Friday, October 21, 2011


There are a few things about life in Cambodia that I’d like to mention, partly just so I have a record and won’t forget them, but that aren’t necessarily related to each other and that don’t warrant individual posts. Here’s a collection of such snippets of life in Phnom Penh …

Carefree or careless? This morning, as Alexa and I were taking a tuk-tuk back from the embassy, we stopped at an intersection. I was surprised to see a small hand reaching toward me. Having recently sat through the RSO briefing about pickpockets and petty theft, I was prepared to use my feet (my hands were busy holding Alexa) to kick aside any human body part that entered my tuk-tuk, on the assumption that it was making a grab for my bag. But this small hand didn’t actually enter the tuk-tuk. Instead, it grabbed hold of the edge beside my seat. I looked over to see a small boy, no older than nine years, sitting on his bicycle beside us. He glanced up at me and then went back to grinning at my sleeping baby. As my tuk-tuk started to move, he didn’t let go, and I realized that he’d attached himself to a free ride. For several blocks, as near as I could tell, he didn’t watch where we were going or take any precautions to protect himself from potential mishap. He simply held on, enjoyed the ride, and grinned at my baby. I’m sure there’s a lesson in this event, maybe about trust, not worrying about what you can’t control, or enjoying life’s small pleasures. But even as I enjoyed his obvious enjoyment, I couldn’t help but think … “Oh, God, please don’t let this helmetless boy come to harm because he’s too busy smiling at Alexa to protect himself!”

The top of our fence
Security and privacy. Many Americans are aware that there is a balance to be struck between security and liberty, including privacy, on a national level. Over the last ten years, we’ve sacrificed some of our freedoms and some of our privacy in the interest of making it possible for the federal government to discover and interrupt others’ nefarious plots more efficiently. Since shortly after 9/11, there’s been a debate raging about where the proper balance lies. Since coming to Cambodia, Jeff and I have had this debate strike quite a bit closer to home—literally. We knew coming in that we would have an embassy guard posted at our home 24 hours a day. I, at least, didn’t realize that the guard would not be in a guard shack outside our gate, as were the embassy guards I saw outside some residences in Cairo. No, our guards have a shack inside our gate. They and they alone have keys to the car and pedestrian gates in the barbwire-topped wall surrounding our house; even we can’t get inside those walls without them letting us in. And the guards patrol the property at all hours. At any given time, I could look out any window in my house and see the guard walking by. The assistant RSO told us, during our briefing this morning, that the guards would not look in the windows. I think he meant they’ve been told not to—at least one already has, and really, who could blame him? It’s natural human curiosity, especially with us being newcomers and therefore unknowns. Don’t get me wrong; he wasn’t standing there peering creepily in. He was making his rounds, as he should, but as he went, he spent about as much time looking in as looking out. More like a series of fleeting glances than a determined stare. But I’ve only noticed it the one time, and as I said, it’s natural human curiosity. The presence of the guards is disconcerting, something to get used to, but certainly not something to which I object, especially since seeing the statistics on recent crime and having it pointed out that, despite the fact that burglaries are common in Cambodia, they very rarely happen to embassy houses or even to our neighbors. We’re protected, and our neighbors are protected, because our guards are on watch. I’m sure it will be no time at all before it doesn’t faze me a bit to look out my window and see these men making their rounds around my house. But for now, I’m feeling a bit like a specimen under a microscope.

Clipart courtesy Microsoft
There’s what in the bathroom? This morning at the embassy, I visited the restroom. As I dried my hands, I noticed a small, clear bin attached to the wall. The bin was filled with small paper packets. Of course, I had to see what they were—you know, that whole “natural human curiosity” thing. When I did see what they were, my eyes popped. There was a bin of condoms in the ladies’ restroom at the U. S. embassy. Not even a vending machine from which they could be purchased, just a bin where they sat, free for the taking. When I mentioned it to Jeff, he explained that it’s part of an HIV/AIDS prevention campaign. The disease is prevalent here, so anything that raises awareness of it or that helps prevent its spread is considered to be generally a good idea. I guess it’s an inexpensive enough way to help our employees stay healthy. It’s just another one of those things that makes sense once it’s explained, but that is shocking to my conservative sensibilities until it’s explained.

Rain in our courtyard
Rain, rain, and more rain. On our first day here, we saw more rain than we saw in our three years in Cairo. We’re right at the end of the rainy season, during which I understand it rains for a few hours every day. Since we’ve been here, we’ve had one good shower every day, and most days, it’s been a solid thunderstorm. Even when it isn’t a thunderstorm, when I say “one good shower,” I mean a heavy rain, not a drizzle or light rain. It’s thundering and raining hard now. This morning, it was sunny. It’s been sunny every morning we’ve been here. But every afternoon, usually in the late afternoon, it suddenly clouds over and the skies open. So far it’s only affected us in that we chose to stay home rather than go back out late Monday afternoon because we assumed it would start raining soon (it did, within the hour), so I still don’t have a SIM card to make my mobile phone work, and when I realized that night that I needed to go down to the corner market for milk, I walked at a fast clip instead of a slow stroll, as fat drops of rain foreshadowed the deluge that arrived just a few minutes after I got back home. My understanding is that it will continue to be very humid, and it will continue to rain frequently, but it should start tapering off a little any day now, so that we don’t get the same kind of daily downpour we’ve been getting. It’s quite the change from Cairo!

They’re talking what? Again? Apparently the rainy season this year was even more rainy than usual, because there’s been massive flooding throughout parts of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. There have been deaths; I’m not sure how many, but a lot. Here in Phnom Penh, the danger is minimal, but there’s still the potential for huge problems. Flooding outside the city affects the supplies coming into the city. Contingency plans have been made for evacuation, because if the supplies can’t get in, the people who depend on those supplies need to get out. Obviously not all will leave; most wouldn’t even consider it. But American embassies are cautious with their people, and if supply becomes an issue, we’re outta here. I hope that if it comes to that, we won’t be flown all the way back to the States, but rather to some regional safe haven that isn’t affected by the flooding—probably not Bangkok, because they’d be affected too, but maybe Singapore, which is our med evac location. But this is the U. S. Department of State we’re talking about, and regulations are fairly rigid. In general, evacuations are to the United States, for a minimum of 30 days. Hopefully it won’t come to an evacuation at all—we are nearing the end of the typical rainy season, after all, and the worst of it probably is over. On a purely selfish note … we opened the year with an evacuation; I really hope we don’t close the year with another one!

Clipart courtesy Microsoft

Mmm, good. Oh, wait. I tried my first Khmer dish tonight. Chicken amok. My first thought was “Wow, this is pretty good!” As I opened my mouth to say so, the heat kicked in. I ended up guzzling water and then eating a few bites of rice instead. That strategy was successful in cooling off my overheated tongue. Luckily, I didn’t offend anyone by not eating any more—we’d ordered dinner from a pretty good restaurant that has both Khmer and western cuisine. My meal actually was fish and chips, Jeff’s was a cheeseburger, and Alexa’s (although she fell asleep before it arrived, so hers is in the fridge) was a hot dog. But since the Khmer cuisine was so inexpensive, we decided to order a dish to split and try. My one bite was enough. If only it were possible to get the first taste without the heat, I’d love it. As it is … no more anything amok for me! (Added Saturday, 15 October 2011.)

There you have it. Snippets of what I’m noticing and thinking of as I begin my life in Cambodia. I think it will be interesting to see what I’m noticing and thinking of at different points of my time here—what will change for me in six months or a year? I look forward to finding out.

Written Wednesday, 12 October 2011.

1 comment:

  1. Snippets are good; love reading about your new experiences. Love & miss, Maryanna


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