Well, not cold, but cool—breezy and clouded, which for here is Arctic. It’s 8am and I’m getting in a tuk-tuk a friend had arranged. He’s waiting outside of the French restaurant on the corner, holding a piece of paper with my name on it, and it reminds me of leaving an airport’s gates, all the men in cheap suits holding signs of tourists’ names, and how I’ve always kind of wanted to be one of the names, to be Arriving, instead of just wandering off with my too-heavy backpack towards the local bus.
I step in my ballet flats into the tuk-tuk, smoothe my blouse as I sit down. I hold the plastic file case, filed with copies of my resume, down in my lap. We start off.
My friend arranged for a tuk-tuk to take me to 10 different schools, where I’m going to drop off 10 resumes and hopefully get called back—a kind of carpet-bombing, I’m-out-money-and-a-need-a-quick-job technique. The tuk-tuk driver knows the route; he’s done it often, for foreigners like myself. Or not like myself—I imagine them younger, in nicer clothes, with a TEFL certificate on their resumes or at least some teaching experience.
We move through streets fresh with bustle: children in school uniforms, people in baby blue shirts driving their motorbikes to work, old men eating pork and rice at the food stalls. The monks are out, doing their barefoot rounds, and when they chant it sounds like bees buzzing.
Mornings are kind of magical in Phnom Penh—cool and alive, cleaner feeling, not yet bogged down in the heat or exhaustation. I don’t usually get to experience them, since they start at dawn; by the time I’m usually out of the house around 10am, it’s mid-afternoon by local standards, and the pork and rice stalls are shutting up shop.
And it’s cold this morning—the sun is hidden and there’s a cool breeze. It’s exciting, to feel chilly here, and I suddenly remember my dream: that I was somewhere cold and drizzly, like London, and that the air felt crisp on my cheeks, almost stinging to breathe. It’s funny—I’ve been homesick for fog, for foggy mornings, when the dense mist rushes past and the world feels quiet and still and small.
And it doesn’t feel that way this morning, but it feels close. Close-ish. There’s something almost Italian in the weather—the way the clouds sit in the sky, a feel to the air—crisp but twinged with exhaust—that reminds me, not of an ancient quarter, but of the industrial outskirts of a Italian town—Grottaglie, or that cheap hotel we stayed out way outside of Venice, with its gravely road and teenagers and 40-minute bus to the tourist canals and massive train station.
Which is ridiculous—there is absolutely nothing Italian about Phnom Penh. The smells are of fermented fish sauce and trash, steam buns instead of fresh-baked bread; the old women wear pajama suits instead of dresses, the men loose button-up shirts that hang off their sharp limbs, instead of sweaters over their big bellies and those old-school newsie caps. There’s a chaos to the street—welding shops and electric lights and women in face masks weaving between SUVs—that you wouldn’t find anywhere in Europe, even in Italy.
But there’s something in the morning that makes me nostalgic for something I can’t quite name, that reminds me of a place that isn’t quite here. We stop in front of schools—big broad buildings with mounted emblems and security guards, receptionists who take my resume disinterestedly—and I’m in and out in under 2 minutes, in most cases.
We crawl out of the city center—past gas stations and narrow pitted roads, shops with rows of potted plants—and I think of how big this city is, and how I only ever see a very small part of it. I watch, observe the sort of dance of it all that I can’t see when I’m walking in it, or snared in traffic, or sweating in the mid-day sun. And I’m kind of in awe, I realize. It occurs to me that I haven’t been in awe at all, this whole time—been so focused on not being fazed, being blasé and un-culture-shocked, that I haven’t just sat back and reveled in it.
I Skyped with a friend the day before, the familiar posters on the wall, flannel shirts and winter coats scattered across the room. I was telling him some ridiculous story—something about a chicken and a street dog and a hand-tractor full of staring eyes—and he laughed and said, “Yo, do you realize how cool that is? That you just get to be there, and have these experiences?”
And it didn’t strike me in that moment as naive; it didn’t strike me as something said by someone who hasn’t gotten to travel much, hasn’t ever left the Western world, someone who’s easily impressed by my stories, for whom even the mundane details of my daily life seem like adventure. His comment struck me in that moment as true.
I sit back in the tuk-tuk, as we bounce through the city, and I just watch. I smile. I don’t worry about being the Tough Traveler; I just let myself revel.
It’s 11am by the time I get back to my apartment. I pay the driver and step out of the tuk-tuk. The fresh breeze is gone; the clouds are heavy; the air is swampy.
The morning is gone and the spell is broken.