Sunday, June 23, 2013

Burning the candle at both ends

I giggle every time I hear the squeaker of Phnom Penh’s “etjai” (garbage collectors) heralding their arrival in the streets in the morning, but their jobs are anything but funny.  They patrol their routes throughout the day, picking through the trashcans or stopping in the middle of neighborhood alleys to collect cans, cardboard, and plastic water bottles.   Every in the heat and traffic, covered from head to toe in large brimmed hats, long sleeves and flip flops, they tow a large cart. Mothers bring their toddlers, who stand in the front of the cart in the early morning and then take a nap as the load fills up during the day.  It’s work that never ends and it pays them about $2 each day. 

Cambodians let little go to waste and the sensibilities about resources are prevalent in everyday life.  It is not uncommon to see beggars and etjai raking through large mounds of garbage that are piled up on sidewalks in the evening.   Hotel rooms have “locks” on the power switches that are activated by a room key, avoiding the problem of leaving the room with AC and the lights on. The printer in my office has refillable cartridges on the outside of the machine. 
The dry erase markers in my Thai classroom were carefully filled with an ink that managed to create small stains on most of my uniform shirts.  Shops to fix sewing machines and  motorbikes line the streets of certain neighborhoods.    I passed a motorbike trailer carrying large bins of food waste through the city streets, likely on the way to feed pigs and chickens somewhere on the outskirts of town. Last week, I saw a young man with repairing a fan in the alley below my apartment, his toolbox strapped to the back of his bicycle.

That said, are contradictions.   The tuk tuk driver will take the long way to keep moving through traffic as opposed to just sitting at the light and cutting the engine.  Old trees are revered, yet I’ve heard stories of the Prime Minister ordering the removal of them because the poor people camp often hang out in their shade.  In general,  the government has little issue with demolishing old growth forests for Vietnamese rubber tree plantations.  I know of an expat who blasts the air conditioning at night just so she can snuggle under blankets. The trash piles are filled with disposable food containers, organic waste, and millions of plastic bags.  The river is rife with plastic detritus.  The rainy season is upon us, and the street in my neighborhood floods with after torrential rains, resulting in overflowing storm drains that are rumored to contain sewage waste. 

I’m backlogged myself.  It has been a long time since my last post.  I was underwater in deadline and project management, working long hours and losing my connections with people and place here.  Language lessons and daily walks have fallen by the wayside both in work deadlines and the uncertain skies above. Storms come in moments now, blustering in on escalating winds and drenching rain.  

I’m balancing the idealization that I will be here for a relatively short period of time (I’m committed until early 2015) and not wanting to invest a lot in home and hearth, yet also longing for my beloved cast iron skillet and the crisp fresh air of the Alaskan summer.   I'm saving money for the next stage and thus don't want to spend a lot of money on rent, but there are times when a little AC would go a long way.   I dream of the expat apartment buildings with a resident gym and pool.    I’m torn between thinking about all that needs to be done in the present moment and pacing myself for the long haul.  I realize how hard it is to consider ongoing self-sustainability at the same time one is faced with pressing needs.

These are the lessons that I must learn over and over again.  Last week’s project deadline left me in a state of physical and emotional tatters, bruised and battered by "race to the end" tensions, inter-departmental conflicts and overwrought self-expectation.  The dry season's heat, Phnom Penh's escalating power needs and a power supply battle with Viet Nam have resulted in frequent power outages throughout the city.  At the hospital, in the heat of the afternoon, the generator rumbles to life to compensate.  The surges and fluctuations stress the equipment;  this year's generator use is unprecedented   The fuel costs are unbudgeted.  

There are reports of the crazy things happening in Alaska.  The winter lasted until May and now record breaking heat in June.   The increasing notices of melting, drought, fierce storms, smog, coupled with the frequent reports of environmental degradation all over southeast Asia and the globe has me  worried.  There is so much in life that is out of our control, and the small actions seem to be hopeless in the face of the enormity of action needed to right the balance.  

On Friday, I was happy to make an executive decision to call in sick to work and spend the day in my pajamas, feeling the breeze of the fan and the light rain on the metal roof just below my terrace.  After cleaning the house, I brought my stockpile of aluminum cans (created from drinking too much beer in an attempt to "manage" the stress of last week), to the etjai.   These are the small gifts we can offer to each other in the world. If we are going to go out in a blaze of consumptive glory and widespread denial, we might as well do the small things to be kind to each other and notice what's important.  

To be completely and totally focused on the gifts of each day and the small whispers of nature that permeate the city life.  The sound of the crickets who seem to appear from nowhere in the night, the flittery birds around the barbed wire around the fence next door and the stately, resource-rich palms that dot the riverside.  

For indeed, it is the small actions and notices that matter.