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.


No comments: