A Look Back at Cambodia, December 2010
Shelving in the Classic Lit section, I picked up an old hardback copy of Dancing in Cambodia by Amitav Ghosh. His travel narratives are beautiful glimpses of places I’ve seen; I love his writing. The story that gives the book its title flipped through my mind as I replaced it. He tells of an elderly dance teacher, the only member of the Royal Ballet to survive the PolPot Regime’s massacre, and of the revival of the arts when the war finally ended.
As I sorted stacks of books, Cambodia turned over and over in my mind: my imagination’s version of Ghosh’s story and my vivid memories of that long December in the rural Khampong Cham province. Was it really a year and a half ago?
Even as my squad assembled to leave Bangkok for Siem Reap, something dark hovered. The guys loaded the vans, and I glanced at my iPod one last time. I had an email from Amandine Mas. Sporadic updates from my close friends in France aren’t uncommon, but this one startled me: our friend Daniel had had cancer as a child, and it seemed to be back.
By the time we reached Phnom Penh several days later, he was gone.
Those days in Phnom Penh are well-documented on my World Race blog, but I didn’t mention Daniel then. I didn’t know how to. Amandine’s email had been crowded out of my mind by the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields. Overwhelmed, I’d had the van driver take me back to the hostel while the others went on to more sight-seeing. I grabbed my computer and settled in at the coffee shop. That’s when I got Amandine’s second email.
Samara came back shortly after; finding me curled up on our hostel bed, she curled up right around me. I called Amandine that night from a weak wifi signal in a pizza shop. I got her voicemail, and stumbled over forgotten conjugations to thank her for making sure I knew. We left for the province the next day.
That was so much of the World Race: fall apart, take a deep breath, keep going.
All month, we met beautiful, withered grandparents who had somehow lived to tell of everyone they’d lost during the genocide. We visited local schools whose walls still bore marks of war. We came back to our tree house each night, heavy with stories. One night, wordless, we turned on music and danced. We must have looked like idiots, spinning around in the dark, but it made things lighter. I breathed easier.
Christmas came, and our families called.
My tears of joy fell heavier when my dad’s voice crackled through:
“Your cousin Jacob… lost his life last night.”
There must have been a short moment between hearing that and sitting down, but I don’t remember it. Dad told me in a quiet, breaking voice of the car accident, of my uncle’s phone call, of plans to go to Terre Haute immediately. I managed to thank him for telling me, and he passed the phone back around to say goodbye to everyone.
I didn’t write about Jacob then. I didn’t know how. I love him, but I can’t pretend that I knew him well; I didn’t know his favorite band, or his best friend, or even where exactly he was working. We hadn’t lived in the same town for 15 years. But every holiday, birthday, and cookout, he was there: part of an “us” that persists over hundreds of miles. The part of the “us” that did know everything about him… they hurt. I knew it. I could feel it. And I wasn’t there. I’ve never felt so helpless and neglectful.
The next morning, clanging music rang out over our host family’s land. It turned out to be the 100th day since their grandfather had passed away. They described it as some sort of spirit-celebration tradition, but all I heard was death screaming in my face.
I didn’t know how to get around it. I spent large chunks of the days after that sitting against a wall, listening through the Harry Potter audiobooks. I stared into the jungle, letting sunrises and sunsets blend together until we got back to the city. I squeezed in a tearful Skype conversation with my grandparents, then we were on a plane to Kenya.
Another month of out-of-touchness (literal and emotional) passed before I really let myself think on this—on Jacob—again. When I did, I borrowed a friend’s guitar and recorded a weak cover of “How He Loves.” I sang the song alone in a little hostel room, over and over, until I believed it again.
Now I’m wondering why I sang, why I needed to. Why dancing around helped at all. I’m wondering why Amitav Ghosh chose to write (of all things post-war) about dancers. And most of all, I’m wondering why I feel such a deep need to get these things out today, seventeen months later. What do beautiful things have to do with grief and death?
What kept me going in the most crushing moments of that December was simply the Giver of Life. But being able to create a little made me feel like I could fight it, like death doesn’t really have any power. It was the difference between moving forward, and being able to find joy in whatever was “forward.” Letting a creation pour out of me felt like letting life back into a world that has lost so much… like letting life back into myself. Creation brings Life, even in the midst of death.
Maybe in such a transient life, I feel like I’m always losing things— like I’m always losing people. In any context, I never really know what to do with it. In the not-knowing, I write, I sing, I dance. I cling to Life.
remembering Daniel Ferguson & Jacob Hines
thanks to Diana Reichuber for such open conversations about loss and love and music