Monday, 9 May 2016

The Strangers of Siem Reap

I stepped into Siem Reap airport, after a cramped Air Asia flight, and felt lost. It was the first time I had entered a country alone. I'd read a lot before this trip though, what to expect, what to be wary of, etc. I walked over to the phone counter to buy a sim card (knew what to buy, which company, what plan and all that) and two smiling faces quickly got my phone all set up with a "welcome to Siem Reap, have a wonderful stay!" I'm taken aback by the fluent English, especially in contrast to the broken English which I hear and converse in every day in Bangkok.

With 3g equipped smartphone, I quickly open Google Maps. Then I notice there are no cabs anywhere. The foreigners take tuk tuks out of the airport and I'm thinking, "pssh, tourists and their obsession with tuk tuks". As I wander around the airport parking lot, Friendly Stranger Number 3 walks up to me. He has an airport staff badge on and asks if I need any help. Again in fluent English. All I can manage to say is "how can I get out of this airport?". He replies that I can take an "airport tuk tuk or airport bike" to get out for 2 dollars.

And so there I was, behind the bike driver on a beat up Suzuki one speed bike and the driver asking me if I want him to take me to Angkor Wat the next day. I reply with, "where did you learn English" to which he says, "school". I suddenly became one of those bright white smile, red lipstick English girls at bars that have asked me the same thing and I've given the same answer. I'd felt insulted when they asked me; why was it so surprising I spoke English? And here I was, berating someone else in the same way. Riding on those roads that were more dust than tar, I felt the relative nature of privilege. He left me at the hotel with a bittersweet smile.

Every Cambodian I met in Siem Reap had something in common : kindness drew out from their soul and shone in their eyes and smiles. Despite the immense poverty they suffered, every single one offered a warmth that one rarely gets from friends, let alone total strangers. You notice it all the more when you're alone; I was so much more sensitive to my surroundings. And so, stranger 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 gave way to so many amazing strangers over the next two days, that I I've entirely lost count. But I wanted to tell you my favourites.

Three of the hotel's staff - who offered me a cold towel, a drink and a room upgrade. Then, without invitation, took me through a map of the city, offered me free rides to and from the hotel whenever I wanted, arranged my trip to Angkor Wat, arranged a ride to the airport, recommended places to eat, tidied up a creaky old cycle so I could explore the town on my own and lent me 50 cents when I ran out of change. All services deployed with bows and smiles.

Two tuk tuk drivers - who carried me out the city on their makeshift contraptions so that I could experience the magic of the sun rising and setting in two different corners of the city. Who rode quietly with dust in their eyes and sweat on their palms but still turned back with a smile when I was stepping off or welcomed me with a wave when I returned. Never expecting a tip, but beaming when I forcefully pressed a dollar into their hands.

Shirtless Monk who poured me ice cold water after I'd climbed a kilometre of hill in the midday sun. I'd arrived drenched in sweat and panting breathless at his door. He sat me on his stone bench and told me to enjoy the view, shared his photos of himself in his saffron robes and explained to me in broken English that he'd been living in that dusty, deserted place for 15 years. I touched his feet when he held me by the shoulders, looked into my eyes and wished me a long and happy life always.

Ant loving tour guide - who found me waiting at the top of the hill, just me and my kindle, and started speaking loudly so that I could be part of his tour, eventually getting his Italian clients to smile and welcome me in to listen to his anecdotes. He took a red ant from a tree onto his finger and let it run around all over, showed the ant to tourists and then set the ant back on a leaf saying, "its life is as good as yours or mine" and I cringed, because I'd only 10 minutes ago stomped an ant dead as it scrambled too close to my bag.

Roadside Bartender - who sat with me as I cleaned a White Russian, followed by a Margarita and told me about his day job and best place to find amok. He raved about his cute niece and went on to comment on the similarities between Indians and Cambodians. I don't remember his name. He kept calling himself "Mark" because it's easier to pronounce and he played cheesy Bruno Mars songs and sang along with me like we'd been friends forever.

The last meal I had in Siem Reap was this incredible Lok Lak, a beef and rice concoction that melted in my mouth. They invited me to the kitchen so I could give my regards to "the Chef" and I saw that there was no white hat or sparkling kitchen, but just another guy in a tattered T-shirt and shorts, with that unmistakably warm Cambodian smile. When I told him it was the best goddamn food I'd eaten in Siem Reap, he bowed and his humility brought a lump to my throat.

That same evening, as I rode my last tuk tuk to the airport, I couldn't help but remember all these different people and the tears just came streaming down my face. I didn't know anything about the history or significance of Siem Reap or Cambodia for that matter. I went to 2 temples, because I was too sleepy to do more. I'd just turned up to get my visa renewed. But I left wishing I'd paid more attention, talked to more people, spent more time. What looked like a dusty, crumpled mess of a city, now seemed almost magical in my eyes. I felt this sinking feeling of going back to this awful, money making corporate world. Most of all, I just didn't want to go home, when strangers were so much kinder.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016


Growing up, my mother and I were always at logger heads. I remember repeatedly telling her that I would never grow up to be a mother like her. I remember even more clearly her telling me to wait and watch, because I’m going to turn into her without even knowing it and I’ll thank her for it. 
Here I am. As usual, she was right. She’s generally right about almost everything. She was right about the guy I thought was the love of my life at 16, who left at the drop of hat. She was right about not shaving my legs when I was 14 because I’d grow nasty stubble and ingrown hairs. She was right about friendships and the ones that lasted and the ones that didn’t. Well you get it. The woman is always right. You hate it, but it’s the truth. 

Memories of her, of our relationship, come to me in fragments. I don’t even know how many of them I’ve conjured up and how many are real - they’ve all just moulded into the word, Mamma. I’ve slammed so many doors at her and sobbed through the night over words she said and then turned right back and hurt her even more with my own. As I grew out of those tumultuous teenage years, she became less of a torment and more of a security blanket. I realised then, having left the comforting cocoon of her care, just how protected and nurtured I was. I missed it, I sobbed again, and as always there she was - now on the phone or on Skype - mopping up my tears like I was a child. It’s frustrating to always be the child in front of your mother, no matter how old you are. It’s also relieving to know that at any age, you can always be a child while laying on her lap. 

Some things are quintessential Mamma. Her Kochi accent that I’ve inherited unapologetically. Her long, beautiful fingers that toil - cut and scraped and mauled with all the different things she does with them (washing, cleaning, gardening, scrubbing) and yet look as delicate as they did when she was sixteen. Her shock of curls, unruly and dark yet perfectly framing her still-young face. Those earrings she wears and the combinations of colours in her wardrobe - she’s unconventionally beautiful, especially when she laughs. Her draw full of Homeo medicine for every illness imaginable. Mulberries hand-picked from the garden on a steel plate reserved for me. Her sinful kozhikotta and cloud-soft appams devoured in minutes on Easter mornings. Her flower arrangements - white carnations among cypress leaves, a lone gerebera in a clear vase, orchids all over the backyard wall - she made a fairytale garden that has now become my solace, my sanctuary every time I go home. 

Her kitchen - or any kitchen - will always remind me of her. It’s the largest room in our house and it’s one of the most beautiful kitchens you’ll ever see. Flushed full with big windows and natural light. Pure white curtains and tiny money plants on the sill. An age-old stove that she refuses to throw away. Powders and spices of a million scents and colours lining the walls. Marble floors and granite counters cooling you in the tropical heat. The way she has no measurements or recipes, just a wild sense of what tastes amazing. And always, the smell of something mouth watering being stirred into existence by those magical hands. 

My mother made a choice to be at home and raise my brother and I. We were and still are, the apple of her eye. She was meticulous in the way she raised us. She knew every ache, every smile. She gave up a lot to be this mother. She could have had a career, she could have made more money, she could have had more friends, she could have trave
led. She chose instead to be the nurturer and for a long, long time, we never realised how much of a difference it made. She adapted to her life in ways only the very strong at heart can do. Learnt to swim and drive and speak English, all after she turned 26. She’s taken the worst of what life’s given her and made the best of it. It takes a special kind of resilience and a massive amount of determination to shine as beautifully as she does given all the things she’s been through.

So here I am. More adult than child and still calling my mother for every sadness, for all advice, for every weakness I have. From over-the-phone cooking lessons to career and relationship advice - she’s a woman with many masks. And I feel now, more than ever that I am my mother’s daughter. And it’s funny. Because I grew up so much of her opposite and often feeling like her enemy. Now I’m more like her than either she or I would like to admit. 

I cook like her. I throw things into the pan and make them work. I taste and test and follow intuition. I clean up the counters exactly the way she does. I stretch the sheets over my bed every morning, just like she used to do for me. I wipe the bathroom floor after every bath. I smile at everyone, laugh with everyone. Everything I know about empathy and kindness, I’ve learnt from her. How to see life through someone’s eyes, how to talk to people irrespective of social class or gender or language. I dress like her, earthy colours and silver earrings dangling. I want to be a mother like her - caring, intuitive, unconditionally loving, forgiving and always, always willing to learn and adapt. And I find myself wishing she’d gotten the same opportunities and freedom and affection that she gave me. Maybe then, we’d have been even more alike. 

I am my mother’s daughter. I brim with pride just saying it. 

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Finding Home

Dark bar, my bar, familiar.
Drink after drink
Footsie, fingers tangled
Drink after drink

He spoke my language
Of humour and heartbreak
Of resilience and soft corners
Of scraped knees and swimming

Lost in dusty roads
Among ancient barricades
Through bright speeding trains
And dark, twisted alleyways

What lit the night with magic,
Was it him or just the whiskey?
Couldn't wait, couldn't wait
Just kiss me already

Sentences spoken breathless
Catching up on decades missed
Brown eyes of honesty looked
Into me and knew my soul

I played a song upon his chest.
And he played one along my hip.
Their moods and melodies
Moved as if they were the same.

He left in the dark morning
No goodbyes or fanfare
But for the lingering touch
Of my fingers in his hair

"I hope you got home safe", I said
Wondering if he felt it too
"I'll see you again tomorrow," said he,
"I'm coming back home to you"