Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Art of Idleness

I’m not very good at being idle but it seems like a skill that should be relatively easy to acquire during a year-long sabbatical.  However, nine months in, I realized that I really hadn't spent much time doing “nothing”.  If not engaged in travelling (due to the amount of “bumping” involved in journeying in developing countries, this cannot be considered idle time!) or fitting in lots of sightseeing and activities then one is usually planning ahead and working out where to go next, how to get there, where to stay, how long to stay, what to do and how to do it.  Even when seemingly doing ‘nothing’, my brain is working on a mental to-do list and generally trying to find the answers to the meaning of life (all of them, all at once).

The Oxford English Dictionary gives a couple of good descriptions of ‘idleness’:

“Idleness – a state of inaction; inactivity”
“Idleness – characterized by inaction or absence of significant activity”

I quite like the second one – “significant” being the operative word.  It also offers “laziness; indolence” but I find these to be far too judgemental and derogatory.  In our busier and busier lives, “idleness” seems like a luxury, but one which could allow us to regain control for short periods of time and give the poor old brain a welcome rest.  If meditation isn’t my thing then maybe selective ‘idleness’ can be.

In the beautiful, laid-back and friendly environment of Cambodia, it seemed time to give this a go.  The project started in Sihanoukville but really came into its own on a paradise-style island called Koh Rong.  In my beach bungalow in Sihanoukville, I set myself the task of not doing anything all day (apart from eat and read) and, more significantly, not to feel any guilt.  The experiment went pretty well (the laptop remained largely turned off) but as I didn’t actually like Sihanoukville (some great views but utterly lacking in charm), it wasn’t the place to continue putting the theory into practice.

Koh Rong is an island 30 miles off the coast of Cambodia and takes 2-3 hours by boat, depending on the weather.  It is a small island with a handful of villages, and in the main village there are about 75 local families.  Koh Rong has only had tourist development on it for a couple of years and the four “resorts” are small low- keys affairs aimed at the lower end of the market (bungalows from $15-$45 dollars).  One boat runs back and forwards to the mainland each day, weather depending.  If you arrive without a room reservation and everything is full, there is no way back that day but a couple of enterprising locals have basic guesthouses or one of the expats might find you an unfinished building to sleep in.

Idling seemed to come very naturally for me at Monkey Island resort and my experiment made great strides forward.  I sacrificed an “en-suite” bathroom for a sea front bungalow so that I could lie in my hammock and watch the sea and sky unimpeded by man-made structures.  Life is simple on the island.  There is no mains electricity and the resort’s generator only comes on for lights from dusk until midnight (they use a car battery during the day for the bar/restaurant, recharged in the evening).  With no fan or aircon, you don’t linger long in bed after sunrise and so I quickly settled into a routine beginning with an early morning swim followed by some quality time in my hammock before heading off the 20m to the restaurant for breakfast.

The gentle rhythm of the rest of the day involved mainly swimming, reading, gazing, snoozing, eating (repeatedly, in a variety of orders) as well as watching the local entertainment. In the mornings, the local children would scamper around in the water laughing and splashing and then in the afternoon, a little black dog would practice his favourite game of winding up the water buffalo, resulting in the odd chase up the beach.

I had attempted to idle elsewhere but in the end I concluded that it was easy to idle on the island as the conditions were just right:
1.       Everyone around you is also living in a relaxed manner
2.       The limited decisions required were only based on a couple of options: “Stripy t-shirt or blue sundress over my bikini?”, “Daily squid special or vegetable curry?”, “Breakfast now or swim first?”, “Fresh lime juice or a beer?”, “Stroll to the other lovely beach or just stay here?”, “Read book or gaze out at the view?”
3.       Everything is padlock-able (every traveller worth their salt has an assortment of combination padlocks) and so there is no need to carry a key.
4.       No electricity means no wifi and so any random thoughts worth capturing were jotted down with old-fashioned pen and paper and put aside to be used at a later date (i.e. now)

I enjoyed watching the new backpackers arrive off the boat each afternoon, from the comfort of my hammock.  They would stop along the beach and shake their heads in wonder, gazing at the paradise they had chosen. Often, the water buffalo would be taking his afternoon bathe.  The only thing to do when you arrive is to throw your cossie on and sprint into the clear blue, shallow warm water.  Once they had finished their swims, I would head into the water for my sunset hour bathe.  I don’t think I’ve spent so long in the water since France in early 90s.

In my four days on the Koh Rong, I did manage a challenging jungle hike/climb to the other side of the island to the reward of a magnificent empty beach and a water taxi home.  And, whilst my brain may have been idle of any daily concerns, I have been working my way through this year’s Man Booker short list.  This intellectual pursuit feels like utter luxury and fitted perfectly into the idleness agenda.  With only “The Sisters Brothers” left on the list, I concur with the judges; Julian Barnes' “The Sense of an Ending” is still my favourite.

Returning to the mainland, I worked my way down the coast via Kampot to an eco-retreat/organic farm up among the pepper farms near Kep.  There is plenty to do and see in this area and so it was time for a new type of idling: integrating it into days that also contained significant activity.  Many of the people who come out to the Vine Retreat are expats looking to escape the craziness of Phnom Penh (they quickly become repeat customers).  Whilst I’ve been here, there has been a fascinating mix of people: short & long term travellers, Phnom Penh expats and local NGO workers.  Whilst lying by the pool, I often hear day visitors exclaiming from the balcony, “ooh, c’est magnifique…”.

I instantly felt at home here.  I think that there is something very comforting about leaving your shoes outside on the rack with everyone else’s (guests & staff) and wandering around barefoot.  There are eight simple guest rooms (excellent mattresses and sheets) and two floors full of places to sit and relax – you can choose from the long communal table, hammocks, floor cushions and, my personal favourite, the raised cushioned benches along the outside of the balcony.  These overlook the garden and swimming pool, as well as the local pepper farms and hills, and on a clear day, Vietnam.  While having an aperitif with your book, the resident cat might come and curl up on your lap.

I seem to need time and space for idling and lots of natural light and fresh air.  These are in plentiful supply at the Vine Retreat and again, there is a pleasing lack of choice!  In the evening, you can have their daily set menu (sourced from their organic vegetable garden and fruit trees) and so the only question is, what time would you like it?  It obviously helps that the incredibly friendly staff make your bed every day, serve you lovely healthy food and often pop by with a glass of water and an encouraging word.

Here I have managed to fit in a day trip to Kampot, a visit to the local village & NGO, a tour of the farm and pepper plantation, a good early morning hike up a local hill in addition to hours of interesting conversation with other guests, dips in the pool and yet more reading.  If I make tentative plans then they inevitably change as I go with the flow and take the opportunities that present themselves.  I haven’t felt guilty in days.

So, what is the point of all this idling and have I mastered it?  I’ve definitely improved!  It’s good for the spirit.  If achievable in spurts in a busy city lifestyle, then it has the potential to hand back control.  I think I might need a hammock in London…

Idling photos:

Want to know more about idling?  I recently enjoyed Tom Hodgkinson’s book “How to be Idle” which is described as:
“an antidote to the work-obsessed culture which puts so many obstacles between ourselves and our dreams. Hodgkinson presents us with a laid-back argument for a new contract between routine and chaos, an argument for experiencing life to the full and living in the moment”.