Sometimes, it’s easy to focus on all the fun and the great “adventure” that you’re having, but in the interest of balanced honest, I’m going to share some the harder things too. Fortunately, I have had a pretty good time so far, and I’m quite content to just plod along on my own. However, there are a few times when it went a bit wrong. One of these occurred last Friday.
The beginning of it went well and I had a nice day lined up. I was a bit tired from the day before, visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide museum and the Choeung Ek “killing fields”, but I thought the activities wouldn’t be too exhausting and I had Saturday to rest. The day started with my usual routine. My alarm went off at 6am, so I could be ready to walk to my Khmer lesson that starts at 8am. (This part of the day usually includes some frantic revision of the previous days’ vocabulary.) Then I go on my exciting walk to my language school. I will dedicate a post and a video to this part of the day. However, I will probably have to post it after I have moved to Siem Reap. I don’t want to know what would happen if my mum sees the daily dangers I have to negotiate (potential industrial workplace hazards, dangling overhead cables-which probably aren’t live, or at least I didn’t get killed when I walked into one- and then there’s route 271 which I have to cross). But last Friday, I managed survived without a hitch.
My Khmer lesson went okay, if a little exhausting at the end of the week. So, I headed to my usual haunt (Jars of Clay), because I had a few hours to kill before a work lunch. Jars of Clay is quite dangerous, as the cakes are very good. After a good deal of internal debate, I eventually gave into temptation and bought a slice of ginger and carrot cake. (I’m glad I did, because I didn’t end up making it to lunch.)
I went to Angkor Mart next door to buy some chocolates for the lunch (there were three people leaving, so I thought I’d bring something along). The plan was then to find my tuk tuk driver friend and get a lift to the offices. I have not yet been to the offices, but on my first day here I was given a flying tour of the city by my housemate on the back of his moto and he showed me where it was. I also had the site pinned on Google Maps. With these two sources of knowledge I felt confident I would find the place.
So, I looked around for my tuk tuk driver, ignore the calls of “Tuk tuk?” from all the others at the corner of the street. He usually hangs out by Jars of Clay, but he wasn’t there. My British sense of loyalty and social guilt made me reconsider the plan to get a tuk tuk. I thought perhaps if I walked to the Russian Market, where I know a lot of tuk tuk drivers hang out, he might be there. In hindsight, the probability of finding a particular tuk tuk driver in a city where there are literally thousands of them is very slim. What makes this even more ridiculous is that I actually have his phone number. However, I forgot to write down his name, so I was worried about phoning and appearing rude because I had to miss out the necessary pleasantries. If you are not a Brit, this is an insight to the constant social anxiety that we all have to live with (okay, I am a rather extreme version).
I walked to the Russian Market and, unsurprisingly, I did not find my tuk tuk driver. I knew there was another spot near a Buddhist temple where I could catch a tuk tuk not far away. So I got there, and I carried on walking. By this time it was about quarter to twelve, and it was hot. I crossed a busy road. My reasoning was that I work out how to navigate places a lot better if I walk. This is true. When I’m being given a lift somewhere (like on a back of a moto or in a tuk tuk), my ability to keep track of directions completely disappears. I quickly become disoriented and confused. So I thought, if I walked to the offices, it would be a lot easier to find it next time. Also, it was getting to the point where paying for a tut tuk seemed ridiculous. I knew that they would probably charge me two dollars for an insignificant distance. So I walked. In the heat. With a bag full of chocolates. To a place I had never been before.
(Quite often with my students, after they have done something a little, well, stupid, we would go through what happened, stage by stage. After this, they usually say, “Now I can see how ridiculous my behaviour was.” Writing it out like in this post is one of those epiphany moments.)
So I walked, and I found the place where Google Maps indicated the offices would be. But I couldn’t see anything that suggested they were there. As the sun was directly overhead, there was no shade afforded by the surrounding buildings. I thought I would WhatsApp my colleagues about where it was (again, hindsight tells me I should do this before I arrive- which reminds me to find the address of somewhere I need to go this Friday). And I waited for a response. In the sun, I waited for five minutes. There was no answer. I walked up and down the road to see if I could find any clues of where to go. There wasn’t. So I waited another five minutes. This point I was sweating uncomfortably.
Then I remembered I had the office number on an email somewhere. Squinting at my phone, trying to shield it from the sun, I scrolled through my emails. After some more squinting and scrolling, I finally found it on the signature of one the administrator’s emails. I dialled it, cursing my Khmer phone for making this process so difficult (don’t ask me about when I have to tackle an automated switchboard system). Finally, I managed to ring the number. And it rang. And rang. No one was picking up.
“Okay,” I thought, “I’ve got some of my colleagues on WhatsApp. I can find their details from there. I thought it would be easy. However, my hands were so sticky at this point it quickly turned my screen into a blurry, glistening mess under the midday glare. In order to see what I was doing I had to wipe my screen around every 7-15 seconds. Also, WhatsApp, I presume in an attempt to force you to make in-app calls, makes it hard to copy numbers from your contacts. I’m sure there is a way but it’s not easy when you can barely see what you are doing.
I found a number, wrote it on my increasingly moist hands, dialled it and waited. It rang. And it rang. And rang. They didn’t pick up. Find another number. Dial it. It rang. And it rang. And rang. Okay, last attempt. Find a third number. Dial it. Ring it. And it rang. And rang. I hang up defeated.
I sigh. I am soaked in my own sweat. I’m feeling dizzy. I don’t even want to know how the chocolates are faring. It’s got to the stage where I don’t want to be seen by anyone, as I’m so disgusting, let alone have lunch with them. So I decide to abandon it.
I start walking towards Tuol Sleng where I know there’ll be tuk tuks waiting for tourists. As I get half-way there a driver passes, sees the sweaty berang (white person) and says hopefully, “Tuk tuk?”
I nod and, barely getting the sounds out of my dry throat, I pleadingly reply, “yes.”
He turns his tuk tuk around.
“You know 271?” I ask.
“Two. Seven. One.”
“Yes,” his lips say; his eyes suggest otherwise.
“Yes,” he lies. It’s okay. I know how to shout left and right in Khmer, whilst waving my arms in the direction we need to turn.
So he heads off. He’s going in the correct direction; it’s a start. I slump back into the tuk tuk, exhausted and defeated.
I finally get a call from one of my colleagues. I explain how I probably won’t be going to the lunch after all as I was already halfway home.
We make it onto the 271. I can recognise it by the barrier with the yellow chevrons running down the centre. We need to turn around (a lot of the junctions meet the 271 where you cannot cross to turn left so you have to travel further up and do a U-turn). I manage to communicate this to my driver. I look out for the familiar landmarks that come before my turning. I must have missed them because we shoot past the road we needed to turn down. It’s fine, we can take the next right. I wait a bit. I get ready.
“Bat sadam!” I shout. “Bat sadam!” He hears; he turns. I grab onto the little rope acting as a hand rail. This road is rough and it quickly drops about three metres (this side of the 271 is a lot lower- the 271 is also known as the “dyke road” so it should give you a clue as to why).
“Bat sadam,” I say at the end of the road. I reach where I want to get off. “Chop chop!”
As I get off, I ask about the price.
“Six dollar,” he says.
“Six dollars?” I repeat. The driver looks a little unsure, so I obviously look unhappy.
“Six dollar,” he confirms. Today, my favourite tuk tuk driver charged me five dollars to go to the other side of Phnom Penh and back. That was probably five times the distance of what I travelled then. However, I was to exhausted to argue. I opened my wallet. I was confronted by about fifteen notes in both dollars and riel. My aching brain was finding it really hard to work out how much I needed, converting between the two currencies. I found a 20,000 riel note. How much was that again? Four or five dollars? 4,000 is one dollar. So that’s five dollars. I need 4,000 more.
At this point, he reached into my wallet. Never let anyone do this. (Next time you see me or my brother, ask about the time we got robbed by a heavily pregnant woman on the Champs-Élysées.) Fortunately, it didn’t end badly (for me or him); he took out two blue notes and four red ones (if they equal 4,000, work out how much each note is worth!). I nodded, said thank you despite not meaning it and trudged up the stairs to my apartment.
I kicked off my dusty flip-flops, whacked on the air-conditioning and go to sleep. Fortunately, I’m resilient enough to pick myself up and starting over. Your first years of teaching provide daily, if not hourly, practice of doing this.
When I woke up, I was starving. I looked in the fridge and all I saw bread, eggs and honey. Well, make do with what you get, I say. So I made French toast. So, I suppose it wasn’t too bad after all.
Other things I’m learning to live with
As this post is on the theme of struggles, I thought I would briefly tell you about some of the other things I’m adjusting to.
- Cold showers. The only way to get hot water is to use the kettle or to accidentally leave your bottle in the sun. I’ve got a reputation of taking a long time in the shower. I recently realised what the problem is: I don’t like the sensation of water on my head (yes, I’m that weird) so I often delay it as much as I can. It doesn’t help when you know it’s going to be icy water.
- Being the buffet table. All of Cambodia’s insects use my feet and legs like their own buffet table. I got bitten by this ridiculously tiny ant on the heel. My heel puffed up and went bright red. I daily have at least three large purple bumps added to my collection.
- Being sweaty. You don’t know how much roll on I use a day. If I know I’m out for a while, I’ve started packing a change of clothes.
- Dogs. Now I haven’t got my rabies vaccine because I thought, as I’m living in two major cities, how many dogs will there be? A lot is the answer. The risk of being bitten is not a major problem (until I meet the rabid one), but they fight throughout the night.
- Vertigo. This one isn’t because of having moved to Cambodia, but this year I’ve started suffering from dizzy spells. They’re worse when lying down, especially if I turn over quickly, and when I first get up. Hopefully, these spells will pass like the ones earlier in the year.
Like I said, I’m enjoying Cambodia. In a strange way these bad days make the whole experience richer and more rewarding. And I’ve still got the three boxes of chocolates to somehow get rid of. Now how will I manage that?