Parallel U
pt. I

Number 8–... #22 street 111

How much more cosmic can you get. From my arrival until a few days ago I stayed at #22 Street 111. After puzzling for quite some time over the string of elevens and twos that keep coming at me, a quick search of the internet revealed a real connection to my life. In fact, in addition to the basic 1 to 9 sequence, 11 and 22 are singled out. Eleven is connected to visionaries and artists and has to do with expanding consciousness. Travel can certainly do that to you. The key phrase for 22 is: Goal-oriented and practical but on a global scale. As it happens, 22 has very strong associations in my life. My birthday is August 22, I lived at number 722 in Portland for almost 20 years and even my Oregon driver’s license, which I’ve had for nearly 30 years, starts with 222.

At anyrate, I was hesitant to leave #22 for several reasons; cheap, comfortable, generally good vibes. Of its seven rooms rarely more than one a week became available. However, I had just gotten a new schedule at work which had me teaching three hours in a row, five nights a week. My old schedule had that only one night a week. Walking back and forth in that situation, especially after doing it once also in the morning was a little much even for crazy walkman me. What it would have meant was four and a half hours standing up teaching plus two hours walking in one day. A member of the same extended family that owns #22 has another guest house that's so close to work I practically fall out of bed and I'm there.

Wackily enough, before I even started the new schedule, they took it away; this is the developing world and many things are loopy and unorganized. No biggee, I really didn't want 20 hours, 16 is more than enough to live on and deal with. The students are great (only the day students wear uniforms, by the way), and I enjoy teaching, especially since I can shoot 'em a lot of greeny politics as I go. However, it’s still work.

The new guest house has a balcony that’s a few feet from my room that overlooks one of the city's many greenstrips. The city seems to have no real parks but in addition to the greenstrips, including one on the river, it does have several lakes and a green area around Wat Phnom, the 13th century temple the city is named for.

It also has a view of the Tonle Sap River, which has an extremely unusual trait; it reverses direction twice a year. During the dry season it flows downhill into the much larger Mekong, where they meet at Phnom Penh. However, in the rainy season the tropical rains upstream on the Mekong are so heavy that it backs up the Tonle Sap for more than a hundred miles where it turns into Tonle Sap Lake, largest in SE Asia.

It is prime fishing grounds, largely from the nutrients left by the floodwaters and provides a very large portion of Cambodians’ protein. It ranges in depth from 4 feet to 30 feet (1 1/2 meters x 9 meters) and increases its size by three times.

Phnom Penh has a street numbering system that is unlike any other I've come across. North-South streets generally have odd numbers, East-West have even, though there are also major diagonal grids which make for some interesting anomalies. There isn't enough of a standard American type grid, where everything is oriented to the points of the compass, to have standard numbering. Instead each street has its own unique number whether it's one block or two miles long. This accounts for some really high numbers, in the 500's, in a relatively small city in area. The numbering system, as I discovered later, was brought in by the Vietnamese as part of their occupation. They couldn’t understand Cambodian script and thus had no way of knowing how to find their way around.

The city is also blessed with many wide sidewalks but they are so encumbered with cars and motorbikes or jammed with merchandise or restaurant tables you wind up walking on the street more often than not.

Ninety percent of the city is less than 5 stories tall – there aren't a dozen buildings over six stories in the whole city and half of those are under construction. The more dense parts of town are developed in rowhouses; they include a potential storefront on the ground floor with living space above. Everything is potentially multi-use here; there are no zoning laws to mandate specific building uses. Interestingly, nearly all have very high ceilings (11 to 13 feet) on every floor. That is high enough, especially considering how relatively short the people are, that most have been outfitted with bedroom mezzanines in the back of the apartment with large airy entryways in front. Almost every apartment also has a substantial balcony – one of the factors that makes the city and its street life totally alive.

It's also a city of contrasts – beamers and SUV's amongst droves of filthy, ragged street kids and many other categories of dispossessed and or desperate people. Just above the lowest rung of street kids, starting sometimes as low as age six, are those who scavenge the city’s many garbage piles for bottles, cans and scraps of paper; some carry large sacks, others pull carts. When the city does provide garbage containers, the scavengers unload the trash on the ground in order to rifle through it.

Digression; paper scrap sold here, in amounts of a few pounds, to a storefront recycler is worth twice as much per pound as a ten ton load of high quality recycled paper sold directly to a paper mill in Portland. There are so many trees in America that the country can easily afford to cut lots of them down to make toilet paper and excessive packaging for its wonderful world-leading consumer culture. Evidently they're worth much more as cereal boxes than forests. Here in Asia because of its large populations and fast-disappearing forests, paper is far more valuable.

Just above the scavenger kids – needless to say the kids are only a small part of the scavenger community – are those who course through the restaurants and bars at night selling peanuts, fragrant jasmine flower leis, shoeshines, locally made sweets, etc. There are beggar mothers with their babies, decrepit old people barely able to walk, amputees – one of every 230 Cambodians, from the bombs we dropped and wars we supported – and lots of other humans in various sorry states. I keep most of my 100 riel notes to hand out. It’s the smallest currency, worth less than 3 cents; you can get a baguette for 300 riel. However there're still too many beggars for me to give to everyone who asks, besides I don’t want them to think every Westerner is an easy mark.

Amongst all that destitution are computer centers and cybercafes and English schools on every other block. Parallel U has grown from 2000 students to 5000 in just a few years. Cambodia has the most tragic of pasts to explain away part of its many problems, but it also has a powerful dynamism. And its quota of crazy expats.