Monday, April 13, 2015

The Road to Siem Reap


Listening to Vaughan Williams as I am borne along 
a Cambodian highway
the red dust billowing at our passing
I hear the cool, silver tones
of choristers in the echoing chill of
vaulted stone and know
as never before
the music rooted in the land
of its gestation.  A white ox
wanders over dusty grass
as the road beneath our wheels
Turns to dry, rutted mud
and the red cloud envelops
two small determined girls
emerging from a school
as crisply clad as if they too 
could sing qui tollis peccata
with the boys whose voices sound
a million lives away.


C.M.M. 03/15

I actually wrote this on a bus - an air-conditioned coach - on a six-hour journey over roads of varying degrees of completion through Cambodia. I scribbled it on the back of a daily bulletin in handwriting that I could barely decipher and transcribed it onto my phone notes when we stopped. I was listening at the time to Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor, consumed by the strangeness of the contrast between what I heard and what I was seeing.

Friday, April 10, 2015

A glimpse of heaven



It is 4.15am when the phone rings. Our alarm call drags me from sleep in the strangely lucid state that such sudden awakenings sometimes bring and I am slathering on the Rid (an Aussie DEET preparation) almost before Mr B has put the phone back. By 5am our group is out of the hotel in the warm darkness heading for Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. I am hauled off the coach to have my photo taken, and return with an entrance card round my neck. The photo on it looks pale, wary. My photo.

Equipped with torches of varying efficiency, we are led through the dark. We concentrate mainly on our feet, and on not walking into the person in front. Beyond my pathetic circle of light, the blackness seems absolute. I cannot tell how many people are on this pilgrimage, but sense their presence.

My earpiece crackles. After sunrise, meet under that banyan tree. I can see our guide pointing left. The tree referred to is an intensification of darkness, nothing more. I have not the least idea of what a banyan tree looks like, having only encountered one in the rudimentary graphics of Jet Set Willy, but assume that in daylight I shall recognise my fellows if I see them.

We arrive in what feels like a wide open space. To my left, I realise there are lights, tables laid with some kind of biscuits in wrappers, bottles of fizzy wine, orange juice in cartons. Everywhere else it is still black. Underfoot I can now see dusty yellow grass, and we stop. Apparently we have arrived at the vantage point.

And there we stand. Slowly, the sky turns grey. A dark red glow appears in front of us, and for the first time I am aware of the outline of pointed towers. I put my torch off, and can see my companions as vague outlines in the gloom. The light keeps growing, and we hold up phones and tablets like some primitive offering. At one point it is as if someone has thrown a switch, as millions of cicadas strike up with their own dawn chorus. A cock crows. We drink some tepid bubbly, eat a cracker or two, and continue our watch. Behind us, the moon sails above a tattered palm tree.

And then it comes. The sunrise is every bit as amazing as one could hope for. I can see the reflection of the temple in the pool which is now revealed in front of us, where the tiny ripples of visiting mosquitoes create their own beauty. I insert myself between two large people to take the photo at the top of this post. We watch until the sun is clear of the roofs, then retrace our path to find the banyan tree. It is, after all, entirely recognisable - and the only such tree to be seen.

We still have a visit to make - we are about to go inside the walls, ascend to the highest level, see the surrounding jungle in the golden morning light. We will learn that only the God can live in stone houses, and we will see amazing stone carvings. We will not end this visit till 9am, when the daytime crowds start to arrive. It will be amazing and memorable. But even without it I would have been content. I have seen the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

A visit to Hell

I've been putting it off, I realise - but now, before I allow it to fade in my mind, I have to write about my visit to Cambodia's Killing Fields. That's a sort of general name given to, I believe, more than one location, but the one we visited was near Phnom Penh, where a memorial park has been built around the mass graves of many thousands of victims. The "Killing Fields" name came from journalist Dith Pram, whose story was told in the film of the same name; the place we visited was called Choeung Ek.

And that's the history, briefly, and that's all we might have heard had we been with one of the other guides, the young men and women who looked after the other three groups every time we toured off ship. But our guide was older, probably in his mid-forties, and our guide had been there, in the heart of the process that the regime of Pol Pot initiated. This is really his story.

His name was Buntah, and that name was one of his first losses when the soldiers came for him. His family had fled Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge arrived; his father was a teacher and would have been a target for the usual rounding-up of intellectuals. Fortunately, his father's hobby was carpentry, so he was saved by the callouses on his hands in the first few encounters with terror. They settled in a village, and life went on. Buntah had seen how some of his friends had been taken away by groups of soldiers, and told his mother he was scared it would happen to him. No, she said. You're too small. He was seven.

One day he had come home from school and was waiting for his parents to return when the soldiers came. Come with us, they said.
Can I wait to tell my parents?
No, no need. Come.
Buntah asked permission to go back into the house for a moment. He left his red cap on a table, a pre-arranged sign, and went with the soldiers. He never saw his parents again, and has no idea where they are buried. He was seven.

The next three years gave him the nightmares that had kept him from sleeping the night before this first trip with us, that wakened him every time he knew he would have to relive them for others. During that time, he forgot his name, answering only to the name the comrades gave him. At ten, he learned to use an AK47 rifle. After the lesson, the older soldier told him that someone would start running over the field in front of them. Try to shoot him, he said.
I don't want to do that.
All right - give me the gun. You start running.
And Buntah took aim, and succeeded in shooting the running fugitive. It took him 28 shots. He felt bad about that.

This child, this primary-school-aged child, served at Choeung Ek, and at Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison created in a Phnom Penh school. He told us how victims were killed - not shot: that would waste ammunition. No, they were clubbed and their throats cut. His voice broke several times as he told us of these things, especially when we came to the tree where infants had their brains dashed out.
Strangely, it seemed, he was smiling one moment and weeping the next. I didn't understand the smile of embarrassment until it was explained, much later.

We stood on the iron-hard dry earth of the paths between shallow pits from which hundreds of bodies had been retrieved. We had to watch our step: the rainy season washed the paths away and exposed more bones every year, bones which had become
set as in concrete. They would be rescued when it rained again. There were shreds of black clothing; a tattered jacket hung on some wire. If we looked up, the surroundings were beautiful with blossom and trees, while at our feet it was entirely hellish. None of us spoke; we couldn't even look at one another.

Later, at Tuol Sleng, Buntah told us how he'd had to help with the torture of high-ranking prisoners. Every so often, his pronoun would change - from "they did this" to "we did this". Every time he did this, I shivered. He told us about the scar on his shaved head - how a comrade had battered his head with a rifle because he'd caught the boy eating grass in his hunger. Stealing even the ears of long grass was a crime against the regime. He had lain unconscious for hours before crawling to a hut. It was never stitched. We could see that for ourselves. He was ten years old.

It was malaria that saved him. When he became ill and couldn't work, he was discarded. A woman took him in, looked after him. When he heard that the Vietnamese army was coming, he fled into the jungle. He lived. He was discovered by a cousin, who called him by the name he'd forgotten after being brainwashed. The cousin and Buntah were the only survivors of a family of 14. Buntah had to take up school again, learning at 13 the things he'd known six years earlier. He spent a year in a Buddhist monastery, repenting, meditating, studying. He learned English and now teaches his neighbours in the evenings. He has a wife and a son, to whom, one day, he will tell his story.

But I think the repentance for what he was forced to do as a small boy is a life sentence. His work condemns him to remember - and this kind of work, guiding tourists, is coveted in a country that is still so poor. So we were the agents, that hot morning, of another bout of nightmares and self-flagellation, a hot morning that changed us all.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

I'm back ....


Saigon skyline
I've been away. I'm back. And actually I've been home for a fortnight, but so far I've not felt able to write about the most extraordinary journey of my life. It was so different, you see - and though conversation with a friend and reading travellers' tales and watching movies and having my evening meal with the Vietnam war playing on the telly had all done their bit, nothing had quite prepared me for the experience of being in Vietnam and Cambodia. It was, indeed, only after returning home that I read, in the small guide book that was part of our pre-holiday goody-bag, the immortal words "visiting Cambodia is more of an adventure than a holiday".

I must say at this point that what became known as "The Hanoi Cough" didn't leave us unscathed, even though I was absolutely unaffected until the day we left to travel home. (It's amazing, the protective power of belief: I was convinced it was an allergy to the pollution, of which more later). And on a small cruise ship - our home for a whole week of the trip - such maladies spread, despite the  precautions; I can only say that the other great threat to health and happiness was avoided by being scrupulously careful with what we ate and drank, and the neurotic sanitising of hands).

There are moments that I shall want to revisit, but right now I thought to record some impressions before they become part of what I know and therefore less remarkable. The first was the heat. I've never been in the tropics, and the half hour we spent outside the airport in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) waiting for a hapless wench who was having visa trouble gave me a chance to notice how soup-like it felt. It wasn't that I was sweating much - in fact, unless I wore a rucksack, there was little outward and visible sign of sweat the whole time I was there. Interestingly, when I look back on the holiday, I realise that at no time did I complain of being too hot, other than in the cabin at night when we started taking the advice of Aussies who said to leave the air-con at 26ÂșC to avoid drying the air so much that it made coughing worse. The heat beat down when we were in the sun, battered us with its ferocity, but with a decent hat and the right clothes it was fine, as long as we didn't think about it.

The pollution proved a greater problem. A cyclo ride through central HCM City meant sitting in an
oversized bicycle basket being pedalled among hordes of motor-bikes along oceans of traffic while observing that my cyclo-rider and I were the only people I could see without a face mask. I am told that masks don't help with this kind of pollution, but the psychological effect was interesting. Even when we left the city and started to sail up the Mekong River we were affected - the farmers burn everything, so that a pall hung over the countryside every evening, and visits to traditional brickworks and crowded markets (where huge loads arrived on motor-scooters) all presented the same air-quality problem to someone more used to the cold wet sea air of Scotland in February.

All this sounds very negative, but the smells and the hot air were the ground bass to every other experience of the holiday, some of which were absolutely wonderful and require whole posts to themselves. But this introduction, an introduction for me as well as for anyone who reads it, will end now with a couple of generalisations. Vietnam seemed to me to be extraordinarily vibrant and go-ahead; the people seemed energised and forward-looking and the warfare of the 70s sufficiently in the past to be discussed as a proud history, even by people who were involved in it. Cambodia, on the other hand, showed me poverty as I'd never seen it: real, third world type basic living conditions;
terrifying lack of sanitation; acceptance of standards of hygiene that made us quail. We felt unbearably rich as we dropped in from our other world; I felt horribly guilty as the procession of coaches through rural Cambodia showered red dust over every thing and every person we passed. I know that the organisation that took us there makes a big contribution to the economy - as well as supporting an orphanage in Siem Riep - and that by visiting we were assisting in the recovery of a country that had only recently torn itself apart in a particularly brutal civil war, but I'm still thinking about it. I learned a great deal.

A final impression? The people. Unfailingly gracious and smiling whenever we encountered them. And young - at least, young to me. The average life-span in Cambodia is 68; if you live on the river, it's 58. So young, and so slender.

Oh, and that brings a memory that makes me smile: That cyclo ride? Mr B and I were among the last in our group to mount up, so that we were at the back of the train of cyclos weaving out into the traffic. By the time we rendezvoused at the Reunification Palace, we were the first to arrive, and it was clear that my cyclo driver had enjoyed overtaking one by one his colleagues who were burdened by the large white people who filled their baskets.

Me? I felt smug.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Another birthday, more memories ...

Another week, another rush of birthday memories. My second son was born on a bleak February day 37 years ago, exactly 4 years and one week after his brother. Writing that, it seems absurd that it was only four years, for in that time my life had changed so completely. For one thing, it seemed as if I had completed the transition from my Glasgow childhood - including university, work and marriage - to the adult life I've lived ever since. Not only that: I'd moved from the odd transience of our initial 18 months after moving to Dunoon with our 5 week old first child, 18 months when the fact that we were living in a council house used by the education department held out the promise of a possible return to the city - I'd moved from that to the house I still live in, overlooking the Firth, as solid a house as I'd lived in as a child. I'd made new friends, at least one of whom had already moved away to another life; I'd joined the church choir, become a vestry member. It was as if no-one had actually realised that I was a novice mum, a novice church member, a novice adult. From this perspective, 37 years on, I feel that four years are but a blink, but then they were a life-changing lifetime.

Having a baby in Dunoon - and are babies still born here, I wonder? - was very different from my
Glasgow experience. No due-date induction here; this was a GP maternity unit and you waited "until baby is ready". In my case, that meant waiting almost a fortnight past the due date that I at least had calculated with some accuracy: a fortnight of dragging my poor mother for walks up the Bishop's Glen in the hopes of getting something started, of complaining of the heat in our draughty sitting room of an evening when others were huddling round the fire. When I eventually reached the stage of thinking something was happening, it was the middle of the night; I phoned the hospital and was told to go back to sleep and come in after breakfast. Talk about anti-climax.

The morning was grey; there was light snow falling. I waddled carefully up the path to the car, waving goodbye to #1 son and grandma. I was admitted, the only patient on the maternity ward. And then it all stopped again. Another woman came in, I remember, clearly pregnant but convinced she just had a stomach upset. By teatime, she had a baby - she'd mixed up her dates. I was still unmoved. My GP arrived, told me he'd leave it to his colleague the next day if nothing happened before then. Nothing did. And so, two weeks later than I'd anticipated, I was induced after all.

But it was still very different. I was brought my lunch, and ate it between contractions. "You'll need all your strength", the nurse said. My husband arrived, suffering from flu and looking worse than I felt. Four hours later, #2 son was born, delivered by one of my lovely GPs in a pink shirt and a plastic apron. "You've got another great big boy here, Mrs McIntosh," he told me. We were left - husband, baby and I - in the delivery room, to get acquainted. We wondered at the red eyes of this large baby - the effort of birth had affected us both. He looked solemnly at us. Later, over a cup of tea, he was returned to me, clean and sleeping. "He's got all his bits," I was reassured. There was no-one else in the small ward - the other mother was next door.

In that half hour or so, while the nurses went for their tea (I presume) and the early evening darkened outside, I knew I was happy. This doesn't often happen - frequently we look back and recognise happiness after it's over. But I was suffused with a happiness that I knew and owned, and I've never forgotten it.

One sad memory from the week that followed: I could never bear saying goodbye to 4 year old #1 son at the end of afternoon visiting. He used to cry, and when he'd left, I cried too, in that bleak time in hospitals between visiting and teatime - and see how that is the same time when I was so happy on this date? And so began the juggling that is the lot of anyone with more than one child ...

So, #2 son, if you read this from wherever in the world your extraordinary job takes you, this shows once more how much more memorable your children's birthdays are than your own. Of course, you and your brother already know this - and you in your turn will still be remembering, God willing, in 2055.

How, I wonder, will you choose to record the memories then?

Monday, February 16, 2015

I remember it well ...

 I've been thinking about birthdays today - not least because it is the birthday of my firstborn. Now he's a very adult person and has been around for longer than the clarity of my memory would lead you to think, and that's the point, really, of this post. All through Saturday, I was remembering that Valentine's day over 40 years ago, when I was leaving to go to the maternity hospital and suddenly my husband turned up, having been sent home from work because the school boiler was burst. No maternity leave, just chance making the mid-term weekend slightly longer. And then I could go on to remember the very strange day indeed when I was subjected to then customary rigours of being induced on my due date, and faces came and went, and I lost interest in how my life was going to be changed for ever and concentrated on the more pressing (as you might say) matter in hand.

The birthday is actually today, because even with induction and much yelling from two midwives, the business of labour took so long. But it is the clarity of the memories that lead me to the conclusion that actually one's birthday is of far greater importance to one's mother than to oneself.  I think that unless one is a small child excited about presents and parties the whole business of remembering the actual day is one in which only a parent can fully participate. I remember with some angst my lack of
preparation for the birth - my refusal to go out and buy baby garments, for some reason connected with superstition and not counting chickens. My parents, I remember, turned up one afternoon at my flat in Hyndland bearing a Mothercare bag and insisted I stash it somewhere sensible ...

We, of course, had complicated matters by deciding to move to Dunoon. Mr B was already working
there, and the early mornings were fraught with getting up in the dark and wondering if the ferries would be running. There were nights when the boats were off and he couldn't get home. There was the strangely transient feel to my existence at the very time when I suppose I should have been building a nest. And I can remember it all.

I suspect we're all the same, we mothers. My mother - above, holding a rather small me - used to tell me how, high on whatever pain relief they gave you in these days, she hallucinated that there were men dancing on the roofs of the houses on the other side of Great Western Road from Redlands. She also told me they offered her tripe for her tea. (She declined.) And she always made sure she gave me something great for my birthday - many of the most esoteric books on my shelves came through her.

The other baby photo is of the one whose birthday falls today. I won't embarrass him by giving him a name. But I wanted to record the moment I realised that no landmark birthday of my own has ever seemed as unforgettable as his - or his brother's.

But that's next week ...





Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On cooking, baking - and custard creams

I've been thinking about food. Or, to be more accurate, I've been thinking about cooking and baking and how I feel about these activities - and about the fact that this morning I spent about an hour reading a recipe book. (I was given a pile of wonderful Ottolenghi books for Christmas; they're already full of paper markers and a list to tell me where exciting-looking things are.) It is perhaps a clue to my attitude that I then felt compelled to clean the bath - for a small inner voice told me that I'd been wasting time, sitting in my cosy living-room looking at the birds on the snowy feeder and reading about food. And cooking.

I love food. I'm what you would well call fussy, in that I like interesting and well-cooked food, and that there are things I body-swerve with increasing dedication: cream, fatty foods, shellfish, anything that will lie weightily in my digestive system long after I'd prefer to have forgotten about it. My mother, and now my sister, have long mocked my preference for green tea. But because I love good food, I try to produce same - and on the whole I would say I succeed. The creation on the right is one I recently enjoyed - venison fillet accompanied by freekeh pilaff and garlic yogurt - and I usually say that no-one who likes eating should be incapable of producing a decent meal.

But even after almost 44 years of being responsible for making the meals in my own home, I still feel it's not really me. I have the sense that I'm a sort of dilettante cook, playing at it without having acquired the basic skills or even the right equipment. Baking is even worse. My closest pal throws pastry together without a thought and uses it to entertain my grandchildren; she may never know (unless she reads this) how much awe I hold her in for this simple act. My Christmas cake is the best I've ever eaten, but since I stopped making children's birthday cakes it's the only cake I ever make - and more or less the only cake I eat, come to that.

So when I refer to myself as a Domestic Goddess, you should know that I do so in the spirit of deepest irony. Cooking - and the odd bit of baking - gets fitted in round the rest of my life even if the results are totally toothsome, and there's always this feeling that I'm in the same boat as the monkeys writing a Shakespeare play. Or something. My attitude to eating, I've decided, has hardened over the years. I shall never again, for example, eat a pizza - because you have to climb a Munro to use up the resulting calories. And I shall leave you with one final, devastating truth:

Life is too short to eat a custard cream.