Wednesday, 21 April 2010
In retrospect it seems the programme of my Cambodia trip was largely dictated by a rat.
The first week consisted of a pre-booked yoga retreat in the sort of plush resort where a lady in a floor length gold embroidered skirt som-pas's you with bought respect the minute you disembark from your tuk tuk. The sort of place that consists entirely of elegant open plan two storey hut-like structures, decked out with colonial style dark wood four posters and tasteful locally harvested sculptures; the Buddha seated in the lotus position on the writing desk, carved Apsara dancers flanking the suite door, that sort of thing. In short, expensive, luxurious and entirely culturally disinfected.
I know, I know, only a spoilt brat who's never had to rough it in her entire life could fail to be enchanted by such a heavenly place. This monstrous travel snobbery of mine, it's naïve and it's pretentious, as I was shortly to learn. For once I was out of the protective embrace of our little community of middle-class western sun-saluters, doing our right-on conscience salving bit for world community by practicing our downward facing dog alongside a gang of friendly local orphan children, once I was out of this tight little clique and having to battle with the big, nasty old world all by myself, my fears and demons, almost at once, embodied themselves in the form of a common or garden rodent. A small furry fellow who was basically just going about minding his own business; for a Buddhist, surely, pas de probleme. The tricky thing was, he was going about minding his own business in my room.
As I'd packed my rucksack in the irritatingly pseudo-Khmer luxury resort my head had been filled with preposterous notions of Robinson Crusoe-esque days spent ruminating in a shack on a deserted white beach or trekking fearlessly, like some sort of spiritualised Indiana Jones in a cheese cloth top, through dense cobra infested jungle.
But of course what actually happened was that I eyeballed this rat, who sat nonchalantly on the shelving unit a few inches from the end of my bed, in this tiny log cabin, miles from the nearest town and a matter of feet above the exquisite quietly lapping shoreline of the Gulf of Thailand. I eyeballed him and he, to my horror, eyeballed me back. No respectful som-pas from this little fellow.
The thought passed through my mind that I should be perfectly capable of sharing my micro space with this being, who, if nothing else, certainly represented the 'real' Cambodia that my inner Miss Quested so keenly sought. Sadly though the thought passed through my mind at warp speed and disappeared around a mountain in the far distance never to be seen again. In its wake followed rather more lingering images of my new acquaintance scampering playfully through my hair and peeing on my pillow, as I slept on in blissful ignorance beneath the quietly swaying mosquito net.
Terrified half witless by the fruit of my own imagination manifest as this small creature, I wiggled off in the dead of night to find some form of humanity who might be capable of helping me out with this fix.
I found a security guard who spoke no English. I pointed to my cabin and drew a picture of something vaguely resembling a rat. My new friend responded by gleefully indicating that a good head stamping was undoubtedly what Ratty would benefit from. This was all deeply alarming. It seemed to me that a rat carcass would be far worse for my mental states and my karmic well being than the breathing version, but supposing we'd deal with that hurdle once we got to it I followed his torch light back to my modest quarters.
Entirely unsurprisingly by the time we got there the rat had long since buggered off, probably relaxing in the nearby woods having a little chuckle to himself at my expense. Having turned the room upside down and finding no other living being present, the security guard shrugged his shoulders and decided to turn his attentions on me. It seemed he felt that some sort of physical affection might be appropriate. I thought not. And so I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place, not wanting to get rid of him until a solution had been found to my rat problem, but neither wanting to play hostess to his baser enthusiasms.
Having shoved him out of the door and shut it in his face I slumped onto my bed, now re-joined of course by the rat, and wondered what to do. Here I was, my first night in the 'real' Cambodia and I couldn't handle it. All my fantasies realised and I couldn't stomach them. It wasn't about the rat. It was about my own mental fortitude or lack thereof. I simply didn't have what it took. Without digging very far at all, I had hit upon my internal nemesis. It was a bitter blow. The horrible truth became unavoidably clear. I was a spoilt, naïve, middle class bimbo, keen to imagine myself in some way 'real', but entirely unable to cope with 'real' when it arrived.
So I packed my rucksack once again, dragged it back down the hill and sat to wait for something to happen. Some forty minutes later and I was sitting on the back of a motorcycle taxi, rucksack perched precariously on the handle-bars in what would, a few hours ago, have been a disconcerting fashion, as we sped back to town, a monstrous coastal community populated by trustafarian back-packers and opportunist Cambodian's catering to the twenty-something faux hippy tourist trade. Hell in a handbag, or rather, in a backpack. Mojito anyone?
I got an email the other day from a cranio-sacral therapist friend forwarding on to me an email from some German guy styling himself "an elite NLP hypno-coach". In response to the question he claims he is most often asked, namely: "when do the good things start?" he answered: "when you are ready to change your mind". I'm not entirely sure I have a clue what NLP hypno-coaching is, but about this, I think he may have had a point.
After stropping around for a good forty-eight hours feeling like a prisoner of my own crappy limitations, I finally began to get over myself and started to see that wallowing over the tragedy of my dashed expectations was blinding me to the opportunities that were being presented. Almost as soon as I'd seen that, the good stuff started to happen, until finally, in this godforsaken spot that represented every vacuous all over suntanned pretension that I'd wanted to avoid, I met exactly the person I'd hoped to stumble upon.
I met, in a quiet monastery in the middle of nowhere, along with my friend Somg, a venerable monk who spoke no English but who offered, through Somg as translator, to tell me my fortune along with some Buddhist tales of wisdom. For me this was a dream come true, preferable on any day to the farcical Indian Jones fantasy.
I shan't bore you with the details, and anyway I'm superstitious about repeating it, but suffice it to say it was a profoundly positive experience that I shall remember for the rest of my days. And it was all down to the rat. Without the rat my plans wouldn't have hit a wall, I wouldn't have met Somg and I wouldn't have met the monk. Lord knows what I would have done instead, but whatever it might have been it obviously wasn't meant to be.
Maybe my Mum is right with her conviction that faith in life is all one needs. It's cheesy as hell, but maybe every cloud does have a silver lining.