I walked home this afternoon from Lycofra, our neighbourhood Khmer hair salon where I get my usual $2.50 shampoo that includes a heavenly 45-minute head, neck, hand and arm massage.
I strolled along the broken sidewalk past Taqueria Corona, our favourite Mexican restaurant, where chickens pecked in the dirt and moto drivers buzzed along on the wrong side of the road. On the corner, our usual gaggle of tuktuk drivers – Tony, Poh and the chap whose name I never knew – waved to me, and the uniformed guard across the street nodded and smiled.
Our neighbour’s little dog, whose once white coat matted with 50 shades of grey, watched me walk by, and a handful of emerald-coloured leaves drifted onto the road from the trees in our front garden.
This has been our life for three years. In two weeks the chickens will still be pecking in the dirt. Tony and Poh will still be camped out in their tuktuks on the corner and the guard will still be watching the house of the big shot down the street.
But Skip and I will be gone.
It’s a painful feeling of loss, even though we’re still in Phnom Penh and excited about our travels throughout Asia (India, China, Vietnam, Laos and Borneo is the present plan). And it’s a bittersweet feeling to be extricating ourselves from a place we love but also feel it’s time to leave. Rather like slowly peeling a Band Aid from a wound, this time is drawn out with the ache of saying farewells
Over the past three years, there’s been many a day when we’ve complained about the insufferable heat and lack of stimulating things to do in Phnom Penh. We regularly discuss places we’d like to live and have often bemoaned the intolerable corruption and poverty in this country we’ve made our home.
There’s plenty we won’t miss, but right now those are hard to recall.
Take work, for example.
Over the past three years, I’ve often been frustrated and bored – too much time on my hands, too many mangled reports to edit that twisted my brain and caused me hours of irritation and too many unrealistic deadlines that drove me crazy. But my last day at work last week was anything but frustrating. I handed over my computer keyboard and air-conditioner remote control to Jenny, the delightful English gal I’d helped hire for my job, and spent the last few hours talking with colleagues and attending the small farewell lunch that had been planned for me by Sambath, the Executive Director.
Do I want to stay there? No. I’m happy to move on. But it’s this limbo time that aches.
It’s locking the door for the last time in our beautiful third floor apartment with its wraparound balcony overlooking the street, where jungle-like plants fringe our view and dear friends, Philip and Katarina, live downstairs.
It’s taking leave of Tony and SomOn, our tuktuk driver friends, and Nara, our cleaning lady, all of whom have shared with us their problems, illnesses and joys, laughed at my feeble attempts to speak Khmer and invited us to their homes to meet their families.
It’s knowing we won’t be waking to the sound of monks chanting at 4am, the construction workers across the road at 7am and the call of the bread man selling fresh bread from his bicycle as he peddles down the street.
Those are the things moving on is made of.
What have I learned in my three years here? Here are some of them:
• That Cambodian people are the kindest, most generous, childlike and beautiful people I’ve ever met..• That poverty or wealth is not determined by what you have. We’ve constantly been humbled by people who have nothing yet are able to reach down into their nothingness and find something to give.
• That nobody ends up in Cambodia by accident. We’ve met so many interesting, varied and smart characters during our time here, most of whom came here to do something significant or good.
• That air-conditioning is a wonderful invention.
• That it’s nice to live with few possessions (it took us five months to buy a toaster) and lovely to live in a cash society (no bills).
• That pampering is a heavenly obsession (particularly at $10 or less an hour).
• That nothing should be wasted or thrown away if it can’t be fixed. Someone will find a use for it.
• That it’s easy to make friends in foreign lands. Through my writing I’ve been blessed in making many connections that became part of our lives. They include the incorrigible Ramon Stoppelenburg, who bought the Flicks movie house, the huge-hearted Ruth Larwill, who founded Bloom and keeps me satisfied with exquisite cupcakes , the brilliant Dr. Peter Ly, who runs the rural Graphis Health Center and Phnom Penh’s emergency services, our inspirational language teacher, Dara Than, who escaped from the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, the benevolent Johnny Phillips who founded Buckhunger soup kitchen for street kids, the delightful Steven Bimson, who opened the Phnom Penh Central School of Ballet and the irrepressible Wes Hedden who founded the Sarus programme for Cambodian and Vietnamese youth.
• That there are opportunities galore in this part of the world. Skip and I came here as volunteers for Volunteer In Asia, then found ourselves involved in heaps of other projects without even looking for them. Through good fortune and good contacts, I’ve written two books (The Definitive Guide to Moving to Cambodia and The Sweet Tastes of Cambodia), penned freelance articles and restaurant reviews for every significant publication in town, written the LeBoost Phnom Penh guidebook and done PR consulting and writing for Roomchang Dental Hospital, Mekong Viet Travel and Mango Tours.
• That there can be beauty and magic in dirt roads and behind broken walls – you just have to be open to seeing them.
Above all, I’ve learned that the memories of our days here will be etched on our minds and hearts forever and that these are the images I’ll be taking with me:
The spires of a pagoda shimmering in the moonlight.
The sparkle in the eyes of every tiny brown-eyed child.
The torrential downpours and powerful winds that come with rainy season.
The beauty of saffron wrapped monks carrying yellow umbrellas.
The hugs of Tony, our tuktuk driver.
The “but Gabi” comments of SomOn.
The kindess of Heang.
The tears of Nara.
The teasing of Dara.
The farewell embrace of Sambath.
The tenderness, warmth, innocence and generosity of every Cambodian we were blessed to meet during our three years here.
Farewell, Kampuchea. For now.
Until we meet again.