Parallel U
pt. I

Number 13–No Place Like Home

It wasn't until three weeks after I moved in when I stopped in for a chat, having paid three months rent in advance, that I learned my landlord's name or he mine. He's anxious for me to visit to practice his English – he also had visions of me finding an American husband for his daughter – sweet, delicate young thing – but I had to quickly quash that idea.

Informality, an individual’s word, having things work even though they're clearly not 'properly' designed, is one of the greatest draws of this life. And I believe makes it a potential haven for freaks and outcasts when the time comes, as seems almost certain today, that Orwell's sickest precepts are fully absorbed and folded into American life.

On the note of 'proper' design, one of the most important considerations when renting an apartment here is access. Many can only be reached through the owner's storefront. I checked out one ‘for rent’ sign – most are in English alongside Khmer – but it didn't look like there was independent access so I asked the young girl who was showing it to me, "What happens if I come home late?" "Father opens the door". Sometimes they'll give you a key, if not no way am I going to wake up father on my few late night excursions. Most of the buildings in the center of town are long narrow rowhouses which would lose a lot of frontage to stairways if they were placed out front.

No problem at my place, but the strangeness, at least to an American, of the entrance gave me an excuse to pry a little information out of the landlord (pry because his English proficiency – speaking ability anyway – is minimal) and be relieved of simply helping him with his pronunciation – it gets boring, as you can imagine.

He asked me what to call it and for simplicity's sake I said hallway, but I really had no adequate term since I'd never seen anything like it before. My apartment faces street 13 but the entrance is on 118 and in fact there are three buildings between mine and the corner which are also accessed from said hallway so it's really a public space. Any other place it would be an alley, except here it's inside, or at least carved out of – like a tunnel – the corner building so I've decided to call it a covered alley.

So who owns the space?, I asked. Nobody. Well who takes care of it?. Everybody shares – 75 cents for someone to come once a month to sweep. Is the existence of this space written down, recorded anywhere? At the commune office. The covered alley is about 8 feet wide and as tall as the first floor – 11 to 12 feet – and outside of the regular sweeping it gets, it's had extremely minimal maintenance or cleaning since the buildings were built in the fifties or sixties.

First time I passed through it at night there were bats careening through and their rat cousins are hardly a rare sight. Across the street is a similar alley carved out of an older building which is barely a meter wide – just enough for a motorbike to drive through – which serves about ten back doors. Both blocks are quite large, leaving sufficient space for there to be funky makeshift houses filling up the inner courtyards.

The stairwell itself has had a cleaning in recent years but it wasn't a great job, you can see streaks which show how black the walls must've looked previously. Here's the other mystery. Why would you put a public stairwell in the middle of people's apartments? The stairs are in between the living/bedrooms and the kitchen/bathroom. These are quite long apartments, when you include the stairwell they're about eighty feet long. Maybe they figure the flats would have less light and air if the stairs were at the end of the building, but the stairs could be outside with plentiful windows as long as they were heavily fortified against thieves. Also maybe it isn't always convenient to access the rear of the building.

Back to the stairwell, I really can't come up with a reasonable explanation but it's common here. It does let me peek into my neighbor's living space – it's clearly not a big deal to them. As often as one goes back and forth, it'd be a real hassle to keep the doors between closed. Privacy, personal space are far different concepts here. The only bother for me is that I have to keep the doors closed (but not locked) at night, which causes a lot of fumbling in the process of sleepy 3AM pees. I have only one apartment above me, and I rarely see them.

Okay, now we're in my apartment. The floor is tiled in a red and white checkered pattern, however many have had their color worn off and others are discolored, sometimes grotesquely so. What do you want for $50 a month? Considering almost every floor here is finished in ceramics, even flat roofs – they use tiles where we would use tar – and thinking back to my experience in China, the whole floor could probably be redone for $200 to $300, which would be reasonable for someone staying a long time.

The main space is 13' 6" (4 meters) by about 50', close to 700 sq. ft., and the ceiling is 11' 6". An apartment with an 8' ceiling is strictly linear; add three and a half feet and the space takes on new dimensions. It allows for loft spaces, and every apartment is different. As far as I can tell, from peeking, people are given a big empty space and arrange it, with partitions, lofts, to suit their needs. Each apartment has a built-in loft space which curiously, in all but one case, is only accessed from the stairwell – mine is now used to store the landlord's junk. Access could be changed to inside the apartment if someone wished.

Under the loft is a bedroom which I have no use for, then my bedroom space and then a partition, which at one time included a door, enclosing the front of the apartment. The apartment came with a pretty decent wooden bed but no matress. The landlord purchased a new matress for me which looked decent and felt hard when I first laid on it but before the end of the first night it had a serious indentation in the location of my butt. By now it has a deep depression and is decidedly uncomfortable.

He also purchased a sheet and pillowcases made of a strange polyester material which they favor here but which felt so weird and creepy on my naked body I had to run out the first day and get cotton ones. Otherwise the apartment came with some old junk furniture, which was nice at some point in the past, a couple of simple wood frame, split-bamboo-topped beds and a two dollar plastic chair.

High ceilings provide for a lot of air circulation and enable a lot of venting, especially since most people build partitions instead of separate rooms, which leaves the top meter open for air movement. The top meter of the outside wall of the apartment is slatted concrete. At one time there was also a bug screen. Lately, before arriving here this time, I had been wondering about efficient building design for the tropics, well this is it. Ventilation, high ceilings, air movement, concrete to absorb heat and overhangs to keep the sun out.

Most of the center city was built in the fifties and sixties and while the architecture of those times celebrated ugly, drab and nondescript, here it became something totally different. Really, I’ve never come across building design anything like this anywhere. Almost every apartment has an outdoor living space, which I've also had a difficult time defining. They aren't really balconies because they don't stick out from the building, rather (about 80% of the time) they are indented into it. Everything is rectangular – except corner buildings which are almost always rounded – and built to the property line. The outer wall of the apartment is then set back three, six, sometimes eight feet to provide for outdoor spaces and second floor outdoor spaces are wider since they include the storefront overhang.

Mine is quite narrow, only three feet, not enough to get much of a swing on my hammock. However my living room space constitutes a perfect place for my second hammock (a long story) because it allows for a very wide swing, which makes up for the porch hammock which barely has room to move. The porch has a iron grillwork railing and reaching down from the ceiling is about three feet of slatted concrete which reduces the sun's intrusion but lets the air through. The railing and slatted concrete are like teeth on an open jaw.

It's really like a front porch for sitting, hanging laundry, playspace for kids and now that the hot season is arriving – 85 at 6 am this morning – I see many people sleeping outside. Every time I go out on it to survey the street scene I see other people doing the very same thing. They help to make the street totally alive. The outer wall includes a very large metal door – one meter by nearly 8 feet – of tinted glass and iron grillwork. Somewhat incongruous to have such a big door for such a little porch. There's also a bank of windows starting at chest height covering almost the entire remainder of the wall, also protected by grillwork. I've never shut the windows since I moved in. Above them is the slatted concrete. So even with the door and windows closed there is still air movement.

My electricity bill for the first month was $1.50 and that at 16 cents a kwh. I've got one overhead flourescent bulb, a small lamp with a dim incandescent bulb, my pot for heating water for coffee and a fan which I use sparingly, or rather was using sparingly, it's getting so I'll need to keep it on all night. The bath/kitchen area also has two bulbs, both weak. I thought about getting a small $50 fridge when I moved in, but hesitated too long to make it worth it. Bought a small cooler instead, which has just enough room for a nickel's worth of ice. Bit of a hassle remembering to buy ice, but fridges also have their drawbacks – probably triple my electric bill for one, but worse, for every unit of cold created inside the fridge, a unit of heat is made outside, into the apartment.

Alternatively I could put it into my kitchen/bath area. On the second and third floors they are enclosed, mine is outdoors like a back porch, protected mostly by metal screen but actually not that difficult for a committed thief to get in. Going to my bathroom is like going to an outhouse. During a rainy season downpour I get soaked passing through the 4 feet or so that isn't roofed. Now if a fridge were outdoors I'd probably have to lock that door – bummer trying to unlock it at night. Now I just put the lock in place without closing it – there's nothing there to steal – just in case someone wants to get into the building from my back porch. The back porch floor is finished in a waffle type quarry tile similar to those used on many sidewalks here.

My neighbors do all of their food preparation, cooking and cleaning in a squat position and generally cook on charcoal burners. I'd have to say the majority of people in this city cook with charcoal – this is not the processed and packaged briquettes you find in the US but rather just charcoaled tree branches. I could have purchased a simple one burner propane setup very cheaply but shopping, preparing, cooking, cleaning? Didn't seem worth it, though in fact it might have resulted in less stomach problems. Setting up a sink would also not be much of a deal.

One thing I did do was get a shower set up. Every time I turned the water on it happened to be in the afternoon and since my water pipe sits in the sun for several hours during that time, the water was hot enough – though it's only a light blue pipe – for a short but delicious hot shower. You have a large reservoir for water storage so you only turn on the tap to fill it or for laundry. At any rate once I had a shower I discovered that the pressure is only available (because I’m on the fourth floor) a few hours a day, so it's still mostly the douse.