Sunday, March 30, 2014

Steamy Stagnation

In recent days,  the temperature is steadily gaining momentum.   The midday foray across the street to forage for lunch becomes an eye-squinting sweaty march for provisions.  The hallway just outside my office is cool from the aircon leaking underneath the bottom of the doors.  As I turn move across a skybridge to another building, the heat hits like a blast from a clothes dryer. In the hospital's courtyard garden, people receiving medical care at the hospital overtake every wooden bench for lying down.  Small children sleep splayed out on the ubiquitous blue plastic chairs, their caregivers half dozing nearby.
Everyone gets a little grumpy this time of year, sleep deprived and tired of the sticky patina of sweat, exhaust fumes and the ever-present Phnom Penh dust. I’m now using two fans  in the bedroom, angled from both floor level and wall level to keep a steady breeze moving through the night.  I routinely use the highest setting for the ceiling fan in the living room, overcoming my fear of it spinning out of control and wreaking havoc.  Its faithful whirling makes an empty beer can drift in negligible circular movements. 

This time of year I find myself drifting into the “western apartment fantasy”, a recurring vision where someone else supports my residence in an immaculately maintained building. The dream place has a shaded rooftop pool, a lovely balcony and a bedroom where high quality linens are placed on a firm yet forgiving pillowtop mattress cocooned by gentle aircon.  Several weeks ago I attended an open house reception for a building such as this, located across the river to overlook the Phnom Penh cityscape.  There was free flow wine, a lovely rooftop beer garden buffet (on the same floor as the decadent kids play room and adjacent gym) and good company with a variety of work colleagues.  Then, on the 17 flight descent  to the parking garage,  the elevator jolted to a halt, punctuated by a loud thunk.  

There was a moment of silence among the three of us.  I pushed the alarm button three times in a row.  “Hello. May I help you?”  a polite heavily accented voice answered promptly.  After stating our problem, the young voice pertly replied, “Please wait ten minutes.”   Shortly after, in what seemed like much longer with my prison mates impatiently fueling the general anxiety in the small space, the doors were forced open.  Our elevator was four feet below the floor.  We started up at the security guards, somewhat bewildered.  The rustled around, passed down an end table and then we were liberated.  “Please”, the uniformed guard gestured to another elevator. “Oh,no thank you.”, we all replied in unison.  “We’ll take the stairs.”  More and more, I find myself living with a fatiguing  frustration created from a shiny fa├žade that hides the all too frequently shoddy infrastructure under the surface.   

I am still toiling through innumerable projects at work, consumed with a workload that fuels impatience with my colleagues.  At times I’m dismayed about deficit problem solving skills and motivation, and incredulous of my perceptions of lack of competence.  My hopes and dreams for institutional capacity building have been foiled by the recent resignation of a close colleague, whose departure represents a huge step forward for his professional career and gaping cavern of responsibilities in the wake of his upcoming departure.  Some days I look longingly at the crisp clear photos of bluebird spring skiing adventures in Alaska and reminiscence  about cold air.   

There's a pervasive sense of being a little stuck, of not wanting to move more than you have to to get anything done.  The upcoming Khmer New Year is a huge national holiday celebrating the end of the harvest season, the arrival of the New Year angel who also heralds some predictions for the next year.  
A model portraying an angel carries a statue representing the severed
head that marks the beginning of Khmer New Year. Photo by Post Staff
 We are having the office party on April 4th, also my 52nd birthday. This annual event has consumed significant staff time to orchestrate, plan and rehearse (something that fuels a bit of consternation.  Does it really take three people to go shopping for the staff gift?)   I've been measured for a new dress.  The seamstress is now already a day late in finishing it. 

 Most real action is getting postponed until after the holiday. Most evenings, groups of men gather with their shirts pulled up over their bellies to cool off. Everyone waits for the rains to come.   Only the trees, showing off in the middle of this languorous  season, are blooming in beautiful color and rich fragrance. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

In Transit

We sat on a bench waiting for the mini-bus in the morning.  Kampot's faded and worn colonial buildings remained stoic among the morning routines of the people in the neighborhood: the grandmother playing with her grandson, the thin man pushing the loaded cart of green coconuts, which would shortly have their tops lopped off to reach the juice through the pastel straw. 

The tuk tuk arrived  overloaded with European travelers with enormous bags.  A man emerged from the depths with tattoos peeking out from his tanktop, and forceful black frame sunglasses that framed skull nearly bald except for  with a thick set of dreadlocks emerging from the back.  The a sub-oceanic creature blinked in the morning sun's bright light, heaved the bag over a shoulder, lumbered to the bench and collapsed.
From "6 Ways to becoming a true backpacker" by Daniel McBane, #1- grow dreadlocks.

“We’re guests in the wild,” I would tell the people on our pre-trip briefings before we embarked to the wilderness. “Our job is to respect the locals, some of which will kill you if they are surprised.  So try to be  a good guest.  Be aware.  Clean up after yourself.  Respect the way things are done here.”   I dress primly when I'm on the road.

The van arrived moments later, and my traveling companion Sally and I played the “I’m in last” game.  As I slid the door closed, the tourist mini-bus inflated with an aura of transitional fatigue and dull boredom, self-importance flavored with a tinge of nonchalance.  We reached a junction and the driver muttered, “Here go to Koh Rong”.  I opened the door and stood to the side as the travelers exited.

A couple staggered out of the inside seats, stiff and limping.  The male had a fierce case of road rash on the shin, a large swatch of raw angry pink skin exposed directly to the sun.   His female companion took the worse for the wear, likely on the back seat of their rented moto bike.  Below her little denim shorts,  her leg wrapped in spotlessly white bandages from thigh to calf, abraded skin peeking out amid the splotches of purple mercurochrome trim around the edges of the wounds.  Her face had a few scratches, her eyes filled with the resigned slog of moving through a ceaseless itinerary when a more sensible idea might have been to sequester in a place with good supplies of clean running water, amply stocked pharmacy and shade. We loaded back in and headed east.

I counted the mile markers along the side until we reached the promised number of our destination in Om Chamnar.  The minibus slowed along and pulled out alongside the highway.  The horde of motodups descended upon us in a swarm.   Shortly after retrieving my bag from the back of the minibus, I placed it at my feet between my legs and began to negotiate.  An old man tugged at the handle  to claim me for himself, moaning words of Khmer that were incomprehensible in the moment.  His clothes were tattered and I was torn between the surprise of the gesture (I hadn't experienced this in Cambodia before) and the pressure to make a decision and get on our way.
The bus stop in Oum Chamnar, looking north.
In that moment the answer presented itself when  a vital young man pulled up in front of us with his moto and said, “I know.”  I agreed and hired his friend and within moments Sally and I were headed across the highway down the dirt road to the coast.   The two motodup boys chatted away alongside each other as I took the chance to smile at Sally and share the “I have no idea where we are going” look.  The breeze was cool and crisp, red dirt roads taking us to  We pulled into a rural school yard, a team of 15 3-year olds streamed out of the building, shouting “Loi Loi Loi (money money money”, their little arms waving to come up to meet us with keen and eager faces. Moments later, as I as I shook my head to the motodup, they stopped in a stunned silence and stared.  We stopped at another school on a second attempt.  I pulled out the dictionary to show “boat” and laughter pealed among us with brilliant Cambodian smiles about the "misunderstanding".  Once we were delivered, the boys wanted more money at the dock for the detour.

On the boat ride to the island  And then I remembered the words of the old man who tried to take my bag.   He was saying, “I have no money.  I want food.”and  I realized the motodup boys had likely taken us for a scam.