Friday, September 26, 2008

Kinds of Rain

Dear Grandma,

You told me once that when you watch the evening news, you always check the weather in whatever place I happen to be living. It’s a connection—a way of looking out for me. You did this when I lived in Chicago, you did this when I lived in New York. You got nervous about any inclement weather I might have to face. And now I have moved to a point beyond the edge of the weather map, which I know has only amplified your worries. So here is a special meteorological report, just for you.

I arrived in Cambodia near the end of the rainy season. How can I explain the rain here? In the mornings it comes down in long silver strands, drawing straight lines from the sky to the ground. Even in this crowded, chaotic city, that kind of rain seems to bring a hush, sort of like the muffling quality of Midwestern snow, and it can be calm and pretty—a rain painting. Or sometimes, in the middle of the day, a spattering of heavy raindrops will appear out of nowhere. The sky directly above will be clear and sunny, but fat blobs of water will splash onto my shoulders with the weight of coins. But in the late afternoon or evening, thunder booms in the distance and the rain comes down like watery missiles being fired into the ground. And then the wind picks up, creating enormous buffeted spheres of air and water droplets that roll through the streets like they’re chasing someone.

Two days ago, I witnessed my first flash flood. While Jason and I were walking to a museum, the rainclouds seemed to tip over all at once, drenching everything in an instant. In the shelter of a coffee shop, we licked ice cream cones and watched the tuk-tuk drivers, the men who own the little motorized taxi carts, throw on ponchos the colors of spring flowers and snap covers onto their vehicles. The gutters were full of turbulent currents when we climbed into one of the tuk-tuks; the streets had turned into canals just a few minutes later. The driver stopped and pointed at the block with the museum—the road had become an impromptu swimming pool for the neighborhood kids, who were unfazed by the still-torrential rain. “Back?” the driver asked us. “Go back?” That was when we made the questionable decision to climb onto the barely-there sidewalk and go on foot instead.

It was impossible not to think of all the stories you’ve told me about the floods on the Ohio: how you’d have to move all the furniture upstairs and then move it through the windows onto boats when the water reached the second floor; how it would be weeks or months until you could move back in and your father would have to keep the water moving through the house with brooms so that a knee-deep layer of mud didn’t collect; how the wooden floors warped under all that water until every board looked like a crumpled length of ribbon.

So I thought that, surely, this rain would shut Phnom Penh down for hours or even days. We gave up on walking to the museum—the entrance was at the end of a long swirling river. I had to close my eyes while we waded across the street, so I did not have to look at the paper cups and dead leaves and dog poop floating past my ankles. We fled to a nearby restaurant where I could wash my feet in the sink of the restroom, and as I did, I wondered how I would ever make it back to the apartment. So I found it curious that none of the native city-dwellers seemed to be treating the situation as a disaster. Hundreds of motorbikes and cars went about their usual business, plowing through the streets and leaving great rooster-tails of water in their wake. In the bars and restaurants, people were relaxing and laughing and beginning to order their after-work drinks. In minutes the rain had stopped; in an hour the floodwaters had disappeared, leaving behind a city that looked like it had received no more than a light shower. The rain here, just like lots of other things in Cambodia, works in mysterious ways, and I don’t pretend to understand it yet.

Whenever I talk to you on the phone, we speak of the weather, the droughts and storms in Felicity and wherever I am. But this is not because we are making mindless chitchat the way other people use weather talk. It is because you, more than anyone else I know, understand the importance of weather, the power of it. Tornadoes have been known to rip through entire communities just up the road from you, lightning now kills more people each year in Cambodia than landmines do—when you ask me how the weather is, I know it is not as simple a question as it seems.

So let me add, to offset this talk of storms, that there is lots of weather that happens between these brief spells of rain. The clouds disappear as soon as you turn your back. And if you’re lucky, there’s a dry period just as the sun gets low in the sky. It’s good to sit on the balcony when there’s a Golden Hour, that time of day that photographers love, when the angle of light makes everything soften and glow. The old buildings, the rusted gates, the teeming streets—suddenly they all look inviting and almost familiar. I sit and watch the world go by, and I think of you on your porch, and I hope that the sun is on its way to make an evening just like this one, for you, on the other side of the world.

Love always,

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Re: The Art of Walking


Dear T,

This place is a photographer’s dream. Every day I step out with my camera and every night I’ve taken maybe four pictures. There’s just too much; putting a lens between yourself and the city is like putting horse blinders on. This is a 360° place and nowhere is that more apparent than in the street. Crossing the intersections of Phnom Penh is the true making of life into art. There are precious few stoplights and they are only occasionally obeyed; neither the right nor left side of the street is especially reserved for the flow of traffic. Thousands of motorbikes dart every which way, every inch of empty space a potential new current. Neaveau riche Land Cruisers, chugging whales, plow through so many fish, so many expendable, unprecious lives. Your form and the rhythm of your steps keep you alive to the next curb.

The streets are newly paved, but their quality conjures a recent past of pig-mud ruts, the medieval Europe of school books where waste buckets are tipped from second story windows. Gleaming hotels and condos ringed in razor wire have sprouted every few blocks and they loom like fresh pink seashells above slums where families of six live in tin-roofed shacks the size of a hotel bathroom. The apartment we’re crashing in is of the same kind, though Kate tells me it does not count as wealthy when compared to the homes of long-term expats, those who have turned UN funding into paychecks while in the service of bringing Cambodia into the Global Community. “Cambodia is a dream because even if you’re poor, you’re not that poor,” Kate says, pointing from the balcony toward the hovels and tents and off down the muddy alley toward the moon, the whole city beneath her index finger. I follow the arc she draws and I hope it – or some other yet-discovered comfort – is sufficient for me to feel justified in my lifestyle here. But I could never consider myself poor.

Maybe I should not come to feel justified in my lifestyle here. Lifestyle, what a word. Doesn’t situating our days and nights in this, that, or the other fashion insult us? That’s rhetorical; I know your answer. But the seduction of a justified expat life is so compelling it is scary. Everything is so inexpensive and damn near everyone is so genuinely nice. I’ve never been to a friendlier place nor met a friendlier people. I’ve called “sustai” (hello) to hundreds of people and only two or three haven’t smiled and returned the same. It defies imagination how people so brutalized have remained so…I want to say ‘sweet.’ Their smiles could make it so second-nature to just accept the pleasures of buying whatever I want, being serviced whenever I want. For instance, Kate has a housekeeper who comes three times a week. She’s not a good housekeeper, but that’s beside the point. I don’t want a fucking housekeeper, no matter how affordable. I want to take care of my own mess. But then you get to thinking, “well, it is providing income to someone who needs work, Jay. Maybe you should think of it as charity.” I’m figuring I’ll choose a different method of giving charity, but you get my point. The social paradigm is arranged such that there is no easy way to Do the Right Thing.

I’m not even sure what the Right Thing is anyway. Take those chi-chi condos and apartments. I’ve learned that Kate’s place is down the street from Tuol Sleng, the infamous torture house of the Khmer Rouge. No Khmer in his right mind wants to live so close to such a thing, so only those who have no choice and we Westerners who don’t know better do so. Other neighborhoods in the city have less Dark Ages poverty in them. You’re crossing the street like a game of Frogger, and you realize a lot of those motos are new. There are a good number of hip teenagers with complicated haircuts zipping about come four o’clock, some plugged up with iPod earphones. And the SUVs are fucking monstrous. Yesterday, I saw a Lexus (with, inexplicably, a metal plate reading Toyota riveted to the flank) larger than any car or truck I’ve ever seen, no lie. Expats tell me that there is a growing middle class, that a middle class will emerge in the next generation or two, this, that, or the other. And middle classes are essential; they keep money in-house and have the time and finances to demand a little respect for a people now and then. So then I guess I shouldn’t talk trash on the Pink Palaces and Kate’s cleaning lady. But still, those gas-chugging dinosaurs. Those bitches aren’t sustainable tools of a strong middle class. They are the tools of a take-the-money-and-run class, the kind of Golden Umbrella-ed Thieves who have about tipped our economy off the ledge. They’ve tricked America into these fleeting toys and we, with the benefit of widespread education, haven’t known better. What kind of outcome can be expected from a beat-down people just getting a glimpse of The Good Life? It’s worth noting that the only modern and shiny new buildings here besides our Dreamland apartments and the occasional (only occasional) government building are gas stations and huge car dealerships. The dealerships seem to be mostly Japanese, but the spirit and style are All-American, these unwieldy things trying like beached whales to double-park, the man inside talking on a cell phone while the motos stack up behind like blood cells backing-up in a clogged artery. Cell phones, they’re ubiquitous. You can be in the full-on ‘hood and you’ll still see multiple – multiple! – shacks decked out in bright new phones for sale, the tell-tale yellow beach umbrella out front like a Golden Arches. And everyone but the monks and those women who still wear Khmer pajamas to the market wear western clothes. To paraphrase Obama, “America: the world’s last best hope…,”for all the stuff you need. We’re everywhere, dude. I think I will never find a place we aren’t. Maybe the Mongolian steppes, in tents where we burn buffalo chips for heat.

But I’m being a bitch; I’m just squawking because I can’t find Jason’s Perfect World where everybody values exactly what I do. Cell phones and obscene traffic are better than genocide and colonial subjugation, right? They’re good, these Western toys, even though they’ve brought along the insidious side of Global Capitalism too: government officials want the dough so they lease public land to this Chinese firm or that Russian mob for 200 years; homes are in the way of turning the central lake into a mall, so tenants are evicted at Army gun point. Etcetera, etcetera, the collateral damage of Progress, the usual Growing Pains.

As I get more comfortable with crossing the road without a crash helmet, I’ve noticed that the locals have it down to an instinct, a kind of Zen Glide that looks effortless. I think they must be so hyper aware as to be beyond awareness: sight, analysis, muscle movement so in-synch they’re simultaneous. You need to know the situation so stone-cold that you are both aware and oblivious. You need to dance across the street and give in to the flow around you too. You need to look without looking. Like you do passing the babies begging in the dirt, like you do buying that SUV whale and trying to park it.

A’ight, that’s enough of that. Hope ya’ll are settling in to Brooklyn life.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What I Look Like Here

Dear Mignon,

Even after twenty hours on a plane, flying away from you, there are few people I can imagine in more vivid detail. In high school, I thought it was because we looked so completely different—your tall glossy goldenness apparent even when we were awkward adolescents. As a teenager, it was both a torment and a comfort to be the inconspicuous one, to take shelter behind you and know that watching eyes were directed elsewhere. Ever since, I have had a gift for vanishing, for flattening myself against the backdrop. In Cambodia, it is different.

I have become suddenly, glaringly visible. I am aware of things I never thought about in New York: my height, my weight, my clothes. There, I could have worn a Halloween costume and marched through the park playing an accordion and would have attracted only a passing interest. You know this as well as I do—it is a city in which you have to work to be noticed.

But on my first full day in Phnom Penh, I stepped around the corner to the market and into a cultural pothole. There are rules to how one dresses to buy dragonfruit. How could I have known that Kate, in her spangled leggings and movie star sunglasses, was within the boundaries of decorum, but I, in a plain tank top and shorts with my pale knees exposed, was not? I’m not sure why I didn’t ask her before I left the house instead of after, when I could see all over her face that no, it was not okay. “Everyone was looking at you,” Jason said, and I am such an oaf that I didn’t even notice.

He is my partner here, more clearly my other half than ever, out of both love and necessity. But together we are otherness squared, the combination of us drawing infinitely more eyes. Two days ago, at a waterfall outside of Sihanoukville, a group of giggling little boys stuffed wads of pink toilet paper up their noses and made faces at us, posing spontaneously and eagerly when we pulled out a camera. But as they continued to trail us, watching with rapt attention as we walked, as we waded into the stream, as we clumsily put on our lace-up shoes, there was no ambivalence about who was the object, about who really belonged in front of the lens.

Even when we are separated, Jason tells me more about what I look like than the mirror does. On the other side of a window at a roadside bus station in rural Thailand, he seemed the center of a complex diorama—the only non-native, all pale skin and hiking boots, staring dumbfounded at the steaming pots of unidentifiable food. Slumped in the bus seat, an undetected observer, I reflexively thought, “God help us.”

Don’t misunderstand. I am not some poor little white girl; I chose to come here knowing that I would be a foreigner, an outsider. This is their country, not mine, and they have every right to notice the strangers among them. I certainly notice the smattering of other white people and find myself disliking them—for their loudness, for their rotundity, for their ugly socks and tourists’ t-shirts. Given this, I find it remarkable that no one here seems to shower me with the same disdain that I feel for the other foreigners; it is rare that a Khmer person looks at me with anything besides a mixture of kindness and curiosity.

Even so, that curiosity is new to me. I find myself staring at the ground sometimes as I walk, a version of peek-a-boo in which I convince myself that if I’m not looking at anything, no one is looking at me. But we learn as infants that we don’t disappear when we close our eyes. These anonymous watchers, what are they seeing? What are they thinking? And how have you managed to live your whole life under everyone else’s gaze?

The last time you visited me in New York, the waitress at the pancake house asked us if we were sisters and insisted that we looked so much alike, which we found strange and laughable. Here, they would probably say the same thing, our similarities much more salient in these surroundings than our differences. But maybe there is more to it than that. What could the waitress see, as we sat there sipping our coffee? Maybe it is a little like spotting two people in love, the way it is visible in their faces, on their bodies. Maybe that waitress could tell how we grew up together, how infrequently we get to see each other now, how dear you are to me, and somehow all of that translated in her brain to one fact—that we looked just the same.

And if that is true, I wonder what it means for the way I look at Cambodia and for the way it looks back. Maybe there will come a moment when this place and I will develop enough fondness for each other that we’ll take a long hard look at each other and find nothing strange there at all.

With much love,

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Dear Home,

We are flying over the Bering Strait, a slow curve Southwest and headed toward the east coast of Siberia. The map in the airline mag shows the crags and borders of a vast expanse of dirty white and pale aquamarine, the colors for cold and empty. The rest of the world is spread down the page below in a patchwork of desert tan and arid corn and a dozen shades of fertile, breathing green. Outside the window, the real world of cold and dirty Siberia first shows through gaps in the clouds, wispy itself somehow, the physical embodiment of Nothing, land as unsubstantial as Emptiness. And then the plane continues its curve, tracked on the Hallmark-sized screen on the back of the seat in front of me, over a band of clouds as artfully arced as a mountain range and then the mountains themselves are below. The map labels them as the northern tip of the Kamchatka Penninsula, the place where the Shirshov Ridge rises out of the Bering Sea onto land. Names that have no meaning for me. Even from this height they are huge and everywhere and empty of all life. Wasteland, like the winds have stripped everything but the endless endless maze of impenetrable rock. Nothing could live there. I have never seen anything no natural be so antithetical to Life. It is what God made when It felt as hard and merciless as a factory spitting out steel for bayonets. It is the end of the East.

More of a slow curve, down through clouds, and we’re above a green amoeba of islands, splotches of something I won’t ever know or feel, still devoid of any signs of human endeavor, settlement, presence. Hard-boned animals, at least, could live there. But not even an insect could know those Shirshov mountains, those Dostoyevsky, salt-mine death mountains….

We are going backward, the Westward Ho! of American migration marching so far Shannon and I have come back to the beginning. The unknown place from where the World’s Tribes first clawed out of Oblivion, broke apart and reformed and destroyed and made anew and fanned out so far that we’ll never remember where we first knew what we were. What awaits? Lands of Byzantium, Orthodox droning, Killing Fields and lush jungle and empty beaches and spices I’ve never imagined…languages I’ll never understand, more tribes I’ve never heard of. The shape of Earth as it has been carved by Nature and History and the forever rising upward and falling back of hundreds of thousands of generations of my people: Humankind, the most wondrous and terrifying creature to exist on this most bedazzling and beautiful of planets. The earth spins clockwise, we fly counterclockwise, toward the New Adventure in a lifetime of them. May we have them always until we are gone.