Life-changing, terrible, amazing, love-drenched, enlightening, emotional, sickening, indescribable. These are a few of the many adjectives deserving of a mention in my attempt at summarising the year I just spent living in Cambodia.
There are a million ways to measure my year.
The number of people able to fit on a single motorbike is a good place to start. I had hoped to see seven, which I know is do-able, but so far I’ve maxed-out at a mere six. I will never view a family car, nor the need for one, the same way again.
The peculiarities of traffic on Cambodian roads continues to flabbergast me. I keep expecting it to become mundane but it never has. The evaporation of all semblance of road rage no matter what is going on around me has accompanied a simultaneous evaporation of road sense as I came to know it at home. The best evidence of my new road behaviour is a recent head-on collision with another cyclist because we just didn’t think to get out of each other’s way in time, picking ourselves off the bitumen, staring at each other in shock for a moment and then cycling off without so much as a hint of annoyance. Trucks brimming to the skies with produce, all manner of animals traveling in all manner of ways amidst the humans, museum relics from my grandparents’ era driving on busy roads, and of course motorbikes. Millions of motorbikes.
In my final weeks six year old amputee Dara and I developed a little routine together of boarding my bicycle and cycling to the market for a treat (fried rice; fresh fruit shake; new pair of shoes; fresh coconut with the top sliced and a straw inserted through the opening; etc). On one of our first mornings doing this, we were cycling through the busy market area, navigating around unloading vehicles, fruit-and-vegetable-laden motorbikes, horse drawn carriages etc on the narrow crowded streets where the single road rule is “be polite about it”. One of the local tuk tuk guys friendly with Chom drove past and waved, spotted Dara on the back of my bike, did a u-turn and escorted us to our corner shop, waving to traffic and obstructing oncoming vehicles so that we could cross the road. On the same day I was cycling back to work at lunchtime as Chom drove towards me in the opposite direction. We called out in unison and both immediately did a u-turn, swapping sides of the road, laughing hysterically with a couple of unknown bystanders who had witnessed our impromptu comedy act.
Cycling alongside friends on motorbikes or tuk tuks is a familiar activity which I will miss. Teenagers here ride in groups up to five-wide, chatting animatedly as they cruise in the evening breeze and I think this is why I enjoy the experience – it makes me feel young and carefree. I will miss half-expecting to be joined by a friendly face wanting to travel apace me and chat or practise their English, or even just stare and smile before passing me by. Today the friendly face was a family of three on a moto who slowed down so that their son could have an English conversation of “Hello, how are you, I’m fine, what is your name, my name is…..” with the Barang on her bicycle. Many times colleagues have caught up to me and slowed down to socialise as we made our way towards the office or hospital together.
Cyclists holding onto the edge of trucks or the shoulder of a moto-driving friend, for a pedal-free journey is also common, as is children driving motos, children riding on the backs of water buffalo, men standing on empty wooden horse drawn traybacks, or sitting between massive blocks of ice or atop bales of hay as examples of the things old wooden carriages transport around towns across the country.
Women wearing their pyjamas to market, often as they side-saddle behind husbands, usually on motos laden with market produce squeezed and balanced precariously around the human bodies concentrating on the job of keeping things in place. One of my colleagues insisted that we wear our matching pyjamas to work one morning. I reluctantly agreed, and thankfully left the house as light rain was falling so I covered my fashion statement with a raincoat. But I cycled to my favourite breakfast haunt where I then had to remove the raincoat, revealing a pair of pale pink, floral baggy pyjamas. Not a single soul so much as gave me a second glance! Ditto at work – the only people remotely interested let alone amused by our attire, was us!
The loss of my translator who was transferred to another section weeks before my departure is a big one. Today he and his wife gave me a beautiful farewell gift, trumped by the card which reads “It’s nice to have known you, a good hearted person. I really enjoy working with you. I miss our conversation and visits to Dara. I never want you to go back at all. I wish I could work with you. I have not felt bored at all.” As they say in Cambodia, doch knea – me too! They know that when I return in a few months, the first place I will head is to their front door!
So many things at work have been heart wrenchingly desperate and terrible. But I have loved the beautiful patients and the fun loving, funny, lovable staff. The parties and weddings, the dancing and the buffoonery are a forever-memory impossible to describe with any justice. Khmer traditional dancing is a graceful oscillation of bodies gliding around a dancefloor centrepiece (a table, a tree, a bucket – anything will do!), supple hands rhythmically contorting like ocean waves in harmony with all of the other hands floating above the dancefloor. The clumsy Barang on the dancefloor always elicited attempts at dance lessons which inevitably collapsed into crazy hoopla as the futility of all endeavours became side-splittingly ridiculous. “Oh wow” are words I’ll always associate with judgements of my Apsara inabilities! My very first night in town was spent at my predecessor’s farewell. I was tired, dripping with sweat and uncomfortable, surrounded by strangers speaking another language but even then I knew that “Cambodian people know how to party”. A year later this fact has been reinforced in the most fun and happy ways as I take home new dance skills and many crazy laughter-filled memories.
Restaurant service. Red wine and beer served with ice. Waiters and waitresses relaxed to the point of making “service” a questionable description of their role. Rice for every meal. $3 meals of gourmet standard. Many friendships with staff as we teach each other our respective languages and laugh at each other’s obvious quirks.
Teaching English – a surprising pursuit which I never imagined in my wildest dreams I’d ever find myself enjoying. All that comes with this – the seemingly infinite accumulation of hopeful students, getting to know people well without sharing a common language with them and the crazy new endeavour of trying to teach when I don’t have a clue what I’m doing! Value placed on the English language has been an unexpected epiphany. Bonding with a beautiful group of children would have to be the highlight of all.
Babies swung to sleep in hammocks slung between trees or foundation poles underneath elevated thatched houses. Boats mooring on the riverside and their owners bathing in the Mekong, pouring pots of mud-brown water over their sarong-covered bodies. Dara’s family living out their days in full view of the world at Shackville, bathing fully clothed from the plastic rainwater drum on the roadside. Lots of memories of Dara, his three sisters, the workers they live with and the other children and community members who have been my most interesting neighbours. Talking with colleagues who survived the Khmer Rouge and other horrors of mass violence which Cambodia is still recoiling from, and trying to understand their world as opposed to mine of safety and comfort.
Cambodia. In short, an immeasurable experience.