The Meanderthals

The normal chaos of everyday life

It’s been pretty easy to settle into life in Cambodia, and experiences that only weeks ago would send us scrambling for the safety of air conditioned rooms now seem – well, quite normal.

Take kitchen duties, for starters. It’s standard procedure for us to boil a pan of water every couple of days so we can bottle and chill it for drinking water. And it’s part of every morning to toast bread on an open gas flame.

There are other, countless sights and sounds that once amuse or horrified us. Now we just shrug.

Guys pee on public walls everywhere, and little boys walk around either completely naked or clad only in grubby t-shirts. Last week I saw two toddlers having a peeing contest off a curb, laughing and having quite the time of it. Interestingly enough, little girls seem to keep their togs on, demonstrating at least one benefit to gender inequality.

Street vendors everwhere sell enormous mounds of fried tarantulas, crickets and roaches. Roasted, fried and steeped in spices. I’ve munched on a cricket, but that’s it so far.

Others sell embryonic duck eggs (21 days old, with fully-formed ducklings enclosed for a tasty, portable snack, anyplace, anytime) and four kinds of bread from huge baskets wired to bicycles.

Technical difficulties abound, all the time. (Ironically enough, my cell  phone just beeped for the third time since I began charging it 20 minutes ago, informing me that the charger connection had been lost.) Power outages are common. Internet failures predictable. Odd cell phone experiences (incoming
callers babbling in Khmer) are commonplace. Outbound Yahoo emails have been blocked from my office all last week, then mysteriously reappeared.

There are no traffic patterns, just a gentle ballet of machines and humans doing their very best to avoid one another as they cut across double yellow lines, drive the wrong way on the wrong side of the street, and try to avoid head-on collisions with other vehicles while dodging pedestrians trying to cross the

Good thing everyone drives at glacial speed. Makes for lots of traffic jams while someone backs an SUV the size of Montana out of a parking space, though.

$1.50 lunch places. Lots of ’em.

It’s a snackfest here. I read a book about Cambodia in which the author made the comment “Cambodians eat constantly.” It’s true. Where they put all that fried food and salt in their 90-pound bodies will forever remain a mystery to me.

Cell phones are the first priority, and mutiple phones reflect a person’s (man) importance. In a board meeting on Friday, one guy interrupted his own presentation to answer his phone. No joke. And I saw a guy in a restaurant on Thursday with no less than six phones stacked before him.

More Lexus SUVs per capita than in Marblehead, Mass. And they will run you down if you attempt to  cross the street in front of them. Trust me…they will not stop.

Early morning funeral processions (one just passed our house this morning) with wailing Khmer music and beating drums.

Elaborate wedding and funeral ceremonies. The colorful bunting around outdoor tents erected adjacent to celebrants’ homes or businesses are the giveaways. Pink and Yellow for weddings; black and white for funerals. Lots of tables and chairs. Mountains of food. Gallons of booze.

Everyone’s sweaty, all the time. You get used to having the tiny rivers of sweat down your back and dampening your shirt. Cambodias still wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts and often hats (road workers cover themselves from head to foot, including scarves tightly wrapped around their faces and sunglasses to hold them in place.) Maybe that’s how they can snack all day and still weigh less than I did when I was 10.

Funny menu items and translations. There was the fried penis at “My mother in law’s” restaurant (actual name) near our house. The “cavorted chicken” at Atmosphere ranks up there, perhaps topped by the “fried crap with curry sauce” on the menu at Eighteen just yesterday. It’s a constant source of amusement and Facebook posting for both of us.

Confusion. No knows what’s going on. No one. Schedules don’t exist. Agendas are a joke. It’s all about process, not outcome. A planned three-hour meeting will last at least three hours, regardless of whether all the subjects to be discussed are addressed in 45 minutes or not. At Friday’s meeting we spent 30
minutes discussing the format for future meeting minutes. Yikes.

Rice has to be served with a meal. You can feed Cambodians a pile of soup, meat and vegetables, but if the plateful of rice is missing they’ll feel cheated and hungry, and will promptly go in search of a bowl of rice after the meal. It’s just the way it is.

Meat with bones mean bonus time at the table, and they are to be chewed, sucked on and gleaned of
marrow. Fish bones are  insidious little health risks to Western throats but only minor impediments to be disgorged and stacked before Cambodians like tiny monuments to a happy dining experience.

Judging from the thousands of Cambodia guys sitting on motorbikes and in tuk tuks on nearly every street corner and along every main drag, two-thirds of Cambodia spends their day sitting around and waiting for something to happen. Remember, the average daily wage here is under $2.

Our friendly tuk tuk driver pal Tony told us he made 7000 riel in one day earlier this week (about $1.75) as reward for his 14 hour day. One cheap French couple paid him 500 riel for a cross-city trek (25 cents). $2 is the norm, by the way, and we never, ever pay less than that.

Cambodians are hopeless hypochondriacs. Everyone’s constantly worried about getting sick. One sniffle and they break out the mask and start pinching, coining and cupping themselves to stave off the oncoming disease. Small wonder, given the miserable state of health non-care in Cambodia.

And it seems as though everyone worries a lot about H1N1.

Chaos is endearing and contagious, though it sometimes feels like we’re at a convention for chronic Attention Deficit Disorder sufferers who also have nasty  cases of Tourettes Syndrome. Personal space doesn’t exist in theory or practice. People blurt out what’s on their minds (“Hey, you look fat today!”) though always with a big smile.
On Monday I made a mid-afternoon trip to the communal bathroom on my office’s floor. Two stalls, both open and occupied, one by a guy peeing, the other by a guy washing his feet in the toilet.

Yes, Toto, it indeed looks like we’re not in Kansas any more.


  • Iris Bray

    OMG I feel like I,m there!!!! Keep writing I;m enjoying every word!!!!

  • Leslie Galacar

    "Fried Crap with Curry" sounds like my kind of meal! Hysterical. Your descriptions and observations are excellent. If you and Gabi ever decide to move back to the states, you may have to go through a re-entry program; imagine the Peabody Essex Museum looking at their big picture windows to find you peeing on the side of their building!! Yikes!! 🙂 Enjoy the adventure! Miss you guys. Leslie g. ooxx

  • fbk

    NOW you’re talking! This is true ethnography, oh best beloved! Record EVERYTHING, store it and I guarantee you’ll refer back to it again some day. These are the details, btw, that you won’t find in ANY tourist brochure. Keep ’em coming! xoxofbk

  • Leslie! You continue to amaze me! Your talent continues to shine!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.