Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Tuk Tuk, Madam?

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I was on a determined walk to the English language bookstore (!!!) down the street when I realized I’d forgotten to eat lunch. I looked up under the umbrella, looked around and noticed the man, encased in a lightweight yellow plastic bag with sleeves that are the standard raincoat here, come up the street. His foot cart had a row of banana leaf wrapped treats roasting over a small wood fire.
  He stopped in front of me and made a delivery across four lanes of traffic to the security guard across the street, wading through Phnom Penh’s post-rain flooding in his flip flops. When he returned, I motioned him over and eagerly handed over my 1000 reil bill (about 25 cents--there are no coins here) to experiment.  It was reassuringly warm steamy in my palm.  Removing the toothpicks, I gleefully opened the browned, steaming package to reveal a sweet, crunchy toasted sticky rice and banana treat. It was heaven-sent sustenance.    

Life in Phnom Penh is incredibly easy.  Within days after my arrival, I’d made a new friend at my hostel, secured an apartment with all the amenities to live,  gotten oriented on the basic ways around, formed an acquaintance with Bonar, an entrepreneurial, young, moderately good English speaking Tuk Tuk Guy (TTG) and started to pick up a few words of Khmer.  Life feels familiar here, but with subtle changes from a distinct cultural character.  I feel like I’ve gone to visit a close relative in a big city.  Giddy with things to do and places to explore, I’m thrilled to be in the beginning of a new life stage swollen with hopes and potential discoveries.  

Naga is a prominent Buddhist diety, but in Cambodia there are seven heads.
Naga is a prominent Buddhist deity,
but in Cambodia there are seven heads.
While the ways of life—the omnipresent motorbikes, the temples and monks, the evening exercise routines and the street markets—are similar, there are several key differences that  will make my life here much more engaging.   I’m not sure if it’s my work outfit (skirt and blouse), my gray hair, my smile or maybe all three—but Khmer people talk to me all the time. In English!   In the Khmer buffet ($2.50) across the parking lot from my office, I’ve shared two tables with women who started a conversation, provided some advice and congenially hoped they would see me again.  On my walk to work the other morning, wearing my Thai dress in a traditional fabric of the northern region’s famers, a TTG pulled over to talk to me in Thai and ask me where I was from.  The kindness and caring of people here is exceptional.   I've changed too.  With a careful confidence and aura of international acumen, I’m no longer afraid to bumble my way through interactions.  However, the traffic here is a force to be reckoned with. 

Cambodians want to keep moving. To do this, they will drive the wrong way on a street, do a U-turn across 4 lanes of traffic, make a turn directly into incoming traffic, attempt to pass a traffic jam by hauling their SUV up and over the curb and talk on their cell phone while the three year old child is perched on the motorbike driver’s lap.

This instills occasional terror, persistent caution, in-credulousness and a wishful omniscience (who is that coming up behind me?)  when I am around town.  Cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks,  bicycles and the occasional pedestrian (the kids walking home from school, chatting with their friends two across and eating ice cream in the middle of traffic jam really add a whole other element) converge in a dance that’s a combination of waltz, slam dancing and pushing your way through the crowded dance floor amidst a throbbing disco beat in the frenzy of activity just after midnight. My newly acquired bicycle has moved me slightly up on the food chain and allowed a whole new appreciation of flow, courage and faith.  On certain trips, it pays to hire wheels. 

This was inside the menu of the guesthouse.
This was inside the menu of the guesthouse.
Last Friday was an epic day and I planned for it.  I hired Bonar for a half day.  He picked me up from the guesthouse where I had a sad goodbye to the resident pug, got the keys, dropped the bags, picked up a USB modem for internet and then off to Ourasey Market, where the prices are cheap and all the locals go.  The market is two floors high, crowded with vendors in small stalls offering everything from motorcycle parts to housewares, produce and bras, fabrics and dried meat.   The place has a legendary reputation (a fire would be catastrophic for all who work there, simply because there are so few exits) but upon entering I was struck by the familiarity of the smells of spices, the brilliant orange and gold decorations for upcoming Pchum Ben festival, and the nonchalance of the vendors.  
Orasey Market (not my photo)

Orasey Market

  Household goods in hand, Bonar met me at our prearranged time and place.  By the late afternoon I was settling into my place and eating a taro samosa that I bought from the man who pulled up into my alley and announced his arrival with a call to the alleyway.  

The view isn't much, but it gets great light and is within blocks of lots of great stuff. A school is across the street, and the riverside is just on the other side of the royal palace.
The view isn't much, but it gets great light
and is within blocks of lots of great stuff.
A school is across the street,
and the riverside is just on the other side of the royal palace.

I am so grateful to have my own quiet space, with a balcony, families below, good walking nearby and close to a couple of supermarkets and work.   The apartment, with gleaming tile to about one and a half meters up the walls, exudes a sense of clean austerity and functionality.   With a three month lease at $200 a month, I’m set. The hallway with which I was instantly enamored.
The hallway with which I was instantly enamored.
 PP has a vibrant network of information sources for expats: a facebook group, a yahoo list serv, classifieds and forums.  I discovered a house sale on Saturday; she advertised a reading lamp and free pillows.  The entry gate, beautiful beveled French doors, teak flooring, the French accents of the residents and highly priced really nice stuff showed a different class of expat than me, but I scored some helpful items and a well-worn Khmer phrase book.  Last year taught me that bringing out the book is the best prop for generating conversations and discussions.  

The slum just behind my office building. If you look closely, you can see a very large dragon fruit tree cascading off the balcony in the upper right.  I couldn't believe it.
The slum just behind my office building.
If you look closely, you can see a very
large dragon fruit tree cascading off the
balcony in the upper right. I couldn't believe it.
While folks in my new office have been on leave or preoccupied with upcoming deadlines, I am starting to dive into projects for my three month commitment with Cord (http://www.cord.org.uk).  Cord builds the capacity of local, grassroots organizations to generate peace. 

While the immediate needs of post-conflict areas are often focused on relief (food and shelter), Cord's work is directed at empowering residents to effective rehabilitation: addressing local problems in a constructive and effective manner by fostering trust among members within groups, among groups themselves and between government and civil society organizations.  Cord trains and coaches on communication, governance and leadership to move communities to development, where they can independently begin to build peace.  In Cord’s vision, a peaceful world is one where each person has dignity, where human rights are respected and where multiple sectors--public, private and non-governmental—are working together.   It's a great team and I'm happy to be helping. 
On the banks of a canal of the river. Plumeria tree, families fishing and a huge mall across the bridge.
Across the Tonle Sap river,
new developments are in process.  
As I embark on my second week in this vibrant city, filled with contrasts.  On  Sunday’s bike ride I passed scores of families on late afternoon outings. The mall has arrived in PP, but McDonald's hasn't shown up yet. I've seen young Khmer boys sporting bouffant-like hairstyles and filthy boys with bare butts holding the burlap bag while their mother shovels sand into it. A monk with an iPad  A one-legged man (likely from a landmine) on crutches and a gleaming white Land cruiser with the UNICEF logo on the side.   For now, this will be my home and I am happy to be soaking up all the amenities of a larger city.   

Lucky the puppy

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