This morning’s early light and hazy sky brought back memories of arriving at Bokor Hillstation Casino in Cambodia. Light has a nostalgic effect on me as music has for many people. It must be genetic for my mother was also that way. Merely looking up into the sky can transport me back to primordial times, but that’s another story.
This was prewar Cambodia in 1964, a time of peace and enough remaining French influence to find good French bread, albeit with a few weevils baked in(1), and flan, my favorite sweet. Folks in Phnom Penh told me about a high mountain resort cool enough to grow strawberries. Cambodia was a former French colony, so baguettes and flan were for sale everywhere. Having strawberries on the side would be a special treat.
I left Phnom Penh for that cool mountain resort and reached its turn-off in the late afternoon. I left the main road and continued hitch hiking toward the resort. Hitchhiking around Cambodia was slow going in those days. It wasn’t that I didn’t get rides; it was because there were so few cars on the road. That day I probably passed up rides since I usually spent a few hours just walking along the road before sticking out my thumb. Hitchhiking in those days was not a tradition in many areas of the world, so I had to wave my hand, or do whatever, to draw attention.
Passing up any rides that day was a mistake. I had thought that at least some traffic would be going to a resort! Not one car passed which left me walking up that mountain road all night, and working up a real thirst in the process. I could hear water babbling every time the road crossed a brook. Normally I would have just hiked down off the road to quench my thirst. However, that night was the blackest I’d ever experienced outside of spelunking — it was deep cave darkness. Clouds concealed the starlight and moonlight if there was any. To top things off, this was deep in the jungle far from towns and I had no flashlight (2). This was a perfect storm for making this day memorable.
I reached the Casino at daybreak. I immediately saw why no one would have been going to this “resort” that night, or any other night. The photo above is recent, but it looks much as it did fifty years ago. It looked just about abandoned, but I do vaguely remember eating something there. I don’t remember walking back down, so I must have gotten a ride. My my, it feels so long ago.
Before the jungle with water, there was the desert with none
The only other time I experienced such intense thirst was with a few friends of mine on a four-day hike over the Catalina Mountains near Tucson Arizona. I spent much of my teenage years hiking those mountains and desert foothills around Tucson, and don’t recall ever taking water with me. I’d always find some spring, creek, puddle, or cactus to quench my thirst.
This time was different. Our difficulty began when we overtopped the mountain and began trekking across the hot flat waterless plain on the other side. Looking back, it seems like youthful folly to hike an unknown area in the desert without water. But hey, isn’t that normal for the season of youth?
A Philosophical Side to Water
I can’t let a whole post go by without an observation, now can I. Water has long been a fitting spiritual metaphor. Here’s an angle which I’ve never seen used…
Thought is like water flowing into bottomless space — the silent and void. To paraphrase chapter 5, Much thought leads inevitably to silence. Better to hold fast to the void. This sounds good in principle. As it happens, the brain has a mind of its own so thoughts can’t help but trickle down into its neural spaces. After all, nature abhors a vacuum. Space, whether it’s empty shelves, open fields, or trillions of synapses, just attracts stuff. They estimate the brain to have upwards of 1,000 trillion synapses, so the process of the mind filling up this synaptic space may be what produces the illusion of time itself. Indeed, when I cease to think, for the short time I’m able, time stands still. This is what I sense as an eternal moment.
(1) Abundant French bread was not something I expected to see in S.E. Asia. I first ran across it when I entered Laos. Laos, along with Cambodia and Vietnam were ex-French colonies, hence the French bread. As I was eating my newfound food-prize, I noticed small black bee-bee size things. I wondered if they were raisins baked into the bread, but soon I realized they were weevils. No problem, just don’t look too closely while eating. These days that helps when eating from the garden; when aphids and such are out of sight, they are out of mind.
(2) A flashlight would have been frivolous weight to carry. In those traveling days, I carried all I had in one small shoulder bag. Traveling light was worth it! I suppose material things are easier to drop by the wayside than mental things. Fortunately, the Tao Te Ching helps me drop some of that mind stuff as well.