A year of magic, mystery and chaos
It’s no longer stinky. It’s aromatic.
The broken up sidewalks and chaotic traffic are not an irritation. They’re an amusement.
Even the searing heat is no longer intolerable. It’s a method of bonding with neighbours and friends as we sweat, mop our brows and laugh at one another.
A year ago today, I didn’t think they would. In fact, I wasn’t anticipating anything — except, hopefully, an air-conditioned coffee shop around the next corner to temporarily remove me from my misery and an iced cappuccino to help drown my melancholy.
I’d arrived in Cambodia with Skip to put down roots; to volunteer and start a new life in a country we’d never visited before.
I was excited. Thrilled at the prospect of experiencing life in a gentler part of the world and energized at the idea of breaking away from the norm.
But it wasn’t quite what I expected.
I thought it would be more sophisticated. I expected some quaintness and charm. And I was sure I’d fall in love as soon as I arrived.
I didn’t think I’d be confronted by dirt, ugliness and squalor five minutes after leaving the airport. Rats outside our guesthouse, unpleasant smells on every corner, blocked drains, sweaty, dirty skin from dawn to dusk. And the feeling we may have made a horrible mistake.
I didn’t fall in love. In fact, I wanted to cry and hide myself from the blazing sun and smelly streets in an air-conditioned hotel room and watch TV all day. This was our new home. I was miserable, disappointed and hot.
But things did change.
Contrary to the idiom “familiarity breeds contempt”, in my case it was the opposite.
Within a couple of weeks, I didn’t notice the dirt – I saw a tiny, brown-eyed girl playing with a puppy in the sand. Within a month, I didn’t recoil at the sight of slabs of bloody meat hanging in the market – I watched street vendors barbecue them and serve them with spicy noodles. And before long, I didn’t whine about the stifling heat – I jumped onto the back of a moto or headed for air-conditioned coffee shops which I did eventually find.
And, now, one year after arriving, I find myself defending Cambodia and its residents more staunchly than I defend my own homeland.
I’m not sure when the switchover happened and when I started to fall in love. It may have been once we got a place of our own or it could have been when I started work at DPA and had a regular place to go.
I just know that I started to avoid many of the same expat coffee shops and restaurants I initially craved and, instead, found myself drawn to spots where I could mingle with local Cambodians (complete with dirt floors, dogs sitting on the floor and dishes such as pigs arm of maple).
Don’t get me wrong. It’s far from nirvana. The government is corrupt, the history is gruesome, there are no social services or decent healthcare and people starve, become terminally ill and get evicted from homes they have lived in for 20 years.
But, for me, the country has an incredible charm in its gentle, childlike people and its quirky customs and strange lack of focus.
Driving to work in a tuktuk every morning starts my day with a heart-warming hug when children, street vendors and moto riders smile and wave. And misspelled signs such as “Sour Wedding Embellishment”, “Hair Falling Down Shampoo” and “Crap in Curry Sauce” make me laugh.
I’ve eaten snake and roasted ants, ridden a four-hour bus journey on a plastic stool and pushed a tuktuk up a hill. I’ve got myself lost jogging through a Muslim village, hiked up Phnom Bakheng at dawn to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat and learned how to speak a language I’d never even heard of.
I’ve dusted bugs from my breakfast cereal, watched a rat run across our living room floor, boiled water for drinking and toasted slices of bread over our gas stove before we broke down and finally bought a toaster.
I’ve interviewed indigenous women on remote mining sites for an Oxfam position paper, listened to stories from colleagues whose families were murdered by the Khmer Rouge and helped raise funds for SomOn, our tuktuk driver friend, to build his first house.
I’ve heard sirens scream outside our windows on the hideous night when the Diamond Island tragedy claimed more than 450 young lives. And I’ve knelt in pagodas, bringing offerings of money and food on the holy days to remember the dead.
But I’ve also eaten freshly shucked oysters and sipped margaritas on the beach as the sun sets over the Gulf of Thailand. I’ve heard world-class jazz in a Phnom Penh cocktail lounge and savoured cupcakes better than any I’ve ever found. I’ve awoken to the sounds of the jungle from a room open to the elements in a coastal resort and I’ve travelled to other parts of Asia on airline tickets costing only a dollar.
Far from our original fears of not being able to find anything, we’ve found everything.
We’ve also found that we, as westerners, have so much to learn from people who earn $2 a day.
We see that people with nothing are filled with integrity and gentleness. That we can live without ever seeing a bill or credit card statement (everything is cash – even my paycheck). And that a county with such a devastating past can forgive, move on and live a true Buddhist existence.
While we have spent the past 365 days living, learning, meeting, talking, watching and experiencing, I have a feeling that, 365 days from now, we will still be clueless about the way of life in Cambodia.
But one thing I know for sure. I’ll know when it’s time to leave. It’s the day when we walk down the street and smile at people.
And nobody smiles back.