When I lived in Banlung last year, my good friend Fran would always say, “Welcome to Cambodia!” when anything ridiculous would happen. If a moto would drive by with 30 live ducks flapping around on the back, if we saw a dangerous construction project being conducted by twenty men running around without hard hats…etc., Fran would always, without fail, raise his hands in the air, grin from ear-to-ear and enthusiastically say, “Welcome to Cambodia!”
This past week has been quite ridiculous. My moto has broken in about seven hundred different ways. Once I was driving and it just stopped. The lights don’t always work. Neither does the speedometer. Sometimes when I’m driving, the keys fall out of the ignition. No worries though; I dropped it off with the man who I bought it from and he mostly fixed it all. (My moto’s name, by the way, is “Bopah,” or flower. I explained the American tradition of naming vehicles to some Khmer friends, and they said that my moto’s name should be Bopah, “because you are a girl. A girl with a moto.”)
Trying to set up internet at our house has been more of an adventure than it might be anywhere else. I set up one appointment during lunch but it was too expensive, so after an intensive bargaining session I sent them away. My friends Becca (Texas, USA), and Agugu (Prey Veng, Cambodia) were at my house during the debacle; instead of installing internet we made noodles and hotdogs and ate our delicious feast on the porch. After at least ten phone calls later in a messy mix of Khmer and English, I set up another appointment, which Art (one of my roommates) attended. According to Art, right on time for the appointment a woman rolled up in a moto with papers ready to sign. As Art began to fill out the contract and pay her, a truck full of at least five Khmer guys pulled up. They proceeded to climb onto the roof sans ladder, pull out a twenty-foot-long metal pole, and started banging on the roof with this massive instrument: an interesting tactic to install Wifi. The landlords started yelling at the men while the entire neighborhood came out to watch. After about ten minutes of pole-hitting and yelling, the men suddenly jumped off the roof, into the back of the truck and pulled away. Apparently, after their advanced technical assessments, they figured out that there was no signal at our house. So, we still have no internet. Welcome to Cambodia!
This weekend, I found the driver that flaked out on our deal. We talked about it, made up, laughed and he drove me around on some errands free of charge. I ate a one-dollar meal of rice and soup and spoke Khmer with an interior designer and hotel receptionist. I bought eggs from a woman walking by, bought a guitar at the market for $20, and a ridiculously expensive jar of peanut butter–my biggest American addiction. Later I visited my Khmer sisters who own a salon; they brushed my hair and fussed over how I need to cut it.
Last night we had our housewarming party. The guest list included an eclectic mix of my co-workers, Art and Abby’s co-workers, and some of our Khmer friends. About 15-20 of us sat out on the porch, ate pate sandwiches, drank and chatted. A couple of our Khmer friends conducted an intensive sing-along session to Bruno Mars. My friend Channery gave me this amazing sparkly jacket to wear and keep.
Cambodia will steal your heart with her eccentricities, but then she will break it. As I drive to work I see a man begging for money, sitting with his hands clasped together at his forehead along the side of the road, in danger of being hit by oncoming traffic, a little girl sleeping in his lap. On my morning run, I pass a man on his bike pulling a trailer full of scrap wood and cardboard while his small child rides on top of the pile, his wife walking along next to the trailer and scouring garbage bags for valuables. Near the market, two tiny, skinny, dirty children beg me for money. Seven-year olds pawning tiny decorative flower lanyards at every traffic intersection, weaving their way between cars and motos. Meanwhile, a rich businessman or government official speeds by in a shiny new Lexus. The cost of his car’s daily wax-job is probably more than their weekly wage. Welcome to Cambodia.
All of this is nothing I haven’t seen in Cambodia before, but still every time, I feel a pang of anger/morality/sadness/humanity and want to reach out. I consider giving each person five dollars, more money than they’ve probably had in weeks. What would it mean for me? It’s not going to hurt my pocket-book much (although maybe in the long run). Most times, I do nothing. Sometimes, I can’t help myself, like when I bought those skinny kids at the market some fried noodles to eat. I don’t know what else to do, or what’s “right.” Please, if you have any ideas, do share.
On a different note, my job is also crazy difficult. The language of a macro policy organization is completely new to me. I have basically abandoned my Khmer studies temporarily to learn this new language while working on my anti-corruption project. The work is stimulating, challenging, and interesting though. I am excited to see how it all turns out.
I look forward to continue sharing my experiences in this country with you, both the outrageous and the depressing. Welcome to Cambodia!