How on earth do we survive out here? It must be a complete mystery to many locals here in Phnom Penh. How did we get here? How do we function? We are so manifestly ill-equipped for life on the streets of Phnom Penh and we are in endless need of rescuing. We may be gargantuan in proportion but we are clumsy giants, slow and stupid in how we navigate the streets. We are helpless. Utterly without either technique or guile!
Only yesterday, I spent so long trying to cross a road to get to a local vegetarian restaurant that to both my embarrassment and my relief, the security guard outside (they are outside every institution, they keep an eye on parked up bikes mainly) ended up blowing his whistle and stopping the traffic so I could reach them. It was a good lunch though – noodles on a hot plate, sizzling away. Less that $4 I think from memory.
It’s the Vitking restaurant, really near the superclean car wash which makes me laugh every time I walk past. The team do a great job of cleaning cars it is true, but it is the filthiest, dustiest street in the world surely. Even though they cover the cars when clean, as soon as the owner drives them away they will surely be coated in dust and splattered from beneath with worse. Oh well, each to their own. The photo really doesn’t do the context justice, but will serve for now!
This is one of many such interactions. The woman on a bike in amongst a wall of motos at a 8-lane highway who waved us across an intersection is but another example.
There is however, a particular reason for this post – which should serve as a welcome alternative perspective on life in Phnom Penh to the account about bag-snatching here being an occupational hazard of daily life here.
I’ve been here several weeks now. Each day, sometimes several times a day, I make the short trek from where I am living to CWF where I am working. This necessitates picking my way along an incredibly busy highway, where you have to take your life in your hands. Each metre you must make a split-second decision about whether you prefer to risk being bitten by one of the succession of nasty guard dogs that line the way; or stepping out into the wall of traffic which feels as risky as doing so in front of an approaching speeding train but through necessity I have learned you can do on occasion without being hit. The pavements are a constant weaving between frustrated moto riders who are trying for a short cut; and then there are the obstacles of piled rubbish; parked up vehicles; street vendors carts. You get the idea, it’s all pretty distracting. Only occasionally does some obstruction bring everything to a standstill. Great if you are in front of such an incident, empty roads being a much enjoyed rarity, a nightmare if you are behind it as if one thing is more scary than the roads of Phnom Penh, it is the roads gridlocked in high sun with frustration mounting.
The point is, it takes concentration and guts to get to school. The CWF building is in fact set back a bit from the main road, loads of bikes are parked up in front of it. I’d really like to get a photo of it from the other side of the road, but this road is a 6-lane highway and basically i have yet to see an opportunity to cross it safely. Maybe I will pluck up courage to attempt this before I leave.
Anyways, on this particular occasion, I was so deep in concentration as I navigated the route, I completely overshot the CWF building! I felt pretty stupid for doing so, but as I basically approached what is the junction for the Phnom Penh sports club, I realised what I’d done, and feeling ridiculous, but relieved that after all ‘who would ever know?’ I did a U-turn and started retracing my steps back to the school. As I did so, I saw the old guy who habitually sits bare-chested and silent, usually just wearing a Cambodian shawl around his middle, or occasionally shorts, frantically waving and gesticulating at me! He was trying to call me back. It had never previously occurred to me that he must recognise me and know my routine, we hadn’t ever previously acknowledged one another. Yet here he was, spotting that I’d gone wrong and attempting to rescue me! It was hilarious! I waved back, doing a slapping my forehead ‘aren’t I stupid’ sort of gesture as I approached him. He was laughing and shaking his head. I like to think my crass stupidity had quite made his day. Good spot and good shout on his part.
So this isn’t even the climax of the story… oh no. So I go into CWF premises where there are a fair few staff assembling for evening lessons. I start to relate my amusing anecdote of ‘you’ll never guess what happened I over-shot the building…‘ only to find that of the assembled company almost all had also done so at some point… and almost all had similarly turned around to see our guardian elder waving at us like a human signpost!
Do you have any idea how funny I find this? What must they make of us dozy foreigners, who have somehow mysteriously made it all the way to Cambodia, but cannot locate our own work building after many weeks, and are yet to make it across the road. For my part, I am quite pleased to find I have all this time had an unknown elder watching over me. I now smile at him as I pass, in return I get a wide toothless grin. Yesterday we even upgraded to a wave! I am chuffed. I wonder what he thinks? I may be another inept foreign teacher, but I am his inept teacher, and he will look out for me. It makes me happy. I’d love to get a photo of him before I leave, but lets wait and see how the relationship develops. I don’t want to cheapen it by making him just a holiday snap souvenir. What we have is better than that!
In the interests of fairness and transparency I feel I should also point out that the tuk tuk driver outside my apartment has helped me out too before now. He is always sleeping in his tuk tuk as I pass, and I’ve never used him because I walk everywhere. I didn’t think he’d particularly noticed me, and to be honest, I haven’t especially noticed him, on account of the fact that he is mostly lying motionless in the shade of his vehicle. But on one occasion I did exactly the same thing, was walking home and over shot. He actually called after me to bring me in safely, like air traffic control talking down a plane in the fog. People do look out for you in the community it seems, more than perhaps I’d realised. It would be easy to think of Phnom Penh as a hostile environment, but it is not. People here, like anywhere, watch out for one another, it seems on these occasions at least, their peculiar foreign visitors as well.
So remember dear reader, you may sometimes feel alone in the world, but maybe you have an unknown guardian looking out for you too. I like to think so.