The morning is bright and loud. Though I used to wade slowly into quiet and reflective Sunday mornings in Canada, entering gradually is not an option in Cambodia. Here you must dive in, head-first.
The water breaks over my head in the sounds of dogs barking and motorbike engines revving, and in the focus required to swerve around potholes and avoid being hit at intersections. In Cambodia, intersections are fluid four-way yields, where only a trained eye can find the organization amidst the chaos.
It’s eight in the morning and it’s already hot as I cycle by the river. I’m tired. It is difficult to go home early on Saturday night thinking of church on Sunday morning.
I arrive at the parish and join the overwhelmingly Cambodian congregation on the floor of the church, barefoot and cross-legged. Young girls wear their hair in ponytails that shoot from their heads at impossible angles, like characters in Dr. Seuss books.
From the front of the church, Jesus gazes out over the sanctuary by the altar. He’s been carved out of wood in the typically Cambodian style, with wide almond-shaped eyes I associate with statues of Buddha. Asian Jesus. No stranger than white Jesus, really. Everyone is taking some creative license with Jesus’ ethnicity.
The ninety-minute mass is almost entirely in Cambodian. As I’ve only had a few language lessons, my comprehension is limited to isolated words like “sister” and “one.” I spend most of the service daydreaming.
The service tapers off with songs I don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be one moment when the service is over; rather, people rise and leave as the impulse strikes them.
I wait what I consider to be an appropriate amount of time so as not to seem too eager to go, and then I too step outside and slip back into my sandals.
As I leave the parish, I wonder why I am going to church in Cambodia. I had hoped I would feel a kinship being with people who believe the same things I do, that I would feel the ties of shared spirituality.
But I just feel tired.
It was January when I first visited Battambang.
Battambang is located where charm and languor meet, 250 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh. Throughout the city, French colonial architecture stands as a physical reminder of a colonial past that is also scattered throughout the language, in the French words that have been adopted as Cambodian words.
January was the dry season. The trees were orange-red from the dust of the roads and the skies were blue and wide. As I drove past the river on the back of a motorbike, I thought: I would love to live here. So seven months later, I returned.
When I came back in July, it was the rainy season. Showers burst from the skies, impassive despite our desire to give them human emotions and motives – angry, soothing, cleansing. The rain slipped down tin roofs onto concrete sidewalks, tilted at an angle to help it flow to the streets.
It rained the afternoon I arrived, like it would every other afternoon that month. I watched the downpour from a café tucked at the dogleg of Street 1.5, Battambang being the only place I’ve been that assigns fractions to street names.
As the deluge continued, I spoke with an American missionary. In Battambang, “Christian” is associated with the many missionaries in the city, the churches they’ve founded, and the restaurants they run. There are evangelicals, Seventh Day Adventists, some kind of international Christians, though most of us aren’t sure what international Christians are.
When I wanted to attend church, I asked irreligious friends: which church is most respected in the community? My poll of three people led me to the Catholic church, though I am not Catholic. Sliding from Protestantism into Catholicism is one of the smaller adaptations required by life in Cambodia.
I attend mass infrequently. Every time I do, I understand a bit more of the service than I did the time before, though I alternate between faith and doubt it is possible I will one day completely understand what is being said.
Communion is wafers of bread placed into outstretched hands, served without wine or grape juice. Without wine, the sacrament feels incomplete; the body doesn’t go down as well without the blood following it.
Sometimes, I leave church feeling heartened and satisfied; other times, I slip out early and return home to sleep.
The rains continue. By October, the river that splits the city in two is close to overflowing. The road to Phnom Penh is washed out. There is concern a dam outside the city will burst and make the other highway out of the city impassable.
The road running by the city’s only reputable hospital is knee-deep in water; motorbikes stall and passengers hop off to wade through the murky mix of water and sewage. A man on crutches hobbles through the water to the hospital grounds, where pumps desperately try to expel the water.
Outside the city, homes are destroyed by the flooding. Friends working at the hospital visit a camp for displaced people. One of the staff at the café where I am now a regular tells me the water is up to his waist at his home.
It’s hard to know how seriously to take the river’s threat to spill into the city. Cambodians are blasé and foreigners are alarmist, as is usually the case. At my home, we stock up on water and canned goods. I buy a flashlight.
After praying for sun to make the waters recede, I am surprised the next two days are warm and clear. The river backs down from its threat. The pools of water on the streets shrink until children can no longer swim in them. The highway to Phnom Penh reopens.
Dust again rises from the roads, though the flooding has left its mark in the form of new potholes. On a main road, someone sticks a branch into a particularly large one to serve as a warning to motorists. Its leaves are a green contrast to the monochromatic palette of gravel and dirty storefronts; not quite an olive branch, but welcome nonetheless.
The sitting water is a catalyst for a conjunctivitis epidemic, which leaves many of us with swollen and weeping eyes, but the infection runs its course by the time the dry season arrives in November.
Months later, when rain is both a distant memory of flooded roads and a promise of future relief from the heat, some of my friends discuss the difference between confirmation and baptism. They were raised Catholic but are either lapsed or atheist.
I’m the only Christian, but I was raised in a Protestant tradition that does not include infant baptism. I chose to be baptized.
Though there are numerous baptismal practices, sprinkling water across my forehead would have been a feeble imitation of the ritual. I wanted immersion, not knowing at the time it would be the beginning of a pattern.
There was a clear moment of silence as I was held under the water, eyes closed and arms crossed against my chest, and then I returned to the surface, dedicated to God.
The conversation moves to the language surrounding confirmation (shouldn’t it be I confirmed rather than I was confirmed?) and then drifts to other topics, though I continue to remember how the water felt against my skin.
By the end of November, I haven’t attended church in well over a month. As Catholics consider missing mass to be a mortal sin, it’s a good thing I have borrowed rather than adopted the religion.
I spend the last week of November in the far northeastern corner of Cambodia, just south of Laos and west of Vietnam, though I have no desire to cross the border into either country. I’m content to explore this province, a piece of Cambodia that is so unlike the rest of the country. Here there are hills and forests instead of rice paddies, and cool breezes instead of pressing humidity.
One of the major attractions in the region is a lake. It sits in a volcanic crater, lined by green trees. The aerial view shows it’s almost a perfect circle.
Rather than the cloudy brown of so many of Cambodia’s rivers and lakes, this lake is an inviting blue-green. It is perfect for swimming.
I step in gradually, a shirt over my bikini for extra modesty around the Cambodian tourists. The water at the surface is warm, though my toes brush cold water below. I inhale, draw my stomach to where water meets air, and look at the sky above.
Then I pull myself onto the dock and dive in, head-first. I plunge deeper, deeper, eyes closed and arms outstretched, and then I return to the surface, the water cool against my skin.
Allison Jane Smith is a Canadian writer. She is a contributor to Beacon Reader and Editor-in-Chief of whydev.org. She lives in Cambodia, where she drinks a lot of coconut water and even more iced coffee. For more Allison, visit her website and follow her on Twitter.