Hostel receptionists are hands-down among the hardest workers I have ever met. Nalin 23, is no exception. She works 6 days a week, 9 hours per day, for 45$ per week or 7.5$ per day. She gets no vacation days and should she get sick, the hostel will charge her for absenteeism, 1 or 2 dollars per day. Her per diem salary could afford her just two nights in the dorms. Nalin is not unique in her situation, the receptionist at my hostel in Phnom Penh worked 7 days per week, 12 hours per day, with occasional weekends to go and see her family.
A few years ago she had to quit studying finance at university because of family troubles and money. At 400$ per year, it was also way too expensive, she points out. She’s been working here for 5 or 6 years now, though she can’t quiet recall.
Nalin is forever running around checking guests in and out. She expresses some dissatisfaction, her boss isn’t great. It won’t last forever though, she will be leaving in December to get married and start a family, she would like 4 children. Her dream job though, if she could, would be to work in a bank. I ask her about returning to school. This isn’t possible she says, if she were to return, she would have to start from scratch and redo her first 2 years of university because she has exceeded the maximum allotted sabbatical time.
We get to taking about the hostel and her work, about guests and inevitably, about prostitution. She tells me foreign men regularly mistake her for a “taxi girl” on her walks to work, wearing a spring green button up and ponytail. “I am not like that, I am not like that”, she says shaking her head and hands vigorously. She also points out that “we don’t do that kind of thing here [at the hostel], no outside Cambodians allowed”.
Nalin expresses a surprising amount of concern for her guests. She seems to worry about them constantly. Looking around, I have a hard time understanding why. She says most of the guests are quite nice, no real trouble, but she wishes they would wear shirts and shoes in the restaurant, that they wouldn’t shit in the beds. Simple requests.
*Nalin has requested that I don’t use her picture. Her boyfriend does not want her picture on the internet like this.
Lovisa Lönn (or Lulu), 22, was a picture framer at a gallery in Stockholm before she started traveling. She is on a trip through Australia and Asia- originally it was slated to last six months, but has since been extended to a year and a half.
While cycling around Angkor the day before, I had briefed her on the project. I want to collect her stories. She was excited and very enthusiastic. We start chat about her trip and travels and then I ask:
“Can you tell me about any negative experiences you’ve had, either now while traveling or otherwise, where you’ve been made to feel weak, scared or less then because you’re a woman?”
Lulu starts by telling me about India, a country she loves.
Her friend Rebecca had left her alone, suntanning on the beach. While lying there, a group of 10 men encircled her and stopped to take pictures of her with their phones. Lulu inevitably got angry, she shouted at them, told them to go away, to stop taking pictures, but they wouldn’t. To add insult to injury, they showed her, while sniggering, the photos they had taken of her. Red in the face, she tells me she felt powerless. She couldn’t do anything to get them to stop and she wouldn’t dare. As an afterthought she pauses and tells me, this happened more than once, “but this was definitely the worst time”.
I press for more stories. I want to share her experiences, after a long pause she says:
“I have so many stories, I don’t know which I’m gonna choose.”
Next she tells me about Australia. “It was bad there, I expected it to be more like Sweden, but it was worse than India.”
She had gone into a job agency. They guaranteed her work in two weeks. After one week she hadn’t heard anything. She checked back a second time. When she returned a third time on the two week mark, they told her “it’s not the season for women, we only have man jobs like lifting bananas”. She is visibly frustrated. “They didn’t even ask if I could do the work, they just assumed I couldn’t.”
She tells me about the catcalls and honking while jogging- a seemingly universal problem. She says she hated the cars, because she couldn’t do anything, she couldn’t even get angry- they just sped away.
Once we start talking the stories start flowing. I ask her how these experiences made her feel. “Angry, powerless, they don’t have the right.”
“Can you describe to me a time, a place or an experience you’ve had, where you left feeling empowered, awesome?”
She tells me about different feminist debates she’s had with fellow travelers in Malaysia, in Cambodia. In Australia, she took on the cliche “women always go for bad guys”. She told her debate partner “No, you can’t say that. You don’t know me.” ‘You’re all the same he replied to her’, “as if we women were all one person” she says to me, throwing her hands up with indignation. We chat for a while longer.
She smiles and says of the debates, “I felt like I won, or at least like I planted a seed.”
“Being a feminist doesn’t mean you have to fight.” It doesn’t require you to be combative.
Friends of the (Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives) Project
Felix Brason, 25, of Kent jumps in after I finish chatting with Lulu. I smile, the discussion has begun. He wants to know what we’re talking about. I tell him about the project, I share with him Lulu’s story, ask if he wouldn’t mind writing about this conversation too.
He is hesitant, he’s felt trapped by feminists before. I assure him, this isn’t the goal. I’m just here to collect stories and share experiences.
We meander through the conversation, talking about feminists who perhaps overshoot and about women in skateboarding (he would very much like for more women to skateboard). He feels very strongly that religion can be very sexist.
Felix share’s his stories. One stands out. While hitchhiking in Thailand with a female friend, he took the backseat because he wasn’t feeling so hot. After 20 minutes, the driver got out and asked them to switch places, for him to sit in the front seat. With conviction, with certainty, he tells me he is sure it’s because she was a she, a woman. He is incredulous. It’s 2014.
Many thanks to Nalin, Louisa and Felix for sharing their stories.