I’m home in Buffalo. Christmas is happening. Lots of shopping. And the very last bits of culture shock are revealing themselves.
Walked into a Bed, Bath & Beyond.
Said something like: “Whoa, MOM, there are so many shiny THINGS in here.”
And walked around like a four year-old looking at the shiny toasters, walls lined with gadgets for no discernible purpose, and gadgets with space-age purposes like the thing that makes soda out of ANYTHING, and… and… fancy china patterns and picture frames and a million things. So convenient! Anything you want you can have! For your bed or your bath or your beyond!
At home again, I began to muse about all the super-convenient things about living in Phnom Penh.
There are many, many many problems. See also: it’s a developing country. But just because there a bunch of real, important issues, it doesn’t mean some things aren’t strangely convenient for the expat. Posterity demands a list.
So. Off the top of my head:
-Transportation is plentiful. So plentiful you barely have to think the word “tuk-tuk” or “moto” and bam: You have a ride to anywhere.
-Maybe you’d like to go to a tropical beach for the weekend. That will cost you $6 and take four hours on an air-conditioned coach bus. (Bring headphones to drown out the overhead karaoke music.)
-Everything is in cash. No need to budget or use silly debit cards. Spend what you actually possess.
-Need a coconut water? That will be 25 cents, on any corner. From a coconut. (Take THAT, tiny boxed coconut water in the fridge at the Bikram studio.)
-At any given point in the day, you can find any of your friends in one of four cafes.
-Maybe you’d like to learn more about international human rights. Well, you’re in luck, as one of the world’s most important human rights tribunals is happening right now and… look, there’s someone working on the case. Eating a banana nut muffin. Ask her what’s going on.
-Pairs of shoes you really really need? One. And you can get them custom-made.
-Would you like a new apartment? Sure. Here’s one. It’s furnished. For $200 a month.
-If you can’t find the kind of shop you need, you’re probably just on the wrong street. For example, one whole block is devoted to guitars. Another to mattresses. Another to electric fans.
But my very favorite non-essential convenient thing is getting your hair washed, for a dollar, in a market or a salon. In an often-sweltering city, where hot water showers ain’t so common, it feels like a huge luxury.
These places are beautiful jewel boxes of human interaction, with shampoo and a blow dryer and a cup of tea. Walk in, mime washing your hair, sit down in a chair. Face the mirror. The smiling woman and maybe her daughter or niece or cousin are there to pour shampoo on your dry head and lather it into a tower of soap. You are, in fact, a shampoo commercial now. Then, a rinse under the sink and a blow-dry in front of the mirror. Read a Khmer magazine. Have two girls attack your long hair with flat irons. Wonder if they should be in school. Is it a weekday? Oh lord. Make small talk in broken Khmer. Smiles back and forth. You’re beautiful! They say. No you’re beautiful! You argue back. It’s a debate, full of giggles, until you can make your way out the front door again.
Walk out into the hot-hot heat.
Hope there’s no rain.
That would be so inconvenient.
Sometimes I think about the little dog at the furniture factory. I lived off a narrow dirt road in Phnom Penh, about the width of an alley but lined with open-air shops and shacks. One was a furniture workshop, where young men worked all day with paper masks over their mouths. They shaped beautiful glossy, red-brown headboards, chests and tables of tropical wood, every piece heavy as marble. When I walked by they looked up from their lathes and stared over their red-tinged paper masks.
The little dog maybe used to be white or cream or tan but now it was a streaky orange, tinted the same as the furniture. Mostly it slept or just looked bored, but sometimes its puff-tail wagged when people passed.
Walking down that narrow road felt intrusive, like stepping through backyards and bedrooms. People stopped talking. Bloody meat and fly-covered fish in the market stalls seemed too close. Half-dressed itty-bitty kids shouted “HELLO!” and followed until it became a mini-parade. I couldn’t reconcile “Hi, let’s be neighbors” with “Sorry for being a space alien, can I just get home?”
It was especially bad because that’s why you go new places, right? To meet people and become part of a new fabric? Guilt-guilt-guilt.
But sometimes after a long, hot, awkward walk I’d turn around and find that little puff-dog at my heel, wagging its puff-tail.
Back at home now, months later, I think of that alley, and the furniture factory and the little dog. I wonder if it is ok being wood-stained or if it misses being white or cream or tan. And I think about how happiness sometimes sneaks up that way. A hot day. A long walk. But when you get to the main road, you see that some weirdo scrappy guardian has been at your heel the whole time, disguised as a freakin’ end table.