I have a friend back home who is beautiful and damaged, and any who looks can see both. She wears her damage due to hard living and not giving enough fucks to hide anything.
Around her, I feel the urge to take care of her--but truth is I lack the capacity and resources. She's got too much on her, too much in her. She's beyond repair. Thankfully she's damned near bullet proof so she just keeps on.
To her credit, she knows all this. She doesn't expect to be saved--all she asks is that you spend some time with her while she still has it (though I’ll be unsurprised if she buries us all).
She's beautiful for all that is damaged, and all that remains pristine.
This place reminds me of her.
"So what do you think of Cambodia?" My (step)brother--who’s lived here for more than a decade--asks soon after my arrival, two emptying cans of Angkor between us.
"I mean, siem Reap is a vacation town. It's kinda like Disney here.
My eyes bugged. "Dude. Cambodia seems haaard."
"How do you mean?"
"All the sidewalks are crumbling. Streets are dirty. It looks like life is hard for everyone."
"How many times you been to a third world country?"
It was a fair point--the only other was India, and this place seems more like Delhi than anywhere else I'd been.
There’s so much potential here, but for many reasons the gears never fully mesh.
There’s corruption, there’s poor planning. There’s an independent streak--necessarily born of forced self-sufficiency--that undermines them when banding together is advisable.
“This is the freest country in the world” brother says (a claim I also heard in, no surprise, India). “Zero barriers to competition. Which means that, if someone gets something good, everybody’s selling it the next day. They’ll line up four or five laundries in a row. You can’t do business that way--but they do it here.”
And when that happens, no one can get ahead.
“Last year was a hard year,” he says. Then takes a another sip of Angkor (which may or may not have drugs added to make you crazy) and laughs. “Year before that was, too. Last few, really. But even the good years can be hard.”
Things are different out here on the streets. You can see it in the eyes, on the faces of the restaurant workers and tuktuk drivers. This is a country that knows hard times.
Not since Delhi have I felt such strong come-ons from the beggars, nor have they looked so tragic. Here, as there, I justify saying “no” by knowing I can't save them.
I hear babies’ cries that sound like a pained cat’s wail. Then I realize, to survive here, kids have to self-soothe. They have to get strong early.
In my earlier life I serviced pharma. When told folks back home of my plans, some asked if I’d be working in pharma over (t)here. I’d laugh. Even my biggest multinational customers thought of Asia as Japan China Singapore, then maybe Thailand. The continent’s balance was virgin rain forest since:
- The demand for meds--and the ability to afford them--in a place like Cambodia is quite different from first-world (profitable) countries. They don’t need antidepressants or anxiolytics here because they ain’t got need for shit like being depressed.
- Anything they need here they just copy--IP law enforcement is very low in this part of the world.
From all this forced self-sufficiency comes incredible resilience and hope. If you make it to 18, you’ve seen a lot of shit. Probably had a few near-death experiences, might have seen one or more people you love die. Just this morning I witnessed a motorcycle accident: guy was towing a long trailer (yes, with a motorcycle), took the corner outside my guesthouse too fast, and plowed over the curb and into a utility pole. He got up, clearly in pain, then dusted himself off like it was no big deal. I helped straighten out his jackknife and off he went.
If you're looking for omens before setting off on your moto, that wasn't one of the good kinds.
Then later on the road a dog dodged flattening by a truck only to come within centimeters of my bike’s 60 kph path. This would have ended poorly for us both. I pondered it for a few moments, but too much was happening for me to meditate--appreciating my luck may have distracted me from more oncoming crazy. So I rolled on, as that’s all you can do here. Life is lived a kilometer at a time, a moment at a time. This place doesn’t facilitate planning. And the results, when not tragic, can only make you laugh.
Case in point:
After a night blowing off steam, and with me on the edge of puking, brother takes me for a massage. Lying in the massage room he asks in Khmer (because he’s fluent, making him a rock star in this place and me jealous a.f.) if they can turn the ceiling fan on. The response is a slightly embarrassed “no, sorry”.
As we stare up at the spinning ceiling we realize why: a post installed to hang privacy curtains was mounted deep in the fan’s path.
“This is what I’ve been saying, Jamie. You see that? That’s just.... that's Cambodia in a fucking nutshell. Welcome to my country.”