The sun filters through the rainbow umbrella – sifting the stifling heat with a full spectrum of colour. The flat-water laps lazily at our boat as we wait. The air is still. Eyes are fixed on the horizon. Beyond the corridor of bleached reeds and mangroves are dry looking trees. Far away, just beyond our sight, are birds. I don’t know what kind. But I know to appreciate that they are special.
The sky is empty and blue. At once a depthless two-dimensional tone and yet an eternal gateway to galactic nothingness. Lit by the brilliant white of our midday sun, this watery world is like a bleached twilight zone. Not quite land, not completely water – alive with the spirit of folklore and medicine men, yet paddling towards a future based on science. Children jump off the tin roofs of their floating homes, unperturbed by what lies beneath. We sit neatly in our boat.
It’s funny, how long you can simply float. Unable to fly, afraid to swim – yet bursting at the seams. Safely fixed to the wooden frame, I feel my insides begin to dissipate: lost on a breath. Drifting with the breeze, we gently chug closer to the trees. My dad raises his binoculars. My mum cranes her neck to see. Both are blissfully unaware of the flooding sensations they inspire in me.
There it goes: swooping over the wetlands, a shadowy spectre with a grace and agility rarely observed. It ducks and dives. It whisks its wings with intention. I don’t need to a close-up to know that its eyes are scanning the surface, monitoring for movement – revealing ripples in the khaki lake. It is not the only creature to rely on the fresh water fish underneath. The Tonle Sap is the fluctuating heart of Cambodia, sustaining generations of Khmers, while fascinating with its reversible flow – back out into the mighty Mekong and seaward bound, once the monsoon rains dry up.
Have you ever reversed your flow? Like a set of lungs, drawing air inwards and blowing it back out; or, a changing tide slipping away from the shore, in sync with the waxing and waning of the moon. Surely, we should always be in a state of flux, in order to fully grapple with all that life has to give. Once you find yourself stagnating, it’s time to back-up. I’ve been holding my breath, clinging to the edges of the metaphorical boat – it’s sink or swim they say, there is no in between.
“Oooh! Ooooh! Ooooh!” Mum flaps with excitement and points with amusing theatricality. We all begin to rock. “Do you see it?”
“Oh yes, got it!” Dad responds from behind his binoculars.
“Yes, this is a Grey-headed Fish Eagle”, our guide Vatthina pipes up, calm, cool and eyes connecting with his prey. I find having a guide vaguely embarrassing. After working in Cambodia for a year now, I like to think I can pass for a local – it’s ridiculous, I know. I wonder how a chameleon would fare on Mars. Would it be able to rustle up an authentic Martian camouflage and blend with fellow space lizards? I’m not so sure. I can’t escape my otherness, so I’m embracing it.
“Hey, Dad, Mum, look by that tree – over there.” I squeak, unexpectedly excited to see not two, but three eagles in one go.
“When we get closer, you will see that this tree is a breeding ground ,” Vatthina explains, eye on the prize.
We are hunting the hunters, chasing the birds of prey, but only to admire – we won’t touch. It’s a sanctuary, the last stronghold of South East Asia’s large waterbirds. After decades of poaching, the Prek Toal locals are now their guardians. How the tables have turned. Now the lake’s villagers move with purpose, as protectors and instead feed their families with the money they make from an eco-charity. The chain is reversed. Everyone’s survival is ensured. Sometimes we just need to shift our perspective, change our thinking and find a better way.
“I’m probably going to come back to England next summer.” I say, matter of fact.
My parents look at me, stunned. Mum gazes down at her feet and Dad glances out beyond the boat.
“I’ll give it six more months and then I’ll come home. I might start my own business. I’ll write personalised children’s stories, or something…”
“Oh right.” Mum replies, vacantly. She’s somewhere else, asking silent questions, but stares back now with her searching brown eyes.
“I mean Jake can come, too. I’ll give him the option, but I’m doing it either way…”
“Oh…” She says.
The cold resolve in my voice is startling, even to my ears. I don’t know if I’m being serious, but I feel I’m being true. It’s not about going home or starting a business, it’s about being free – surviving as me. I’ve uttered ‘The End’ and they know it. Jake and I, we can’t go on.
“Do you have a business plan?” Dad asks.
“Not really, but I do have my first story: ‘Pinky the Party Pig Saves Christmas’.”
Dad’s concern turns into a broad, kind smile. He laughs.
“Well, you’ll have to read it to us.”
And like that, an overwhelming reminder of what it is to love and be loved stings my eyes and tenses my gut.