The Phnom Penh Street I Call Home: Rue 444 (2)August 20, 2012
Our favourite moto driver is Eng, an old smiling man that takes me to work in the morning and gets to the exact point on 163 before waiting for me to request continuing that way in case I ask to ‘tin gassait’ (buy a newspaper); otherwise he turns off in a quicker direction to Boeung Trabek where I work.
He is a gentle man, ready with a ‘Sok Sabay’ polite greeting without asking where I’m going or where I have been. He is a master Dalem moto-dop driver, up on the pavement to avoid any jams, smooth, fast, reliable, smiling and serene, a familiar face of the street.
Directly opposite my street is Psaa Tuol Tumpoung. Inside, it is a visual feast, a sweaty network of everything from silver to silk, from pirate DVD’s to dragonfruit. I have a noodle-soup lady, a vegetable lady, a fish lady, a DVD man – they know me and I know them just like I know all the old faces from my home town in Essex. Names are not needed; it’s just nice to be known.
In the evening right on my doorstep I have the visual delights of Olympic paced noodle frying, snack packing, pate-slice sandwich making that would have put me to shame during rush hour lunchtime at the coffee shop I once worked at in Liverpool.
I have fed on the buzz and the food from this market for years, although Makara has often bought me a far tastier and cheaper version of my favourite ‘mee char’ (fried noodles) from a little stall over by Tuol Tumpoung Pagoda. Still, I’ll never stop feasting or shopping at Psaa Tuol Tumpoung because people there know me I know them, plus I must admit I quite enjoy the slightly smug feeling I get listening to backpackers being ripped off right beside me.
Turn right and to the edge a little of 163 and there is evidence of the years slipping by on the faces of people I have known as the cheerful old couple selling warm baguettes and delicious round crusty rolls. The lady suffered a stroke last year and now spends most of the time resting on her hammock whilst her husband mans the stall.
To make things easier I now bag and calculate my own bread, their huge grins and their politeness never change, but the years wear heavily on their faces and inevitably one day they will be gone too.
Swerve to the left and there is the old lady that resides in the hammock outside her late night convenience shop that sells motorbike parts during the day. When coming back from a beer garden or night out somewhere else, either my friend or I will often utter the nightcap phrase “shall we stop at the old lady?” – a last few for our balcony.
We deliver her the obligatory shoulder massage and dig down in the big orange cool box for whichever random local beer she has cold and scrabble around for a bag. She calls us her children and always notices if one us has been away or if we have a new person with us. She’s our neighbourhood Grandma. Of course we are the local beer drinking female Barangs that mean business for her but without being sentimental; I think we are more than that.
The other day she totally undercharged us and again we realised minds grow weary quickly especially here. We would have to be utter assholes to not politely hand her the correct price, giver her shoulders another gentle squeeze and sway our way back onto our St 444.
I feel the changes on my street, the ups and downs, the permanency and the fragility, one minute people or places are there and then another minute gone. I think it hits with full force because we know this is Cambodia and we know, we see but we can never imagine their past as our futures here continue as Barangs, immigrants, foreigners or whatever we want to see ourselves as.
I hasten to use the word ‘expat’ as I still find that phrase leaves a bad taste in my mouth with it’s undertones of colonial superiority. So, what am I here? I don’t think it really matters to me. I’ll just be that freckly faced Anglais to those locals that know me but not my name and let whoever else doesn’t know my name call me what they like.