As I whizz down the hill on a borrowed (beautiful green) Trek bike I feel tiny flies embedding themselves in my teeth. Some have passed the barriers and I am now having my involuntarily early dinner of random protein. My grin widens, I am the typical grinning cyclist.
It’s close to 8pm and the sun will not touch the horizon for a while yet; I know I have time to enjoy the scenery although the shadow of my biking self (helmet included) grows longer.
My camera is with me, and it’s as much a blessing as it is a curse. One part of me just wants to enjoy the ride, yet the photographer in me has to give in to the compulsion to capture these precious memories, moods and gorgeous late afternoon light. I don’t care when the occasional passer-by slows down and wonders what I am doing, crouching in the undergrowth, taking photos of bending blades of grass against the setting sun.
I have always loved summer and early July is a particularly special time. Everything is green (admittedly a notch less saturated than the Cambodian version of my favourite colour), the hills are dotted with wild flowers, patchwork of crops almost gold, the air is sweet and days last forever. Forests bear wild fruits and a bit of patience is rewarded with delicious fragrant strawberries and blueberries no supermarket will ever sell.
Purple grin and stained fingers tell tales of forest harvest and I saddle up my green horse and ride on.
Shadows are now longer and I am glad I packed my fleece – by local standards I am a sissy. The air in the woods is cold and damp and the last light of the day is getting through and shines on the carpet of soft green moss.
I inhale deeply the essence of summer dissolved in every molecule of air.
It is my first full days at home; now over as I drop my keys and crack open a bottle of beer. Hydration is important even outside the tropics.
Jetlag all but forgottern, I ignore “Airline Disasters” TV show and watch daylight finally completely disapper and give way to the dark blue of the night.
I am already excited about tomorrow.
She arrives on her leopard print bicycle which even has an ashtray mounted conveniently on the handlebars. Bad habits die hard but thumbs up for the creative DIY not to mention the extra thought for the environment. The machine had raised eyebrows in town before and continues to do so but many who are settled in the temple town know Josette and her quirky ways.
From behind gold rimmed spectacles bent slightly out of shape gaze two keen bright eyes full of energy and urgency. Tiny in frame, she hugs and kisses me tiptoeing but there is no time to waste and this is so much more true when it’s feeding time!
The meeting place is Wat Atvea today ablaze in pre-Pchum Ben festivities – perhaps the most important Khmer holiday which attracts families to pagodas and with monks chanting and ting-a-ling music filling the air at maximum decibels, the majority of Cambodia pays homage to their ancestors with the aim to keep the spirits happy and content. I am yet to be given scientific proof that spirits enjoy loud music but will let this one slide today.
Josette is laden with bags of various sorts vaguely resembling a Christmas tree and I lend a helping hand carrying one while I fish for my camera to get ready. Clad in not-exactly-Sunday-trousers (which give way later in the least convenient place – but that would be telling) and Siem Reap Pagoda Cats t-shirt made to order, Josette starts mimicking meowing sounds and it works wonders. Cats of all shapes and sizes come out of the woodwork – literally. Pavlov would be pleased as pagoda dogs also take part in this ritual, trying to blend in. All this commotion leaves many onlookers bemused to say the least. Pagoda kitties come running tails up – be it full length, bent, crooked or none - for those bags contain nutritious tasty goodies. We have been expecting you!
If you were to ask Josette “So, are you a cat or a dog person?” I imagine she would grin and with sparkling eyes say that she loves all creatures alike. Note to self….
Pets in Cambodia are a fairly unrecognized phenomenon. Dogs and cats belong to all and none. In villages dogs serve the purpose of property guardians and get fed scraps but affection for the creatures which are over their cute puppy stage rarely exists. Only seldom one sees a groomed pooch on a leash – so out of place in areas where rough street characters roam the neighbourhood in look for scraps. That goes for food and a doggy lingo for “sorting things out”. The battle scars they carry paint an ugly picture.
Cats mind their own business – as they do. In towns animals of all levels of domesticity congregate in pagodas creating little living communities and are grateful for anything remotely resembling food that the monks and nuns can spare or drop by accident. How do they end up here? Pagodas have doors open to all and often unwanted animals are dropped off at the gate……. More often than not cats and dogs are in terrible health condition and with little hope for improvement as veterinary care is all but nonexistent.
Josette’s colourful life path has taken her through many scenes, from Paris movie industry to living and working in tourism in Japan for 21 years all the way to Cambodia where she retired three years ago.
Lifelong love of all creatures of fur led her to cross paths with Katie Beattie – an Australian vet nurse residing in Siem Reap. Together they plotted and planned and Angkor Paw Animal Rescue (APAR) was born in 2012 with the sole aim to rescue and care for stray cats and dogs of which Siem Reap has a steady supply. During this time Josette has learned the ropes and now is an expert on eye and ear infection treatment and deworming, the more serious cases she refers to Katie at her own expense. Often she houses patients in recovery in her own house. The Pagoda Cats “project” dates back to February 2013 when Josette’s visits to Wat Atvea started and she keeps them up with meticulous regularity.
I admire her as she sits cross legged on a scruffy floor catching kittens one by one – and they seem to come in a stream – checking their eyes and applying ointment and lots of love. Fed and happy most furballs find a nice cozy corner and just dose off enjoying the beams of sunlight coming through the various holes of the pagoda’s impromptu walls while lively kittens find the extra energy for playtime.
Then it’s time to rescue the Kisser. A beautifully grown fully tailed tabby who somehow got himself stuck on a high beam and can’t get down. The tantalizing sounds of his fellow cat-friends munching on goodness leaves him even more frustrated. A nimble old man can’t watch our pathetic rescue attempts any longer, puts down his plate of rice and in no time climbs up the beam and grabs Kisser by his neck. The Kisser kisses the old man, then everyone in his path before he reaches his bowl. The name is very fitting and well earned. Crunch crunch munch and everyone is happy. Rrrrrrrrrrrr.
Josette has treated various stages of eye and ear infections as well as burns and other ailments and often has to deal with the heartbreak of non-survivors. Like today. The litter of 5 tiny kittens in a separate nun quarter of the pagoda grounds has suddenly become a sadder bunch of 4 as one little fellow didn’t make it due to severe diarrhea. Another day in Cambodia and in the next coming days the litter will be reduced by further two who won’t make it. Survival of the fittest rings true here and mother nature has her cruel way with little human interference – aside from Josette. She persists and with generous help from others (via fundraising, donations) and dipping into her own savings she comes everyday rain or shine, today knee deep in flood water and brings nutritious kitty calories and affection into the pagoda grounds.
Life goes on and with plenty of friskiness and loud cat love cries carrying on the waves of the night Josette can be certain that soon she will have more bundles of fluffiness to feed. Hopefully, in the process of doing so some local souls will be inspired to follow in her footsteps.
Would you like a kitty with that?
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.