When I first went to Cambodia in 2004 I had been suffering a horrible bout of depression, and I describe that year as the year I fell off the rock-face of my own existence. When I was at my deepest moment, every night I’d get home from work and curl up in a foetal position on the sofa, my wife suggested I go on a journey to somewhere really different – somewhere that would shake my head around. “You need a break,” she told me. “Do something different.” Of all the advice I’d received that year (from doctors and from a psychologist) that was the single best that had been offered.
For a few reasons I chose Cambodia which, back then was just emerging from its dark years. I don’t know what I expected – but most travel books seemed to focus on Pol Pot and the existence of landmines. Maybe it appealed to me because I saw a suitable metaphor for my own condition. How ego-centric I was.
I travelled via Bangkok and as I got in the plane to Siem Reap I felt nervous; as if somehow I would be facing my destiny. I was looking for something in Cambodia, and I didn’t know what it was. Inside I had a feeling that could almost be described as stage fright.
We took off. A strange experience occurred just as our propeller plane flew over the border to Cambodia and Thailand’s smart rectangular agriculture gave way to the random villages and small rice fields of Cambodia. Around us at 28,000 feet were small puffy clouds. Dozens of them.
On my flight was a tour party of large mid-western Americans, and as they shared a loud conversation about the pros and cons of comprehensive house and contents insurance, I contented myself to look out the window.
And there it was. A cloud that looked like an elephant. We’ve all played “making shapes out of clouds” before – squint your eyes and you can make out a rabbit – but this cloud was better than that. It was a perfect baby elephant running with its ears pricked back, a smile on its face, little trunk thrust forward, legs running and little tail flying. An elephant.
Was I seeing things? I turned to the Amercian lady in the seat behind me and told her to look at the cloud. My cloud.
“Oh my stars!” she exclaimed. “Would you look at the baby elephant!” her friends all surged to the starboard windows and the aircraft tilted. They’d seen it too. It wasn’t just me.
I settled back in my seat, for the first time in three years feeling a surge of contentment coursing through me. I’m not superstitious, but this – this was special. It felt like a sign and when I stepped off the aircraft I already felt as if my journey to Cambodia had healed me.
It was an extraordinary feeling; seeing the elephant. I wonder if my heart would have been closed if I hadn’t seen that little cloud. Within 48 hours I met strangers beyond my hotel and my tour guide – and in truth I felt that I had somehow stepped home. I cannot account for this, but everything over the previous three years had felt stressed and unwelcoming, yet here was the sense that my heart could find peace.
I don’t understand the psychology behind this feeling, and I have difficulty explaining it to friends, but Cambodia touches my heart just as surely as if I were revisiting my childhood home.
We can discover quite wonderful things in our lives when we open things up to randomness. That cloud, my depression, the people I happened to meet – all these conspired to take my life on a much more interesting journey than I ever could have imagined.
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