Cambodia and the Broken Open Heart










 NOTE: This post has no other pictures. I try not to photograph what I am about to describe.

The taxi ride into central Phnom Penh from the airport is typical of most Asian capitals like Beijing, Bangkok, or Hanoi. The trip takes about 45 minutes; there’s a choking amount of traffic; and there’s  evidence of growth and modernity. Except in Beijing, Bangkok, and Hanoi, there are no modern highways. Except in Beijing, Bangkok, and Hanoi, there are high-rise buildings with construction cranes. Except in Beijing, Bangkok, and Hanoi, there’s increasing prosperity.

Phnom Penh has none of these. No elevated or limited access roadway whisks the visitor to the city. Instead, you squeeze through surface streets crammed with wheeled vehicles—motorbikes carrying all manner of human and material cargo, tuktuks and trucks piled high with pillows. beer, or morning glory stems—even  the occasional horse cart. Cars and trucks are a minority of these conveyances and they are at a definite disadvantage in these teeming, potholed, trash-strewn streets.

As in Beijing, Bangkok, and Hanoi, the streets are lined with all sorts of enterprises. The typical arrangement is a two- or three-story, row-style building, around 10 meters wide. These house storefronts, restaurants, warehouses, or mini-factories on the ground floor and living quarters above. Block after block, these enterprises spill out on the sidewalk, with tables, goods, and people flowing together in an endless stream of commerce and daily life.

Yet in Phnom Penh, something’s different. A film of dust—or should I say dirt?—covers every untouched surface, tree leaf, and empty lot. It coats the children barefoot in doorways. Piles of uncollected trash and debris await a clean-up that never seems to come. Some blocks have a powerful sewer smell. On others, stretches of pavement or sidewalk are crumbling or torn up, as if reconstruction was begun but never completed. Shot through this scene are islands of modernity—spiffy signage, gleaming glass, spotless showrooms, and brightly lit Smile mini-marts. But in the end, you see that millions of people live among piles of sand and rocks, heaps of litter, and collections of bent metal.

At one point, my frustrated taxi driver—constantly distracted by both his dispatch radio and cellphone—stopped at a toll house and handed a couple of small bills out the window. Finally, I thought, we’ll get moving on a better road. But the next few kilometers were the same impossible tangle of weight and wheels—except that this section was truly a construction project. New curbs were being installed to connect sidewalk to street, and the road had been reduced to rubble by machines. We lurched left and right to avoid the worst of the tire-wrenching abysses that awaited.

I wondered where the tolls had gone and how long the road had been deconstructed in this way. It looked like it had been months, for even the modern road machines parked in vacant lots looked shabby and idle, covered with the same brown dirt that tinged bricks, brothels, and hungry boys.

To be sure, Phnom Penh has a more modern heart—a capital city with greensward boulevards and government ministries staffed by well-dressed Cambodians with their own motorbikes and cars. Fine restaurants serve these functionaries and tens of thousands of NGO workers who have come to the aid of this poor country. We ate last night in just such a restaurant—although in our case it was one called Friends, a little NGO of its own that trains restaurant workers, pays a fair wage, and has mentored hundreds of young Cambodians who would otherwise be scratching out a living on the street.

I’m not sure what draws me back to Cambodia. Perhaps it’s because, of all the people I’ve met in my travels, Cambodians on those streets to the airport and in the rural village where I will go tomorrow, are the people who break my heart. And a broken heart is an open heart. Here in Cambodia, my heart opens wider than anywhere else in the world. It opens with anger, with love, and with transformation. Cambodia changes me as I seek to affect small changes for its people.

The Unitarian Universalist minister David Owen O’Quill asks the question: “Who is it for whom your heart breaks?” This is the central question for an engaged religious life. And as I return to Cambodia for a fourth time, I find this country answers David’s question.

Do I have to travel halfway around the world to have my heart broken? No. There are plenty of people for whom my heart breaks right in my own city of Wilmington, Delaware. In Chester, Pennsylvania. In any and every city in the United States and the world, there are such people. But Cambodia is a holy communion of heartbreak. For me, it’s the body and blood of heartbreak.

The Quaker writer and teacher (some would call him a theologian) Freeman Palmer writes in his essay “The Politics of the Brokenhearted”:

There are at least two ways to picture a broken heart, using heart in its original meaning not merely as the seat of the emotions but as the core of our sense of self. The conventional image, of course, is that of a heart broken by unbearable tension into a thousand shards—shards that sometimes become shrapnel aimed at the source of our pain. Every day, untold numbers of people try to “pick up the pieces,” some of them taking grim satisfaction in the way the heart’s explosion has injured their enemies. Here the broken heart is an unresolved wound that we too often inflict on others.

But there is another way to visualize what a broken heart might mean. Imagine that small, clenched fist of a heart “broken open” into largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy. This, too, happens every day. Who among us has not seen evidence, in our own or other people’s lives, that compassion and grace can be the fruits of great suffering? Here heartbreak becomes a source of healing, enlarging our empathy and extending our ability to reach out.

This is the experience I find in Cambodia—a deep draught of compassion and grace, of being “broken open” to the largeness of life.

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