Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lost Baggage: No Surprise

I am in Cambodia; my bags are in LA. I’ve taken three showers today, and still am very, very sticky. It is 30 degrees Celsius here; it was -5 Fahrenheit when I left Denver. The beaten path, it seems, defines my journey. When I left Phnom Penh Airport in my Uncle’s Camry, I expected a somewhat smooth ride, seeing as he found my driving in America to be veck-vuh, best translated as swervey. If my driving is veck-vuh, then the only way I can describe the driving here is fucking insane. The unpaved roads are packed with lots of beater cars, a few luxury cars, motos (motorcycles), cyclos (Vespa-like things), bicycles, and pedestrians. The only rule is: there is no rule. One-way street, two-way, it doesn’t matter. Motos fly horizontally. Rice vendors on cyclos weave between us and another moto carrying a 13-year-old boy and an infant who is getting his first lesson in driving. A SUV with an ostentatious Lexus decal stretched across its side asserts its authority on the road laying it on the horn. A boy on a cyclo carrying a steel vat of rice clangs it on the hood of our car as he whizzes by. A Chum Kout, my uncle says. Mother Fucker, indeed.

In the US, many prefer to live further away from busy streets. The opposite holds here in Cambodia. Homes also operate as businesses, and so the homes that are on a main road are the most profitable. These businesses range from cellular phone shops to pastry vendors to t-shirt stands endorsing Lady Gaga and Kanye West. Teenagers love American music and mimic the tunes, saying the words but often without knowledge of what they mean.

My uncle turns down a narrow road. I feel as if I am going to run into a bunch of thugs. “Pou, mek chung mouw kang neah?” I ask in my broken Khmer. He tells me his house is on this street. A sign indicates this is street No. 355. One of the first things I’ve learned is that streets are labeled as numbers, not names. I’ve also learned that nobody knows a street by its designated number. This is a place of landmarks. Turn right where Om Keang has her lychee stand. But what about the other 15 lychee stands I just saw? What if Om Keang isn’t there one day? That would be an unlucky day.

The homes of the middle class (like my uncle) are typically three stories and open aired. Guests are received on the first floor in a living room type area. This opens to a garage-like space. To the rear is the bedroom of neak chnoul, literally rented person, or maid. Next to this room is the eating area, and the backyard serves as the kitchen, which is equipped with a stovetop and faucet. The second floor is composed of a family room, bedrooms, and bathroom. It has taken me a while to maneuver around the bathroom, but I think I’ve finally gotten the hang of it. There is a showerhead that hangs on the wall next to the toilet and a spray nozzle that is connected to the toilet. I’ve yet to use that and don’t really plan to, but the cold showers aren’t so bad (especially since I am sweltering hot for most hours of the day).

Last night I attended a dinner hosted by Alan Lightman (the founder of the Harpswell Foundation that I am working for) at the Khmer Surin restaurant. The other seventeen people who attended are all affiliated with the Harpswell Foundation as well. One person runs a motorcycle repair shop and teaches people from the village of Tramung Chum the trade. Another woman is working on the Great Hall of Women project for the newly built leadership center that I am moving to in January. A couple from Jerusalem is volunteering for the first month of their honeymoon. (What a honeymoon!) The managers of the leadership facilities and UN advisors also attended. It is an amazing feeling to be surrounded by so many people from all parts of the world who are doing so much good. It often seems that there is much talk concerning all the bad things that are happening around the world, and so we tend to forget all the good things that take place every month, day, minute, second. There are not many things that I can say for sure that I believe in, but I do believe that each individual has the capacity to be good and the desire to be good. Being here has reaffirmed this belief. Being here has made me want to be better, to do good.

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