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Monthly Archives: January 2009

i’ve been accused–hmmm, let’s use a better phrase here–ahem–it’s been brought to my attention that my blog entries always sound sad and lonely and rather grim, that i am giving the impression that i am unhappy here and that the bright cambodian sun is not shining on the glossy dyed black head of elizabeth walton kiester, new-ish resident of siem reap. 

and admittedly, being a fan of the writings of genius and tortured writers like william styron and sylvia plath and j.d. salinger, it never occurred to me to flood my blog with “this is what i did today in this sunshine-y city” entries or equally cheerful surface treatments of this strange, new, bumpy, beautiful, complicated and amazing journey i am on.

but guess what? i DO like it here. i DO think siem reap has provided me some of the magic dust i was looking to sprinkle myself with. i DO think the cambodian people are magnificent examples of human will and spirit, and superficially some of the most beautiful people i’ve ever encountered. (i’d like to think it’s something in the water, but then again, i’ve seen and tasted the water here and it can’t be that. no no no.) i DO have a small posse of great incredible friends here–sheree and pierre and jason and shannon come to mind instantly–people who when i am amongst, i think, “how did i live all these years without you? you are part of me.”  i DO have a network of other people here–mr magoo, jen, john & narissa, joffrey, dirk & tum, jan & rith, nak, aki, my dear dear amazing maree, loven & faith, awesome and incredible don–people i exchange heartfelt pleasantries with, talk endlessly with on the corner of sivatha and the alley street when i run smack into them as we’re rushing off to the laundry, the bank, work, wherever, people i receive invitations from to attend their parties and make plans for dinners and coffees–okay, diet cokes– with. i DO get awed by the smells of nature here, the blooming of the frangipani, the floating pink lotus flowers, the jasmine that seems to grow wildly on every street corner, in every crack in the sidewalks. i DO feel my eyes well with tears–tears of overwhelming joy and sensation–when i take notice of the colors that seem to be at their extremes here, the oranges and all their off shoots–saffron and creamsicle and blood orange and coral and carrot and orange-by-way-of-red-cinnamon, the spectacular array of greens– the rainbow of just this one simple basic color and my astonishment that there are so many varieties and a human being or some animator somewhere in a cubicle in silicon valley didn’t create them. i DO feel butterflies stir inside of me when i hear the chantings from the pagodas, when i hear the clickety-clack of the endless streams of tuk-tuks that clog these dusty streets. i DO feel alive here in ways i’ve never felt before, i am more aware of my senses, i am acknowledging life and the world and the universe from an entirely new perspective, with new eyes, with a fresh look at things i thought i knew and clearly didn’t. i DO open myself up to people that i may have not in my “other” life, people who there is no doubt that i would never have come across if i had stayed put, enclosed in my overly decorated apartment on ludlow street, people who crossed over my inner threshold and struck me, electrified me, enveloped me and embraced me, showed me ways and ideas and thoughts and lessons and languages that without them, without their entrance into my universe, without their maps, i never, ever would’ve had the immense and gorgeous pleasure of experiencing and understanding. 

i DO know, too, that i love it here for different reasons and in different ways and for different things and experiences and events and happenings and i DO know that i am very very lucky, very fortunate and very blessed to have had this chance. this is my chance.

i DO i DO i DO


just because i escaped, ran, fled, jumped on a plane to southeast asia in search of something else, a new way, a new journey, unexplored territory, a road i hadn’t yet traveled on, doesn’t mean that the old things, the dramas and the hurts, the hot prods and the buttons  have changed at all or are not present on this road. i am still the same person, i am still this individual who feels deeply and at times wishes i didn’t, the person who other people say “get over it” to, the person who wishes that tear ducts could be removed surgically and who dreams of a way to unscrew her head and walk around without one, emotionless, robotic. someone who wishes wishes wishes.

cut me, and i bleed.

i hear my mom say in her southern drawl, “consider the source”. i hear all 1000 syllables when she would say this to me. and i would try to “consider the source”, look and examine this person who hurled hurts or insults or sadistic words my way, try to see this individual as the damaged person i knew they were and not allow them to poke my heart out with their sharp-tipped sword. but i couldn’t do it. i did consider the source, and it still hurt me. 

sticks and stones and all that. 

recently, i’ve had the misfortune of coming across some people here, expats all of them, who seem to feel that since we’re in a “shared experience”–meaning we’re all away from what we know, what makes us comfortable, the everyday verbal and non-verbal languages we speak in our former homes–this entitles them to say whatever it is they feel like saying, consequences be damned.  like we’re automatically friends because our skin is white and our legs are encased in authentic levi’s jeans and our tvs are tuned to cnn.

i know you, they say without the words. and therefore, since i know you, because, you, too, are non-khmer, you own a mac, you read the international herald tribune, too,  when you can steal an old copy from one of the restaurants in townyou are just like me. so let me tell you a little bit about yourself, since i know you so well.

“you are old. too old for this town, it’s full of beautiful young women and you’re not one of them.” “you know nothing about men.” “you are actually thinking about ‘dollars per square feet’?” “isn’t anything good enough for you,”–a few eyerolls and snickers are thrown in here–“one store in siem reap isn’t enough?” “you are a homewrecker.” “you make clothes that make women look ugly.” “your hair is a mess, you need to color it. “

i wish this was a work of fiction. but it’s not. these are statements made from a rag-tag group of various people who have entered into my little universe and spewed this unsolicited shit in my face. these are not my friends. these people are strangers. yes, we share common things–skin color, ex-pat status, passports filled with stamps and visas. but we have never shared a conversation, a real conversation that goes beyond “where are you from?”. these are words hurled into my direction. you need help, they say with their eyes as these things tumble from their mouths. and i am here to set you straight, lady.

and while i “consider the source”, while i repeat the “sticks and stones” rhyme, all sing-song-y in my head, while i hear tony’s voice in the depths of my mind saying “SUCK IT UP”, while i fantasize about being emotionless and thick skinned and encasing myself in a suit of armor, i still lay on my bed later and cry. i am human, after all. perhaps because i appear to be unshakable, having moved from dazzling shiny fabulous new york city, ditching a 6 figure salary career trajectory and all the trappings of the upwardly mobile, to park myself in a developing country by choice, these strange strangers feel they can really say anything they feel like it because i can’t be thrown, i can’t possibly have an emotional undercurrent that runs through every choice i make. she’s from new york. new yorkers are tough broads, they will bulldozer right over you. they’re shameless, shameful people who embody the american dream, with their tough-as-nails exterior and hollow interiors. 

yeah, i have moments of toughness. moments reserved for things like when my old landlord took it upon himself to deduct thousands of dollars from my bank account 2 fucking weeks ago, 4 months after i’d vacated the place and moved to cambodia. when in actuality he owed me money. when the lady slashed my bag in the market in phnom penh looking to steal my wallet, my makeup case, my anything that had some sort of monetary value and i pushed her to the ground with all the force in my body and she slunk away, shamed and maybe injured a little bit. but toughness is in reserve, bottled up behind the emotional tap that sits right out front.

i am human.

and you cut me, i bleed.

aki’s father died on monday.

my friend here, aki, an exuberant, energetic, over-the-top, hilarious individual, totally influenced by the west–cornrows plait his hair sometimes, other times i’ve gone with him to have it blown out straight and swingy, so cal/surfer/skate-rat style–perfect in his english, hip-hop in his clothing selections, a guy who leads tours all over southeast asia to tourists who are surely as blown away by him as i am. and i saw him yesterday, at the funeral for his dad, and he was not my bouncy aki, but my friend in stillness, in quiet.

aki came down the steps of his stilt house to greet dine and i, and his head was shaved, as they do here in cambodia, in all of southeast asia, as an homage to their loved one who has passed to another place. the clean scalp of the sons of the family signify their rebirth–as aki moved his palm back and forth, over and over his newly shorn skull, he said, “i am a baby again, ready to live a new life.”

shod in an all white muslin top and pants, the colorless clothes he and his family wore also signified a new beginning, a cleansing of sorts, telling all who saw that they are reborn into a new world of cleanliness, holiness, refreshment. i remembered yesterday that i had insisted on wearing white to ann’s funeral for the exact same reason, to remind myself and others that death, too, can be a beginning, not just for me, of course, but for ann, too. 

aki’s youngest brother was tied by rope, looped around his newly bald head, to a wheeled cart that carried the coffin of his dad. this rope was connected to the brightly painted coffin, painted gold and red and pink and orange stripes, and fitted to the top were golden crowns, shining in the hot midday sun, ricocheting it’s golden beams of reflection into my eyes. aki and 2 of his brothers stood on the cart, surrounding the wooden painted box of their dad’s. and the cart was then pulled by their youngest sibling, as well as 8 men who pulled their own ropes, and off this procession went through the streets of siem reap, with about a hundred of us following behind, through the dusty and dry and hot streets of siem reap, stopping traffic. and i was watching from the corner of my eyes tourists snapping pictures of this colorful and solemn parade, a parade for a man who was now reborn into another world, another life.

a monk banged a gong every minute or so. a beautiful hollow echoing sound that reverberated off of the low buildings and bounced back into my ears. the buddhist nuns who i walked amongst, dressed in white, too, held my hand. and smiled. and squeezed my hand again.

flowers and fans were carried by all in this procession, this parade through the streets of siem reap. i looked at aki every once in awhile and saw him holding onto this multi colored striped coffin, looking forward, looking back, looking in and looking looking looking. he was looking inside of himself. 

an hour later, we arrived at the pagoda, where a pyre was being set and saffron robed monks were waiting and calling with their chants, sing-song and low, melodic and hypnotizing. white again, a white flag that looked like a homemade kite a kid would make, flew in the breeze that swept through the bodhi trees. white. rebirth. reborn. new. a baby again, as aki said. 

the sisters and mother and aunties of aki’s wore white veils on their heads and circled the pagoda three times and a woman, also adorned in head-to-toe white, she’s a shaman of sorts, one who speaks to the spirits, talked to aki’s dad, lead the circling, the three times around and around and around again, and was carrying a basket filled with white jasmine, which she tossed here and there, scenting and perfuming the air, leaving natures confetti behind her. she ran away, ran off suddenly, and i was told it was because she was carrying the bad spirits away away away, they had come into her and she was bringing them far away from this reborn family. her whiteness, her billowing headscarf of white muslin, fluttered behind her as she scurried through the thick green tangle of the bodhi trees.

i thought about rebirth, about what death is about here, and how different it is perceived and acknowledged and accepted and understood from the place i know and grew up in. there is a sense of quiet exuberance surrounding this rite here, a way to celebrate a life while simultaneously appreciating and accepting that this life does not end in this moment. that endings are just beginnings, that with this comes opportunity to renew oneself and to refresh the spirit, to take in this person’s being within yourself. death is not feared here. it’s part of the cycle, the movement, the thrust forward.

it doesn’t end, it just starts again.

the baby, the shaved head to emulate a newborn, the dawning of another day, another chance to start anew and see things with different eyes and touch things in fresh ways.

endings as beginnings.

i have this broken, dilapidated, totally ripped and torn and loved and virtually destroyed sketch pad i carry around with me–cover plastered with stickers, held together by giant clip from staples office supplies, sanford uniball micro black pen (the only pen worth using, as far as i am concerned. it’s perfection. i simply can’t write anything without one. it’s like it’s an extension of my brain and my heart, these pens) stuck into the unspiralling spiral on the spine–and i write things down in it, things i read, see, hear. often just a few words, a smattering of disconnected, disjointed things that overwhelm me in the moment, a thought. it’s not a journal, really, it’s just a place where i leave something behind that strikes me, that  i don’t want to forget. and more times than not, it’s something i’ve read in a book by someone much much more wise than me, someone who somehow in some super overly educated and incredible way, has been able to harness an emotion, a complicated emotion and feeling, and put it into a sort of sensible, sensitive, sensational poetry.

i often break out my little set of watercolors, cheapo wells of paint bought at the local siem reap book center for about .50. a little palette that kids would use, complete with a ridiculously infantile brush, a miniaturized version of an adult, professional one. so i just slop the paint around the words i’ve written down with my sanford micro uniball black pen, create a mess of bleeding, watery colors that often drip and soak into the paper and fuse with and melt into the black ink. but i don’t care. somehow this cacophony of colors and ink and water–this blobby colorful disaster, a wannabe cy twombly–exemplifies the feelings and the sentiments that i’ve written down.

i wrote this passage down for someone recently and painted it a messy little mess–actually, in hindsight, it was most likely a huge mess–as a holiday present because something told me he would get it and appreciate it and understand understand understand totally and completely understand. and i re-read it today, and it knocked me out again. again. over and over and over again. wow wow wow, oh my god yes oh my god. it was written by jeanette winterston–yes, i’ve waxed poetic about her before, her skills, her unbelievable talent, her ability to slay me with the english language, to leave me rather breathless, stunned–and as i read it and read it and read it again again again, it says more to me each and every time, and i get inside the words, the dialect, the rhythms–oh, how rhythms are so critical, so important. these words paint pictures for themselves in my mind. i see the film that would go along with these words. i create a visual. create it. i see golden orangey hues splashed across rice paddies, i see filtered light streaming through the ubiquitous wooden shutters of stilt houses in the villages, i see the plumes of smoke from incense wafting into the sky, through the shutters. i feel the warmth of the sun in the spot on the wooden floor. i see the magic light that i love so that makes me cry with hope and joy, that light the sun gives off an hour or two before sunset. when things seem more alive than they have all day, when people seem ready and willing and glowing, when a lemonade seems apt and right and the only thing necessary, that magical magical light and time of the day when love seems like something you can touch and eat and taste, when possibilities are right in front of you. i see the boy with the balloon against the greenness of the paddies, i see his red balloon contrasting against the cerulean. i smell frangipani. i feel my nose crinkling up as my eyes squint in the low low sun, i feel a twinge of sunburn, i see long shadows of bicycles and conical hats stretching across the dirt roads, i see these eyes of a friend of mine, eyes shaded by dark heavy lashes that are catching the yellowness of the magic light and i feel the breeze blowing off the fields, moving sounds of laughter and music into my ears. i feel this. because i read this.

from written on the body, by jeannette winterston:

this is where the story starts, in this threadbare room. the walls are exploding, the windows have turned into telescopes. moon and stars are magnified in this room. i stretch out my hand and reach the corners of the world. the world is bundled up in this room. beyond the door, where the river is, where the road is, we shall be. we can take the world with us, and sling the sun under your arm. hurry now, it’s getting late. i don’t know if this is a happy ending, but here we are, let loose in open fields.


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i am comfortable in airports. they make me dream, they make me feel and see and become. they energize me. i like being in them alone, i like that i am almost a ghost, cruising around, unnoticed, unknown, looking and peering into people’s faces and seeing their moments. perhaps it’s voyeuristic, but so be it. i like it.

it’s amazing how an airport is sort of a microcosm of the world outside of it, like the whole universe has been shrunken down, miniaturized and shrinky-dinked and then plopped into a building, a structure. i spent 5 hours lurking in the shadows and corners of the bangkok airport, watching and hearing and observing the constant movement of humanity pass me by. 

the gamut of emotions. the drops of tears down a woman’s face as she sat alone, nursing a cold cup of coffee, slumped over, broken. what was she thinking? who was she thinking about? was she crying over the goodbye she didn’t want to say or the goodbye she didn’t want to hear? was she leaving hopelessness? or going somewhere hopeful? where?

a family anxiously awaiting the arrival of a flight, pacing, nervously looking at watches, examining the “arrivals” board over and over again, almost maniacally, hoping perhaps there’d be a message for them regarding their passenger, their friend, whoever it was they were in need, in dire dire desperate true and beautiful need of seeing immediately.  a kid, she was probably like 8 or so, holding a clutch of helium balloons, the fancy mylar kind, with an english message of “merry christmas”–a few days late, of course, but who cares? and being thai, they don’t celebrate this holiday anyway, but again, it’s the gesture, the thought, the idea–she was bouncing around, trying to peer over the heads of the adults pressed up against the partitions, searching, searching for the familiar face. oh, the hellos, the hellos. the rushing of someone into another’s arms, the swinging around, the hugging and the tight embraces, the kisses and the squeals. the unabashed joy. the reunion. 

the extremities of emotion are played out in airports. you see them all, they are all there if you allow yourself a moment to look up, take notice, witness. using the time, the time we never allow ourselves to have really anywhere else, that time to see and examine and understand the complexities and the beauty of feelings, of expressions, both non-verbal and verbal, physical, intimate. right on the surface, right there, the feelings are right fucking there.

i look at the “departures” board over and over again, and allow myself to dream that i, too, am going off to dubai or kuala lumpur or capetown by way of paris. oh to see the anticipation on people’s faces as they wait on line, ready to sit and be still for hours and hours, but excited nonetheless. i get intoxicated by the expressions, to wonder where and what they are expecting on the other end of this journey. to create the stories in my head. why are they going to manila? what’s in jerusalem? what’s happening for them there?

i examine my passport and count, 1, 2, 3, 4…see the collection of multi colored stamps, page sized visas, feel some weird sense of pride. have i really been to london over 30 times? my brain zooms backwards,  recalling the damp and foggy cobblestoned streets, the hot pots of tea shared with ruth, the puffy comforting duvets that welcomed me at the end of the night in those fancy, expensed hotels. paris, milan, tokyo–really? dozens and dozens of japanese stamps? oh, how tokyo makes me feel alive, colorful, exuberant, creative, inspired; i explode there, i feel all my senses maxing out, there’s no need to sleep, there’s so much to drink in and experience; i start planning my next journey there in my mind instantly–china, glorious and huge and overwhelming china. those red stamps, that visa depicting the great wall. turkey, ireland, spain, australia. india, incredible, magical, insane and insanely beautiful india. so many, such a vast and varied collection. mine. i count the stamps and my blessings. 1, 2, 3, 4…

the journeys, all of them. physical acts of going, emotional acts of going. flying. flying and being somewhere else in only a short amount of time, freeing yourself of what you already know and live amongst, allowing yourself to learn and observe newness, flying, soaring into a vast wide open space inside, outside. i do this by going places but i also do this by going there in my mind.