First, the power outages. I know I live in a developing nation right now, and I need to deal with some inconveniences, but really, is it too much to ask that the power not be shut off daily for hours at a time? The supply of electricity in the city is not enough to meet the demands since the recent construction of larger buildings with big air conditioning systems. If you’re wondering, air conditioners use quite a bit of power (to the tune of an extra $2 or more a day here), and nearly all of the newest stores and restaurants cool their buildings considerably. In any case, the rest of the city has to deal with unannounced power outages at all times of the day. One day, the electricity went out around 12:30 and didn’t come back on until nearly 5 p.m. On Saturday night, from 8:15 to 11 p.m. we were without power... it wasn't easy to fall asleep without the fan.
I know I should not be so snarky about the loss of power. I should be grateful to have it at all. I guess what really unnerves me is that some people never lose power… the way the grids work, some houses are assured of a constant stream of electricity, and the center of the city (business districts, hotels, tourist locales) rarely loses power. Meanwhile, those of us on the outskirts, the ones who can’t afford or don’t want to live “downtown” have to live with spontaneous outages interrupting our daily lives (and fruit shake blending!), and for me that means living without a fan as the heat climbs up to 95 degrees, with 75% humidity. In other words, sweltering. (aside: I ran into a tourist today who asked me: “How long does it take you to get used to the heat?” HA!)
And the construction! They have started building a school behind my house, so there’s no end to the pile driving, dust-flinging, noise-creating havoc being wreaked only a few meters from my door. I can’t hang my laundry outside anymore, and until recently couldn’t even open the window. They begin every day about 6:30 (even on Saturdays) and pound until 6 p.m. The worst part? They’ve only just begun.
I’ve been unnerved by how inconvenient life can be; the grocery stores are on the other side of town, and even though I get fruit and veggies from the small local market, I am unwilling to buy meat there, since if I go in the evenings, it’s been sitting in the heat all day (they butcher the meat locally and only in the morning). I went on a hunt for a product that is readily available in the US (canned air to clean the ever-present dust out of my computer) and spent 2 days at 6 different stores before I found it. I really miss driving by Trader Joe’s or Best Buy… the easy things. Of course, wishing for those kind of businesses would make this place very un-Cambodia, and I’ll have to make peace with leaving them behind.
I have to interrupt my own rant to say that while I was writing this, one of our staff just came into my office and offered me some food. At first it looked like fried fish, but after some broken Khmer/English dialogue, I think it was fried mango. There’s no way to be sure. I took as small a piece as I could, and tasted it. Not as bad as some of the things I’ve tried, but not something I’ll purchase for myself. Of course, as soon as I mentioned that it was good, she offered me a lot more. I declined. This happens about once a week. Other staff are eating raw mangoes in the main office, and those are delicious. I guess I should make it abundantly clear that I am not annoyed by the mangoes in Cambodia, nor the generosity of the staff. Those things make me very happy.
It took me awhile to write this post, and my annoyance has calmed considerably since I started. Part of that is because I’ve had good time to spend with friends here, and I think I’ve accepted (well, at least a little) some of the things that have been getting on my nerves. Mostly, as my one-year anniversary approaches, I think these are the issues that continue to remind me that I’m not at “home” yet, and that maybe I never will be. In any case, at least I can drown my annoyance with mangoes (though not the fried kind).
This guy is a Christian, and has been for maybe a year. In Cambodia, Easter isn't a big holiday, with sales and candy and eggs. No rabbits, no baskets, and no big meals. It's strange to feel like it's just another Sunday-- in fact, I've made dinner plans to have pho (a Vietnamese soup) tonight with friends; not exactly traditional Easter dinner (but oh so good).
Today I'm thinking about what it means to celebrate Easter only once a year, and why this young believer was probably confused-- for him, every day is a day to remember Christ's sacrifice. Tomorrow is no less of an Easter than today is. And in a place like Cambodia, with monks chanting in the background and spirit houses with burning incense outside, it's good to remember that Easter is not just for today.
A friend has pointed out that a culture built around festivals, like the Cambodian culture, should perhaps be encouraged in celebrating a day like Easter. It provides a solid foundation, a focal point for our faith. Given that I am surrounded by other festivals I can't celebrate, maybe she is right. So now I'm not sure. Maybe it isn't one or the other, but something in between. Having a focal point for our beliefs, while renewing them each day. Easter becomes a signpost on the journey, declaring that we are ever in transit toward our goal of being more like God, celebrating our victory over death and our process toward life eternal.
I do not have a television. This is odd, since I used to study television content, and I was a big fan of my TiVo. At USC, we asked students in our class how many television sets they had in their childhood homes. Answers ranged from 1 to 12 (TV in the bathrooms…I know), with quite a bit of variation, and one girl whose father was a TV mogul (and had over 20 TVs). Nevertheless, all 200 would admit to having grown up in a home with a television. It is strange that now I would have to admit not owning such a “basic” appliance.
In the rural areas in Cambodia, not having electricity does not halt the spread of television. Families use a car battery to provide the voltage necessary to catch their favorite programs. One of the top 10 Cambodian shows is… professional wrestling. In villages far from the beaten path, kids wear t-shirts featuring Dave Batista and other WWE stars. I came home for lunch last week, and watched someone get body slammed as I parked my motorbike. It makes me wonder about the diffusion of culture and why some of America’s best things are missing here (democracy, justice) and instead some of our worst exports appear.
I’ve sacrificed television for many reasons. One is that I don’t think I’d watch it very much, since I’ve taken to going to bed early. Another reason is that I would have to pay for cable, since all of the non-cable programs are in Khmer. While it might sharpen my language skills, I’ve also discovered that Cambodian dramatic programming is… well, let’s just say I’m not a fan of reality television or soap operas. My choices here would be limited. Lastly, I found that even when I was staying in a home that had a TV, I mainly wanted to watch movies… when I wanted to watch at all. I can see the latest US films using my laptop DVD player (for the outrageous cost of $2 per DVD and the guilt associated with piracy). I’ve watched exactly 4 episodes of American Idol this season when I’ve eaten dinner with friends, and as I’m not a big fan, I don’t think I’m missing much. TV is simply an expense that I both cannot justify at this point, and which seems a little extravagant.
I realize that I do not live like most Cambodians. For starters, I live by myself, and my family is thousands of miles away. When my friends ask where I stay, and who I stay with, they are usually shocked that I “sleep alone.” (Note: I have come to realize the terms sleeping/living/staying are pretty interchangeable. It makes that last sentence a little less provocative, eh?) Second, I have a refrigerator, a microwave, and a washing machine. My apartment is positively luxurious. Finally, I own my own computer, and I have it in my home. For people living in the developing world, computers are not so ubiquitous. When my friends want to check their email, they go to work or to an internet café. Or, they simply don’t have email (here’s a game: name one person you know who doesn’t have an email address. I have 3).
When I started writing about not having a television, I was thinking about items that usually get quantified as “needed.” Yet, they’re really about comfort, not need. If I had to list the things I missed most about the US, my television would fall somewhere around the bottom of the list. Have I matured to the point where I can flaunt my lack of entertainment options? No, I don’t think so. I think everyone can live without television, especially when other options are available. I guess what I’m learning most is about what makes me comfortable. Sure, it’s things like TVs and iPods. Those are certainly nice, and they help pass the time. Yet the places where I’m uncomfortable in Cambodia are somehow more poignant. When I sit in our office Bible study and can’t understand what people are talking about. When I’m pretty sure there’s been a joke made about me in Khmer. When I accidentally do or say something just a little inappropriate, because I don’t have all the cultural do’s and don’ts figured out. When I can’t ask someone about how they are really doing because I don’t know enough Khmer to get past the basics. So these are the things that I’m driven to fix. These are urgent on my list of priorities: learning the language, understanding the culture, and deepening my relationships with Cambodians. They have nothing to do with possessions, and everything to do with people. When I think about it that way, living without a TV seems pretty easy.
Here is the couch "before":
For awhile, it doubled as a bookshelf. Which gives you an idea of how useful/comfortable it is. I hired a tailor, who, instead of making the cushions, took me to a shop where I could buy them. After much negotiation (and confusion), I ended up with cushions. Here they are:
Let's go in for a close up, shall we?Right. Hideous. I refused to subject a poor defenseless roomate to those cushions, not to mention my own eyes. So, the tailor made covers for me. They're... red:
But, I really like them. So here's the end result:
That's my "living room" as it were... and the cushions, though hideous, are actually pretty comfortable (I'm on the couch right now). Onto the next project... defrosting my freezer. Probably no pictures of that adventure.