The Meanderthals

We’re here — but we’re not all there!

On Tuesday evening, we watched the sun set over the Boston harbor.

On Thursday morning, we saw the sun rise as we floated across the vast Pacific ocean — streaks of pinks and oranges across the sky, with huge billowy clounds tinged with purple.

It was quite a sight to behold. Vistas of a brand new world unfolding before our eyes and the anticipation of the adventure which awaited us when we landed in our new home -to-be.

The flight from Los Angeles was a dream. Having pooled our air miles and tossed in some extra cash, we decided to treat ourselves to Business Class travel for this epic journey (27 hours in flight from Boston to Phnom Penh). We both agreed it was worth every cent as it was by far the most exquisite travel experience either of us had had in our lifetimes.

Our itinerary put us on EVA Airlines, an Asian carrier we’d never heard of, and we are now singing its praises to anyone who listens. From the moment we checked in at the counter (“I’m so sorry to keep you waiting“) to the moment we disembarked after 14 hours of being pampered, we loved it all. The seat was larger than any we’d ever seen, with no less than 7 buttons to control the recline, lumbar rest and foot rest, and the fluffy pillows and comforter rivalled any we’d seen in a luxury hotel.

The 747 jet felt as though it was gliding through the air and, every step of the way, we were treated to wonderful meals – fresh scallop and shrimp salad, chicken Mandarin, a “snack” of shrimp and pork wontons in the middle of the night and breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, warm croissants and eggs benedict. And the service was beyond perfect — everything we needed at every time. I was particularly impressed every time I went to the bathroom to discover that the toilet paper had been folded into a decorative triangle and the facilities spotless.

However, as we crossed the world, watching movies (a total of 5) and dining on fine cuisine, it also felt strange that, with every mile, we were leaving behind everything familiar and everyone we love.

We disembarked first in Taipei, Taiwan, before our final flight and were immediately struck by the incredible sophistication and beauty of the sparkling airport with upscale stores, fine restaurants and relaxation points every few steps.

And, as we boarded our final flight for the 4 hour trip to Phnom Penh, we wondered what would await us at the end of our journey.

Well, it’s now Friday morning and we’ve been here for less than 24 hours and I’m struggling to find the words to explain how it feels. Our initial arrival took us into a sparse airport where we were whisked through disembarkation, visa application and bag delivery in an impressive 20 minutes. The tuk-tuk from the Spring Guest House was waiting for us, loaded all our bags into the back of the vehicle and we took off. Into….something I’ve never quite experienced before.

Dirty roads, wild drivers, lack of any system of traffic control, broken down buildings, stifling heat and a feeling of being so very completely out of my element that I am not quite sure how to deal with it.

It’s funny how a concept is sometimes very different from reality and I wonder if I glamorized the idea of Phnom Penh, without really learning enough about what I was coming to. I’d imagined a sophisticated, worldly city where we could get most of the things we have at home, find nice restaurants and walk through interesting streets.

Instead, I am experiencing a place that is nothing of the kind. The streets are chaotic and it’s impossible to try and cross the road without lingering on the edge , holding your breath as motorbikes, tuk tuks, cars, bicycles and street vendors whiz by in a sensless mess of disorder and confusion. Most of the time, Skip grabs my hand and yanks me behind him me or we’d be standing for hours waiting for a break in the action.

The sidewalks are broken up and filled with garbage. Everything stinks. The heat is stifling and I’m constantly damp from head to toe. There are chickens on the street. Nothing is sophisticated. Nothing is cute. It is all incredibly overwhelming, scary and weird.

I have to offer the disclaimer that, after all, we’ve only been here about 20 hours so I’m not expecting these feelings to continue (please, God) but at this point in time, it’s hard for me to imagine being here for 12 days, never mind 12 months.

As expected, our surroundings are also weird (I keep coming back to that word). As a backpacker hotel, I’m sure it’s fine, but after the luxury of EVA Air, we now find ourselves in a 12′ by 14′ tiled room with a double bed, tiny bedside table with a phone, small dresser containing a 12″ TV, one hanger for clothes and two drawers (guess we’ll be living out of suitcases for 4 weeks). The bathroom has a shower but the shower actually IS the bathroom as there’s a handheld showerhead on the wall so that you have to shower in the middle of the room, with no curtain, no door or no tub. Yes, the bathroom is always wet! (oh, and the soap they provided was miskaken by Skip who thought it was a mint on our pillow! — one of our funnier moments!).

Last night, we took ourselves down to the riverfront and found a selection of open air restaurants where we had a meal and talked about our feelings in this alien place. We watched as tiny little children begged on the side of the road, street vendors cooked over open flames in 90 degree temperatures and handicapped beggars watched us until we shooed them away. The meal was nice and then we took ourselves for a foot and shoulder massage which was the perfect treat for our weary, overwhelmed bodies and souls. The total for the night was $25 which was also nice.

Then, as we walked into the guesthouse around 11pm, a rat ran across our paths.

Today, we were both fully awake at 5am, after 4 1/2 hours sleep, so decided to venture out. We walked for about 40 minutes trying to find the air-conditioned coffee shop we’d spotted last night and finally gave up, hailing an ever-present tuk tuk, and let him guide us to a similar spot where we found iced lattes (somewhat sweeter than those at home), croissants and air conditioning.

As we played cards and reminsced about the path in our lives which had led us here, we also decided that we could always find these little oases along the way where we could take refuge in the familiar whever we need them. Iced lattes, foot massages, air-conditioning, American programs on TV, luxury hotel rooms.

And, mostly, that it is so very important to go one step at a time. Breathe. Talk to one another. Realize we have chosen to be here. And that there is nothing we can’t do – together – when we have the right outlook.

Just, please, please, please….no more rats.



  • fbk

    Dearest travelers, I suspect that by now, you are over the initial cultural shock of the city and its many "gifts." Now the days will bring new challenges and perspective on the both the world you know and the one you don’t. There are beauties everywhere, and you will find them, even in a place that today seems so alien. Let it all flow over you, watch closely, and see what it is that people find valuable. You will find it too … by a different route. Soon enough, the heat will seem normal (and you will wonder how you ever weathered New England winters!) and you will have found new oases … Keep us posted on your househunting, new adventures, new friends, and never mind the rats … there’s a blight that you’ll find in every new city! Got you in a bear hug (but with the air conditioning on!) …fbk

  • Jackie Harris

    All I can say is that you’re both very brave. As fbk says, you will get used to it – up to a point, anyway, and the only way to survive this unfamiliar, even weird, world you’ve found yourselves in is to look at it as an adventure, which isn’t going to last forever. There’s only one way to eat an elephant, and that is to take one bite at a time,,, SO, just try and take one step and one day at a time! And just think of that book you’re going to write one day…! Keep your chins up. Lol, Jackie Harris

  • nealw

    Frank & Gabi: Thanks so much for sharing your adventure. I enjoy reading your posts very much and Frank, you’re such a great writer, it almost seems like I’m there with you. I spent a couple of months in Taiwan and Hong Kong once and some of your experiences remind me of that trip. It’s great being able to stay in touch with you via this blog so thanks for your posts and best of luck to both of you. – Neal Wells

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