So there is nothing quite like the responsibility of a blog, or really, an unwritten blog, to make you realize how fast time is flying by. Why, hello there week 3 mark! I guiltily look at the two posts thus far to see that I have spent a lot of time describing the time up to my arrival, and the arrival itself, but that my time in Phnom Penh still remains a mystery. Let’s begin to remedy this situation then shall we?
So now, three weeks in, I think I can finally say I’m beginning to let my jaw close a little and let my I’M-IN-A-NEW-COUNTRY!!@#!Alert bells fade to a more gently ringing. The streets seem a little less scary (just a little) and the language not quite so daunting (1). So, my first week was spent in a state of permanent wide-eyed wonder as I tried to absorb every new sight, smell, and sound, with a heavy mixture of excitement and adrenaline bringing every new detail into extreme focus. Unable to find explanations for everything I was seeing, I made a million mental notes on cultural intricacies and then promptly forgot them as new observations/information bombarded my brain.
The first day, the two people from Bophana who picked me up helped me search for lodging. It was really nice of them to trail about with me in that sweltering heat for at least an hour and a half checking out rooms, negotiating prices etc. Finally I settled for a Guest House not too far from where I work. Air conditioning will no longer be a part of my vocabulary, I’m afraid. Instead, the fan located at the center of the sidewall of the room has become my sun, and I, its devoted, orbiting planet.
I plunged into work my second day. (Take that jetlag!) Somehow I made it to Bophana Center unlost (quite a feat for me, I can assure you) and unscathed (another feat, given the bedlam of these streets). Bophana Center is a rather squat, three-story building (apparently emblematic of 1960s Cambodian architecture) tightly wedged between some neighboring apartments. It peeps out from a rather tropical façade. The leaves of potted plants and palm-tree like foliage sprout from its balconies and remind me of a little less glam version of the Rainforest Café (sans bright-eyed frogs and the other jungley creatures of course.) It’s not quite what I expected in a building. The ground floor is open to the elements on two sides, with metal grating that can be brought down to lock the place up. I think the place is so open because of ventilation purposes. But, maybe it’s also more welcoming this way? A couple of stray dogs have moseyed their way in and there seems to be a cat that has permanently installed itself here. It’s a curious creature, taught bodied with a twisted tail. Like most cats, it stalks about as if it owned the place. (I think of my own fat, roly-poly cat at home. He looks like a bowl of tumbly orange pudding in comparison to this intense-eyed, feral feline.)
I have to take my shoes off before making my way upstairs, as is tradition in most Cambodian households, and apparently work places (?). It’s sort of ridiculous how much I like padding about barefoot on those cold stone floors. I don’t really mind the dirt, because my toes are too busy reveling in delight at their new freedom. The idea of wearing shoes at work all day now seems like such a faraway and depressing thought. Plus, in this heat, I can imagine nothing quite so stifling. Actually, I think I have completely given up the idea of closed-toed shoes here in Cambodia. I stepped off the plane wearing my running sneakers, and immediately realized how foolish it was to bring them. No, flip-flops are now my permanent footwear of choice! (I’m swiftly becoming like those Californians who stubbornly wear flip-flops all year long, even in the winter, just to prove that they can.)
My boss, Naren, who’s in charge of the archives, showed me around the center, introducing me to people, and briefly describing their jobs. Almost all of the people who work here are Cambodian, though most speak French or English, in addition to Khmer. There are also a couple of French guys working here as well. So, I expect it’ll be quite the little international exchange and I’m excited to get to practice some of my French!
There’s only about 30 people total working here though, so it’s quite a small team. But, that’s still much too many names to remember in one fell swoop! Plus, I find it so much harder to remember non-western names. I kept trying to find ways to remember each of them—mini-jingles, name associations, anything. However, this wasn’t even the most successful method as I soon found out. It took me till the next day to realize that the guy I was working with was not called “Sophir” (I had thought I was so clever when I came up with a name association with the French word “soupir,” or the word for “sigh”) but it turns out he is actually called Sopheap (approximately pronounced “So-peep.”) Where I thought I heard an “r” at the end of his name, I’ll never know.
So after that whirlwind of introductions, I was put to work on the archives. At present it’s rather tedious work. Tedious, but necessary, I suppose. The center has received a flood of documents/films/images/CDs etc to add to its archives since its opening in 2006, but even now, five years later, not all of it has made it to the searchable database. Thus I have been charged with questing through contracts, verifying and re-verifying archive numbers, and basically becoming an Excel, list-making extraordinaire.
And day-by-day, I am slowly getting into the rhythm of things.
Every morning, I pass a number of people on the way to the office that I share with Naren and Sopheap and greet them with either a “Sua s’dei! Sohk sabai!” or “Salut!” or “Hellooo!” However, my favorite part of this morning ritual involves one of my overseers, this endearingly awkward French guy who shares the office next door with the director and the secretary. I have made a point of popping my head in the office each morning and bursting out, “BONJOUR!! ÇA VA????” The poor fellow always looks so startled by my sudden appearance. (The director and the secretary take it nicely in stride and smile agreeably back.) I think French guy almost jumped out of his chair the first time I did it. Who knew one could be so surprised by a simple pleasantry like “Hello”? We exchange our “Ça va?” “Oh, ça va.” “Ça va?” “Oui, ça va!” followed by a very pregnant pause. He’s not really one for small talk it seems. And so I flit off to my office to go stare at my computer screen and ponder the organization of these archives. Mischief managed!
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- Actually, I take that back. The language may no longer be so daunting because I am now in a state of utter denial about becoming decent at it. By the end of this trip, I think I shall be happy to achieve Neanderthal status, capable of wild gesticulations and, at maximum, 3-syllable Khmer phrases.