I have had really good, really bad and really weird experiences here in Phnom Penh. That is a pretty elementary way of saying it. But, the point gets across.
My good days are full of experiences like roller disco rinks and a random Cambodian baby being handed to Henry and me on a bus to the village studies assignment (see picture).
Other occasions, though, haven’t been so forgiving.
One time, I was riding my bike about 150 meters away from my house, I just began vomited while still riding my bike. No context or warning … it just happened. So it goes, I guess. In retrospect, I think the funniest part about the situation was that the people on the street really didn’t care that I was puking whilst riding my bike. They cared more that I was a white guy away from the riverfront’s tourist hotels.
The looks on the Tuk-Tuk drivers’ faces are kind of priceless when I look at them dead in the eyes, and politely say, “No, thank you. I do not need a ride. I have a bicycle,” in my broken, choppy Khmer. It’s like I am some sort of novelty item (“HE’S NEW! A 5’9” COLORADO WHITE BOY WITH FULL RANGE OF MOTION, KUNG-FU GRIP, AND A WORKING VOCABULARY OF 100 KHMER WORDS! BUY YOURS TODAY!” (Batteries not included).
Anyway, that was a really bad day. But the majority of my SST experiences, on the whole, have been good. Though still odd. I am astounded by the amount of faith Cambodians have placed in me.
Due to my diabetes, I was forced to stay in Phnom Penh [where hospitals are available] for service with Nate Klink and his peanut allergy. What I didn’t expect was to actually have a job in Cambodia. SSTers usually teach English, farm, or do other assorted NGO-affiliated tasks on service.
But being in the city, we were afforded with unique opportunities. People who speak native English will work for free and have a lot of time on their hands are apparently hard to come by. So, before we really knew what we were doing, Nate and I became NGO grant writers. And, grant writers for feminists. And political campaign writers for the opposition party that led to meetings with Parliament members in their homes (I shouldn’t have worn my Tiger beer shirt … rookie mistake).
To date, we have written just over $100,000 USD worth of material, and I honestly feel like I am out of my league. I don’t even trust myself with opening a single-serving yogurt container, let alone writing a political grant worth $20,000 that needs to go to the American Embassy next week.
I guess this is to say that this has been a huge adventure and I am awash with emotions as it is quickly coming to a close. I have tried to write this paper at least half dozen times. The words just never come because everything is so fragile and ready to shift. I have my paranoia about the differences that are waiting for me at home. The pressing urge to get back to my old life and, paradoxically, the strangling pressure to stay here forever and walk in this dream.
For now, the only thing I know for sure is that Hunter S. Thompson was right: “When the going gets weird, the weird turns pro.”
Brett Conrad is a sophomore theater major. He is currently on SST in Cambodia and will return to the U.S. next week.