A New Year’s Pilgrimage (x2)

Welcome to the Year of the Rabbit. A year of reverence towards furry pets. It was a day when caricatures of bunnies were posted alongside Chinese blessings, on windows and shop doors everywhere.

For me, it was also an auspicious day to make a double pilgrimage; to the rebuilt bridge and to the Emergency surgical centre.

If I had any doubts that the sturdy bridge now spanning the Stung (river) Sangker, due east of the train station, was once the site of a now-infamously decrepit iron railway bridge, Kakada put them to rest.

A young Khmer student (and a native of Battambang) that I’d met on the bus from Phnom Penh, Kakada spoke a heavily-accented, but good enough French for us to communicate – and for him to play translator a few times. After a couple of stops en route to the center of town, I asked Kakada if we could go to the bridge.

We stopped at the western side, a few meters from where I would have fallen through, and I asked him what he remembered of the old iron bridge. He recalled feeling unsafe crossing when he was a boy; he only rode across with friends, but if alone, he would cross elsewhere. Boys were always jumping into the river from the sides of the bridge, he continued, because it was so easy and no cars drove by.

From there, Kakada suggested we get a cold drink nearby, at a place across from his mother’s house. When we pulled up, I looked up to read the sign and sighed: Moto Gecko. The café that also doubles as a bike rental office. Including bikes that end up as pieces of twisted metal on the banks of the Sangker.

When Kakada and I parted ways, I returned to the bridge. The long-dreaded crossing was much less emotional than I’d expected, largely because I was stepping onto a new and (apparently) solid span of asphalt. However, looking over to the bank below, seeing the dirt path running from road down to the bank, and seeing (from afar) the height from bridge to bank…. I captured those moments in silence and introspection, as if I was all alone in this corner of the world.

Reaching the other side, I continued westward, following the directions I’d been given to Emergency.

After a twenty minute walk along dusty roads; passing construction sites, the Dewey International School and the President Hotel; stepping over long-dead frogs and rats, flattened flip-flops, gloves and condoms, and loads of other detritus, Emergency’s red and white flag came into view.

The guard at the gate eyed me suspiciously, and asked me if I was visiting a patient. It was futile to offer him a full explanation, so I simply said that I was here to see Nicola. The guard went off and returned shortly with Ombretta instead, the sole Italian nurse currently on staff. Nicola, the Swiss surgeon and medical coordinator, joined us briefly for introductions, excusing himself to head into an operation.

After telling Ombretta about my accident, we began to discuss various options for how I could help out at the hospital. I was prepared to be met with a blank look when I mentioned that I would like to give Reiki to the patients. Instead, Ombretta’s eyes lit up: Reiki, si, si! As it turns out, during her previous posting in the Sudan, a physician gave her Reiki – and she got hooked.

Moments later, Nicola walked into the office, agitated. He’d already changed into scrubs and the patient was prepped for the operation, when he suddenly learned that the (local) medical staff neglected to sterilize the required surgical instruments – which meant delaying the operation until the following day. Such is life, Nicola sighed, in this country. And then…

Reiki, he exclaimed, oh yes, our international staff could really use it!

And so, after more discussion – about Reiki, physiotherapy, Khmer healing and shamanistic practices – I left the premises with a promise to return on Monday.

If nothing else, doing service for awhile at Emergency, amidst the oasis of trees and flowers, cleanliness and quiet, will be a balm to my soul.

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