Wednesday, May 30, 2007

second chance at a first impression

now that i've been here almost a week, i've got an impression of phnom pehn that extends beyond what little i had gathered by my initial blog entry. just as i first deemed, there are still heaps of people, cars and trash. but with my newfound acclimation to my surroundings, i'm better able to discern the fine subtleties that are starting to endear phnom pehn to me.

first, the people:
true there are a good amount of people everywhere, some scuttling to and fro, others just languishing in the heat. but the cambodians i've encountered thus far have all been gracious and helpful, despite my sometimes painful inability to communicate my needs. take for example my arduous attempt at acquiring a pack of matches the other day. i approached the streetside vendor on the corner of my block in need of a case of water and some matches. the water was easy enough: i pointed to a stack of bottles and smiled. the matches weren't quite as visible, so i spent the better part of the next few minutes doing my best impression of lighting a match. i kept miming a little box, stricking the side of it with my other hand and making a "ffsshhh"sound to indicate my imaginary match had been lit. in a game of cranium, i would have easily won the charades round. but in the streets of phnom pehn, i just looked like an idiot. thankfully some nearby kid eventually recognized my gestures and, laughing, pointed to a bag of matches that were (embarrassingly enough) hanging right in front of my face. the vendor couldnt help chuckling too, but when he saw my cheeks flush pink he quickly righted himself and offered to carry the crate of water all the way up to my apartment. most others i've come across have been just as friendly (and forgiving) and have made my transition smoother than expected.

now for "cars":
the city of phonm pehn is overrun by a gaggle of "vehicles" ranging from your standard western-style SUV to bicycle-driven carriages and everything in between. the most common mode of transport, though, is the moto - a smaller version of a motorcylce that can (somehow) fit up to 5 passengers (trust me, i've seen and counted). to say that crossing a street full of lil bikes zipping around is challenging would be like saying the choking heat and humidity is just a minor bother. every pedestrian trip from point A to point B is like a high-stakes game of frogger. except instead of a lil frog crossing a few lanes of traffic that all moves in the same direction, you've got a lil ghazaleh jerking back and forth across an indeterminate number of lanes (no discernable dividing lines that i can see) full of vehicles that move in whatever direction best suits the driver. i would need at least three heads to properly gauge the safest crossing maneuver, but having only the one, i just clench my purse close to me, take a deep breath and hope for the best. so far so good (and actually some fun), but i should stay alert, as a splat in this game of frogger would take more than just a few more quarters to restart.

and finally, the trash:
i would be remiss in my full description of first impressions if i failed to mention the trash in this city. if there's a system for its collection, i've yet to determine it and and the prevailing method is that of tossing it on the side of the road. sure, it's usually bundled up in trash bags (before the stray dogs get to it), but it can accumulate to heaping proportions by the time the guys with a small truck and woven baskets come around to scoop it up. and there's no limit to where you can drop your garbage off. in front of your house, in front of someone else's house, a random street's all fair game. of course, there must be some perspective in this matter: a corrupt government with a weak/nonexistent tax base can hardly be relied upon to efficiently deliver essential services. and as a "resident," it's pretty convenient to just walk out and drop my trash wherever. but as in the middle of the day, when the sun bears down on the pile of trash outside my apartment and send it's sickly aromas wafting my way, the last thing i can think about is the convenience.

so there you have it, my friends. my second first impression of phnom pehn. and for those of you who know my gastronomic tendencies don't despair at the lack of food descriptions. that one merits it's own forth-coming entry!

Monday, May 28, 2007

the uneasy expat

while it's only been a few days since i've arrived in cambodia, i'm already feeling uneasy about my position as "expat." granted, this is not the first time i've travelled to a locale wherein i did not immediately belong, but never before have i sensed myself as being so separate from the local population as i do here. in phonm pehn there are two distinct worlds in parallel operation: khmer(native cambodian) and baraang (foreigner). and the only nexus at which the two meet is in the procurement or provision of services. expats want, cambodians provide. otherwise, it's all separate. restaurants, bars, clubs, shops, are in large part all for one or the other. (a key exception must be notd here for PSI (the org where i am working) that i will touch upon in a later entry)

ok, so maybe this isnt the most novel of occurences. there are plenty of places in the states and all over the world that operate simliarly. but it's perhaps the first time the difference has been so stark for me personally. despite my attempts to appear inconspicuously demure (you would laugh if you saw the drab outfits i purposefully assembled for this trip), i am under constant surveillance: as a curiousity (if i try to eat a local khmer restaurant, as i did today), as a potential boon (by every moto taxi driver that passes), or simply as one of "them." and of the friends i've made so far, none include a cambodian and (as i've been made to understand) none ever will. as another "expat" put it to me: "they have their world and we have ours."

so what's the big deal? it's hard to articulate. i suppose i don't feel comfortable in the notion that i occupy an inalterably prescribed role, having come from an urban environment in the states where social strata maintain a degree of fluidity. but more than the limited pliability, it's the privilege of the position (relative to my host population) that leaves me with a certain sense of disquiet. here, i am seen as being at or near the top of the socio-economic structure that started with french colonization and continued with the onslaught of the "development" folks. and with that, i will never feel at ease.

Friday, May 25, 2007

interminable transit

it's one thing to say you're going to the other side of the world. it's a very different thing to feel like you actually did.

my journey to phnom pehn took over 36 hours (watch this: dc-->nyc--->frankfurt--->singapore--->phnom pehn) and by the time i arrived i wasn't even certain of the planet i was on anymore. with back mangled, hair mussed and clothes in near-tatters, i reached pochentong international airport, where a driver was waiting to take me to my hotel (my first ever "driver"!). on the ride i got my first helping of phnom pehn and all i could see through the blur of exhaustion were heaps of cars, people, run-down stalls and trash. the heat was oppressive as expected, and my hair grew a full 3 feet from the humidity.

i filed away my first impressions as we pulled up to the hotel (it's hardly fair to judge a city by a half-conscious ride from the airport), and within a few minutes of settling into my blissfully air-conditioned room, i passed clear out. the next morning i awoke to the sound of buddhist chanting echoing down the street and as i oriented myself to time and space, it finally registered: i'm in cambodia!