Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Cambodia in Motion

After my first day, my friend Tim asked me for my impressions of Cambodia. "Motion without movement" was the phrase that came to mind. Their third floor apartment overlooks a marketplace. From five AM to nine PM, motos and merchants flood the block with the appearance of activity. Traffic and trade are governed by unspecified rules.

The only clear law is that relationships mean everything. Observation from the third floor obscures this cultural mandate; from here everything looks busy. However, when I engaged the streets with my friend, I quickly learned that life slows at the ground level.

Example one: We step out of the apartment doorway into an alleyway. Promptly, several neighbors greet us with "Sok So-bai." The greeting is echoed. And echoed. Ad nauseam. The neighbors take turns coddling my friend's baby. They make popping noises. They pinch his cheeks. They ask if our wives our sisters and where we plan to work in Cambodia. We will not be opening a market booth soon, I say, in precise Khmer.

Example two: We weave our way through the market. Tim intends to buy sandals. His have recently been stolen by vagabonds who formerly lived in his alley. A neighbor who sells shrimp leads him to a booth run by a friend. Business is driven by such connections. Tim describes the type of sandals he wants, and the merchant produces a pair that does not satisfy his description. He declines. She persists, showing him several other pairs, the last adorned with a pink teddy bear and straps of the same shade. The merchant has hundreds of shoes and sandals to offer, but does not close the sale. Tomorrow she will open again at six AM.

Example three: After a late lunch, we return to the apartment. Several motos sneak around us in the alleyway. Walking is not the typical mode of transport. As we arrive at the entryway, the same gathering of people remains seated on plastic lawn chairs. They were here when we left, and will tend shop until dusk, no doubt. They sell hair products and produce and chicken wings. I have yet to witness a sale.

Example four: Tim and I go to buy iced coffees. The shop is located around the corner from his apartment, less than a minute away. Twice we are offered rides on a moto.

Example five: I wake up this morning at four AM. A few people gather on the sidewalk, chatting. By five AM street cleaners are sweeping debris from the street; garbage trucks come by a half hour later, stab bags of trash with pitchforks, and toss them into the truck. They are cleaning up for commerce and commuters. By six AM the streets are flooded with motos and merchants--the day recycled.

This is business as usual. This is Karma. Constant bustle. Constant motion. But no movement.

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