the rollercoaster

October 14, 2010

Within my first week of moving to Phnom Penh, I have already managed to risk my life. Now, admittedly, this was completely self inflicted. I decided to ride a rollercoaster in Cambodia. Idiotic? Probably. But I cannot deny that it was thrilling.

I went with a co-worker and four of her adopted Cambodian children to the recently opened Diamond Island. I should say that out of principle just the idea of an amusement park in a developing country concerns me. Safety standards are not widely adhered to—if there are these so-called safety standards at all. The rides are second-hand and maybe, hopefully, put together according to the directions. I was intrigued to go, of course, but convinced that I would stay at a safe distance and simply observe. During the drive to the riverfront and over the elegant gold-painted bridge, I sat contemplating the criteria I would use to help determine for the kids which rides were safe and which were not. Height, velocity, extent of rusting, safety restraint (or lack thereof). I had a plan.

Then I arrived. And it was a sight to behold. Not because the rides were so impressive, but because there were hundreds of people strewn amongst the ferris wheels, carousels and tilt-a-whirls. Excitement filled the air. Motorbikes whizzed around the brightly-colored balloon pop stalls offering soda and pots as prizes. Children squeaked with pleasure. It was almost like any other carnival, save for the hazardous piles of bricks and overwhelming smell of fish sauce.

A storm was rolling in, so the kids were told to choose a ride quickly. They settled on a platform ride towering, tilting and dropping above us. Their mother, Joke, doled out the money. And they turned to me with expectant faces. Did I want to come? I was swept up in the moment. Yes, in fact, I did want to come. Thoughts of safety were abandoned. I bought my ticket and stood in line with the others, trying to subtly block out children half my height and a quarter my age attempting to squeeze to the front. We piled onto the platform, where I was temporarily without a seat because they had let too many on to the ride. I eventually sat and pulled down on the metal harness. It came to rest about a foot above my lap, but seemed to lock. I grinned gleefully at the kids – “Ready?!”

We shot into the air and then dropped suddenly, lifted again, dropped to the right, lifted, and lurched backwards to leave us dangling forwards. Zoë, sitting closest, clutched my arm and screamed a pained, “Heeeelp! Help me!” As the machine almost emptied us out onto the pavement filled with delighted crowds watching below, I began to think more rationally. I was going to die, here and now, within my first few days of living abroad. And the story—for its sheer hilarity—would spread quickly through the city. The day the barang toppled to her death on the kiddie ride. At this point I noticed the sinister smile of the man controlling the machine’s movements. He, too, knew how this would end.

To be clear, I was not alarmed by ride itself—I pride myself on normally loving the thrill of rollercoasters—but I was suddenly concerned that this unmerciful ride could fall apart in a moment’s notice. I continued to contemplate the possibilities, and the distance between my body and the ground. The monstrous contraption continued to fling us around. Zoë continued to yelp for assistance. Then, suddenly, it was over. I was alive. I smiled confidently again at the kids, “How was it?”

We moved on to explore the rest of the park. We navigated through the flying swings, the small train, and the vendors – amazingly – selling cotton candy. The sky was now dark and ominous, with lightening in the distance. I looked around at the expanse of metal equipment. And I considered the lightening.

The kids were allowed one more ride. They weighed their options, pointing to a rotating saucer that aggressively spun while swinging like a pendulum into the sky. Once again their expectant faces turned to me. I paused. I tried to look grown up and wise, and gave my best deterring look. “No, that one’s not safe.”

We drove away as night fell and the rain finally broke, and I pondered the issue of risks. When is taking risks wise? When is it wiser not to? It was certainly a risk to move to Southeast Asia. It was difficult to give up my tidy life. (I really, really crave a tidy life.) There is a risk that Cambodia will not ever feel like home. There is a risk that I will fail miserably. And simply living in a developing country brings many of its own risks. Risk of dengue fever and malaria; risk through simple things like food and water.

But often the greatest risks yield the greatest rewards. Whenever I have spent time overseas, the blessing has been ten-fold more than any minor sacrifices made on my part. The risks fade to the background as the beauty and mystery of being taught by other cultures come into focus. To participate in what God is doing around the globe is not necessarily easy or without danger, but it is always a privilege.

So, as I begin my new life in Cambodia, I commit to jumping in head first. To ride the ups and downs as they come. And to take risks, in the hope of truly being here.

I also commit, mostly for my parents, to have some restraint—and to just say no to towering-tilting-dropping machines of death.

Let the adventure begin.

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5 Responses to “the rollercoaster”

  1. Jeff Says:

    Hey Joanna, Glad to see you writing. I hope you keep it up while you are in Cambodia. I hope you have many wonderful adventures while you are there!

    • phyllis DeSmit Says:

      Dear Joanna,
      Praise God for the risks you are willing to take just being in the country of Cambodia! You are leaping in for those of us who cannot/will not go!

  2. Halley Says:

    Well done! 🙂

    And incredibly well said. You should submit this one to Relevant. I’m copying it down for my future reference.

    Thanks for being so human and vulnerable with us Joanna.

  3. Tim Amstutz Says:

    Joanna, thanks for sharing this. Great reflections on the challenging balance between risk and restraint. I’m praying that you will experience many rewards as a result of the risk you took to join our team here. Thank you!

  4. Sarah Grace Says:

    You are such a good writer! I feel like I was there too 🙂


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