Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee

May 28, 2016

As I write this the sunsets over my first full day in Cambodia.  It’s been a long day, oppressively hot with a humidity that clings to the skin and thickens the air.  Yesterday we travelled 9000 miles and today we witnessed an equally vast amount of people and culture.   I find Cambodia intoxicating, but not in any crude sense of the word.  This country takes all your western prejudices and preconceived notions and assaults them with an incredible and vigorous energy impossible to describe.  If you let her, she will touch your soul and open your mind to new realities and yet unknown truths.  This morning I stepped out of the hotel and drowned in the local market as I swam through a sea of people all living beautifully complex lives in close quarters.  Under corrugated iron and through byzantine pathways everything imaginable could be bought as ideas flowed across cultures and over language barriers. This society’s beliefs about history, culture, and religion, invariably kept separate and distinct in the secular west, converge when walking along the marble pathways and through golden pagodas of the Royal Palace and the Elephant Temple.  I viewed The Sacred Jade Buddha and walked in awe among the funeral temples each made in the image of a lotus blossom and containing the hallowed remains of a dead king.  Through these monuments a humble people presented to me the belief systems and ideas that form the bedrock for a way of life impossible for me to imagine just one week ago.  The National Museum came next and gave me a glimpse of the ancient empire modern Cambodia venerates and bases its self on.  Artifacts of astounding beauty and history stood free of the rope and glass western museums cage their exhibits with.  I could get as close as I wished to the statues and feel the story they told in stone and wood with my hands.  While the group listened monolithically to a lecturer drone on, I wandered the halls and waked among god Kings of ancient Angkor.  In their pallid eyes and noble faces I could see the power they once held.  In details ancient masons labored for months on and in stone worn and polished smooth by veneration from countless generations of subjects I could feel the devotion and glimpse the search for a higher power that all individuals in all societies are drawn to.  We then toured the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and the infamous S-21 concentration camp I tread over shallow graves that had bones and clothing exposed to the world.  I put my hand against a tree where just forty years ago babes, torn from their mother’s arms, were smashed and killed like animals.  There was a column of eight thousand skulls in the middle of the field.  Each stared back at me with empty sockets and begged me not forget what was done to them out of cruel indifference.  In the torture rooms of S-21 I was appalled that beautiful and noble people could do this to themselves.  Then I thought of the trail of tears or the Holocaust or any of the other countless genocides in human history and came to the realization that behind the eyes of all men lies a darkness that comes foreword when ideology and hatred overtake love and compassion as the chief motivation for action.  But I also realized that’s not the only thing we all share.  The more I think about it the more I see the same basic emotions and desires behind everything seen today.  Cambodian people are people.  We all love, hate, worship, work, want our kids to succeed, and much more. 

These days its so easy to ignore all the evil or pain we hear happening in far away countries and to foreign peoples simply because the countries are so far away and the peoples foreign, but really we are all one people one species connected by the human dignity and souls we all possess.  That is the ethos of Mercer On Mission: to break down the barriers that divide this world through service and love. 

Robert Roach, Undergraduate Student

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