The heat smacked us in the face and pressed heavily on our backs as we labored over uneven sidewalks and dodged motorbikes, seeking a shortcut around traffic-jammed intersections.
Horns honked everywhere around us, and we cowered from the manic traffic flow. The sun beat down relentlessly as we struggled along in search of an air-conditioned coffee shop, which, despite detailed directions from the manager of the guesthouse where we were staying, was nowhere to be seen.
We held hands, two foreigners struggling in a land of unfamiliarity, lost, hot, unsettled and clueless.
An unseasonably cool morning greeted us as we walked from our apartment and turned right on Norodom Boulevard. Cars and motorbikes jammed the road as we stepped confidently into the traffic, two Moses parting the waters of Hondas, Daelims and Toyota Camrys. Looking both ways in a quirky traffic-scanning mode we have adopted as a means of survival on Phnom Penh’s streets, we held hands as we walked purposefully across two southbound lanes, then across the two-northbound lanes.
We smiled and chatted as we headed past the Prime Minister’s house and on to the familiar, air-conditioned confines of Java Café to meet a new friend for breakfast, comfortable in the chaos of Phnom Penh and at ease with the bizarre symbiotic relationship between man and machine in this weird place that at this point feels very much like home.
What a difference three years makes.
Where we once somnambulated in intimidated, halting trances we now walk with confidence. Where the language once confounded and stumped us, we now dive into conversations and generally figure out what’s going on without having to lapse into English or awkward hand gestures.
Where we once had no inkling where we were going – literally and figuratively – we now have at least an idea, while the endgame remains quixotically undefined. Our journey has indeed been about the paths we have taken, not the destination.
This complex, frustrating, beautiful, challenging and rewarding place – packed with some of the world’s most smiling, gregarious and welcoming people – has taught and informed us in ways we never would have imagined. It has pressed us to the edge while endlessly pushing our buttons; rewarded and inspired us while tickling our funny bone every single day.
Our lives here have been simple yet complicated: We walk into each day with few expectations other than knowing we will experience something new and different.
Our adoptive city is a magical place of confounding contrasts. Of smiles and beautiful vistas. Of roadside garbage piles picked by grubby waifs who grin toothily as you stroll by. Of passive-aggressive drivers who will without malice run you over as they stare at their cell phones rather than the road in front of them. (Among the world’s worst drivers, Cambodians, and I thank the forces of goodness every day for the simple fact that these clueless motorists don’t seem to have discovered the exhilaration of high speeds.)
Cambodia is a place of stunning highs and appalling lows. Wealth and poverty, grace and awkwardness, cleanliness and filth; extremes live cheek by jowl in this land of endless surprises.
We often stop in our tracks, look around and just feel where we are.
Take a recent night for example.
We walked from our apartment not far from the Independence Monument and along Norodom Boulevard to Hun Sen Park, where locals gather nightly by the dozens to walk, run and engage in the special, comical brand of Cambodian aerobics. Evening is for exercise here, and the regular explosion of movement is a thing of beauty, magic and more than a little humor.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visage sports a fatherly grin on a poster in the park across the street from his house: “Culture and Leadership!” it boasts, conveniently sidestepping accuracy by omitting the rejoinder “Corruption and Abuse” in the placard’s election-season hyperbole.
Spurred on by ear-splitting music, aerobics dancers take center stage at the Vietnamese Friendship Park, where dozens of people flap their arms and wiggle their butts – Gangnam Style wannabes in jeans, t-shirts and polyester exercise suits. A bit further, the aerobics class’s techno pop is overruled by a Celine Dion track blasting from the bank of speakers at the mechanized water fountain display which draws crowds every Sunday night to marvel at the colorful, synchronized exhibition.
Children run with squeaking, light-festooned sneakers, chased by beaming parents with cell phones in hand. They furiously snap photos to capture the happy moments of their light-emitting waifs out for a Sunday evening stroll.
We continue across more wacky traffic on Sothearos Boulevard onto the solace of closed streets in front of the Royal Palace and along to the park at the palace’s front. An enormous photo of the Queen Mother greets thousands of passersby who are celebrating her birthday. Many pause and pose for photos.
Scores of monks in saffron robes amble about. A dozen of them sit side by side, arms encircling one another, their bald pates glistening against the light blue sky of twilight. A fellow monk snaps a photo of them with his iPhone, technology long ago having reached into the depths of the Buddhist order.
Children chase pigeons, tossing handfuls of corn while vendors sell instant photos to people who want tangible evidence of the evening. Beggars dot the crowd, and Gabi stops to give 1,000 Riel (25 cents) to a man with no legs and one arm. He smiles at her, his grin radiating warmth, and he sends us on our way with a lighter step.
I think about what this city and this country have taught us. And I think about what I now know about Cambodia, its charming people and its puzzling recipe of rapid growth conflicted with the superstitious fears of a developing society steeped in a horrible contemporary history that the world knows all too well.
Here’s what we’ve learned after three amazing years here: We have absolutely no clue what’s going on.
Yes, we speak the language enough to get around. And we’ve built something of an understanding of this place by reading and talking with Cambodians and expats alike for hours about politics, history, culture and the realities facing a tiny country struggling furiously to find a toehold as the rest of the world proceeds at warp speed.
It’s a weird cauldron of coexistence and Cambodia seems to attract a fascinating breed of foreigners. Like us, they come, learn, listen, work, volunteer and live, then move on.
There’s an odd synchronicity to this city, where 1.4 million people seem to bump into one another all the time in markets and on street corners. Here, conflicts are more often resolved with smiles than anger, and the only thing you can count on is the predictably unexpected.
It takes little effort to make a huge difference in someone’s life, and in a place where the needs so outstrip the ability to give, small gestures matter more than we can know. So we have learned to do it daily, in small concentrations, and make these gestures part of our lives.
Our connections run deep now – as familiar and comfortable as a favorite pair of jeans – and it seems a lifetime ago that we strode unknowingly into life in Cambodia. Complexity is now simplicity; difficulties are opportunities. Failures are still failures but they also seem inexorably tied to the potential to learn, grow and change.
As my friend Sarath has told me countless times during our morning coffees together: “Of course I must try. Of course it is a struggle. It is my life.”
The net impact of the past three years: We are very different people from the couple that arrived here in 2010. And as we contemplate leaving this place to see the rest of Asia and perhaps seek a home elsewhere, we do so with trepidation and worry: How could we possibly replicate what we have here? Where else could be as mind-achingly wonderful, beautiful, tragic, illuminating?
Our answer: Let’s find out.