Number 16–Winding Down
Departure day is fast approaching. In about two weeks I'll be wrapping things up here and be back in the states in about a month; but first a few fabulous factoids.
First an April weather report. Rained like hell last night and only tapered off this morning. Took the temperature down to 76 at 6 am; lows have been in the mid-eighties with 97 to 101 for the highs. To give you an idea what it's like I sleep naked with no covers with the fan going all night. I like hanging around in skimpy clothes and hot sultry nights – it's almost never warm enough to relax outdoors in Portland at night. I won't say I like spending my days in the equivalent of a sauna, I can't imagine anyone who would, but I also can't say it's worse than dealing with cold.
The army recently demobilized 15,000 soldiers. While they were at it they got rid of 15,000 ghost soldiers, you know, the ones who only show up to get their pay, and 150,000 ghost dependents – Cambodian ghosts tend to have big families.
A few months back the PM placed a moratorium on all logging until the logging companies come back with more sustainable cutting plans. It seems that the money the government has been receiving in concession payments hasn't been covering the flood damage costs from low-life logging. These poor bastards just don't understand. If they took a clue from a rich country like the US, which has always lost money on the logging of its national forests, they'd quickly realize that it's the duty of government to subsidize the wanton rape and destruction of its forests, that that's a sure path to growth and development. As long as there's money flowing through it doesn't matter if the last tree faces the chain saw in a few years, by then out-of-work loggers will just find some other natural resource to lay waste to.
By the way, the government has been contracting with Global Witness, an international forest protection NGO, to help it keep tract of its forests. They had to hire an independent observer to comply with demands of the international community which supplies such a large portion of the Cambodian budget. There's tension there of course, but still... imagine the Sierra Club on contract to the USFS to help it protect the people's forests.
In fact Cambodia still has 50% forest cover in spite of heavy logging in the past twenty years. Will the moratorium work? Hard to tell, one of the easiest things in the world to do is steal logs from the Cambodian forest. At least they're trying.
It's sometimes hard to believe how little my students know – in one class of 40 students not one (18 to 20 year old range) knew of Ghandi. Still, considering Pol Pot pretty much dismantled the entire education system, not to mention killed most teachers and intellectuals, it’s not that hard to understand. The country was forced to rebuild its school system literally from scratch, and even today less than 1% of Cambodia's primary school teachers have finished high school.
Which brings up the life of an expat teacher in Phnom Penh. As I've already repeated ad infinitum and ad nauseum, I'm not that fond of working, still this is a decent living – even with all of April's holidays I still earned more than $400, enough for all basic expenses, for really not much work. The best paying school in town – 12 bucks per hour to start – was hungry for teachers recently; they pay $20 for teachers with a TOEFL certificate – Teacher Of English as a Foreign Language. The students are great. Even when they gab all through class and cheat you blind, they're still kinda lovable. I've made contacts and have imparted information and learned a lot in the process.
I can't shake the feeling I'll be back soon. The only work I could do in Portland to earn an equivalent living would break my back if I did it enough to actually live on it. Even with contraband income, which is hard on the psyche, it's still not nearly enough. Of course there are many things I miss about stumptown; family, friends, activism, clean air, organic food, easy access to the woods, Bridgeport IPA, art flicks, outdoor music. I can even imagine things to keep me in the states – kudos, cash flow, love and sex; not necessarily in that order but in some reasonable combination.
But why not be a rain bird sharing my time between PP and Ptown? On the other hand, being back there in, 'all terrorism all the time' Bushland gives me the creeps. Big Brother surveillance over every move – can't attend a labor rally without having your picture taken by the FBI's terrorism task force. Enron execs steal hundreds of millions and will get off with a slap on the wrist; young radicals torch and terrorise police cars – can't you just see them quaking in their radials – and get 22 years in the pokey.
Here, in contrast, I'm nearly anonymous. Of course the Cambodian government knows I'm here – I have to renew my visa periodically – but they don't know where I live. The department head's assistant pointed out to me more than a month ago, after three months on the job, that I needed to get him a copy of my passport so I could be entered in his foreign teacher's book. I blew him off; I'm lazy, I admit it. I have no telephone, they don't even know where I live. I show up for work and get paid cash.
They’ve considerably tightened up since the above was written in ’02. They now keep good track of where we expats live and work. I’d rather be incognito but it still feels pretty benign compared to the states.
How will I feel when I'm back in the land of the monster truck? You know, dually, 4x4, crew cab, 1 ton bed that never carries more than one overweight big mac eater. To tell you the truth, I was very happy to hear that congress snubbed its nose at increased fuel economy for trucks, I mean, it just wouldn't be the same if they got reasonable gas mileage, well, you know... it would be unamerican.
Besides, as a confirmed doomsdayer, I say bring it on. Let's use up that black gold as quickly as possible so we can get on to the next stage, back to a healthy natural lifestyle. Sure the transition will include robust calamity and a strong dose of catastrophe with some spectacular armaggedon thrown in, but as they say; no pain, no gain. There is certainly no other way for the US to change, at least as long as the rule of avaricious corporations continues to hold sway.
It certainly wouldn't be all roses here but when you're so close to the bottom, you have a lot better handle on survival. In addition, Cambodia has a very productive land with the water table an easy dig from the surface and a relatively small population.
Meanwhile getting back to the present, I'm making contacts and friends which realistically require a lot more than six months for them gain any depth or meaning. I love the people – expat and local – and the place, and feel I've something to do here or at least feel a strong attachment to it. On the other hand I'm not terribly fond of Phnom Penh's dirt, mud, garbage and rats – I'll spare you my rat stories even though you'd be both amused and disgusted.
I also positively despise having to dodge vehicles while walking in the hot sun, rain, dirt, mud, rubble, as the case may be, because the sidewalks are blocked. I'm also frustrated about PP not having a real public transportation system – feels a lot like being in Portland without a car. Too bad I don't like motorbikes because there's no faster or more convenient way to get around. But what the hell, nothing’s perfect.