Miriam Feder home


Entering Cambodia

My style has been to get out of the house as early as possible and walk for at least an hour. I’m staying with a now-friend (Monday, I was waiting for her in her apartment poised to meet her) near the River and the promenade is very like ours in PDX. I’m aiming for 5:30–6 am but have always been a little bit later. But it’s been early enough to smell sweet air for a few moments and catch impressive sunrises from the east.

Crossing the street can be treacherous and I cross several major intersections to get to the river walk. (Phnom Penh is, of course, laid out in homage to Paris and traffic circles can be particularly challenging.) The Cambodian driver who needs a lane will instantaneously convert the more central lane of a multi-laned road irrespective of the weight and worthiness of his vehicle. Also slow vehicles will enter a street in opposition to existing traffic.

There are many exercisers out and about in the early am. Apparently Khmer people got the memo on exercise and walk and use publicly-installed equipment. Women my age and older seem perfectly comfortable chopping the air and waving their arms in an energetic display of public privacy. (Albeit in treacherous shoes.) Men tend to be more involved in jumping sorts of exercises. We have to do it before 8 because this is an early society and by then it’s also getting too hot. I walk briskly, stopping regularly to exercise my new camera and occasionally wave around my left arm. When in Rome…

The river, by the way, is the Tonle Sap—a river that flows out of and other seasons into Tonle Sap Lake, north of town. The Mekong, a bit to the east, joins the Tonle Sap at about the point I turn inland to admire the Royal Palace and wander around Wat Onalom. (Yes, in my head this plays Adon Olum.) This is day 2 here and I head inland to see if I can negotiate another route home. I find myself in the hustling bustling old market area—not the relatively spiffed up Central market I’d been to the day before. More pictures of fishheads, vegetables, and people sleeping in hammocks above their businesses. I decide that I too could buy a traditional noodle breakfast from a stall, after watching how the assemblage occurs. When there seems to be a break in the heavy action, I venture in with my recipe for the build-your-own (by proprietor, of course) feast, pointing and smiling a lot. I come away with a tasty of concoction of breakfast for 3000 Real—just under a dollar.

The next morning on my walk, I discovered fried dough balls on a table outside a huge construction site across from where I’m staying. (Don’t even ask me about the lack of a safety perimeter as they hang huge sheets of glass from this atrocious skyscraper. But I’m happy-in a way-to see women in hardhats. I wouldn’t want to look at their lungs, though.) I point at the ball rolled in what looks like sugar and it is mine, bringing a smile to the seller’s lined and toothless face and a discovery to my mouth. Sugar indeed—a doughnut. A little heavier than ours and chewy. In a few more bites I finnd the savory bean-paste filling, a bit shocking but a great texture. That night I learn that in US communities with significant Cambodian populations, they run the donut trade. Dunkin will not be stocking these soon, but not because they aren’t tasty.

There’s still a breeze–good. It’s later than I’d planned because I had an amazing small world—totally Portland—experience with my lovely hostess just before she hopped into the shower. It turns out my new friend in Portland, Put who was so helpful in getting me excited about, and then prepared for Phnom Penh, worked for my hostess and lived with her when Put was here last. And amazingly enough, Put wasn’t our connection. No–friend Carol put me together with a cousin by email and the cousin’s dear friend has a daughter in PP. The world is so wonderfully big and small—trite perhaps, but true and amazing. My daughter Lori says this makes her head explode. Me? It always reminds me how much I love living in Portland and the spirit of Portland that lifts my wings and follows me around.

Speaking of amazing, my ATM withdrawal works, after big time-change impaired emails, so by installments, I will be able to pay rent Sunday on the new apartment I rented Wednesday (Everything happens in cash—dollars— here and I’ve already learned that I need to hoard ones. I’m slowly starting to function—mostly for street food and tips—with a bit of Cambodian currency, which one accumulates as change. However I’m still a bit shocked in a currency measured in thousands.) The rental process/finding etc. seemed easy and I’ll believe it when I’m in—like everything else. It’s a nice one bedroom in a small building on a quiet alley off the street behind the Royal Palace. (Street 19 just north of 240, for the Google map junkies—and you know who you are.) Finally, life near a Royal Palace. I’m willing to settle, since I gave up on Charles when he married Diana. The King here is openly gay, so I doubt I’m getting any closer than down-the-street.

While it will be quite a commute in to work I think it will be worth it to be near the river and the more fun parts of town. And I think expat life will be fun.

I’ve met the other AJWS volunteers who are in Phnom Penh. (There are two stationed in rural provinces.) Several work near me and all work with NGOs who have a youth-empowerment mission. We got together at our AJWS contact’s wife’s restaurant (yummy. Ratanakiri—named for the far northeastern province his family fled to when he was 10 to avoid the Khmer Rouge genocide. It’s also close to my new apt. There’s no shortage of delicious, multi-ethnic and other-variety, cheap food here in Phnom Penh, as well as fine dining, cheap by our US prices. We celebrated one fellow-volunteer-couples’ joint 70th birthdays. The youngest of us seem to be a 30-something couple who cashed it in and will travel round the world when this is done. Then there’s a guy around my age. So a wide swath for the 6 of us.

About that genocide: I spent a very hot and dusty day at the Killing Fields Memorial site and the Tuol Sleng prison in town here where the victims were first detained and then tortured. (The population of Phnom Penh was completely turned out in 3 days when the Khmer Rouge (“KR”) rose, on the heels of the US evacuation. So the city was occupied only by KR officials) I went with the fellow I’ll be working with at KYSD, my non-profit. Our long dust-soaked tuk-tuk rides were good chances to get to know one another and it was interesting to be with a Cambodian at these sites.

It’s shocking to see this torture and killing machine that worked so efficiently without Hitler’s first world infrastructure, trains, roll calls, and elaborate process. And yet it was so like all of that. Close to 3 million people were murdered in almost 4 years, almost all Cambodians murdered by Cambodians.

When Lori and I spent the day at Auschwitz-Birkenau it was around 20 degrees and a foot of snow fell during the day—seeming to cleanse the site. That bitter cold reminded me of the extreme privation cold adds to any bad situation. I could hear my Grandmother’s description of the cold in tales of deportation (December) and again in her long march out of Latvia to Poland. Here the extreme heat also framed the privation and misery.

I’ve always been shocked by the dates of the Holocaust—they seem so recent. But the dates of this experience are really stunning—my college career—only yesterday. There’ll be much more to absorb. Needless to say, it’s a huge scar on this country and these people and only one of many late-20th century misfortunes here. All of them are a huge reminder of how wrong we can get foreign policy in the US and all the other powerful nations, among other things as well as the strange and shifting alliances small countries are sometimes forced to make and often suffer for, disproportionately. It harkened me back to Madeleine Albright’s recent book, based on Czechoslovakia.

I’ve made it through most days without hitting the wall, so I think my body must think it’s on some sort of schedule. More adventures.