When you move to a new country, especially one which is unlike your own (with a different language, culture and way of life), you often feel a bit helpless. You become far more dependent on others and sometimes even the smallest of tasks hold unexpected challenges. As I have been here for a year already, however, it’s easy to feel as if I know what I’m doing. Which of course, I don’t.
I have developed a rule about living in Cambodia: don’t be smug.
As soon as you start applauding yourself for being sorted and having it together, things will go wrong. There are a few examples of this that have happened in the last few weeks.
First was my attempt at getting my driver’s license. I keep getting conflicting information about whether I need it. I need to check with my health insurance provider to see what it says, really. In Cambodian law, you don’t really need a license if it’s a small motorbike. However, whether this applies to foreigners or whether my insurance would refuse to pay out if I had an accident without one is another matter. So, I thought I would get one.
I looked online and I gathered the documents I thought I needed. I was independent; I was in control – or so I thought. Vitou took me to the ministry of transport, which is quite some distance.
First, all the staff were on lunch. So we had to wait 45 minutes. Then, after the 30 minute journey and 45 minute wait, I was told I did not have the documents I needed. I should have remembered from last time that they now require a residency letter from your Sangkat (your district). So, with the journey back, that was nearly two hours of Vitou’s life I wasted.
And then there is my bicycle. I bought one! It has suspension. I was pleased about how useful that will be on my journey to school. You have to cycle up a badly paved, pot-hole ridden track. My bicycle does not, however, have much needed mud guards. So this means that cycling to and from work is a bit of a challenge.
However, on Thursday, I thought how well I had been doing to stay clean. I was cycling pretty slowly (trying to get the balance of reducing spray and maintaining momentum is harder than you think). My clothes were still mud free despite the puddles and potholes. I congratulated myself.
Then I was chased by a dog. Yes, at the exact moment I felt smug about my success a barking dog shot out of a nearby house and started chasing me down the muddy road. I raced off while barking back at the dog. It must have been quite a funny sight to anyone watching: a foreigner cycling through muddy puddles barking.
Deciding I needed to treat myself after such an ordeal, I went to have some cake and an iced tea at Second Jars of Clay (if you remember me writing about Jars of Clay last year, they have one around the corner to my school and house). I checked to see how muddy I was and, amazingly, I was barely dirty at all. The light spray had quickly dried and could easily be brushed off (hurrah for hot weather). So, I settled down for an evening of my favourite things: cake, tea, air con and WiFi.
Before I knew it, it was dark and I thought I should go home. Dusk in Cambodia is very different to dusk at home. In Europe, the nights gradually draw in, and you usually have a few hours of dimming light. In the tropics, it goes from completely light to pitch black in about half an hour (if that). Thankfully, I had remembered my bike lights, so I fitted them and set off on the five minute journey home.
Because of some road works and other construction, the road was gridlocked. I tried to weave between the trucks and motorbikes, but after being blasted with hot exhaust fumes and nearly catching my ankle on a few hot exhaust pipes, I decided to see if I could pull a short cut.
I darted off to the left, and began my way into some dark backstreets. Really, I should have turned left, and joined the main road again, but this would have meant I had effectively turned back on myself, going in the opposite direction of my house. I saw a concrete road going right, which was the way to my house. I thought it too good to be true and was happy with my discovery. Yes, I was even a bit smug, thinking about all the fools stuck back on the main road. However, the concrete abruptly stopped and turned into a mud-filled, boggy, uneven track. Further up this deteriorated still until it was essentially a pond. However, due to my stubbornness, I persisted.
Again, anyone watching would have wondered what I was doing, walking through a muddy field with my bike in the dark of night. But I made it.
I got home and stood in front of my bike light to see how filthy I was. There was barely a drop of mud on me! I was chuffed. I had survived my adventure unscathed.
Then I stepped back and collided with my muddy bicycle tire. So much for clean clothes. Then, I accidentally snapped my rear light off my bike whilst trying to ease it off. So much for my successful adventure.
However, humility is a good thing, I suppose. Conceding that I don’t know it all, as painful as it is, is probably healthy and will make surprises less, well, surprising. So, feel free to remind me: don’t be smug.