The heat smacked us in the face and pressed on our backs as we labored over uneven sidewalks and dodged motorbikes seeking a shortcut around traffic-jammed intersections. Horns honked everywhere around us as we cowered from the manic traffic flow. The sun beat down relentlessly as we labored along in search of an air-conditioned coffee shop, which, despite clear directions from the manager of the guesthouse, was nowhere to be seen. We held hands, two foreigners struggling in a land of unfamiliarity, lost, hot and unsettled.
A 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 into the traffic, two Moses parting the waters of Hondas, Daelims and Toyota Camrys. Looking both ways constantly, 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 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 place.
What a difference three years makes. Where we once strode in intimidated, halting trances we now walk with confidence. Where the language once confounded and stumped us, we now dive into conversations knowing that our grasp of Khmer will at some point expire and we will grind to a halt, like a shared minivan out of gas en route to Battambang.
Where we once had no idea where we were going – literally and metaphorically – we now have clear directions while paradoxically remaining uncertain about the end game. The journey is indeed about the roads, not the destination.
This complex, frustrating, beautiful, challenging and rewarding place, packed with smiling, gregarious and welcoming people, has taught and informed us, pressed us to the edge while endlessly pushing our buttons. Our lives here are simple yet complicated: We walk into each day with few expectations other than knowing we will experience something new. Often tragic, equally often baffling, but most often heart-warming and compelling, our daily plans may be roughly hewn but always certain to change.
Our adoptive city is a magic place of smiles, and beautiful vistas. Of roadside garbage piles picked by grubby waifs who will smile if you engage them. Of passive-aggressive drivers who will without malice run you over while they text or simply look around while driving. They might smile while they do so.
It is a place of stunning beauty that still stops us short and requires us to simply look around.
Take last night for example.
We walked from our apartment – not far from the Independence Monument – and along Norodom Boulevard to Hun Sen Park, where locals had 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 clockwork outpouring of movement is a thing of beauty, magic and more than a little humor.
Prime Minister Hun Sen sports a fatherly grin on a poster in the park across the street from his house: “Culture and Leadership!” it boasts, predictably omitting the equal-time rejoinder of “Corruption and Abuse” in the election-season hyperbole.
Punctuated by ear-splitting music, aerobics dancers take center stage at the Vietnamese Friendship Park, where dozens of dancers flap their arms and wiggle their butts – Gangnam Style wannabes in jeans, t-shirts and polyester exercise suits. A bit further, the techno pop music is overruled by a Celine Dion track blasting from the bank of speakers near the mechanized water fountain display which draws crowds every Sunday night to marvel at the colorful, synchronized exhibition.
Children run with those squeaky, light-festooned sneakers, chased by beaming parents with cell phones in hand, furiously snapping photos to capture the happy moments.
We continue across feverish traffic 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 lies in state, celebrating her birthday and drawing dozens of people to pose for photos in front of it.
Scores of monks in saffron robes walk, sit and gather all around. A dozen of them sit, side by side, with their arms around one another. A fellow monk snaps a photo of them with his iPhone, technology having reached into the beliefs of the Buddhist order long ago.
Children chase pigeons, tossing handfuls of corn to them 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 an unfortunate, malformed man with no legs and one arm. He smiles at her, radiating warmth and sending us along with a lighter step.
Here’s what we’ve learned in three amazing years here: We are all connected, the 14 million Khmer and the development and NGO workers, tourists, business and political leaders. Like it or not, we’re in it together, and it’s much better as a like-minded team. It is much better to swim with the rip tide of humanity than to fight its currents.
It takes but a little 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 do it daily, in small concentrations, but it is part of our lives.
Our connection run deep now, and it seems a lifetime ago that we strode unknowingly into life in Cambodia. Complexity is now simplicity; difficulties now opportunities, failures are still failures but they also seem inexorably tied to potential to learn, grow and change.
We are very different people. 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.