When I began reading Elaine Harvey's memoir about her time in Cambodia working for the International Red Cross, I couldn't help but think about what I was doing in 1980. I was joining other feminists to volunteer at a rape crisis center in my own city. We called it "working on the front line," however, since reading Harvey's memoir, I see that the "front line" she chose was a very dangerous place.
Harvey, a nurse, headed for a Cambodian refugee camp immediately following the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1980. Nursing brings her "close to the bone," Harvey writes, even in Canada where she has worked with poverty, trauma, and suffering.
Travel writing is about both an exterior and an interior journey and Harvey has reflected on her time in Cambodia, realizing its impact on her life for years to come. She has composed poems from her memories which offer a gentle respite in the midst of "high alert."
Written in the present tense, each chapter is engaging and offers an immediacy to events. The tension of the situation is palpable. Harvey was at a camp called Mak Moun 3 with 60,000 refugees in a field where the hospital, made of bamboo and thatch, had no running water or electricity.
The border remained a battleground among four warring factions and Harvey was in charge of the ER, on Team A by choice: "Willing to go to the border in dangerous situations."
One of the people Harvey works with is Sam Ath to whom she dedicates her book. He was a refugee without any formal healthcare training. Other relationships she forms are also forever etched on her heart.
Why she travelled to Cambodia for a six-month mission in 1980 was a question that took Harvey back nearly three decades later. She found that while it had been a disturbing time, it had also been a time of inspiration and awe. Faced with the aftermath of "torture and terror, I met a people as gracious as the lotus blooming in muddy water," Harvey writes.
Book Two, "Pilgrimage," takes place between 2007 and 2008. Harvey describes her travel back as "a quest of the heart" to meet "the new face of Cambodia and honour the one that I left behind." She volunteers in an orphanage and an AIDS hospice. As she had started to learn Healing Touch, an energy-based therapy, she adapts her practice to Cambodia.
There would have been a bond created among the members of the community she was part of in 1980 that cannot be replicated. She feels melancholy remembering the close friendships she made 27 years earlier.
Book Three, entitled a Greater Mystery," takes place in 2009 when Harvey returns again to Cambodia.
Sharing her story, she lets North Americans know of the horrors that continue to have their effects on the people of Cambodia, emotionally and physically.
In her final reflections, Harvey writes that "Cambodia was the messenger and the message. . . . Cambodia was the ox cart coming down the muddy path, clickety clack, clickety clack, the ancient wooden wheels turning round and round on our way home. Timeless, we knew each other."
There is no definitive answer to Harvey's question when travelling back to Cambodia and how could there be? She had an experience that will always be a part of her "as hard as shrapnel embedded in flesh, as soft as the fragrance of jasmine, and as perplexing as the beguiling smile of its people, the Khmer."
As an introduction to Book Two of Encounters, Harvey quotes Rainer Maria Rilke about having the "patience with everything unresolved in your heart." Another Rilke quote comes to mind too: "So we live, forever saying farewell." (Duino Elegies)
Elaine Harvey is a nurse, a writer, a healing touch practitioner and a traveler. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Encounters on the Front Line is her first book of creative non-fiction. Visit her website.
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