“Madam….” she leans closer towards me over the check-in counter and I can see her precisely drawn eyebrows, the very berry lipstick which clashes violently with the bleached tone of her skin and the pale yellow uniform….”your bags are 32.9kg in total" she continues in a whisper. “Your airline only allows 30kg, madam”.
Why, thanks for that reminder, I of course know that.
“Yes” I say, "it’s eight years of living in Cambodia, you see” and I try to charm her with a pathetic smile hoping that it will work the magic and she’ll let me get away with my packing sins. But she’s tough and I end up discarding one pair of fairly heavy hand made leather shoes, they clearly were made in Cambodia to stay in Cambodia, near Angkor, the place of their birth. The only consolation is the fact that during the period of the last however many years I did not wear these hand made shoes in question once. Money well spent yet again. I also take my travel tripod out of my main luggage, reassemble it in one piece again and strap it to one of my hand luggages which, I am sure, in combination with the other must weigh good 18kg….. With moderate reduction of weight achieved I am finally let off to pass the joyful crew of Cambodian customs. I wish I could take photos with my eyes: blink and snap, I have you, Mr High Ranking Official, with your eyes closed and nodding off while the queue of those who are leaving the Kingdom of Wonder is growing steadily.
My Official practices his friendliness by screaming at a confused Chinese tourist in a mixture of angry vocabulary and snorts not belonging to any language in particular. Then it’s my turn and because I know the drill of leaving my fingerprints on files every time I depart and come back, I am released with a mere grunt and a thud of “departed" stamp in my passport.
I would not leave in any other way than with a bang, so seeing a dramatic sunset spilling across the western sky sends the corners of my mouth upwards and the few dotted planes on the tarmac of Siem Reap International Airport become giant bird-like silhouettes in an apocalyptic movie. The fact that our plane is delayed means one thing - a storm somewhere between Siem Reap and Bangkok. Indeed, in a few minutes the darkening drama of the sky is criss-crossed with angry flashes of lightning promising a great, end-of-the day wet season show. We are seated, seat belts securely fastened, hand luggage stowed in the overhead locker or under the seat in front of us, window shades up, armrests down and seats upright - ready for take off. My Spanish co-traveller looks nervously out of the window and by now the contours of all outside objects are smudged by horizontal streams of rain reminiscent of a very de-saturated Monet painting. He quickly mutters a prayer and I see his right hand fly over his chest in a cross-like fashion, top to bottom, left to right. It’s nice of him to send good wishes to us all.
It’s a bumpy and somewhat noisy take-off and I wonder if I am the only one who’s questioning the strange noises coming from underneath while seeing my life flashing in front of my eyes. Or could that be the lightning? I can't be sure. But then we reach cruising altitude, burping churning clouds are left underneath us and we are smoothly cruising to Bangkok.
Here’s it’s a pure “joy" of a four-hour wait but as a seasoned traveller I amuse myself by endless people watching, the occasional stroll on the polished floors and swapping one seat for another trying to find the spot with optimal temperature - it’s always either too hot or in a direct blast of an arctic blizzard from mighty aircon units.
A nervous-flyer friend of mine wished me an uneventful flight and that’s exactly the category of flights where my journey from Bangkok to Dubai would fit. Two wines down, several attempts of watching a movie and aching neck from embarrassing dozing positions, the giant metal bird brings all two floors of passengers safely to glitzy Dubai where everything is big and triple shiny, giving me a head spin. Then I figure out that coffee may fix some of my issues and I head to purchase one such concoction. Disappointing in taste and strength, I think of the many Foxy coffees I’ve had which sent my heart racing after the first sip. Shoes too big to fill one could say! Needless to say I pay a price which would fetch a small house in the Cambodian countryside and am given local currency back for my US$ payment - I call this a lose/lose situation but at least by now the caffein is already starting to kick in.
Dear Dubai, yes you, who look like an enormous sea of glittering diamonds from the sky, I have a bone to pick with you. Why are your toilet seats heated or have I just dreamt it? Why? And why does the drinking water fountain spit tepid liquid? Not hot enough to make tea, just unpleasant warm, yuck! And why do I get my hands scalded by water nearing the boiling point in the restrooms? Mind boggles. It’s 35 degrees Celsius outside at 5am and the guts of your airport are only just a wee bit cooler I estimate. Absolutely no need to heat things up!
While roaming the long corridors searching for available and working plugs I finally find a seat next to a source of power for my juice-hungry devices - but the seat is not mine for long. I get pushed out by a small boy who assumes that it’s OK to press his butt cheeks next to mine. Under more caffeinated circumstances I’d probably laugh but this morning I let the cheeky bugger have the seat, move away with a grunt (I eat kids for breakfast!) and hope he doesn’t grow up thinking it’s OK to push people (read women) around. I don’t want to generalise but….
It’s an endless parade of weird and wonderful outfits here presented by people of all shapes, sizes, ages and skin tones. There are overwhelming hair dos and hair completely hidden, huge eyes made up with tonnes of heavy make up, men clad in white, corporate suites and the occasional dreadlock and elephant pants too. Oh and did I mention unruly children? By now my tepid water I tanked into my bottle has cooled down to a room temperature which must be good 25 degrees, so it still tastes like &^%*. I am on my way to Gate C23 where my flight to Prague takes off in about 2 hours.
And that’s all easy and pretty uneventful too - how flights should be. The waiting game with my two heavy pieces of luggage is a winning one as both turn up, even though there is a good gap between them. I wonder what their journey has been and am grateful that I don’t have to fill in forms for lost luggage. Once more I am violently thrown into the life I once knew, then I got to know it again and before the day is over, Cambodia seems like a distant dream. It’s amazing how quickly we adapt to new situations and circumstances.
And now - sleep. Horizontal, undisturbed sleep on terra firma - until next time Cambodia, you shall remain in my heart forever.
“If only you knew” said the slogan on one of the airport luggage trolleys accompanied by images of something as iconically Czech as rolling hills, forests, castles, medieval cities…. and I had no heart to read further as I was on my way out. I was leaving Prague behind with all its charms, bridges and looming towers, leaving it for who knows how long this time. I never know how long it’s going to be until the next visit and last time my period of absence from my home reached two years. Quite a long time may I say. Long enough to miss a couple of relatives by a few months and never see them again, long enough to notice the increasing snow in mother’s hair or father's head becoming shinier by the day. Nobody is getting any younger, time flies and if my infrequent visits of homeland ever taught me anything, finding the time to smell the roses would be it.
Picking up a local paper while sitting on a metal chair waiting for the call to board was a bad move. The weekend magazine addition seemed to focus on cycling and wine, two of my great passions, in one instance both at the same time: Cycling Wine Tours!!! It seems that drinking and riding is a fine combination on small country roads in my homeland! My heart cried out some more. Why did I not learn about cycling the Moravian hills and sampling local grape produce a little earlier??? I would have put the wise words of advice and all the research behind the article to a good use!
I had landed five weeks earlier with visions of perfect holiday, the perfect summer break. What followed can only be described as Ode to Summer as I remember it. Amazingly long days when 8PM is almost too early to think about dinner (my Italian friend will approve!). Fragrant mornings with sun appearing on the horizon like a giant red Strepsil, the murmur of a distant highway promising adventures of discovering new places. Deep dark forests offering the temptation of blueberries and wild strawberries by the handful. Buzz of insect and the smell of pine needles. A cold pint somewhere in a small country pub (beer cycling!!). Cycling alone, conquering hills for the sheer exhilarating reward of 50km/h downhill ride and possibly some flies in the teeth. It’s hard to stop grinning you see…..
Hello, April….Fast forward one year… and we’re back in Siem Reap where nothing much has changed...
Just as I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic where the lady of my dreams talks about the power of actually finishing things (amongst other great wisdoms), I came across this old unfinished piece of my writing. An Ode to the Czech Summer. Perfect timing I say, I now have mere 29 days (and yes, I am counting days) to the departure to my homeland. This time my sabbatical amounts to two and a half months away from the Cambodian dust bowl. I am off to test the home waters and see what living again in the land of beer and knedliky would be like. I, for the first time ever, no longer feel that going home would be a failure or an embarrassing act showing that I have somehow returned with my (proverbial) tail between my legs. Showing to who? I don’t really know and I no longer care because nobody else really cares either about much more than themselves and what other people think of them....
Hence me going through the drawers and clearing out “old crap” (that’s a technical term by the way) and undergoing a self prescribed cleansing process in my current life, while at the same time providing endless entertainment for my cat. From initially moving to Cambodia with a little more than a backpack I am now surrounded by mountains of things but thankfully they are just things.
Should I stay or should I go? I have grown roots in this place and I am comfortable. I know countless friendly souls in this town and this is what makes living here great. My photography business is going well despite the low season which is upon us. BUT it’s now again the time of year when the temperatures climb to astronomical heights and power is often taken away from the people. Literally. Thank you, oh capable electricity board, for picking the hottest months for maintenance (or whatever you want to call this exercise) of the crumbling system. Thank you. It’s the time of year when the flip side of my “love affair” with Cambodia rears its ugly head more often than I would like. My swear word dictionary is quite impressive. It’s when I start to look further and seek other challenges and adventures. It’s been far too long. The world is a big place and I surely was not born to be stuck somewhere for too long, or was I?
After 8 or so years in the Kingdom there's a possibility that I have finally reached my expiry period, my best before date. The can that contains me and my sanity is ready to explode.
Of course there are positives, always! The wonderful, eclectic collection of people from all walks of life and corners of the globe who are doing amazing things with their lives is one giant ball of positive energy right there. Random over-coffee conversations. Lasting and fleeing friendships. People….
Watch this space. All will be revealed in July when I return to deal with reality and decide which direction my next steps will take.
And here we have July. It’s deliciously grey and windy with violent ribbons of rain falling at 45 degrees obstructing the view of my neighbours’ property. Nothing much to look at anyway, although they have gone all the way to triumph Joe Bloggs next door and have built two floors higher….
The mountains of “crap” have been reduced to just a few heaps, many friends have (perhaps unwillingly) gained more crap to their heap, I have shredded more paper than an office shredder on steroids and two of my four luggages are already packed. Once again I am counting the days to my departure and this time it’s final. I have my first time ever one way ticket out of Cambodia two days before my yearly visa expires.
The two and a half months in the country of my birth have worked their magic. There have been once again cobbled streets, mystical castles, archways, old buildings and trams that run every three minutes - so running to catch one makes you look like a fool in the eyes of locals. There have been friends - old and new, those people who care the most and mostly too much (parents we call them), there have been days of blossoming trees and days when you can hear the grass grow. There has been cold that gets to your bones but what better excuse can a girl have than that to buy a few pairs of boots? Also worth mentioning are crazy 1st world extravaganzas such as drinking water running from your tap and also flushing your toilet, working public transport system and no tuk tuk in sight, acceptable education and the fact that if you break your leg, there will be somebody qualified enough to fix it for you. And power. Power to the people!
While I will miss Cambodia and its charms, this time it’s a no brainer that I am almost over-ripe to leave and start the next chapter in my life. I will forever be grateful for the lessons learned here and for the kaleidoscope of friends collected while living and working here. The next challenge is to see how many of them can come and visit me in Prague, for I am the best guide to the most charming watering holes in the capital and beyond. There’s nothing like the local knowledge!
The time has come for me to leave Cambodia and head back to my homeland. End of July marks the spot.
Here's what needed to come out even though I am a reluctant poet wannabe:
I wanted to travel light
But it is not to be
Several suitcases of stuff
Will accompany me
On a journey across the globe
Back to the place where I once roamed
Golden fields of corn
Stretch as far as the eye can see
I know where I am going
But I know not where I'll be
In a few years from now
When some more grey appear
In the frizz of my curly mop
But do you know what?
I don’t even care, I won’t stop
As long as there’s much fresh air
and that skilled somebody to dye my hair.
Cobbled streets unfit for heels
More than fair share of unhealthy meals
Pubs in the country with no end to beers
And green mossy forests roaming with deers
New adventures in the distance
Oh, how I long for that different light
To colour my photos fresh
And nowhere in sight piles of trash
Give me rain
Give me fog
Give me some breeze
I don’t even care if I freeze
Give me no noise
Well earned mountains of cash and no reason to sneeze
Impatient, I feel my feet start to itch
But wait, there seems to be a glitch
Who broke my heart in two?
Thousand pieces? Who?
As many pieces as the homes I’ve had
As many pieces as dear friends I’ve met
Hellos, goodbyes, much fun in the sun we’ve had
But none of this has to come to an end
I’ve soaked up all the tropics’ sun
It’s stored within me
I’ll release it on a winter’s day
Bright and wild to chase the darkness away
That’s how it’s going to be
Melting the blues
Loving my Muse
Feeling fancy free and footloose
anna bella betts
Never still, always on the move, looking for the perfect capture... Cambodia is currently my home, presenting endless opportunities....
In this blog you will find no profound wisdom.
Just accounts of daily life, sometimes about photography, often about wine, occasionally about travel adventures and sometimes about nothing at all.