Thursday, June 07, 2007

Living in Cambo-di-a

with apologies to James Brown, may he rest in peace

Things are finally settled and secure here in Phnom Penh- I have a place to stay, I have my trusty motorbike, and I have my job. I've spent a regretfully short time out and about lately; househunting here is a full-time job, as the realtors are less than helpful, leaving the savvy traveler to contact a tuktuk driver and ask him where the best spots are. Said driver calls his friends, his relatives, his sister's roommates' mother's ex-fiancee, and his fellow tuktuk guys and then careens said savvy traveler around the city at a breakneck pace, showing apartment after apartment and leaving you to stand awkwardly next to some no-english-speaking homeowner who wants very desperately for you to live upstairs and make use of those rooms nobody's in right now.

So after a few days of all that, we (the intern trio) looked in our trusty Lonely Planet and found a guesthouse cheap enough to rent by the month and live in clean, safe, and utterly tiny style. I sleep in a closet. It's a closet with a bed in it, sure, but it's still a little petite. Intimate. Seven feet by seven feet, with a double bed that occupies 9/10ths of the room and a fan on the wall. On the upside, there's a little cafe downstairs, an internet room enclosed in mosquito netting up an entirely different set of stairs, and a cool lounging-sitting area. It's actually pretty nice, so long as the bedroom is conceptualized as a place one only goes when one is good and ready to sleep. It's in a great location- on the riverfront, not far from all the cute little restaurants, the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, and the like- I'll post pictures when I finally find a power converter with which to charge my batteries.

I haven't really gotten out to see anything (which is convenient, as I lack the camera to record it), but just tooling around town is crazy and interesting enough to sate my taste for adventure for awhile. Driving in Phnom Penh is a little like throwing yourself into a pool of bees and wading with the current. No matter how weird things are over here, though, I'm proud to say my home state of Michigan has managed to very securely rise to the top of the weirdness scale.

This weekend (here, it's Friday morning), I'm thinking of taking a depressing day and going to The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng (the Genocide Museum), to get my history lesson out of the way, and maybe lift my spirits back up at the Palace, the Pagoda, and the National Museum (which is a craaaazy place- rumor has it that in the evening at sunset, a mad flock of bats dives out of the eaves of the Museum (as the roof is one of those triangular open-construction deals) and goes out on patrol; the largest population of bats inhabiting an artificial structure in the world. If I go, I'll get pictures. It'll be like Batman) and, you know, balance the whole horrific terror with some reassurance that the world has come back to normal after Pol Pot.

But that's just the plan. I'm sure it'll change.

We went to a birthday party last week- one of the lawyers on the Juvenile Unit's son was turning two. I have never seen such a giant production for a two-year old. Happy Birthday was sung (by a karaoke machine) in no fewer than seven languages in a row; they got sick of it during the Cantonese version and shut it off to cut the cake. There were easily a hundred people there, each sitting at tables in a rapid-constructo party tent that filled the entire street on the block that the lawyer lived on. The tent was framed on either end by big plyboard mockups of Angkorian temples, and the food...

My fascination with the weird stuff people eat for fun may have met its match in the Cambodian diet. The meal was served Chinese-style, with big plates on a Lazy Susan that you'd just pick from whenever you felt like eating and put the food of choice in your personal bowl... in theory. In practice, the entire meal was a "I dare you to try..." game, in which each person ladled the weirdest thing they could find on the table into the bowl of the person next to them. Foreigner and Khmer alike tossed weird foods (fish gill, fish eye, fish brain, century eggs, pig ear...) into the neighboring bowl with a short laugh, like "Hey, man. Betcha can't eat this!" and everyone seemed thrilled whenever their "gift" was consumed.

Throughout the dinner, since we did happen to be in a tropical paradise, the furnishing of ice was an event of great ceremony. Guys with icebuckets and tongs prowled the party tent, and any time your glass's level dipped below the brim they'd shove the biggest chunk of ice they could in there. Should a spill event almost happen, they'd take the ice back out and put it right back in the bucket. No judgment, here, just pure reporting.

NEW FEATURE: Watch this space for regular updates on our new column...

This morning on the way to work, I nearly hit:

Schoolkids (on foot, bike, and moto), Monks (same), worker guys (in motos, motos with trailers, cyclos, handcarts, and random pieces of steel slung over their shoulder), tuktuks, oxen, A GIANT TOAD, a mack truck, a big construction truck full of bricks with guys sitting on the top of the cab AND on top of the bricks as they drove along, half the Khmer army...

The giant toad was the most startling. It was the size of a dinner plate, and looked angry.

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