while another day Sue and I sat at a marketside pub sipping wine and watching the world go by.  We strolled through ancient Norwich where an eagle with chicks were nested in the spire of the cathedral, underneath which a team of birdwatchers had set up camp with birdcams and telescopic binoculars in the old village gardens.  Hannah got married on one of the Norfolk Broads, on a very English, cold and rainy summer’s day and it was perfect, beautiful and fun.  We drove to Cambridgeshire for a family get together with four generations of the family who I’ve known more than 25 years.  Ron took us out for dinner at an old coach house which once accommodated travelers on the Roman Road between London and Scotland.

I took a train to The Lakes and hired a car for ten days.  With stunning weather, stunning scenery and loaded with history I walked around lake shores including the very remote Lake Buttermere where the YHA is a rambling old stone house on the hillside above the lake.  But also the more accessible, much larger and equally beautiful Lake Windermere.  Beautiful towns of Kendal, Keswick and Ambleside come to mind but there were also many villages, often quite scarey to get to along narrow, stonewall-lined country lanes climbing to magnificent heights up mountains and falling back down dales where ancient stone bridges cross trickling streams with shaggy sheep grazing on green pastures.  At Buttermere I even found the pub I’d predicted I would find, beside a sheep-filled paddock!

Chris picked me up at Brighton Station one morning and we drove to the striking, hilly and historic town of Lewes in East Sussex.  We walked through the castle grounds, pretty parks, ate lunch at an olde worlde pub, then drove through country roads in undulating valleys near the English Channel.  Another day Kate, Allan and I drove to Brighton for the day and walked through The Lanes with it’s many boutique and antique shops, getting soaked in the wind and rain.

I visited Michelle and spent a few hours cycling through neighbouring Lincolnshire villages.  Helen picked me up and drove me to Leicester before dropping me the next day at the train station, where I travelled up to the Lake District.  I met Helen again in Lincoln City a month or two later, where I volunteered with her street performance company on the Magna Carta anniversary celebrations.  Here, my job was to escort parading artists, don a mask and dance in the street when a child performer got stage fright, walk at the back of a parade through the city streets as a metres-long Magna Carta interpretation was carried up to the hilltop castle where it was presented to King John (the actor, not the dead king!).  My rail journey to London from Lincoln included changing stations at a town called Newark, where I found myself dragging my case past a previously unheard of, grandiose and very old castle ruin perched beside the river.

Prague

I stayed in a 100 year old war-era rambling fourth-storey apartment near the Old Quarter of Prague, belonging to a celebrity couple and feeling like it was straight out of a scene from Schindler’s List or The Pianist.  A beautiful and beguiling city separated by the Vltava River with ancient alleyways, hilltop castle and cathedrals, an archaic Jewish Quarter, restaurant lined plazas, bridges, markets, churches.  I loved it and would like to have spent some time exploring beyond the city.

France – The Second Time

My first trip to France was a day trip to Paris to meet up with a Cambodian colleague who was there for the MSF annual general meeting.  We climbed the Eiffel Tower, lunched on a boat restaurant on The Seinne, and took a cruise tour up the length of The Seinne underneath famous bridges and past sights such as The Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral.  I left London at 5-30am and arrived back into St Pancras Station sometime after 10pm the same night.

My second trip to France was a more rural experience.  Kate met me in Folkestone and we drove to the Eurotunnel entrance, passing through Customs and entering the hollow train carriage, designed solely for vehicle transport.  Half an hour later we drove off the train onto a motorway somewhere on the outskirts of Calais!  Driving almost the whole length of France, including around the peripherique of Paris, sighting both Eiffel Tower and Sacre Couer, about ten hours later we landed on Kate’s mother in her rural Dordogne home.  Our journey passed untold hilltop castles and crossed rivers rippling through thick forested valleys, where I half expected to see horsemen in silver armour emerge.

A week in the Dordogne staying with Kate’s family, who have been visiting and living there for years now, was the first of a number of local experiences.  Medi-eval villages such as Brantome, Thiviers and St Jean de Cole with their olde worlde bridges, churches, clock towers, flowing streams, town squares, farmers markets, cottage boutique shops and more.  The French style lunch Menu du jour which we enjoyed in the shadow of Chateau de Jumilhac on one day and under the church bells of St Pierre de Cole on another.  We drove through many country lanes and forests, pulling into villages as the mood suited.  The monumental but almost entirely unfurnished 16th century Chateau de Puyguilhem was an interesting lesson in the difference between French and English heritage.  Unlike England’s National Trust and public estates, many French chateaux sit empty.  This seems to be due to the cost of keeping a large old building maintained and furnished.  It is far more charming to visit a castle that is furnished, but an empty chateau gives the imagination a lot of room to play.

Car filled with French cheese, bread and wine, Kate drove back to England alone and her mother saw me onto the train at Thiviers.  Two hours later I was in Bordeaux which one English friend describes as “one of the most beautiful French cities” and another as “the toilet of France”!  Here I transferred to another train and about three hours later found myself in Toulouse.  My Phter Koma colleague was there to greet me and I spent a fabulous four days in and around Toulouse, having another very local experience.   This included a day cycling through Toulouse city with it’s red stone architecture which shades the city pink, visiting town squares, markets, cathedrals and synagogues through alleyways and along the beautiful river.  A drive to the historic town of Albi, birthplace of Henri Toulouse Lautrec (“the short guy in Moulin Rouge”).  Here we visited the enormous cathedral before entering the equally impressive Musee Toulouse Lautrec, an old palace converted into a gallery dedicated to the works of Toulouse Lautrec and other significant French artists.  Overlooking manicured gardens and the river, across red tiled roofs of the town.

We drove into the Pyrenees to a spa town called Bagnere de Bigorre (don’t ask me to pronounce it!) for a magical two days feeling like I was inside the world of Heidi.  We strolled through a busy open air market place stocking up for an evening at a very generous architect friend’s self-designed-and-built alpine lodge high in the mountains.  We walked uphill and down dale, enjoying the bell-necked cows and goats, stone and timber farmhouses, snowy peaks and blossoming fields undulating around us.  That night the men cooked and poured wine while the women sat at a 12-seater timber dining table being fed, watered and entertained.  Through the glass doors and across the timber deck the famous Pic du Midi topped with snow looked down upon us.  We took the scenic route home, through magnificent mountain peaks, steep passes and villages perched on banks of ice cold turquoise rivers.

Spain

The train from Toulouse in south-west France to Leon in north-west Spain took me via Barcelona railway station.  Every transfer was quick, efficient and simple and another love now, is rail travel in Europe.  The trains reached speeds of 200k/h, dashing past many clifftop castle ruins.  The green pastures of France gave way to dry brown Spanish terrain very quickly before nightfall turned everything to dark shadows.  At 4am I disembarked to the sight of my lovely Spanish friends walking up the platform towards me!  Maria’s family home is in a village on the outskirts of Leon.  A traditional hacienda style enclosed by stone walls with thick wooden farmhouse doors opening into the central courtyard.  We spent a week here together, exploring Leon and beyond.

Leon is famous for the Gothic Santa Maria de Leon Cathedral, where we attended a haunting organ concert. The city has many plazas lined with cafes and tapas bars, various churches and architectural marvels which we spent many hours strolling and exploring.  We also visited a friend in her fourth floor apartment with a rooftop balcony as big as my house, overlooking the tiled roofs of Leon including a church spire with nesting stalks.  We baked in the sun, sipped champagne and ate tapas one very memorable afternoon on this magical rooftop.  Other afternoons we visited the local village bar or sat in our private hacienda.

I learned about El Camino de Santiago, a pilgrim’s walk, when we drove to Astorga for the day past many hiking pilgrims.  In Astorga we shared the town square with these pilgrims, watching the church bells chime.  We walked more ancient streets and alleys, explored another towering cathedral and made our way through Antoni Gaudi’s genius Episcopal Palace – one of few buildings he designed outside the region of Catalonia (in and around Barcelona).  Maria taught me about the Maragatos, travelling salesmen with a reputation for hard work, honesty and defending the goods they transported fiercely.  Because of this, the King employed them as tax collectors and money couriers.

A traditional Spanish meal is a progressive dinner called Cocido, made of three or four courses.  In the Maragateria, where the Maragatos lived, this dish has been rearranged and named Cocido Maragato.  The courses are eaten in reverse order, starting with the meat dish, moving to vegetables, chickpeas and then soup.  The reason for this is because they were such hard workers, they began with the highest energy course first, in case they had to rush away mid-meal.  We had a delicious, leisurely Cocido Maragato at a very friendly local restaurant in Astorga.

En route home that afternoon we stopped off at a traditional Maragateria village, Castrillo de los Polvazarez.  This quaint little town has retained most of it’s original form with uneven cobbled streets, stone farmhouses and haciendas with their doorways opening into private courtyards from the street, a market square with fountain and statue and people living much as their ancestors must have generations before them.  I have never felt as though I was really and truly inside Spain, as I did at Castrillo de los Polvazarez, which I never would have found without my local Spanish hosts.

From Leon we took the bus one afternoon to Madrid, a four or five hour very scenic journey south.  From Madrid bus station we wheeled our cases through the city streets to Berta’s family home, a fourth storey apartment where she grew up, in a building where other extended family also have their homes.  On arrival an aunt from upstairs was visiting, she disappeared and returned a few moments later with a plate of tapas for us, which was promptly served up with an afternoon wine.  We then headed out into the evening streets and walked to one of Madrids’ many cobbled plazas to sit at an outdoor cafe and watch the world.  Almost every evening in Madrid we did the same, moving from one plaza to the next depending on who we were meeting, where we’d been during the day and what I hadn’t experienced yet.

By day we also walked streets, exploring town squares (plazas), churches, castles, statues and parks.  Parque del Retiro is Madrid’s version of Hyde Park, with flower gardens, statue-lined avenues, boulevards filled with walkers, runners, skaters, cyclists, locals and tourists.  It has it’s own Palacio de Cristal which was exhibiting Bedouin tents the day we were there.  The park’s exhibition hall, Palacio de Velazquez was displaying a modern art exhibit at the same time.  We lazed on tree shaded grass watching the human and bird worlds pass us by, reminiscing of Cambodia, talking about language and art and travel, singing and laughing.

As always Spain was pure magic, but my previous visits were always as a tourist.  Seeing it with local hosts, staying in family homes, being welcomed as a guest, learning the customs and culture and heading a little off the beaten track, made this trip far more special.  I even got to have my hair cut and coloured by a reputable and talented “stylist to the stars”, went clothes shopping with advisor-translators and generally had an utterly magical experience.

France – The Third Time

From Spain I returned to England for Hannah’s wedding and more time in London.  St Pancras Station with it’s public pianos for anyone to play, busy underground-overground-Eurail concourse, restaurants and bars and shops, entered my life again.  Meeting Lesley outside St Paul’s Cathedral which has an expensive entrance fee, we opted to walk through the grounds instead, before walking up the road through the City of London, into the quaint St Mary le Bow Church.  So many other little but meaningful memories like this of my time in London continue to zap unexpectedly into my head.  I took the bus to Norfolk for Hannah’s wedding, staying a short time before returning to London.  I think it was about ten days later that Karen arrived from New York for a night in London, en route to Provence.

Lining up early morning to board the Eurail was again exciting and, as with all Europe rail travel, expensive but easy.  London to Paris is three hours by high speed train.  At Paris Gare du Nord I had to find the underground line to take me across town to Gare Lyon, which was difficult due to my lack of language skill but easy thanks to the helpful and friendly Parisians I approached.  Paris brims with heavily armed police patrolling the stations and tourist attractions.  From Gare Lyon it was about another three hours to Avignon through beautiful green countryside with regular hilltop castles, village church steeples, fields of wheat, forests and rivers.  An hour later Karen’s train arrived and her booked taxi drove us about an hour through rural Provence, a million vineyards and more clifftop castles and pretty rural villages, to the medi-eval town of Vaison la Romaine.

Karen had a two bedroom apartment near the market square, with views from the kitchen, lounge and balcony, of the – yes – hilltop castle!  She attended cooking classes daily and by night we socialised either on the balcony or in the nearby bar-and-restaurant-lined plaza.  A charming town with a turquoise river dividing the medi-eval hillside village from the more modern but also historic town area across the river.  Excavated Roman ruins have been unearthed and turned into an outdoor museum on the site of their original foundations.  The restaurant lined, tree shaded market square turns into a farmer’s market every Tuesday, with produce ranging from fish, cheese, vegetables, pasta, marinades, fruit, to clothes and homewares.  The hilltop village is a maze of cobbled lanes, archaic but well maintained and inhabited stone houses, clock tower, church, and towering above it all, the castle ruins.  There are restaurants and cafes with views across the town and valley below.

I spent days exploring the town, historic hillside village and shops.  I wished I’d hired a bicycle earlier in the week so that I could have spent more than one day cycling through nearby villages dotted between fields of lavendar and grapes.  At the Tuesday market I joined Karen’s cooking class for a guided tour of Patricia Well’s favourite stalls and produce.  On the Friday this small and exclusive group of gastronomers had their final assignment – a farewell lunch at the hillside homestead of their teacher.  I was invited to join them and found myself at a 16th century restored and renovated farmhouse on huge grounds housing an olive grove, vineyards, landscaped flower garden on the hillside overlooking the valley below for as far as the eye can see, a swimming pool and various other luxurious features of a humble, stylish, very French homestead.  Sitting in dappled sunlight under an archway draped in grapevine overlooking the valley below, we had our conversation about Cambodia which ultimately led to Paula winging her way to Seattle for first world surgery.

From Vaison la Romaine, Karen and I traveled by taxi again to Avignon and said our farewells.  I had about five days in Avignon, where more cobbled town squares are lined with al fresco bars, cafes and restaurants, all a walk away from more ancient alleys and churches and regal buildings.  Avignon city is flanked by fully intact high stone ramparts dating from the middle ages, with large gateways opening at regular intervals into the city streets.  During a period of unrest in Rome, the papacy resided in Avignon and the Palais des Papes is a large and imposing remnant of this time, situated inside the northern edge of the walled area.  Beside the Palace sits the cathedral topped with a golden statue looking down into the cobbled plaza below.  Another famous ancient construction is Pont St Benezet, an arched stone walkway reaching out into the Rhone and ending abruptly in the middle of the river.

A tour of the area around Avignon took me to some of the most picturesque villages and countryside I have ever seen, such as Roussillon.  Named for the red ochre from which it’s buildings and walls are built, this hillside town is coloured a range of hues that change as the sun moves.  A steep valley divides the terracotta building-lined escarpment from the motorway opposite, providing astonishing views of the village of Gordes.  These and other striking villages are dotted between valleys of lavendar, grapevines and sunflower fields.  Olive groves, apple orchards and many other horticultural ventures are scattered in amongst it all.  Not to mention the valley floor monastery we first sighted from the hilltops above before winding our way down into the purple fields of lavendar surrounding Senanque Abbey.

I hope this explains how difficult leaving France was.  Thankfully Paula awaited me in Cambodia, where preparations for the trip to America anxiously anticipated my return.

Seattle

Only recently, while writing this blog, did I realise how stressful it was, getting Paula to Seattle.  The preparations from within Cambodia were logistically extremely difficult as I needed Paula to be present for certain functions.  This required her to travel long distances from her village, in a very frail state.  She fainted twice inside the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, collapsed in the photography shop as we attempted – with success – to get her passport photograph taken, lay inside her hotel room weak and brittle, sometimes for days on end while her mother and I undertook various tasks such as filing paperwork, obtaining signatures etc.  Days before our flight I made a mad dash to her village on the back of Chom’s moto, to get one final signature for medical clearance, showing that until the last minute it was still questionable if we would make the flight.

We did make the flight.  And amazingly, Paula survived the flight.  To tend to her wounds in private she needed a window seat without passengers too close by.  Luckily on the Phnom Penh to Incheon leg of the journey, she had this.  An eleven hour stopover in Seoul required us getting her out of the airport, into a hotel car and via a multi-lane motorway to a nearby suburban hotel where we tried to eat and sleep.  When she fainted in the airport under the watchful eyes of airline staff I became nervous that we would not be allowed onto our next flight but thankfully it was not an issue.

Twenty seven hours after we left Phnom Penh, and about 35 hours after Paula left her village in an overcrowded mini bus filled with extended family, friends and neighbours, not to mention the camp bed Paula lay on the whole way, we landed in Seattle.  I was astounded that she remained conscious and felt a sigh of relief when Sean rang our hospital room not long after arrival, to say “she’s out of your hands now and in ours, you can rest”.  It was not a restful time in Seattle however and I don’t feel I really relaxed again until I made it home to Australia.  There were some special experiences in Seattle though, including a number of dinners with Sean and Cate, who was at lunch with me in Provence, at their lovely home.  Seattle is a beautiful city and the Cham community rallying around us like a human blanket was something I will always treasure.  I want to return to Seattle, which I visited ten years ago with Mum, and experience it on my own terms.

From Seattle I returned with Samantha, the nurse who came with us to translate, to Cambodia for a week, then via Kuala Lumpur to Sydney.  Changing gates in Kuala Lumpur, I walked up an elevator and straight into an Islamic prayer meeting of dozens of immigration staff about to change shifts, which took me by surprise!

A few unremarkable days in Sydney and almost two unremarkable months in Alice Springs later, the biggest pull right now, seems to be getting myself back to those French villages in Provence.  Given the state of my bank accounts right now, the chance would be a fine thing.  But it’s great to have something to dream about, alongside great memories of a most amazing year.

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Global Fortunes

Your Past

For almost four of the seven years between 2007 – 2013 I was a long term foster Mum to three separate children over four separate periods.  It started with a 12yo boy called Mathew at the end of 2006, through a series of often shocking events which I could never have predicted in my wildest imagination.  Whenever people tell me “you should write a book”, my brain trails off to Mathew’s story.  He placed himself into my care through sheer persistence, after both of his parents had died and he’d been left, in effect, homeless, through a disturbingly incompetent welfare system.  At the age of 12 he recognised me (way before I recognised myself), as someone capable of taking care of him.  Over some weeks or even months it slowly dawned upon me, that the school bus arriving daily, seemed to be under the impression that my office and my house were places where Mathew’s “significant adult” could be found!  It was a difficult and complicated time, which would take a book to describe with any justice.

Our peculiar relationship has impacted me significantly and resulted in a bond between two most unlikely people from vastly different generations and backgrounds.  He’s one of the people I love most in this world, which is strange in itself given how troubled he is and the sometimes appalling situations I’ve unexpectedly found myself in, due to his various and evolving circumstances over the years.  Fathers and families of girlfriends, police, magistrates, initiation elders from remote communities, psychologists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers, drunken aunties, sick and dying grandparents, are just a few examples of the people I’d never have otherwise had to deal with, representing someone else’s child.

Having this boy land on me and stubbornly encroach upon what I thought was a life of freedom and satisfaction, took me completely outside of my comfort zone.  He enlightened me to the fact that helping others is a very mindful and healthy endeavour and that actually, my happy and easy life was nowhere near as fulfilling as I’d believed.  He also taught me that when you do something outside the “norm”, you will be judged.  And that the criticism of others is nothing to do with you, everything to do with the critic’s own internal issues, and never something you should try to engage with or change.  With no history of Mathew in my life I don’t believe I would ever have engaged in Cambodian life the way that I did.  My life would be completely different and far less personally rewarding.  This is due to Mathew, so I owe thanks to a struggling Australian orphan who has never left our shores, for experiences I had in a country which he barely knows exists!

Nine years on, at 21 years old, he continues to treat me as someone with a supportive role in his young and problematic life.  He was one of my first visitors when I arrived home last month and has been around, on and off, ever since.  He regularly challenges me to think on my feet through all sorts of unexpected situations, from girlfriend woes, to trying to influence his behaviour as a young father, to much more complicated and difficult-to-interpret circumstances around his involvement with the justice system as both a victim and an offender, and various cultural matters which are beyond my comprehension.

The other two children who called this home are John, who lived with me for exactly two years from the age of six, and Mathew’s second cousin Sara, who was 13 when she spent four months here in 2008.  This was at Sara’s initiation, having known me as Mathew’s carer.  Unlike Mathew, her placement was arranged via formal channels first.  John and Sara’s stories are both also deserving of a chapter or two in that book.  Both have contacted me since I returned home.  Sara, now 20, suggested during a visit this week, that she and her “husband” could move in with me, leading to a grown up conversation around why this was not going to work for me, or ultimately for them!

Back at work, I am reminded almost daily of why I love my job here.  As a public health nurse I work with people from marginalised communities often living nomadic lifestyles who don’t access health services.  A lot of my time is spent looking for people and convincing them to come with me for reasons that are not easily appreciated by the general public, let alone a public with very different perceptions of health, illness and medicine.  In a drunken tirade one evening in 2012 when I refused to drive her somewhere, Mathew’s aunty once shouted at me “YOU not my SISTA!  Everybody say, YOU lookin’ round for MAN!”.  It was meant to stab me in the heart but all it did was provoke hilarity.  It remains a team catch phrase at work whenever I have to leave the building.  Some time later she called me to apologise, saying she should never have spoken to her sister like that and clueless as to the fame she now holds among my friends and colleagues.

Between these various visitors, I somehow manage to maintain a semi-normal life as well, with neighbours, colleagues and friends.  Finding a balance between this privileged life and the life I loved so much in Cambodia, is the challenge.  While it’s a different challenge, it’s also a similar one, to living as a western privileged Australian in a town like Alice Springs, where so many are struggling in a world that is not theirs, which has been superimposed onto their land and their culture.  Now, spending $1 feels different than it once did, as I remain acutely aware of the small amounts of money it takes to dramatically improve peoples’ lives elsewhere.  Cambodia is very much a part of my every day existence but I still call Australia home.

Paula remains in Seattle.  She has been discharged from all medical care.  She is ready to go home but the Cham community have asked Karen, responsible for their travel costs, to delay their flight home by another two months.  She and her mother are staying on to holiday with their newfound Cham friends.  They won’t go home until February, four months since our arrival when all that has happened since was still an unknown.  In a recent email from the Cham Imam who met us at the airport on our arrival, he said The first day from airport in my car going to the hospital watching to the Downtown city in her bad condition, <Paula> said: I am ready to die because I got everything in this life.  She was sitting in the front seat on that journey and I could hear her but could not understand her words.  Another recent email from a member of the hospital staff included this, about Paula and her mother: They are both very thankful for all the help and support they’ve received and are receiving, and both of them have high spirits.  Every conversation with them is full of laughter and love, and we feel very blessed to be spending time with them and the Cham community members.  The nurses on the unit all want to visit with them whenever they leave the hospital and before they leave the US.  Many new friendships have been made!  Thank you to everyone who has touched the lives of these two incredible women!

I do wonder how they will feel, returning to their life of poverty and all it entails, after this dramatic and life saving experience in the wealthy world.  Today the Imam and his family took them an hour from the city to a waterfall in the mountains, to experience snow for the first time.  It’s mind boggling to imagine how a girl who was about to die, who had only ever experienced a life of poverty on the Mekong Delta, must be feeling at this particular time!  I still hope I might make it to Cambodia for their homecoming, so that Grandad can kill that cow and eat beef with us in celebration of his grandaughter’s new life.  Only now I have an unrealistic vision of bringing John, Sara and Mathew (among others) with me, to show them that despite all evidence within the square box that is Australia, they are in fact, not on the lowest rung of the global fortunes ladder.

Cham Snow

Cham friends in the snow today!