How the Blind Opened my Eyes

In Cambodia I ponder the concept of fulfillment and what is actually needed for people to be happy. I visit a country with a harsh history and with people who have borne a lot. Still, I leave with positive thoughts and the realization that happiness is more than what meets the eye.

I come to Cambodia through the back door. After a colorfully agitated passport control, I walk from Thailand into Cambodia, crossing a national border on foot. To me, it feels like a symbol of the traveling nomadic wanderer. To laugh at a national border and just walk across  it like a child leaps over the skipping rope. Yes, the lonely rambler’s wishful thinking,  but sometimes it’s all you got.

The Cambodia Koh Kong border post is one of the most run down places of its kind I’ve ever seen. To me, it seems to be nothing more than a trading place for passport stamps. An impression that is not exactly proven wrong when the immigration officer asks me for help filling out her football betting slip… Smiling, I just fill out the whole thing for her. I have no idea who’s going to win the Basel vs Zurich match, but I just follow my hunch. She hands me back my stamped passport, saying: “Thank you, sir! Thank you! You really know your football!”  Still smiling, I get out, my eyes adjusting to the blinding brightness. A short man with a funny mustache approaches me. His English is perfect and his persuasion skills quite admirable. He convinces me to hire his services, driving the whole 450 kilometers to Phnom Penh. My only condition: no highways, no big towns. I want to see the real Cambodia and stop in villages I would have never dreamed existed.

That first glimpse of the country gives me exactly the insight I had hoped for. Places where time flows  slowly, structured only by the cultivation of rice and the toil of the land. Miles and miles of greenery, and bumpy roads, interrupted here and there by lazy cows that insist on blocking the path. What also strikes me is the simplicity of the people. Straight forward and welcoming, despite their obvious lack of means. My thoughts take me to the historical context of the country. A determination to build a new hope seems to be reigning in everybody’s smile. A history of violence that Cambodians want to put behind them. It is a story of hope that I bring you here today.

In Phnom Penh, I ramble around, trying to find a very special massage place. After getting lost a couple of times, I see a sign that says: “Seeing Hands – Massage by blind people.” I enter a simply furnished open room, with shiatsu massage technique posters and pictures of the blind masseuses, and am greeted by the receptionist, Mr. Sovann. I tell him why I’m there and he decides to tell me a bit of the place’s story. It was founded in 1999, a few years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. As Mr. Sovann tells me, “one of the main problems after the regime fell was the amount of people  left disabled, either due to land mines or crime on the streets.” Apparently, blindness especially was affecting a great part of the population. “Sometimes robbers threw battery acid to people’s faces.” His English is not perfect, and I sense that he hesitates to speak of certain matters, but I manage to understand that Seeing Hands is based on the principle that “blind people can see with their hands.“ Curious now, I decide to try out the massage. After all, it will be my first one in Asia. And you have to get one, while you’re here, I guess.

I walk up some stairs and enter a badly lit room with several massage tables. I’m given a robe into which I change and then I wait, using the time to observe the scene. The masseuses are pounding on their customer’s bodies in a rhythmical, patterned way. There are sighs of either joy or pain (I’m still not sure) cutting through the air. I notice the atmosphere of laid-back, good spirited conversations among the masseuses. While they’re at it, they talk to each other, laughing like they haven’t seen each other for ages. It relaxes me immediately, as if I just walked into a circle of old friends  taking me in as one of their own.

I’m still smiling, admiring the scene, when someone taps me on the back. “Massage start, sir.” In front of me is a man in his early thirties. Short hair and broad smile, he introduces himself as Dina, a name  I can read on the pocket of his blue shirt.” Lie down sir.” “OK,“ I think, „I’m in your hands now, literally.“

As Dina starts pounding my back and stretching my arms all the way to my fingers, I gradually relax. At times, the touch is really strong, and relaxation approaches that thin line that separates it from pain. That kind of sharp little muscular pain that leaves you powerless and  laughing, just as if your were watching Monty Python for the first time and John Cleese were tickling you at the same time. It’s like an army of small, peaceful Gandhis  marching up and down my back, my arms and my legs, rendering me helpless, first in pain and immediately after in a plenitude of relaxation. I completely lose track of time, feeling numb and floating, as if Dina were the Houdini playing levitation tricks. His voice, chatting away with his other colleagues, now seems like a distant sound in the mist of my blurry thoughts. When Dina says “Massage over, sir,” I cannot move straight away. He laughs at me, asking: “Good, sir?” I simply smile. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever felt like this, every muscle completely loosened up and every joint tension-free.

I meet Dina outside the parlor, for a little chat. His colleague Sophea, a middle-aged woman, comes with him to translate. Dina tells me he’s been doing this job for five years already. When I ask him if he likes it, he says that it’s OK, and that what he really likes is music. “My dream is to play the piano, sir. I enjoy massage because it can make money, it can make a living, sir”. He also confides that he’s been learning a bit of music lately, trying to fulfill his dream. Sophea adds that “with this, we don’t have to be on the streets… and streets are hard for a blind person.” They also show curiosity in where I come from, so I tell them about my city. They listen in silence, as if the Castle of Lisbon was taking form in their minds. When we say goodbye, Dina shakes my hand vigorously and says: “I really want to read your write, sir!” Then he bursts into laughter, followed by me and Sophea. Fine irony, Mr. Dina, fine irony indeed! We say our goodbye,s wishing each other all the best, all of us feeling that this has been a remarkable encounter.

Walking away from the parlor, I find myself contemplating the concept of fulfillment . Here is this man, disabled but happy to be making a living. He’s a skilled worker and is rewarded for that. No pity, no commiseration. He is an empowered man, capable of making his own choices in life. If he feels like learning the piano, he does it. It is something quite special, particularly in a place like Cambodia, where you can see people toiling hard to make a living. The secret may well be self-reliance. Helping people help themselves, giving them the tools to form their own destinies, seems to be the way to build a better future. I cannot say much about other things happening around here, my ephemeral presence in this country was not enough… but witnessing this place has made me feel the true heart of Cambodia.


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