Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives: Cambodia

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.

***

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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.”

“Final Thoughts?”

“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

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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.

Gently we roll along: Highway 6 to Siem Reap

Armed with a new tire for bike bike and a thai visa, kowtow to the burning sensation in your feet. Cyclists you’ve seen come into Phnom Penh tell you the road to Siem Reap will be long and hard, they came in caked in dirt, hollow-eyed.

On the road the gravel starts sooner than you can anticipate. Bike bike crunches and slides along. The orange dust is blinding. Look too long and you get disoriented. Fucking shit. Stop and take an early lunch break.Time to reframe. Wipe off the dust. Slide the bandana down, tie it across your nose, your mouth. You are Jesse James, no Butch Cassidy– no, you are Calamity Jane. Alright road, let’s do this.

90 kilometers of gravel, of sand. 90 kilometers where you can see more no more than 10 m in front of you. 90 kilometers sucking in dust. 90 fucking kilometers and then finally, at a junction, the road gives way. Pavement that is at first patchy and uneven, pockmarked with shallow craters, becomes smooth and soft. Pedal along.

Something doesn’t feel right. Hop off. Look down. The rack has lost a screw and has fallen into your back tire. Vie de marde. Repurpose the screw from your rear mudguard and screw your rack back in. The sun is fading, is melting into the horizon. Nervously keep going. No guesthouses near. It’s going to be a long stretch yet. Ahead see a friendly sight, it’s Enzo. Smile. Pedal through the darkness together.

The next day passes fast. Wholly unremarkable. Pass field after field. Through a town seemingly devoted to carving Buddhas, with shop after shop sculpting them from stone. Hear the saws shrill hesitant cuts carving eyes, lips, hands. Listen to the whirr of bike bike’s tires, the soft kiss of rubber on asphalt. The day is beautiful but hot. Pull into Stuong. An asian french colonial frontier town. Homes on slits hang over roadside shoppes. Next to the guesthouse a sort of open-air movie theater. Rows of lawn-chairs sit neatly in front of three TVs, showing three different movies, all side-by-side. A woman scurries between rows serving beer and coffee. The road to dinner is illuminated only by light thrown off from shops and market stalls. There are no street lights. The stars are crystal clear. They are breathtaking.

The morning greets you with the sun. Today it is so very hot. Not scalding or burning, just omnipresent. Baking you. Drink deeply. One, two, three bottles of water. The thirst is unquenchable. Mouth forever tacky. Stop in the shade, you’ve overheated. As if universe is listening, the sky fills with puffy white clouds, occluding the rays. Thank you.

Pass a giant wedding cake topper standing lone in a parking lot. A larger than life cement bride and groom sitting on top an even larger two-tier, white cement cake. Laugh.

A ta gauche, une scène d’un film. Des hommes perchés précaire 7m dans l’air, sur des immenses rodins de bois, utilisant des scies encore plus longues. Ils te rappèlent immédiatement de tes cours d’études sociales, de tout ces légendes folkloriques qui tissent les histoires de naissance du Quebec et de Canada. Les bucherons Cambodges.

Look northward and find yourself pleasantly surprised. Far, far in the distance a faint watery blue-gray lines the horizon. As if a painter had dragged his brush along the tree line. Mountains.

The road into a city can speak volumes. Highway 6 into Siem Reap is bordered by trees. Gentle and bushy they arch over the road and welcome you, friendly. A road sign directs you, straight for downtown, right for Angkor Wat, for those that pass underneath “have a safe trip”. Smile. This town is going to be good.

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Westward bound: Highway 1 to Phnom Penh

Ho Chi Minh was a city built for someone else. A crowded concrete maze. Hot, polluted and chaotic, in a way that made no sense. It was everything I liked least. Trapped by circumstance, 10 days felt so much longer. Rescue was a facebook message away, thanks to transpacific doctoring skills of one Dr. Amy Hegstrom. Huge props to her.

Leaving HCM was a rush. Even exhausted from an umpteenth midnight phone call with the bank, there was no question, it was time to go. So bike bike was loaded up. Westward bound. The city seemed to go on forever and so we went with it, buoyed by wild excitement, to the border town of Moc Bai/ Bavet– a strange Tim Burton-esq wonderland.

Crossing the border was a strange experience. A definite sadness in leaving, but the only direction was forward, onward. As gambling is technically illegal in Vietnam, Cambodia’s Bavet greets you with a blaze of casinos and bright neon lights.

Sign posts are immediately different. Gone are the familiar words, in their place stand beautiful, incomprehensible letters, hello Khmer. Underneath, a few words scrawled in English. Xin chau becomes Sous-dey. Dong exchanged for American Dollars. See dyed hair and earbuds hanging out of teenage ears, riding tractors made in Ray Charles’ heyday. This is Cambodia: equal parts modern and dated.

The land here is a sea of infinite flatness, flatness that brings you back to the Savannah. Flatness punctuated by lone palms, standing proud. Your nose forever pointed into an infinite horizon. Wide fields bordered by distant trees, sometimes sneaking up to the road to lend their shade.

You can feel the towns before you see the signs. Coarse highway 1 paving traded for smooth, pristine road, road befitting a town. Faded blue and white signs for the Cambodian People’s Party dot the road. Clad in orange, monks bob down the road. Sometimes alone, sometimes together, they give warm smiles. Swerve to avoid a baby crab. There is no lake near. Where did you come from little guy?

An old man wearing a gray felt fedora leans smoking against his Honda dream, red scarf stagnant. There is no breeze. Ivory cows lounge listlessly in the sun, eyelashes fluttering, beating away flies. For lunch, for dinner, in your bed, on the bread to be your breakfast: tiny bugs, ants, everywhere. How can 1km across an imaginary line mean so many more fucking bugs, so much more trash strewn across roads?

Stopped drinking water, see bikebike’s tires. The back tire is completely bald. Funny how you can look at something everyday and not notice such a change.

Check into a guesthouse just 65k from the city. Parked in the bay is another technicolor steel dream bike. Enter: Enzo. On the road these last 15 months, he’s come from Italy. Immediately flooded with emotions: excited, impressed, and profoundly jealous. He didn’t have a flat for 1 year. Happily, we wake up and he gets the joy of helping change bikebike’s lucky 7. Together we ride the last few kilometers into Phnom Pehn, sun prickling our skin. The day is hot.

In the same way you could feel the towns, you can feel Phnom Penh. The easy highway paving on highway 1 becomes dirt and dust, bumpy and full of pot holes, before giving way to nice city roads. Confusion. Hilarity. Welcome to Phnom Penh.

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On the banks of the mighty Mekong. Enzo, bike bike, Mathilde and I.

Pies Inquietas

Prickling, tickling,
Flitting across the tips of your toes,
Sparks skipping, dancing, across your souls,
Slowly it grows, creeping skyward,

Embers smolder and jump,
Flames gently lick your feet, ankles, calves,
A controlled burn on the verge,
Slowly it grows, creeping skyward,

Heating the kettle the fire burns hot,
The water simmers, bubbles, boils,
A whistle blows, screeches, cries,
Slowly it grows, creeping skyward,

Vines hug tight, then tighter still,
Encircling your core, heart, throat,
Constricting, consuming, commanding:
GO.

Schlender with me

Fleeting. Walks shared on a sunbeam, a technicolor trance,
A verbal flamenco, volleying fast and excited,
The rest faded away, no complaisance,
I know you. I walked with you, once upon a dream.

Simple pleasures for simple people,
Wine and verse, wilderness and thou,
Comfort in unfamiliar places, unfamiliar faces,
I know you. I walked with you, once upon a dream.

Feel the earth in your veins, hear it whisper and roar,
Know the changes in the air, that heavy atmosphere,
Sweet and deep, a melody heard by so few,
I know you. I walked with you, once upon a dream.

Transient wandering, speeding up, slowing down,
Natural rhythms, not running, not searching, just being,
Floating in the river that runs through,
I know you. I walked with you, once upon a dream.

Moved measure by measure, beat by beat,
Commanded by heartstrings, hypnotic rhythms,
Shuffle and sway, spin and step, drift in and out,
I know you. I walked with you, once upon a dream.

Close your eyes, rest easy,
Trust this road, it is different. No need to tread lightly,
A better foundation, grounded by the same vision,
I know you. I walked with you, once upon a dream.

Into HCM: Can she kick it? Yes, She can.

Trace a hilltop road. Kelly green valleys on either side. Descend out of the central plateau after a small uphill climb. Glorious downhill. Perfect day. A road partially shaded by bamboo leaf fingers, tickled by a gentle breeze. Springy, jubilant. The hulking masses that were yesterday so far away, have come to rest alongside the road. Cruise down. Gliding, feel the air change almost immediately. Hot and thick. A finger dragging through a pond.

Sleep in towns whose name you don’t know. Their characterizing feature is their distance from HCM. Not all nights are special, but this one can’t be forgotten. The power has gone out in the town again. Find a bun stand illuminated by a single red taper. Hand the man your flashlight. Don’t need it to see the brilliant stars, the razor sharp crescent moon. Relax peacefully. Gaze skyward. He pumps Bruno Mars and the title track to the band scene from 10 things I hate about you.

“I love you baby, and if it’s quite alright, I need you baby, to warm the lonely nights. I want to love you baby, let me love you.” Sing along with every last drop of enthusiasm you can muster.

The last two days are hot. Scorching. Sweltering. Ride in a trance. Transcend. Take long breaks in the afternoon. Try furtively to beat the sun. A man on a motorbike decides to masturbate in your general direction, really? Did you just get released from prison mongrel? He rides along side you, pulls off and continues, squawking at you. Ug. Stop for hammocks a short while later. A farmer invites you for coffee. He studied languages at university. How are the people of Vietnam? Lovely, just lovely. Mean it.

Last few K to HCM begin like something out of a movie. Clouds with halos highlight an ethereal morning. Sun streaks through altocumulus resting gently in the blue-gray sky. A church painting. Pedal along smooth back country roads to the highway. Quiet. Calm. Fresh clean air.

At the junction discover bicycles aren’t permitted on the straight shot into Saigon. The guard wants you to cycle back to the last town, at least 20k away. It has begun pouring again. Fuck that shit. Pedal impulsively, irritated, into the towns on road that ends without a bridge. Hope for a ferry. Reason, there must be a ferry. Get lost on the winding roads.

On the only road toward the river, find yourself boxed out by a naval base. Plead with the guard. Again a guard refuses to let you pass, even though your destination is just on the other side. Back track. Go around.

Deep sigh. Tired. Frustrated. Enter Chuong. He pedals alongside you, training for his own South-North cycle. A last 20km angel. From the top of the hill see the skyline. Surreal. Thousand-watt smile. He leads you to a port to cross the river into Ho Chi Minh. Ten-thousand-watts. He directs you through the polluted and chaotic streets. LOUD. Gas fumes. Horns. Honking. Noise. Whistles. Roaring engines everywhere, near and far. Gray noise punctuated only by blaring music.

Up the bridge and into the city.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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