It’s been a week now since I left Beijing and arrived in Phnom Penh. I haven’t hit any culture shock/grief hurdles yet, but those may come in time. For the time being I am enjoying settling into my home for the next four months.
If I can count correctly (which is certainly up for debate) I believe this is my 13th time in Cambodia. Last year alone I was here 5 times! I even took to calling it my second home. In the past 5.5 years I’ve built relationships with various people, including some the youth I’ll be working with while I’m here. It means that it feels comfortable and familiar to be here, and that there are people around me who know me and are reaching out to make sure I have what I need.
I was picked up at the airport by two friends, including the new youth pastor I’ll be working with. I spent the first 5 nights staying with a lady from the church I’ll be working with. Her apartment was lovely and she was very welcoming, so it was a great “soft landing”. The very next day I was able to go and visit the apartment I have now moved into, and had a lovely long visit with the awesome new Kiwi friend I’m renting my room from. She’s been here since January and has also been super welcoming.
I visited a bunch of my “regular” haunts (Xotique and Java) and some new places (Joma and Aeon). I took a lot of cool showers – the air feels humid to me, even if most people are talking about the nice cool weather. It felt almost normal to go to youth group on Thursday and Friday nights, although it was strange to be here for the first meetings of the year while the first meetings of the year were happening in Beijing without me.
On Saturday I moved into my new home. The apartment is in a typical concrete terrace house – tiled floors and walls, high ceilings (at least 4m/12ft), decorative molding, heavy grates on the windows. It is very nicely finished and clean, and the moldings are painted in bright orangey colours (marigold and vermillion, to be precise). Something I really like is the metal spiral staircase leading from the ground to our first floor front verandah, and up to the next floor. I also love that there is a line of green trees outside our kitchen, and a tiny veranda there (along with a washing machine).
The apartment is the middle of three stories, like most of the terraced homes lining our small dead-end street. There is a real sense of community, with several extended families living in different apartments along the street. For example, our landlady lives below us with her daughter, her brother lives above us, and their mother lives a few houses down. As a community, the street hires two security guards to be on duty from 6pm-6am. They have also strung a series of street lights by running a line between the houses over the street, and hanging a light from it. There are about seven along the road, which makes a big difference given that there are no public streetlights on our road.
My room isn’t anything particularly special, but it’s just right for me. It is an internal room – the window opens on to the living room – which means I don’t get much natural light or air, but I also have less noise to disturb me. I brought blackout fabric with me which fits the window beautifully, keeping the room nice and dark at night. There’s even a new AC unit, and while I don’t plan to use it all the time it’s certainly a nice safety net to have – I know that if I’m feeling unwell or having trouble sleeping I have the option of turning on AC. The bathroom is tiny – a little L shape, with the long part of the L under the stairs – but it works just fine. There is only cold water but that’s all I want here, especially since I shower at night (when the water is warmer, having spent the day in a tank on the roof under the sun).
When I arrived the room didn’t have much – thin curtains, red rug by the bathroom door, huge bed with a pillow and basic linens, and a small rattan shelf. I brought my own towels and favourite set of bed linen from Beijing, plus the awesome patchwork quilt I had made out of old youth camp tshirts – those familiar things certainly help make the room mine. Plus I had photos and paintings to set up around the place. I’d also set myself a budget of $150 to make the room feel like “home”. One of the students came shopping with me and together we bought a small cloth wardrobe (a zippered cloth covering over a metal frame), a nice set of drawers, a small wooden folding table, and numerous little bits and pieces. The table is tiny but very solid, with thick legs. It now sits on the corner of my bed against the wall as a bedside table; with the legs folded down it acts as a work table I use while sitting on the bed. We put the wardrobe together ourselves (much to our own surprise and delight!) and filled it and the drawers with clothes. I also put a poster size map of Phnom Penh to put on the wall – to help me get a picture in my head of how the city fits together. I still want to get a lamp, maybe two, so I kept a little money from my budget for another shopping trip later this week. By the end of that first day, though, I felt decently unpacked and settled in – which had an amazing effect on my state of mind.
The sense of relaxation that came with unpacking and settling in had a downside – I woke early my first morning in my very own room with my very own migraine. (The most common time for me to get a migraine is at the END of a period of stress/tension.) But it was my first Sunday here, so I took a fistful of pills and carried on. The minister at church gave a very lovely introduction of me to the congregation (at both services) and had me simply stand to be acknowledged. There was also a really lovely commissioning of the new youth pastor. Her father is in town on business and I was privileged to be invited to both lunch and dinner with them and old friends of theirs (their family lived here for a number of years in the 90s). Headache or no, it was a lovely day.
Today I bought some groceries to start filling kitchen shelves my new flatmate graciously cleared out for me. I was delighted to find cheap brown rice, as well as the red and yellow lentils I ate so often in Beijing – and a small tub of coriander seed, one of my favourite seasonings. I made a very simple meal out of those, but tomorrow I’ll get more substantial food supplies. I called my Dad for Father’s Day (which was yesterday in Australia), enjoyed the sound of rain, and learned about Khmer Moon Festival (Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival – 中秋节 zhong qiu jie) which is celebrated tonight. But the rain and the festival are stories of their own, so I will come back to those another time.
All in all, it’s been a great first week – a great start to this “middle” time I find myself in. I’ve left China, but I’m still in Asia. I’ve left my job as a youth worker, but I’m still working with youth. I’m starting again, but in a place I’ve visited many times. I’m sure there’ll be emotional upheaval to process over the next few months, but for now I am delighted to feel so at home, and look forward to engaging in life here while I can.