Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Cambodia

Photograph of a boy in Cambodia with an AK-47 gunBehind the Scenes: It’s 1989 and the Khmer Rouge are still fighting in Cambodia. Pol Pot’s official reign of genocidal terror has ended, but the aftermath of the “Killing Fields,” as it was coined in the grizzly 1984 film, still lingers.

Jeffrey is in Cambodia with Harry Rolnick, a foreign correspondent for the Bangkok Post. They are there to tell the story of the restoration quietly taking place at Angkor Wat Temple Complex. A handful of scientists from the Archaeological Survey of India have begun work on Cambodia’s most important archaeological site.

Photo of Angkor Wat Temple complex moon riseAngkor Wat, an ancient city built by King Survyavarman II in the 12th century, has taken a beating from years of neglect and non-stop fighting. Khmer Rouge guerrillas have looted temples, decapitated sculptures, and sold the spoils on the black market to raise cash for the war. The site’s exquisite Khmer architecture, which is often compared to that of ancient Greece and Rome in importance, has also been strangled by the encroaching jungle. Vines and roots have damaged structures, causing many of its sandstone temples, reliefs, and statues to crumble.

The restoration of Cambodia’s most important site (and symbol) is a tiny glimmer of hope for a country that has not dared to hope since the Khmer Rouge murdered approximately two million of its people (one quarter of the population).

Photo of Angkor Wat Temple Complex SoldiersBecause the U.S. still has not established diplomatic relations with Cambodia after Pol Pot’s reign of terror, Jeffrey and Harry must first fly from Bankgok, Thailand to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to obtain a visa to enter the country. A few days later they will backtrack to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, then they will catch a puddle-jumper plane to Siem Reap, the province in which Angkor Wat is located.

After a hard and fast landing (to avoid gunfire, they are told), they head to the Grand Hotel, the only hotel operating in the area at the time. Tourism has been at a standstill for more than a decade. When the bellman of this dilapidated establishment leads Jeffrey and Harry to their rooms, Jeffrey notices that his bed is pushed awkwardly into a far corner. When he asks about it, the bellman explains, “That is for your safety—in case there is gunfire. Bullets will not be able to hit you over here if they come through your window.”

Photo of Stone statues at Angkor Wat Temple Complex in CambodiaThe next day an interpreter and several Cambodian soldiers meet Harry and Jeffrey on the outskirts of Angkor Wat. The complex is over five hundred acres, and they must walk through the jungle to the temples where the archaeologists are working. The men are told under no uncertain terms may they leave the single narrow path they plying. Live mines litter the landscape everywhere else. Nearby gunfire reminds them that this is no idle warning.

Jeffrey and Harry walk cautiously and stick closely to the Cambodian soldiers who know every inch of the area. The emptiness of Angkor Wat and the heavy air blanketing the jungle creates an eeriness that makes the back of Jeffrey’s neck prickle. Harry continually looks over his shoulder. Even the slightest snap of a twig from a jungle creature or birds taking flight makes them pause. Jeffrey can’t help wonder, How do we know the Khmer Rouge haven’t laid another mine on the path last night and how do we know we won’t be ambushed now?

Photo of Angkor Wat Temple Complex in CambodiaEventually they arrive where the archaeologists are working. The interpreter introduces the men and points out many of the sites wonders, including giant Hindu sandstone faces, exquisite bas-reliefs, and temples covered in roots more massive than each of them. It doesn’t take long before Jeffrey is able to create a powerful visual story about what is taking place here.

After spending the entire day at Angkor Wat, they make their way back out to the other side where a car is expected to be waiting for them. As they reach the outskirts of the site and walk along a road near a small village, they come upon a young boy carrying an AK-47 rifle. This barefoot youngster, who is wearing nothing more than threadbare shorts, is protecting his village against the Khmer Rouge. As he walks under the weight of his gun, his onyx eyes reveal a life that has already witnessed far too much.

Jeffrey can’t help but think back to his own carefree childhood, and tries to swallow the sadness rising in his throat as he gets down on his knees to create this boy’s portrait. He can only hope that peace will come soon to Cambodia, and with it, a return to childhood for this young “man.”

This photograph was created with a Nikon F4, a Nikor 24mm lens and Fuji Velvia film.

Postscript: Jeffrey has returned to Angkor Wat on assignment two more times since his first trip in 1989, and each time he has witnessed it coming back to life more and more. Restoration is now nearly complete and Angkor Wat has been listed as a World Heritage Site, along with Cambodia’s largest tourist attraction. The best part is that Jeffrey has never come across another child carrying an AK-47 rifle in Cambodia.

If you want to learn more about Angkor Wat, click HERE.

Photo of Angkor Wat Temple Complex in CambodiaPhoto of Angkor Bayon at Angkor Wat in CambodiaPhoto of Angkor Wat Temple Complex restored reliefPhoto of a young monk at Angkor Wat in Cambodia

The Dance of Parenthood

Most of our friends and family were shocked when Jeffrey and I decided to have a baby, and even more so when they discovered it was Jeffrey’s idea.

With Jeffrey zipping around the world much of the year and me running our busy photo agency, and also partaking in deliciously selfish activities like marathon running, having a baby never felt like a reasonable idea.

But on a cold January evening, in the middle of celebrating my 37th birthday over a romantic dinner in one of our favorite restaurants, Jeffrey took a long sip of wine, smiled at me mischievously then simply asked, “What would you think about starting a family?”

I nearly fell out of my chair.

We’d been together for over thirteen years and this topic had never once entered our conversation. We both knew our unpredictable lifestyle would be challenging for raising a child. When Jeffrey asked though, goosebumps formed on my arms and liquid pearls of happiness rose in my eyes as I staggered under the weight of this tender, life-changing moment.

All I could choke out was, “Yes,” in a half-breath as my hands flew up to my mouth in disbelief. It was a spontaneous reaction for which I had no control, but everything about it felt right. Jeffrey looked dizzy as he reached over the table and kissed me. Then we both burst into laughter and raised a toast to the insanity of this idea.

__________

Well, here we are nearly a decade later, still delighting in the insanity of this idea, and even more so, the person this idea produced.

Sweet Olivia just turned eight years old, and as we celebrated our spunky and sensitive girl whom Jeffrey likes to say, “was born with two scoops of sugar,” we reveled in the notion that life’s most outlandish ideas often become the best. Originating in the heart instead of the mind, these irrational ideas often inspire us to learn a new, and sometimes-difficult dance, which pushes us to a whole new level in life.

As parents, Jeffrey and I have been swirling, dipping, tripping, gliding, sliding, and waltzing from the moment Miss O was born. Our love for our daughter has produced choreography filled with the highest highs and the lowest lows as we’ve experienced every emotion imaginable: love, tenderness, awe, delight, fear, frustration, pain, pride, exuberance and exhaustion. And like most parents, each time we’ve finally mastered one tricky step, we’ve been thrown a new challenge to keep us on our toes on this ever-changing dance floor of parenthood.

Jeffrey and I are nowhere near perfect parents—in fact those kinds of people scare me—but one thing for certain is that in this great big ballroom of life, I have the most steady and dedicated dance partner anybody could ever hope for. And for that, I am grateful.

As we hold onto Olivia’s hands and let her dance on our feet, she is learning to create her own moves—ones that will inform her life when she’s eventually ready to launch out on her own into this big, creative world which is filled with endless adventure.

Who knew this dance of parenthood could ever be so exquisite?