Friday, June 15, 2012

Sometimes it doesn't take much.

Today is my birthday.(OK, keep the excitement down to a dull roar). At my advancing age it's become something I'd rather ignore.  This year I have struggled with it. No particular reason; a combination of things.  Post holiday blaahs, winter, being underemployed right now with not much work about and friends all being tied up with other things.

It all turned around in the early hours of the morning, however.  Unable to sleep I logged into my favourite new obsession: Twitter. And there it was. Only very short (even in terms of 144 character limitations) but oh so sweet.

"Happy birthday. Have a great one. R."  It made my day. Hell, my life is so uneventful right now it made my week, if not my month. The R. in the tweet is my current lust subject du jour -  Richard Hammond!  I had sent the Top Gear presenter a tweet the day before saying it was my  brithday and would it be possible to have a tweet from him. As he is constantly inundated with messages I had no real hope that anything would come of it . Then a couple of my lovely online friends stepped in and also tweeted him asking to wish me happy birthday and lo and behold he noticed one of them and did.

It's a simple thing.  No great effort on anyone's part.  But thoughtful gestures from friends and a celebrity who perhaps doesn't take it for granted or is mindful that fans are the reason he's where he is, took that little bit of time out of his busy shedule to send that message.  It cost no one anything. Yet it's made me ridiculously happy.  I had a grin from ear to ear when I read that message and I'm  still smiling.

So you don't need to spend vast amounts of money or make huge gestures. Sometimes it's just the little things that demonstrate that others are thinking of you that mean the most.

Thanks Cath, Elaine, Kim and thank you Richard Hammond.

Friday, June 8, 2012


This isn't a book review.  Not long ago I was lucky enough to visit Thailand, Lao, Vietnam and Cambodia. A wonderful, beautiful, vibrantly colourful part of the world.

I knew about the history of the region. I grew up to the backdrop of the Vietnam War on the telly.  My country conscripted young men and forced them into National Service. Many lives were ruined and lost. As a teenager I supported the anti-war movement in that vague semi-informed way that young teens will do . Had my husband been just a year older he too may have been caught up in the draft.

We saw reminders of the war everywhere. The engine of a downed B52 in the middle of a pond in the cente of Hanoi.  The infamous Hanoi Hilton, the Cu Chi tunnels that were so effective in thwarting the US war effort, old bomb craters, but nowhere were these reminders of the recent past so stark and moving as in Cambodia.

I won't go into history here. I'm not an expert.  There are numerous sources that can talk about the what, why and when with far greater knowledge than I possess.

What I want to talk about is the effect Cambodia seems to have had on me. I visited in April as a tourist. In Phnom Penh we had what our tour guide dubbed  "misery afternoon" first a visit to the infamous Tuol Sleng, the High School in Phnom Penh that was turned into a "detention centre"  Photos of prisoners. Hundreds and hundreds of them. All of them "executed".  Men, women and children; staring out at us in black and white. Some wide-eyed with fear and panic. Others seemingly resigned. One young man even managed a slight shy smile.  On the tiled floor of the former classrooms are many dark stains.  The blood of those condmned to be sent there

It is estimated that between 17,000 - 20,000 prisoners found themselves in Tuol Sleng. Of those there were only 7 known survivors.. All but two of whom are now dead.  We were lucky enough to meet one of the surviving two the day we visited. He is now elderly and spends much of his time there meeting people, and selling books and magazines about the prison and his experience in order to supplement the all to meagre pension that was awarded to him by the Cambodian Government.

If I thought that was bad it was nothing to what confronted us when we visited Choeung Ek -one of the Killing Fields.  There are an estimated 20,000 bodies on this site. Serious excavation ceased some years ago, but because of the seasonal nature of the rains, remains are constantly coming to the surface. On our walk around the site we saw part of the top of a skull sitting on the ground. A partial lower jaw bone with teeth poking out of the surface, numerous fragments - probably from limbs, and rotting pieces of clothing.

There is a large pyramid-like structure there with glass sides; several stories of the remains of vicitms of the murderous paranoia of the Khymer Rouge/Pol Pot Regime.

Around the site are a couple of glass cases which hold other remains discovered since the completion of the main memorial. One of them; about the size of a fish tank, has clothing. The most poignant of which are a pair of intact purple shorts - child-sized.

You see, they didn't just murder men and women. Innocent children were killed as well. Mostly, it seems because keeping them alive was an inconvenience. They would have had to be fed and sheltered.

Most of the killing occurred under cover of darkness to a soundtrack of blaring loudspeakers to try and drown out the screaming. Not for them the quick bullet to the brain.  That would have made too much noise. Instead most were executed with sharpened gardening implements. Shovels, mattocks and the like. Some poor souls had their throats cut with the razor sharp-edges of sugar palm fronds.

There is a crater - an excavated pit where the bodies of several hundred women and children were found. Every one of them naked.

But the worst, the very worst was the tree. I can't remember what sort of tree. Its trunk is fairly substantial and snagged on the bark are hundreds upon hundreds of those colourful cord bracelets that are given out when being blessed by a buddhist monk. They are there to pay respects to many tiny ones who died at that spot. How? They were taken by their feet and their little heads bashed against that tree.

Tragic, terrible, brutal.  Horrifying to even contemplate, how can man do that to someone else? What makes it more horrifying was that most of those so-called executioners were little more than children themselves.  Removed from anything resembling family life and indoctrinated at an early age, they were the just right for the purpose.

It was awful at the time. It was upsetting but I was OK. I was OK yesterday and I suspect I'll be just fine tomorrow, but today for some reason its haunting me, and I feel compelled to write something down.

There is so much more I could say. I could talk about how just about everyone you meet in Cambodia lost someone near and dear to them. Numbers are irrelevent. In terms of per head of population the number of lives lost in the insanity of the 5 years of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge far eclipse the Nazis or Stalinist Soviet Union. 

Do I regret visiting those sights of these unimaginable atrocities? No I don't. I'm glad I went.  Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it..
Lest we forget.