Parallel U
pt. II

Number 35–Out of Chaos Comes....

First morning back home in Phnom Penh I crashed my computer. Actually, immediately upon turning it on. It took just four wrong clicks of the mouse. I won’t go into all the sordid details, except to say the little trolls who live inside and mysteriously govern all its myriad electronic minutiae were in a devastating mood. It took a week and a half to reassemble its shattered psyche. Most baffling is how a software glitch can fry a hard drive... oh, well...

Then first thing upon leaving the house, I checked in at school and most surprisingly the manager was surprised to see me. “Why didn’t you email me?” “What?” I answered incredulously, “I did email you.” It seems that for two weeks he hadn’t checked the personal email displayed on his business card, and I had failed to send a copy to the school’s email address and he gave my perfect job – two classes back to back which I had already taught several times and almost know by heart – to someone else. Actually, after receiving no confirmation from the first email, I started thinking about sending to the other address, and even faintly remember trying to get through once but then experiencing a computer gremlin malfunction and somehow then spaced it out.

Well I wasn’t too awfully concerned about the job since there’s always work here and as for the digital crash, what the computer gods rent asunder, they often somehow reconstitute. It just seemed like I had entered a personal black hole. Meanwhile a couple of days after I returned, a good friend turned me on to my dream apartment. Not that I didn’t really like the one I was in but... well, it was a lot like living next door to a schoolyard at recess – the general din could be quite impressive. Being a block from a public market and in a dense neighborhood means constant activity. So the first big advantage of the new place is it’s at the dead end of an alley and blissfully quiet – at least in relative terms. Moreover the alley is clean, no strewn about garbage whatever.

I really have been wanting more space for plants – my two little balconies were quite stuffed. The architecture here in Cambodia is unlike that I’ve seen anywhere else. One of its unique quirks is to turn most rooftops – most of which are flat – into usable space. This is done in two ways; one is to build a canopy over the roof, essentially roofing over the roof or simply building a railing and making it accessible and comfortable to walk on, often including finishing it in ceramic tiles. The other thing they do (my new place) is make the top floor apartment smaller leaving a large part of the roof as outdoor space.

In this case the outdoor space on both sides of the original apartment has been roofed over. You enter the apartment in the kitchen/bathroom area which is a large room screened or rather fenced in on two sides – for security. The floor is finished in outdoor type quarry tiles – here with mottled surfaces and generally roughly cast – and probably half the area is subject to getting wet during those downpours when the wind blows the rain sideways.

The first thing I notice is no hot water and it’s heading into the cool months and I’m feeling ready for the luxury. Considering they were asking $140 month, almost double what I was then paying, I feel like I should go for the whole shebang, so hot water it is.

Hot water here means on-demand faucet systems. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, it’s simply a small heater located just before the faucet which comes on automatically when you turn the water on. In far less time than it takes to bring hot water in from a remote hot water tank, you’re enjoying a hot shower.

In America, everyone has a 40 gallon tank of scalding hot H2O ready to go 24 hours a day, though the number of people who actually want to take a bath or wash clothes or do dishes at 3 AM is quite negligible. Every night a large amount of energy is thrown away on a hundred million tanks of unused hot water, not to mention while people are at work, etc. Ah, but fossil fuel supplies are cheap and unlimited so there’s no reason to go through a lot of trouble to convert to more efficient processes. Americans have a god given right to waste resources, so end of debate.

And how about a flush toilet? Really getting up there. Actually, the sit down but manual flush shitter at the old place was plenty good enough.

And it has a two burner stove top and a fridge; no more having to go out and buy ice every day. It took a month to buy essential pots and cooking utensils. I hate to admit it but it’s often easier to cook at home than go out to eat. Still twice a week is kind of my limit.

Next is the smallish but adequate bedroom, except it’s air-conditioned. This is a big problem because I don’t use air-con under any circumstances. I tolerate it at work, but have no choice. The difficulty arises from the fact that once you design a space for air-con it has to be sealed tight and then it’s no longer functional for natural ventilation. The bedroom had an openable window on one side but not the other and the upper level vent on the same side as the window had been closed off. There was no opening on the other side and no possibility of cross ventilation. ‘So how about a window?’ I say. The bedroom was an add-on made of light material so cutting the window was relatively easy and now air can flow all the way through the apartment. Curiously, all the windows are barred, even between living room and bedroom! Thievery can, or more likely used to get out of hand so nearly every window in the city is barred, but inside a house?

The next room is a living room (which came with a TV which I have absolutely no use for so had removed) that is furnished in wicker chairs and sofa which I’ve converted to an office/living room. Finally, the front balcony, which is as large as the living room, came furnished with faux leather sofas, of the stick-to-your-skin kind of material. A good part of it is also likely to get wet when the rain comes sideways. It has a canopy fleshed out with green plastic netting that makes it look like the balcony is outfitted with green eyeshades. It’s perfect for plants.

I’ve gone quite crazy buying greenery; about 25 or so plants to fill up my outdoor spaces and soon – I now have more than 40 and room for another 20 or so – I’ll have just enough room to walk between them.

And finally the front balcony has a large specially commissioned ethnic painting designed to fill in an open wall space between my apartment and the one next door. It’s a generic depiction of a typical bucolic Cambodian rural scene, quite nicely done actually – without the strewn about garbage and plastic bags, of course. In fact through my travels I’ve realized that some of Cambodia’s towns and rural areas are much tidier than others.

Added up, half the apartment’s floor space is outdoors and the whole thing is light and airy – in this case aided by the fact that there’s no building on the north side. For this long, narrow, railroad-flat type apartment, east-west orientation with the north side open is the best possible combination. While the sun does come from the north for about three months of the year, it can be cloudy much of that time. Top floor with a south face would be much hotter.

The rent is actually a bit much, but I’ve got friends on both sides and it’s so perfect for me I couldn’t resist, besides I wound up with two jobs, 16 hours a week total. I was advised to look for a job since I couldn’t be guaranteed work at the old school so in my first week on Thursday – one of the two days a week our local English language newspaper has classified ads – I called about a job listed at 2, went for an interview at 3 and taught my first class at 7. The previous teacher had a family emergency, or so he said, and they were tickled to see me turn up just in time. This is actually my preferred work; teaching history for a bachelor’s program.

Meanwhile, the next day the old school calls, seems like one of their new teachers didn’t work out. And a few days later another disappeared without notice so I wound up with 10 hours at the old school. So for a term I had a split schedule and three completely different and unfamiliar classes to prepare for besides having to commute between the schools. I wasn’t a pretty schedule to wrangle with, but at least I’m now teaching an academic subject to adults for part of my class time. I’m teaching younger students at the old school which I don’t appreciate all that much but at least my basic living expenses and fun are both now covered.

The one thing that saves me from burn-out... okay, I admit it, 16 hours of class time, even with preparation and grading homework and transportation time isn’t really much of a grueling schedule and I also must confess that I like the students, consider the work to be worthy, can see the value of a little discipline to my day and the money comes in handy. However, that doesn’t change the reality that when you’ve mentally finished the desire to work, it’s a downer, albeit a minor one in this case. At any rate, getting back to the intro to this paragraph, Cambodia has so many public holidays I rarely go two weeks without some time off and every one brings a little relief. In addition, since my two schools also have different term breaks, I get the benefit of additional short teaching weeks.

The other big news is that I got the chance to play bass for a few club gigs last October until our little trio’s guitar player split town. It wasn’t a whole ton of money – $8 plus free beer and dinner – but who can complain when one is on the edge of stardom? Okay, it might not have had the taste of fame and fortune, but it satisfied a lifelong ambition and was great fun.

I’m also doing regular articles for, a website oriented towards expats in Cambodia. Just look for Stan under columnists on the left hand menu. For now it’s just the old sidewalk/ bikepath planning stuff but I expect to branch out later.