For liberté, égalité, fraternité

Moving to Paris four years ago turned out to be an unmitigated disaster from which I had to ask my mother to bail me out. (It’s a funny story, maybe I’ll tell it sometime) I have been thinking a lot about the recent attacks and what Paris did for me. All I can say, and it is no mean feat, Paris taught me to love. In no way is she perfect, yet being embraced by Paris delivered me the joy of embracing Paris.

 

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It was Autumn 2011. My then French boyfriend was concluding his brief visit to Scotland. We rented a car and made a hasty loop from Edinburgh through the highlands to Inverness. At the time, and still now four years later, I had not learned to drive. As I dozed quietly my boyfriend drove the 6 hour stretch alone, catching only a few surreptitious glimpses of the sleepy heathered glens.

Soon we were at the airport saying our goodbyes. Not to each other, for once, but this time to my mother. We flew from Edinburgh to the southernmost tip of England, from where we flew to Rennes, his hometown in France. As the tiny aircraft lifted from the runway my boyfriend turned to me.

‘Listen, I have to tell you, something…’ I listened silently. ‘So, my father is to collect us from the airport…’ His thought drifted out the window as we veered toward the Atlantic Ocean.

‘Your father?’

‘Oh, yes! Well… ‘, he confided, ‘he has a moustache.’

I cackled, loudly. The couple in the adjacent row glared as I struggled to contain my chuckles. He continued, ‘it’s a really really typical French moustache, I know I must to tell to you before you meet him. Please don’t laugh when you see him.’ Still sniggering, I contemplated whether my boyfriend thought his girlfriend was in fact a Francophobe.

The plane made it to the French coast. The forest green floors of my country were replaced by burnt sienna fields basking in the early harvest sun. A tawny sun blush replica of my boyfriend with a thick moustache collected us in the arrivals hall and drove us away. Thin, manicured pines which elegantly lined the country road. Beyond the roadside lay a peppering of posies and through the open window came an aroma of warm burnt lavender.

His parents lived in a house in a little cul-de-sac, with large glass windows, framed by a blooming garden. My French was complete rot so his parents and I settled into a friendly patter of likes and dislikes. His father and I pottered around the garden, speaking broken Franglish. He guided me to a corner bush and pulled from its branches a handful of matt brown shells. He cracked one open for me to taste. I still remember the front hall, rather than a bowl full of keys, there sat a wooden bowl brimming with unshelled hazelnuts collected from the garden. His mother asked if I liked cakes. The next morning she produced a golden sponge, 14” in diameter, finished with thick rings of pineapple floating over the surface of the cake. My boyfriend’s nieces braided my hair.

He introduced me to his friends, a mixed bag of artist artists, martial artists, and intellectual artists. We sat on La Rue des…. , on tables which spilled out onto the pedestrianised streets. Beers clinked with co-workers, preserved sausages were broken with friends, and laughter precipitated from the cobblestone street.

After a few days I left for Paris alone. Arriving at La Gare Montparnasse I was reunited with an old friend. We embraced while I relayed some continental bisous from my boyfriend. My friend guided me through the underground burrow of the the Paris Metro. We exited from … emerging finally into the Parisian streets. By now it was dark. Yellowing trees stood watch over the busy paved streets. Tenement buildings stood tall, wearing regal doors which reached high into elongated doorways, wearing the iconic medal of the Parisian balconettes. The the detailed stonework was feebly lit by the pale street lamps. Figures flickered behind backlit curtains like the shadow puppets of Paris.

We made use of the Parisian public bike scheme and rented two Velibs. We cycled up steep side streets puffing crudely at passers by in wool scarves and long overcoats. Three blocks further at the top of the hill I could see a gap filled with neon signs and the outline of a trashy red windmill. As we reached the plateau the intense incline gave way to a florid array of red lights. We left the bikes and carried on by foot. Wading through crowds of princes and paupers, we passed dark doorways obscured with bulky curtains promising good times. Bar floors were mobbed with people dancing and and drinking on this modest Wednesday night.

My friend lived at the top of a ridge which separates The Moulin Rouge on one side from le Sacre Couer on the other. After dumping my belongings in his petite apartment, we set off to join the flocks the among the luminescent noise. I exchanged kisses with strangers who would soon become friends. We laughed and we danced and we loved.

In the morning my friend’s flatmates, an Irish girl and a French boy, awoke early. The Frenchman left the apartment almost silently, allowing only the door lock to click abruptly into place. He returned within an hour with paper wrapped croissants and a single red rose. My friend explained the phenomenon.

‘He buys her a rose every day and asks her to marry him. He says he’ll keep doing it every day, until she says yes.’

It was in this way that I came to live in Paris.

Where do you want to go today?

I awoke, groggy, in a white washed concrete room. The only window faced a dark corridor. Hot viscous air was buffeted at my face in frequent intervals by a revolving fan. Reaching my limit of permissible heat I dressed and made an exit. The cheeky reception boys were entertaining the last few breakfasters.

‘Good morning!’ they chirruped together. Blinking at the daytime light, I sat down. ‘Where do you want to go today?’ one asked. Guiltily unresponsive I murmured something about a museum. After a quick coffee fix I was bundled into a flamboyant lime tuk tuk. Wearing a Jack Daniels emblazoned t-shirt, with a pony tail longer than mine, I warmed to today’s company.

He drove erratically through the teeming, overwrought streets of Phnom Penh and spoke little. He dropped me at a gated corner of the perimeter of an enormous concrete wall, adorned with plaited rolls of barbed wire. We agreed to reconvene in 90 minutes. He left me at the open gates of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

I knew astonishingly little about the genocide before arriving in Cambodia. I was aware of the synonymous name of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge yet the details of the event drew a blank. It had only been one week prior at the foot of the ‘Secret Lake’ that any details of Cambodia’s past had been divulged. We had hired a tuk tuk driver to take us on a short tour of the countryside surrounding sleepy Kampot. We stopped at the salt fields initially, and in well rehearsed English, our driver explained the laborious work of the salt collectors. He pointed at the dried out empty fields bordered by shallow levees and irrigation tracks. Not a single soul was to be seen. During wet season, he told us, many people work in the salt stores, but there is not enough work so most leave to work seasonally in Vietnam or Thailand. We drove on. He slipped off the uneven concrete road down a dirt track. Dust thrown up by traffic painted the wooden thatch houses, farmed fields, and playing children in a sheet of red mud.

We drove along a canal where buffalo chewed grass and butterflies roamed. Two boys on bicycles caught sight of the two foreigners in the back of a tuk tuk. They pursued us up stream on the other side of the water way, arms flailing amidst shouts of welcome. ‘They are good boys’ our driver mentioned. ‘They look after the cows for their mother and father…’ There was a short glitch in our driver’s speech. The tuk tuk trundled up the ascending road. A shining lake revealed itself just over the grassy fold. Our driver stopped at the foot. ‘This is the Secret Lake’ he informed, ‘it used to be small. But the Khmer Rouge came. They made all the people work to dig a bigger lake.’ A flurry of motorbikes drove by, stopping a few meters away. ‘For a lot of people, the work was too hard, they didn’t give enough food to them’, he continued, ‘many people died to make this lake’ The bikers made their peace fingers, took their selfies, and sped off. Their voices caught the wind as they departed unaware of the secret of the lake.

In 1975, shortly after the taking of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia closed its borders. The atrocities which bore the name of communism contributed to the extermination of millions who posed a threat to the ideology, all of it behind closed doors. The regime had few foreign visitors. The admitted few were fooled into believing that the Khmer Rouge had established peace, prosperity, and solidarity, in order to garner Western support. Refugee stories were branded as ostentatious and untrustworthy by reputable theorists, scholars and journalists. Only after the liberation of Phnom Penh, the irrefutable evidence contained within the S21 prison and the Killing Fields was unveiled to the international community. By this stage nearly a quarter of the population had been exterminated. The long term damage caused by less than four years of Pol Pot’s hard rule ensured that many more would fall from starvation and disease in the following years.

The disturbing neglect of the Western community in this case is nothing short of appalling. The West ignored the stories of the refugees, choosing to believe their ambassadors. Many of those visitors still maintain a pro Khmer Rouge stance, believing the evidence to be a fabrication of the Vietnamese or anti-communist sentiment. The genocide is still subject to denial in some circles, even in the West.

The Cambodian people however do not appear to bear a grudge. Recent history has left tell tale pockmarks on Cambodia. Parts of the country remain plagued with land mines. The economy began the slow road to recovery decades ago yet economics has yet to be kind. Most eerie is perhaps the seeming lack of presence of an older generation. Like most humans, Cambodians possess a tenacious capacity for love and laughter, and forgiveness, but particular to the Cambodian cultural narrative is the duty to educate about an unrepeatable past. The message from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum rings clear. Genocide is not new. Genocide will happen and  since 1980 has happened again. But we need to put our ‘needs’ aside and recognise the early warning signs of a humanitarian crisis. We must respond more swiftly. We must learn from the mistakes of the past.

Writing about Cambodia has been difficult; I do not wish to sound egotistical in saying that. But I cannot help but relate my compassion for the Cambodian story to the ongoing crisis we face right now. There are approximately 4 million Syrians displaced by a conflict which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Reportage on the conflict fell quiet years ago and resumed only once dead children began to wash up on Turkey’s shores. We have the tools, the learning, and the compassion, yet we continue to ignore the cries of millions. Are we too busy, drinking Malbec in the comfort of our armchairs watching The Great British Bake Off, or are our governments too desperate to please in a first past the post system? Collective Western negligence already condemned Cambodia to suffer. By refusing basic asylum now, our negligence will again, unintentionally, contribute to what could one day be called the genocide of the Syrian population. Do we want that on our collective conscience? The only argument I have been presented with so far is that refugees will want to settle in our country but we do not have the capacity. Plainly, that is cold arrogance. I am sure if you asked any one of the millions of refugees ‘where do you want to go today?’, their answer would be home.

Anyone who is interested, here’s an article on what you could do to help.

Thoughts from paradise: Palawan, Philippines

I’ve been struggling to decide what I want to say about the Philippines. I visited two places. Palawan island which is a long strip of jungle fronted by golden sands jutting out to the west, and Manila which is everything an antithesis ought to be. Ever since I built the Philippines into my Asia itinerary, everyone and their pet gerbil had whispered the name Palawan. By no unlikely accident I flew almost directly from Manila to Palawan after arriving in the Philippines.

I had been promised beauty unsurpassed and ‘the last frontier’ of this nation of islands. I was not disappointed. The last frontier is the nickname of Honda Bay, a curved speck of glory which had been discovered by tourists more than a decade ago. The place which stirs most excitement now is El Nido to the north, a sleepier version of the long famed Ha Long Bay of Viet Nam. A cacophony of lime stone secrets, scattered throughout a sheltered bay. I flew into Palawan only a few days before a typhoon struck to the east. Caged indoors by rain, I had plenty of time to think.

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The quiet beaches of a little known island

One morning we made a break for the beach. We lucked out that it was to be the only few hours of sun we would experience that week. The outline of my parrot bikini that was burnt onto my torso in just under three hours serves as a continuing reminder of turquoise clear waves clattering effortlessly over toasted sand. Idyllic, and almost comically so. Even the rain was beautiful. Low clouds strayed into the bay on whim, obscuring the nearby islands. The rain which caressed coconut shell plant pots, brought with it a cool breeze. The real beauty of Palawan, however, lay within in the audacity with which the people manage every day life. Keen to make a living for their children, many work hours unheard of in the western world, boasting a smile throughout.

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Tourism took a dive in Palawan over a decade ago after a highly publicised kidnapping took place from a private island beach resort. Terrified tourists abandoned plans for Palawan, leaving an economic blank on an island whose main industry is tourism. Recently, and exponentially from what I gather, recovery is underway. Prior to arriving I was informed that El Nido may now claim 24 hour electricity, although the reality is questionable. Electricity was intermittent on many evenings, and people often continued to use more primitive yet reliable means to conduct business. And though tourism is witnessing a resurgence, yet many aspects of the industry don’t appear to benefit from investment. Everyone peddles the same four tours and basic trinkets, unaware that the safety of sticking to what you know creates a problem with over saturation.

A lot of people are coming to Palawan. There’s accommodation and food to suit all budgets from five star resorts to basic fan room guesthouses; though it would seem that budget tourism sector is seeing the greatest expansion. There is even a boutique hostel being built just a five minute stroll from the beach front. There are a variety of food options, many of which are Western owned, creating an artificial dimension of diversity. The most popular spot in town appears to be run by a German. Her staff are polite yet inattentive. An indication that the western attitude towards hospitality seems to be a pollutive force.

I enjoyed my time in Palawan, though I can’t say that tourism has been as beneficial as it should have been. I spoke to a number of tricycle drivers about the situation. One driver told me that the average woman in Palawan still earns only 150 pesos a week. I eat that for breakfast. I dare not ask what the Western owned businesses pay their staff, but their attitude tells me that beyond being capable of waiting tables there is little onus to improve or excel.

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Though money is coming in, some parts along the beach front strip remain derelict.

The tricycle drivers face an uphill struggle. I didn’t realise until my last day that most of the tricycles are rented. Of that 50 pesos the driver charged you, much of that is given up for tricycle rent. If one wanted to buy one outright, the steel carriage would cost around 30,000 pesos. That’s roughly equivalent to what I was given for pocket money over one year. To buy the bike, it would cost 100,000 pesos. That commutes to 2000 jobs worth 50 pesos each. That is not including bike rental, petrol, nor living costs. The tricyclist is essentially priced out of improving his means to make a better living. One driver admitted that his home is two hours drive from El Nido so he often sleeps in the tricycle instead of retiring in the evening. With so much competition on the streets, missing a couple of jobs is not an option.

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It’s gonna be a long night

One driver picked Ali and I up and took us to the post office. I waited in the carriage with him. He is only two years older than me. We talked about his three children. Initially cheerful, his evident exhaustion began to escape, chained to his words. The burden of his world was worn his shoulders alone. He works day and night because he is ‘young and strong’ he said, and because he can. But he could not decide whether to stay in Palawan or to leave his family and work elsewhere. Not enough opportunities have been created in paradise for people like him. ‘I hope you come back to Palawan ma’am, I hope you come back and have a child’ he said. ‘People come here and they make a child because they are relaxed and very happy.’ Though they are the reason he never sleeps, he doesn’t see his family as a burden. They are a reminder of the happiness which created them, the source of his strength.

Many travellers feel disappointment when they are met by rising numbers flocking to their secret spots. Others talk about eco tourism as though locals need educating about the environment they have inhabited for generations. There are some penny pinchers who feel the need to coerce guesthouses into putting up with their shit for even less money. How is this fair tourism? If you’re disappointed that your sweet spots are no longer so sweet, that the exploitation of habitats is not inextricably linked to supply and demand, or that your budget should reflect the life of a local, you need to think again. Think about who you are and who you’d like to be. Then think about why so many locals still struggle to pay their bills.