Forester in Asia: Day 0: 19th February 2018: I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane
He’s lying on my bed looking doleful. He’s not been willing let me venture more than three metres away from him for the last two days. Preparations for this trip started six months or more ago, but he’s not to know that. He can’t tell what I’m doing when I’m seated at my desk, e-mailing travel arrangements to the other side of the world and back. When he doesn’t know what’s about to happen, he’s content just to lie at my feet during the day, mug me for after dinner Bonios and carrots in the early evening, and nag me to go to bed at 8.00pm, when he reckons all respectable creatures should be sleeping. But two days ago, when the big black suitcase came down from the hall cupboard and I started filling it with shirts and socks and meds and papers and sunglasses, that’s when he knew I was going away. I found myself whistling the old John Denver tune. ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane.’ How am I supposed to tell my best friend I’ll be away for four weeks and back in time for his fifteenth birthday, when my best friend doesn’t speak English? His languages are body movement and eye contact, licks and cuddles, love and sadness and he speaks volumes in those. But understanding the meaning of twenty-eight tomorrows? That is a very different matter.
Last August, when I confirmed I would be revisiting South East Asia, I wasn’t even sure he would make it through this winter up to my departure date. But he’s proved more resilient that I gave him cred for. Now I’m confident that he will still be here when I get back. And that aught to mean I have him for the summer too. Next winter? Well, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
It was in August 2017 that I had accepted the invitation from the University Circle of Professional Educators to deliver keynote speeches to their back-to-back conferences in Siem Reap and Bangkok, and then to fly on to Manila to spend three weeks in the Philippines, where I had been given such a rapturous welcome last year. But at the same time I also requested to postpone a similar invitation to speak in Washington and Chicago until 2019. I love this wonderful work. But each day away brings us closer to my boy’s final departure day, when he will check in his luggage and climb the metaphorical aircraft steps for a flight from which he will not return. But 2019? Sufficient unto the day…
So here I am, all but fully packed and a little ahead of schedule, giving me a free hour to pen what I anticipate will be the first few lines of another travel log of another odyssey. But I am no king of Ithaca, and at this stage of the trip my mind is filled with singularly un-regal uncertainty. I cast back to the invitation (“Two conferences? Two speeches at each? What, I find myself wondering, is my relevance to an educators’ conference at which every other delegate seems to be a PhD who has already published a dozen respected academic papers? And that to be followed by another dozen or so further university and school presentations in the Philippines to follow?). I dismiss the questions unanswered and address myself to the preparation of speeches (there will be numerous audiences who listened to me last year. So, that means whole new presentations, with new material, then); to the practicing of deliveries (so much of the power of what we say lies not in the words, but how you speak the words and the body language you use while doing so); and to the impromptu master classes that I know will be requested as often on this visit as they were last time. Last year I became adept at walking into a lecture theatre with no idea of what I was going to say, then delivering a two hour interactive lecture on ‘What is creativity?’ or ‘Beauty in literature.’ And always, always the underlying question, sometimes actually spoken by a member of the audience, sometimes only implied: ‘How do we get to do what you do?’
My answer was always much the same: ‘You must learn to open yourself to the silence. You must develop the discipline to turn off the noise and learn to recognise the awareness that is already there inside; to permit that which is yearning, in deep groans of the silence, calling to you to allow it to come out. And you have to trust it enough not to question it.’ This has taken me a lifetime to learn. This is what the journey, thus far, has been about. It is a journey that will be shared in their turn by some of these dear ones, who want to walk the same path. It is the long, winding road in the direction of enlightenment. There will be many miles to travel on this path, with much dust billowing about us as we do. It will take many lifetimes to do it.
But for now, my own path leads to Seam Reap, Bangkok where my talks are entitled ‘Do Androids Dream?’ and ‘The Machine Stops.’ Both will be innovative to the academic ear – both offer the chance to be ko-ans to minds honed only for critical evaluation. And then conferences will be over, and in the care of my indefatigable tour manager, Professor Pasqual of Makati University, I will move on to the Philippines, Manila, Camerines Sur, Ifuago and other places yet to be specified where I shall give vice to a new presentation: ‘The Story that Changes Your Future’ for the first time. As soon as I announced that title I caused a flurry of excited questions as to what it covers. And now I wait with fascination to watch the changes to futures that follow, at least for those who are ready for change. ‘He that has ears to hear: let him hear,’ For like the master teacher who came before me, whom I see and write k to emulate however imperfectly, I speak mostly in metaphor. Not all are yet ready for it. Not all yet have ears to hear.
But before all that, tomorrow, just before 7.00 am, I shall be listening out, with John Denver on my mind, for ‘the taxi, who is waiting and blowing his horn, already I’m so lonesome I could cry…’
And Matt? He will look at me dolefully again, asking with only his eyes how it is I can leave him. Twenty-eight tomorrows are twenty-eight too many, when you’re almost fifteen years old and your legs ache from arthritis. But in the care of his mum who loves him like I do, he will remain safe, and lovingly over-fed on carrots and Bonios. He’ll think of me seldom. I shall be looking forward to returning from the moment I leave.
But it doesn’t end there. For, when all the cases stand ready in the hall, and I’m preparing for my last night at home, Dr Pasqual messages. Will I fit in one more talk on arrival, at Sunrise? That’s Sunrise the school, not sunrise the time , you understand. But it might as well be the time, as I shall be whisked from the airport to stat speaking an hour and a half after I touch down. I giggle and agree. This is what I love so much about visiting my friends in South East Asia – the unexpected.
Forester in Asia: Days 1-2: 20th-21st February 2018: Arrival at Sunrise
After an uneventful twenty-three hours of travel I arrive at Seam Reap airport and exit the aircraft to be confronted by the wall of humidity that I am so familiar with in this part of the world. Passing equally uneventfully through passport control and collecting my luggage (yes, all of it has arrived at the destination on the same flight as me – oh ye of little faith), I exit the terminal into a country I have never visited before. A tuk-tuk is summoned, my first journey in one. I demand a photo with the driver and then we proceed, me clicking my camera at the new sights that are inescapably reminiscent of my visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand, eighteen months back. The roads are emptier but the architecture similar. Buddhist temples adorned with gold rush past. Pagodas and spirit houses jostle cheek-by-jowl with modern hotels, for Cambodia is investing much in attracting tourism. I hope they are careful to preserve their culture as they throw themselves headlong into enticing tourist dollars into their land.
My knowledge of this country is out-dated. I have paid it inadequate attention to it since the 1970s and the vile era of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I shudder at the memory of the indescribable depths of evil of which the human soul, at least some human souls, are capable of descending. But recovery and economic growth are all about me, with much modernisation in evidence, in the form of modern hospitals, hotels and so on. I take note as we a pass a building site in the early stage of constructing a western style shopping mall, hoping fervently that it does not become filled western junk food outlets such as seem to stand for progress elsewhere I have visited in South East Asia. I rather think I hope in vain.
A brief stop to drop bags at the hotel is followed by an immediate departure for the Sunrise Foundation, an Australian-originated educational charity. In Cambodia the authorities provide the land for schooling, but the building and running of schools have to be privately financed. We meet with the Vice-principal and other leaders of the school, and I note that here, too, building is rapidly advancing. Though present capacity is largely limited to tin-roofed, single story teaching blocks with open doorways and unglazed windows, it is evident that soon there will be a fine complex of new, multiple-storey buildings on this site, serving the needs of generations of school children to come.
I am introduced to a classroom of forty or so white-shirted teenagers. I have had no time to prepare new material and am unsure of how good their English actually is. Limited westerner that I am, I speak only English and my verbal communication fails when others do not. I make the excuse that I cannot hear much in English, so other languages would be next to impossible. But I know in my heart that it would be little different if I could hear. Thus, I proceed through an adjusted version of ‘A Journey to the Land of Risk,’ that I developed last year for schools in the Philippines. I hope I am making up in movement and body language some of what may be missing in understanding of the words. I know much of the value of the visit lies in the fact that westerners actually take the trouble to visit. I reflect on the universal reality that t is primarily by our presence, eye contact and body language, that we convey to people that we value them. Words come a poor second anyway.
Yet as the words pour forth, I take a little comfort that others gather spontaneously at the doorway to swell the audience. I take that to imply I’m saying something worth listening to. I could be wrong though. It might be simply that they want to view the spectacle of a jet-lagged, bedraggled Brit making an idiot of himself. We do well not to think of ourselves too highly. Let others urge us up higher at the feast if it is our place so to be lifted. We shall remain at the lowly end of the table until called higher by the master of the feast.
Soon we are done and ready to leave. Later, the photos tell me just how dishevelled I looked, leaving me wondering exactly when the last time was that I had looked into a mirror. My excuse was I had come directly from the flight. So maybe I was right then. The attraction was indeed more in watching the unruly-haired Brit perform, than it was in what he had to say.
I remain hopeful that in some, some of the words of metaphor will sink in. And where the seed falls, later so will rain, and sunshine will follow. Perhaps there will yet be a wheat field, resplendent with corn.
He that has ears to hear, let him hear.