Parallel U
pt. II

Number 27–It Comes in Layers

Maybe you’ve heard the near universal description of how it rains here in the tropics. The day starts out with few clouds. By noon they gather and build intensity until about 3 PM when all hell breaks loose... or rather, when the heavens open up and the sky comes crashing down. Anyway, I’ve told that story (in the past) and heard it told quite a few times but until the day after I sent off the last email, I’d never seen it happen that way here in Phnom Penh.

That is, I hadn’t ever remembered seeing it happen at 3PM. Midnight, 6AM, 7PM, noon, yes, but no 3PM. Of course I hadn’t necessarily really thought about it all that much, you know, enough to actually remember all the details, you know, stemming from various levels of memory loss – short term, long term, old people’s....

I did have to restrain myself a couple of times from contradicting friends as they clued in, or thought they were clueing in, tourists or newcomers. Maybe, I mused, that 3 o’clock thing happens more in a place like the Amazon which has a much greater forest footprint. Well, finally, last week and today it rained at 3PM – close enough, if not to the minute.

Could that be, I theorized, because I’ve mostly been here at the fringes of the rainy season. At any rate its been raining nearly every day, but not always at 3 – this after raining only three times since last December – which is great for lowering the temperature and settling the dust but not great for relative humidity or walking in muddy streets. Most sidewalks are nicely finished in paving tiles but all too often they are blocked by parked vehicles – motorbikes and cars – or store merchandise, even permanently blocked at times.

It’s definitely my pettiest peeve – my head is so permanently immersed in street design it feels like an affront to force me to dodge mud puddles in the funky street when there’s a high quality sidewalk at arm’s reach. According to my ex-landlord, blocking the sidewalk was not allowed before 1975. Neither was hanging clothes in public. And one didn’t find garbage strewn about. Phnom Penh was once called the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ and may well regain that appellation in the future.

The present lackadaisical, disorganized public space use pattern came into play with the Vietnamese occupation and that’s the only other country I’ve been in – 24 total – which allows private property owners to consistently usurp public space.

When traffic was very light and the congestion that resulted was minor that usurpation was not a great problem. It will be progressively more difficult to maintain present ways as traffic increases. There are major thoroughfares where people park head in on the sidewalk and then have to back up into heavy traffic. Ah, but nobody gets bent out of shape for the inconvenience or disorganization of it all.

It’s all a part of their ‘live and let live’ mindset. People do whatever they want without considering the other person and nobody gets up tight. People will barge through a red light and force drivers who are proceeding on the green to stop, with barely a trace of visible anger from the inconvenienced drivers. The police mostly just stand by and watch. There are no speed limits or sanctions for any level of maniacal driving.

In December, 2005 a new traffic law was passed by the legislature which includes real penalties for traffic infractions and serious accidents. It’s a good start, though it remains to be seen if they will be enforced.

At night there are few police out on the street – you can, however go and get one at the commune storefront police station where a bunch will be found spending the night sleeping on cots. This too is changing, we are now beginning to see pairs of armed cops patrolling on motorbikes.

The in-your-face-but-no-matter system works just fine until something actually happens that causes harm – then oooh, you had better be on your toes. You can wildcat a big macho dirt bike through crowded city streets (dirt bikes are a favorite pastime of expats) with impunity, until you actually cause an accident, then you might need to run just in case the neighborhood bystanders are in an unfriendly mood. If you are involved in an accident, even if it clearly wasn’t your fault, you’ll probably have to pay the other guy’s hospital bill if it looks like you have more money than him/her.

Ok, back to the rain. In addition to not coming exactly according to schedule it rains differently every time. Sometimes it comes crashing down with hardly a prelude, other times it builds slowly for as much as a half hour before it really takes off. The latter is more typical. At times the rain is preceded by gusty winds, other times the wind comes in the middle.

I’m a weather freak and find tropical deluges mesmerizing. After five or ten minutes the rain will resemble a good strong Oregon rain with raindrops bouncing off the pavement and little streams forming on the curbs. Soon it’s building intensity and the drops are bouncing a couple of inches high and silt and debris laden rivers are forming. Next it’s really starting to come down in buckets, as hard as it ever rains in Oregon and I can’t help but watch. This is what torrential means. Then when you think it can’t get any more exciting, it really starts to rain and practically the whole street is under water. For that reason I can’t imagine wearing shoes in rainy season, sandals are the only way to go. It all happens in an hour or so and then poof, it’s gone. Well, not always. Sometimes it’ll linger for hours in a light Oregon type rain, but only at the height of the rainy season; September – October.

The city itself also comes in layers. When I first got here I taught from a textbook that mentioned getting off the beaten path and into the city’s alleys and byways. I scoffed. ‘There are no alleys’, I told my students, Phnom Penh is a grid city. Well, egg on my face, the first layer is a grid – though there is no obsession with laying out streets oriented to the points of the compass as in the US – but I didn’t even realize there was another layer until after being in my first apartment for a couple of months.

Free tourist oriented maps of Phnom Penh are everywhere but of course they don’t include the byways. Every block has its normal outward looking facade but observe closely and you see multiple entrance points to the block’s interior. Essentially, the center of every block, places that make you think of back yards in the US, is taken up with a warren of smallish and often makeshift residences, though there are exceptions. The entrances range from alleys that are wide enough to accommodate a car to those that are barely two feet wide, even though they might provide access to dozens of apartments. The city has a much greater density than you might expect in a place where there are no high rise buildings.

Even individual buildings are layered. Many were built in the fifties and sixties; solid, concrete, flat roofed. No problem then to build a little house on top to make a little extra money and provide needed housing. Sometimes it’s also built solidly, alternatively it’ll be barely more than a wooden shack. Not everybody has my kind of money and can afford to spend $80/ month for an apartment, so they walk up the equivalent of seven or eight floors to a rooftop shanty. The view may be grand, but it sure gets hot on top.

Phnom Penh’s street system makes it ostensibly look far more like an American city than either Kunming, China or Bangkok – the other Asian cities I’ve lived in. However, all three have striking similarities and are so different from anything in my American experience that I could never have imagined what they were like without seeing and living them. They all include safe, quiet, tucked-away, inaccessible-to-auto interior spaces. The scope of my understanding of possible urban spaces would have been much shallower and narrower without living in Asia.

Finally, contrary to the impression I might’ve given and you might’ve taken when I said, ‘BRING IT ON’, that I actually look forward to turmoil and hardship; well hardly. I’m three-fourths retired; I’ll be in my seventies when the shit comes down in the mid twenty-teens (according to my prognosis). However, it’s true that I do like changes. As long as you know you have no choice, why not work it out and move on. The question is, ‘Does the world have a choice?’

Simply put, I see little cause for optimism. We’re on that fast freight train barreling down a tunnel that comes to a dead end a few feet before the light and our lights are out and we couldn’t stop in time if we did have lights enough to see.

Don’t give up, I’m not. Whatever happens our lives and work will have meaning in the long view. But face it, we’d only have a chance to avoid disaster if we started now and put the world’s collective mind to radical change. Instead we are doing everything wrong. Hardly anything happening in macro American philosophy, the pacesetter in wanton planetary degradation, is designed to recognize or deal with our planet’s crucial underlying ecological challenges.

What could be worse for political stability than to have world order based on the whim of an arrogant and bullish superpower that feels its motives are beyond question and it can do no wrong? How could any political system be any more corrupt or less responsive to the world’s needs than one bought and paid for by Corporate America?

We’re obsessed with growth instead of sustainability, with wealth in place of humanity; but miracles are possible – US Representative Dennis Kuchinich, who, amongst other great ideas, wants to establish a Department of Peace, could be elected president of the US. Other than miraculous intervention it’s the whole world living the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”