Thursday, June 24, 2010

Muscle memory

Whoever said you never forget how to ride a bicycle obviously never tried it in Phnom Penh after cycling Denver bike trails for two years. I can balance just fine, and pedal, and steer, but after my mildly harrowing but ultimately successful ride to the Olympic Stadium this morning, I can confidently say that I had completely forgotten how to play the driving game here. Rules: Do not stop at intersections. Merge carefully into the flow and just keep going. Stop lights are merely suggestions. Bicycles have the right-of-way only over pedestrians. Do not expect anybody, cars especially, to stop at intersections, whether or not there are stop signs. Don't stay on your own side of the road if there are puddles or potholes there. Etc.

That example aside, I've been amazed at how many things here come back to me immediately, unconsciously. Things I didn't even know I knew. How to angle my extra-large feet going down the narrow stairs at my host family's house. How to reach back and find the toilet hose in the dark. How to balance sidesaddle, hands-free, on the back of a swerving moto. (Yes, Mom, I got a helmet.) When we turn, my hand automatically sticks out and takes its position as makeshift turn signal. I didn't even remember I was supposed to do that. It just happens. And these hundreds of words in Khmer that I thought I'd forgotten...I talk, and they come tumbling out of my mouth, leaving me wondering where in the world they'd been hiding all this time.

It's unexpectedly beautiful, all these things that were once so foreign, so strange, eliciting nostalgia instead of surprise this time around. Waking up to wedding music just outside the house at 5:30 am. Recognizing the familiar ring tones of my host family's cell phones. Hearing a bullhorn on the street and knowing it's saying, "Grilled chicken eggs...they have flavor good-smelling, good-tasting." The hot, wet smell of the bathroom at night. Men peeing on street corners. Getting quoted exorbitant foreigner prices at the market. Being handed your iced coffee with milk (=2 solid inches of sweetened condensed beverage creamer) in a plastic bag. Parking a bike for the same old 500 riel (12.5 US cents) at the stadium. All these things that were once novel, disconcerting, exotic have become little reminders, dozens of little signs, all saying, "Welcome back."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Longest day of my life

In both literal and figurative senses, yesterday was. Or was it two days ago? OK, so maybe I lie. It was two calendar days, having jumped across the International Date Line and skipping a day altogether, but I have never seen the sun for so many hours at a time. The sun came up just after I woke up in Denver, and it didn't go down again until 26 hours later somewhere in the air over eastern China. All three flights were problem-free, just far too long, and I managed precious few hours of sleep between layovers and meals and reading and World Cup and sappy movies and enough in-flight Tetris to make my eyeballs burn. Plenty of time to just let me mind run free, too, and plenty to think about. Such an eyeful of cultures. During my LA-Seoul flight, I sat next to a Chinese girl, whom the flight attendants with their matching turquoise eyeshadow and hair in identical black buns kept trying unsuccessfully to talk to in Korean, and a South Korean girl, who showed me and the Chinese one how to eat the rice bowl and hot pepper paste and seaweed soup and bean curd with dressing. In front of me, there was a saffron-clad Cambodian monk listening to his iPod and taking videos of the SkyMap with a little digital camcorder. And now I'm here in Phnom Penh, back at my old internet cafe where I sat to write similar blog entries three years ago, and realizing, just like then, that my time is about to run out and that I'm late for lunch. Sorry, Ma!

Monday, June 21, 2010


I'm headed back to Cambodia in the morning--or rather, later this morning--and, in keeping with tradition, I am up quite late getting my act together before I set out on the journey. This time, I can at least justify it by saying that I'm getting a head start on adjusting my body clock to a time zone 13 hours off from the one it's used to. And this time, I don't have to say long-term goodbyes to everyone I know and love, don't have to put all my earthly possessions in storage, don't have to mentally prepare myself for the transition to life as a foreigner. I'll be there for a visit, a two-and-a-half-week stay, a dear host sister's wedding, reunions with host family and friends and coworkers and students. I've never done this before, this going back to a faraway place that used to be mine, reclaiming parts of my identity that have lain dormant for the past two years: daughter, sister, teacher, friend. Foreigner, outsider, curiosity, sore thumb. Explorer, adventurer. So many memories rising to the surface. We'll see if the wanderlust returns.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


I cleaned my room this week. Seriously cleaned it--this was no one-day task. Dusted, vacuumed, took everything out of the closet and dresser, everything off of the walls and the bookshelf, rearranged the furniture. I couldn't figure out why I felt the need to do all that until I realized that I've been living in the same house, sleeping in the same bedroom, for nearly two years. Since I left my parents' house for college, I've been used to packing my life into boxes and moving every five months, three months, nine months, eleven months--no wonder I'm needing a change of scenery after 22. I've grown rather attached to this place, though, and to the idea of starting to feel like I belong here. I know this house and all of its idiosyncrasies. I know this neighborhood and its bike trails and its bus schedules. I paid my taxes this year not only in just one state, but for just one employer. I finished the school year knowing, for the first time ever, that I'd be back teaching in the same place in the fall. I have a garden bursting with vegetables. I've been here long enough to see the veggies-to-kitchen scraps-to-compost-to-dirt-to-veggies cycle through. And I, with my tentative roots in this community, finally feel like I'm starting to get as many nutrients out of this soil as I'm putting in. I had gotten so used to being transitory, always coming or going, making excuses for not really connecting, not really investing emotional energy in where I was, telling myself that I wasn't supposed to feel like I belonged because there was always somewhere else that was home. I think I'm finally ready to own this one.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Enough of llamas and snow. This shot's from last week's backpacking trip on the Kenosha-Tarryall Circuit.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


It rained tonight. A good, hard rain that drummed on the roof. I went outside and sat in the garden where it smelled like dirt and worms and raindrops on hot pavement, watched the lightning explode soundlessly behind the night sky clouds, let the cool drops run rivers down my sweaty legs. The garlic and potatoes and bok choy looked so happy there, getting their feet muddy. Guess we all just needed a good watering.