Parallel U
pt. II

Number 25–Movin’ up

My new apartment is all I could have asked for or expected. To begin with it’s accessed from a narrow but bright alley instead of a dreary tunnel and there’s no gate at the entrance to the stairwell, saving a trip up and down when someone comes to visit. Locking the outside out didn’t prevent two cameras in turn being stolen from inside so why bother. This one requires getting through two locked metal accordion gates to get into my apartment and I bought the most expensive lock I could find for the one to the stairwell.

River View

This house actually has two porches, the back porch acts as a passageway from the stairwell to my door which is protected by the other gate, so, add the slatted wooden entrance door and it takes three locks to get in. Putting a lock only on the outside gate and the door wouldn’t have been enough because the door doesn’t close snugly and simple metal eyelets are the medium of connection and exactly how the goniff got into my last apartment – he just pried open the eyelets. Subsequently my previous landlord bought bigger eyelets and had them welded together, which seemed to solve the problem.

Also the next door neighbors could easily access my back porch – I can’t imagine them ever being rip-offs – or a miscreant could rappel or climb from above or below – very unlikely but also very foolish to be undefended, twice burned and all. My windows, as well as virtually every window in the city, are protected by iron grillwork, so it’s not too easy to come in that way.

As for the stairwell itself it’s narrow and has places where I have to duck to get through. Anything very big that goes into the apartment has to be hoisted up with ropes. Also, as frequently found here, people use the stairs as a trash container. My stairwell is actually not bad, it’s been painted within the last few years and is only slightly rubbished. It’s not unusual here to enter a clean and beautifully appointed apartment through a stairway that’s grotesquely filthy and mystifyingly unmaintained.

The kids – I’m assuming they’re kids – above me also have the bad habit of tossing fruit peels and assorted detritus out the window, which detritus sometimes winds up on my porch. It either floats down or bounces off the far wall of the alley and on to my space which makes me irate and outspoken – even if no-one understands the words, they can’t miss the implications. Last straw was when an apple core hit me in the back; talk about indignity. I had no choice but to toss a loop shot up over their railing and give them back their due, which, along with sincere, heart-felt, loud-mouthed haranguing, seems to have done the trick, gotten my message across.

The apartment is a long narrow flat of about 650 sq. ft. with windows only on the two ends. You enter in the kitchen/bath area, which because it’s paired with the stairwell, is much narrower than the rest of the apartment. There is a stainless steel sink, which has already gotten me personally involved in funky plumbing. Really, the hassle of arranging a plumber – language problems and all – was a bigger impediment than the cost of hiring someone – a few bucks at most. Even then it wouldn’t have been that big a deal. Next to the sink is a white tiled counter where cooking apparatus would go if I had any. Part of me would like a burner to do a little cooking with, most of me is glad I don’t. Actually, I do have limited facility in the form of a one quart pot for boiling water for hot drinks or instant noodle soup.

I couldn’t be without a morning-coffee-making setup. The thought of facing the early world without some cafs and at least an hour to mentally prepare is anathema. But in contrast, there’s a noodle soup package that’s been sitting on my counter for months already. It’s just not worth it to me when the alternative – eating out almost every meal – is so cheap and easy. I do bring back prepared foods like clams or bbq chicken, but the idea of shopping, preparing, cooking and washing up just to eat, is not very appealing. I haven’t spent more than $2.50 on a meal since I got here last October. One can easily get relatively expensive ($3 to 8) international fare here, but my average is one to one-fifty and a bowl of noodle soup is less than a buck. I could easily obtain cooking facilities, but I’d rather have to wait till I get around to going out. Get used to being a little hungry, cinch up that belt a notch.

Once again, I could pick up a small fridge, but for now I’m making do with a small ice cooler – which I stock up every day with a nickel’s worth of ice. It has just enough room for a quart of juice, couple cans of beer and soda water and a small watermelon.

Partitioned off from the kitchen is the main bathroom – there’s a second one off of one of the bedrooms that is built into the stairwell so it’s got a real low ceiling – at 5’ 6” I have to be watchful. The entire kitchen/bath area is finished in ceramic tiles; up to about 5’ on the kitchen walls, higher in the bathroom. This is Asia style where the whole bathroom is equivalent to a shower stall with everything designed to be able to get wet. It has a sit down toilet – what a luxury – though it is the manual flush type; you just get a big scoop of water from your bucket and dump it in.

It also has an accompanying bum spritzer. If you haven’t had the pleasure of using a water spray to wipe your butt as an alternative to toilet paper, you haven’t lived. It’s easier, it’s cheaper, it’s cleaner and less abrasive – doesn’t rub you the wrong way – not to mention doesn’t require the felling of trees. Another lame shibboleth of the forest rapers eats dirt! Lame shibboleth? You know, “Hah! You call yourself an environmentalist, but you wipe your ass with ancient forests just like everybody else.” Finally the bathroom sports a droll plastic thingee hanging from one wall that includes a small mirror and a couple of baskets for holding shampoo, etc.

All of the floor tiles are beautiful, nothing like the worn and discolored ones of the old apartment. The kitchen/bathroom floor has tiles that are gouged, for traction, in a diagonal pattern, which results in the superimposition of larger diagonals on the smaller squares of the tiles themselves. The bedroom/living room tiles also show off a striking diagonal four tile design. They’re a purple-red color in an antique style.

The first room you get to as you enter the living space is a built-in bedroom, that is, it has thick masonry walls up to the apartment’s nearly 12 foot ceiling, as opposed to the second bedroom which is merely partitioned off with 8 foot walls sheathed in plastic with a simulated wood paneling design. I sleep in the second one; the first is so dark, I use it only for storage. I don’t need the extra space – locals are often surprised I live here by myself – but it comes with having a full floor flat, which is a near imperative if you want good ventilation. This apartment has built-in vents all the way through, even with all the doors and windows closed, there’s still air movement. They don’t make it cool, but they do keep the temperature inside from climbing way above outside – the differential is at most a degree or two. In this climate an unventilated room can quickly become an oven.

The apartment came with two plastic laminated wood beds complete with silly heart mirrors. I had to buy a decent mattress and some sheets. The landlord also gave me a wicker table and chairs, but all other furniture I’ve had to supply – all wicker, it’s cheap and looks good. All the lighting is bare fluorescent bulbs except for the two small lamps I’ve bought. There are actually a couple of pretty decent incandescent light fixtures in the living room but they still don’t work in spite of my replacing the light switch. One day I’ll get around to hiring someone to get them functioning. The living room walls have putrid, yellow plastic wainscoting up to five feet, which matches perfectly with the atrocious paneling of the partitioned bedroom. The living room has a ceiling fan which could use a few drops of oil to quiet its gruff, gruff, gruff sound, though it’s not bad on the slowest speed. It’s so high up, it’d be a big hassle just getting to it.

The best part is the front porch. It’s wide enough to give my hammock a decent swing and its placement has me gazing out directly onto my river sliver view. Though I’m a quarter mile from the river, I look diagonally through the next intersection and then over one story Psar Chas market and then a green space to get to the river. It’s impossible to adequately explain so I’m going to experiment with sending a picture, thus one attachment to this email. When not looking slightly to the right for the long view, I can look to the left to gaze upon and marvel at my plants. They’re so cheap and colorful and brighten the apartment’s vibe so immeasurably that I can’t help buying a new plant nearly every week and will soon be crowding my own space on the porch.

The apartment is on the third floor (American style third floor, second floor to others) which has some advantages over higher floors. I don’t mind the extra stairs, but the higher you go the more you have to plan your trips to get as much done as possible – don’t forget, high ceilings make four stories here equivalent to nearly six most other places. Higher floors also have the advantage of less dust, one of the most trying aspects of living here. Fortunately my street is only a block long, with minimal traffic, and mostly paved. I’m close to a t-intersection with a much busier street, but it’s got considerable congestion – from the market a block away – and big enough potholes to keep traffic down and slow. Still, one day is enough to see a fine layer of dust on everything. Higher floors are cheaper but also hotter, but in compensation have better views. Third floor is a suitable compromise.

Also it faces east and a little north so the sun is off the front porch by 11AM. South facing is strongly avoided since the sun comes from that direction about nine months a year and the three months it comes from the north is a time of frequent cloud cover so there’s no advantage in a south face. North face, or east is the only way to go here. At eighty bucks a month I got a good deal, though at most it would only rent for another twenty or so dollars. Double that and it’d have hot water and a full kitchen, cable TV and decent furniture. But I love my apartment and it’s plenty good enough for me. When I return to the states again this summer, I’ll have to keep it.

Should I change jobs I’d be sad in leaving – not being a moto rider requires that I live close to work – though in fact there are much quieter places to live in Phnom Penh. I might not care to be in the thick of things next time. This is called downtown but it’s really a mixed use residential neighborhood where almost nothing is more than six floors and which has more of a sense of community than any urban place I’ve ever experienced. There is also no other place I can think of in which design and architecture are more conducive to community and one of the reasons I like this place so much.

Closing with a late February weather report. Temperature range 75 to 85, sometimes cloudy, moderately clammy. Rained once about two weeks ago, first and only time since beginning of December. Checked the temperature in Bangkok, which is only 300 miles away and situated in almost exactly the same terrain, was surprised and mystified to discover it was 93 yesterday. Can’t imagine why it would be so much more than Phnom Penh, but that’s the breaks.