Monday, January 21, 2013


Over the past ten days, I've reached another set of milestones of life in Phnom Penh.  My “virgin” contract was successfully completed and the document is being printed.  I got a tooth extracted that was ready to fall out anyway.  I enrolled in Khmer lessons and have checked out some gyms.  I’ve created lists, mulled over plans, and analysed my financial situation.  I've rationalized the long dry spells that can sometimes characterize the life of a consultant.  I've done networking of some form every day.  Despite the complexity of my self-directed inner life, there are times when circumstances change in the world around you, which ripples out into other changes, and moves on and on through the universe. 
The man on the lower right calls out as he approaches up the alley.  He sells noodles.
The man on the lower right calls out as
he approaches up the alley.
He sells noodles
Men have started working on the terrace outside of my apartment.  What previously was relatively quiet place to work was corrupted by the construction of a bamboo scaffolding outside the front window late last week.   The space is now crowded with a couple of guys who’ve spent the past two days hammering off the chipped ceramic finish off the concrete pillars that hold up the railing.   When they showed up at 8am on a Saturday, I knew this was the time I would go on a morning loop bike ride through town.   I had a general direction in mind, but the intention was to circle around town.  Phnom Penh has a generally logical layout, thanks to the French.  My concentration on navigating traffic has really impeded the awareness of the “bigger picture.”   I am hoping that with enough circumnavigation, I can recognize thoroughfares and eventually figure out the shortcuts across town.  

I happened to pass by the pharmacy that is the only place in Cambodia that stocks the glucose testing strips I use.  I needed to restock and I had enough money with me to buy them, so I dropped in for a resupply.  The young guard gestured me into a spot right next to the front door.   Ten minutes later, I came out and my bike was gone.   I’d forgotten to lock it.  The poor security guy avoided eye contact, mortified that it happened and scared of what I will do.   The pharmacy staff jump into action, reviewing the security tape.  They played it on the monitor in the retail area and we all clustered around to watch. One young woman obligingly placed her palm over her mouth in a typically Asian gesture that indicates you are watching something horrible about to unfold.   

The time clicks by at the bottom of the screen.  My bike is poised in full view of the camera. The customers come and go from the front door.   An old woman with a stick across her shoulders and the baskets of noodle makings hanging from each end walks by and the group murmurs in a universal, “definitely NOT her” confirmation.   We’re all waiting.  Then, there’s a movement in a corner, a young male passerby, a glance to confirm, and a split second decision to move.  My little red bike and the helmet in the basket was gone.  I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.    The owner was apologetic and I was chagrined at my distraction.  There was little to be done.  I apologized to the security guy in pantomime before I left.  He was at risk for losing his job.

I got a tuk tuk home,  replenished the money stash and went shopping for a replacement.  Fortunately, I’d been through this drill before.  Bikes come into Cambodia from both China and Japan, collected from thieves and cast off shops in richer countries.  There’s a two block radius where nearly all bikes come to be bought and sold.   Meandering on foot through the area, I passed by wafts of spray paint, very dark skinny men squatting in front of bowls of grease and turpentine, women shopkeepers with their cash purses slung across their shoulder. The bikes are in various forms of destruction and construction, newness and oldness, colors and styles. They are lined up as soldiers on attention, poised for action.  As I stood on the sidewalk discussing price with one vendor, a man pulled up next to me on his motorbike.   
Bikes in transport.  Gil
Bikes in transport. Gil
“Do you remember me?” he said, “I work at the pharmacy. I’ve been driving around looking for your bike.”  He shows me a few photos of red bikes on his camera, and mentions the thief’s distinctive blue headscarf.  I thank him for his thoughtfulness and kindness, give him my phone number in case he sees it and we part ways.  At after that moment, I am ready to move on and make a decision.   I thrill a bike vendor by agreeing on a beater bike and negotiating only a couple of dollars off with a replacement brake cable and a headlight thrown in if I buy a new bike lock.  All for $31. I venture around the corner for a new helmet and make my way home. 

On the ride home I consider a few options for lunch, but in the end I’m pulled to the stalls that line the street in front of the school that’s across the street from my apartment.    A nice woman agrees to make me noodles and vegetables, I purchase an iced green tea from her neighbor and sit down on a bright red stool in the shade under the big umbrella and dig into a beautifully presented and simple meal that brings sustenance, hope and reassurance (75 cents).  The students on their lunch break look at me with curiosity and I bust out a few words of my newly acquired Khmer language, which results in lots of smiles and giggles.  I let the food vendor know that I will see her again soon.  We exchange names.

It’s the first time I've explored the food vendors in my own neighborhood.  It’s the first time I've not locked my bicycle when I’m out and about.   This is, for many months, the first time that I've had more than a week of relatively unstructured time to fill up all by myself without the endless list of home improvement projects or travel adventures.  Every morning, I wake up and wonder what is going to happen next.  What new things will I learn?  What new projects or exploratory challenges can I cook up for myself?   What emails/texts/or other signals will arrive? 

New bike in the secure parking area on the ground floor.  If I'd parked my bike farther from the door, it might have survived.
New bike in the secure parking area on the ground floor.
 If I'd parked my bike farther from the door, it might have survived.

Last night, I was reading The Marriage Plot, a Christmas present from my sister.  The Society of Friends shows up in one of the character’s lives.  In an instant, I was triggered back to my early twenties.  I was active with the Friends meeting during college and followed the practice as I moved to Cambridge and lived with a few girls in a shared house on a quiet street on Huron Avenue.   The Friends meeting in Cambridge was held in a 200 year old brick colonial not far from my neighborhood.  The meeting was big; over one hundred people gathered each Sunday for silent communion.  Quaker practice believes that the spirit of God lives within each person.  When people are moved to speak, they stand and do so.   With a bit of a trembling voice one Sunday in 1985, I talked about my bicycle.

For a few months, I’d been looking for an old bomber bike to commute to the train station at Harvard Square.   I needed something that would be unattractive for thieves and reliable. At the time, I was working on the streets of Boston with homeless youth bearing witness to trauma, prostitution, , mental illness and alienation.  At the end of my night schedule, I needed a simple and fast way to get from the Harvard Square station to home.  Since I had free time in the mornings, I walked nearly every day on the loop around Fresh Pond.

One morning, in the midst of the detritus of the Brahmin intelligentsia lined up on the sidewalks outside of their mansions, I found my bicycle waiting in a trash pile.  Cumbersome in its heavy black steel frame, the chain was rusted and the tires were flat.  It was completely and utterly abandoned.  

Gleefully, I hauled it off the pile of Hefty bags, wheeled the bike back to the house and set about to get it into action.  That Sunday I spoke about the providence of my bicycle.  The belief that the world will always provide what you need when you keep your desires simple.  That often by slowing down, we can see things that others would pass by.  In casting off what we don’t need or those things that no longer serves us, we can sometimes open new doors or create joy.   

These are days where I’m loaded to receive and waiting for the next step to unfold.  I know that each action creates ripples of reaction.  I’m both the person tossing the stone in the pond and the still water waiting.  Somewhere, deep in the recesses of Phnom Penh’s vast urban poverty, someone will benefit from my forgetful lack of stewardship: a month of food for a family, transportation for a student, a helmet for a teenager.   I am bonding to my new silver clunker.  The bike vendor installed a new bright blue bell just for me.    

Angelas Bike, Artwork by Sean Breithaupt.
Angelas Bike, Artwork by Sean Breithaupt.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The New Year

The weather was breezy with a hint of fresh coolness when I stepped out of the Phnom Penh airport after nearly 30 hours of transit from Maine. There’s a lot of time to think on a trip like that.  I appreciated that my dad was recovering after his hospitalization from pneumonia while they were on holiday in Kauai.   I noted that my oldest  nephew is gripped with the self-consumption of adolescence, but ralied for a walk on the beach with the family on the day I left.  I felt the searing cold winter air cause my lungs to swell as I shoveled.  I drifted into luxurious sleep swaddled in bed warmers and down blankets, so delectably comfortable amidst the peace of my parent’s house in the woods.   I noticed that much of the western food made me feel as  bloated as the Americans I saw bustling around with loads of Christmas presents and merchandise and the prices of everything. I had a brief visit with my brother and his family, made phone calls to friends in the states, wore jeans and sweaters. I touched down into Maine as I always have, as a waystation for rest, resupply and face to face relationships with my family. 

With the hectic conglomeration of my trip to Myanmar, my dad’s illness and my first work contract and the trip to Maine behind me, it was reassuringly familiar to be back in the thick of Southeast Asia.  I've returned to the New Year and the yawning chasm of an open chapter.  On the tuk tuk ride back from the airport,  the  motorcyclist weaved a bit under the burden of long stalks of sugarcane strapped on the back of his bike,  stretching across an entire lane of traffic, with no precautionary flag attached to the end.  Welcome to your latest home.  My first work contract is wrapping up this week and I have nothing definitive lined up.  Unfortunately, I've uncovered the next chapter in my personal series of dental trauma.  After a visit to a well-regarded dental hospital here in Phnom Penh on the day after I arrived back, it’s clear that staying in the area for another nine months will force the attention to my beleaguered  teeth and gums.
The view from the waiting room at the dental hospital. The King Father's new pagoda in the distance is under construction 24 hours a day for the cremation ceremony scheduled for early February. A $5 million dollar price tag.
The view from the waiting room at the dental hospital.
The King Father's new pagoda in the distance is under construction
24 hours a day for the cremation ceremony scheduled
for early February. A $5 million dollar price tag.

On Friday night I was walking home with the newspapers from the English bookstore down the street when I heard someone call my name.  Bonar the Tuk Tuk Guy crossed over with a U turn against the incoming traffic and pulled up next to me on the sidewalk.  We visited briefly: he looked well and asked about my visit with the family.   Then he became sad.  His wife died and he had no money for the funeral. He muttered something about her brother also dying and something about Thailand, then gestured me into the tuk tuk and went the wrong way up the street, amid honking cars and speeding motorbikes, to deliver me back to the apartment and to inquire about my travel plans for the next day.

Friday’s Phnom Penh Post featured a front page story about a sugar cane plantation and refinery in Kampong Speu, a province that I’d visited on my site visits last month. In an all too typical scenario here, land titles are disputed, farmers are vacated from their land and a new factory/processing facility/highway is built. Without a farm to sustain them, families are forced to work for the corporation.  And in this case, children as young as 7 are earning less than a dollar a day cutting down stalks of cane that tower over them.  (Nephew Ian, while I love your 11 year old self, I recalled your Christmas Eve disappointment over the malfunctioning helicopter drone that you felt was a paltry substitute for the Xbox you really wanted and played a tiny violin for you after reading this article.)
Phnom Penh Post
Phnom Penh Post

 The injustices and life in general seems so raw here, like the eviscerated chickens and pigs that I saw in the neighborhood market that I explored for the first time on Saturday.  And there are also threads of community and humanity that transcend the cultural differences in this country.  Through an expat email forum, I learned about a hairdresser who speaks English and was excited to find she had a booth in the neighborhood market that I hadn’t had a chance to explore yet.

 After winding my way through the uneven brick flooring scattered with flip flops and scanning the mirrors and walls for booth numbers, I found Sookie.   She was surprised and delighted to hear me ask for her and I got set up in the chair for a long overdue haircut.   Her assistant spritzed the water on my hair and began to trim.  Another assistant set to work on the toenails. Then it was time for the shampoo.  The Khmer shampoo is a melange of scalp massage and copious foam that lasts for minutes in the seat where you got your hair cut.  It involves a small bottle of water, a rake of fingernails through thick hair, creamy foamy mounds of bouffant hair piled up like you were in a bathtub when you were five, and long stretches of thumb pressure into the place where your head meets your neck.  The shampoo cleanses like the waves surging against a rock wall. Then, you are rinsed in the sink and the massage continues across your forehead and down to the tip of your nose, across the cheeks and behind your ears.   Two people are blow drying me from opposite sides of my body and at this point, I don’t really care that a young boy points and me and exclaims something.  Sookie looks at me with gratitude and appreciation for my business.  I thank her for a job well done. “I am so happy that you come to see me.  That will be $5.”

A few days later, I was handing over my credit card to the Khmer owned and operated dental hospital.   I like my Dentist. Everyone wears white crocs in the facility.  He seems young but he has gray hair, speaks English very well and is gentle and practiced.  Then dental hospital is just around the corner from my house.  All of this bodes well because I’m going to be seeing him a lot over the next year.    I sat for a few minutes and collected myself in the waiting room, then planned a stop at the printing shop to get a hard copy of my long won final draft of my report.  The only thing I had to do was cross Norodom Boulevard.

Norodom is a major artery that runs north to south. It’s  lined with embassies and high-end housing, banks and coffee shops. For most of the day, it’s filled with the legendary Phnom Penh traffic.   In my neighborhood, it has wide sidewalks and a traffic light on the corner when I cross most frequently to go to the supermarket.  I stood at the corner and hesitated about walking up two blocks to the safety corner with the light, but noted a young student who was doing usual “cross away from the intersection and walk into traffic” maneuver on her way to school.  I stood next to her as the traffic lightened on my left and I walked across two lanes.  When I reached the relative safety of the yellow double line, then took a minute to gauge on my right and said to myself, “how lucky. No one is coming” as I stepped out into the lane.   And then, a motorbike hit my left shin and grazed by left wrist, wobbled for a moment and sped away.  (This hit and run manuveur is completely matter of course here, regretfully.)
Cutting across lanes in opposing traffic to merge is a common practice here.
Cutting across lanes in opposing traffic
to merge is a common practice here.

There was no blood.  Only the rich promise of a bruise, swelling already with the bluish heated rush of blood vessels bursting.   I was stunned. The parking attendant across the street rushed to help me and walked me to the Toto coffee shop, filled with prim flowery upholstery and white wrought iron chairs.  The staff fussed over me and understood that I wanted a bag of ice.  The manager gave me her jar of Tiger balm.   I RICE’d, wrote in my journal, and let the weeping flow and ebb. I remembered Beth, a woman I knew in college, who stunned me one afternoon at the cafeteria when she showed up with a golf-ball sized goose egg extending out from her forehead resulting from an epileptic seizure she'd just had. To this day, I remember it's angry prominence.   I told her to go the clinic but I did not take her there myself. I regretted that I hadn't. Small gestures of kindness are so powerful.

As I’m lying here with a rapidly thawing bag of beans in banana syrup (a sorry excuse for frozen peas),  I’m recollecting the joy of my Sunday morning.   I was up early and decided to explore the group meditation at Wat Lanka not far from the house.  On my way home, Norodom Boulevard was completely closed to traffic.  I pedaled my way around Independence Monument. My bike, short and bright red, hummed with the unfettered and clean flow of the only two wheels in sight.  I was filled with serendipitous glow myself, taking in my lucky voyage into this unprecedented  spirit of  Phnom Penh.  Then I saw the approaching pack of bike racers.  Sleek, spinning and predominately clothed in bright green lycra, they whizzed by.   I clunkered by clusters of Cambodians lining the street and some of them cheered me on as I pantomimed my participation in the race, all of us laughing at the silliness of it all.  It was bright, precious and rare.  

CAMBODIA. Phnom Penh. 6/01/2013: First bicycle race in the city of Phnom Penh. ©John Vink/ Magnum Photos
CAMBODIA. Phnom Penh. 6/01/2013:
 First bicycle race in the city of Phnom Penh.
©John Vink/ Magnum Photos

At that moment, I was filled with a spirit of gratitude for all the unknowns that lie before me. I felt lucky and strong, rich and attractive, resilient and optimistic.  And later,  I did some research looking for a photo of the race.  Blogger John Fink found out about the race the night before.   He says that Sunday’s  race  was the first time a bike race had been held in Phnom Penh since 1979.  Called Liberation Day, January 6 is the anniversary of the day that Viet Nam invaded and the Khmer Rouge retreated to the hills in the north, effectively ending their murderous regime. Others call it Invasion Day, and therein lies the complexity of life here. So much depends on perspective and recognizing the duality of life.   The accident was a reminder to keep my eyes open around all forms of intersections, not to take short cuts and to recognize and perpetuate the small kindnesses that bond us together as humans.  Oh, and ask for help. With a few errands to do around town today, I'll call Bonar for a ride.