APRIL is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
— T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
They said it would be hot. April, that is. March was hot, they said. But April was hotter. That’s what they said.
I arrived in Cambodia just as the weather was shifting, changing tactics in its seasonal assaults. What had been a steady bake was drowned with slick sweat and brought to a rapid boil. Many a pale face with the wherewithal to withdraw goes and checks out for as much of the Hot Time in the old town as they can manage. I knew this and I didn’t know this. I understood this but I understood nothing.
I had come from the land of the ice and snow, but my Immigrant Song didn’t wax lyrical about Viking conquests so much as it sweated hysterical at the prospect of power outages. Early on I found myself filled with dread when I had to venture more than five feet from an active AC unit if the sun was still in the sky. In the past, in America, I wasn’t one of the boys of summer either (and not just because the Eagles are garbage.) I’ve long considered anything hotter than seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit uncomfortable. So what was Cambodia, then? Oh, my. It was way too hot.
Just way too fucking hot.
I mentioned that I come from the land of the ice and snow? Indeed I do. Landlocked and flattened by glaciers that also made us the land of 10,000 lakes, Minnesota (and the empty lot adjacent to Minnesota’s overgrown backyard, North Dakota) are the two coldest states in the lower 48. The Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) rank about 5th for snowfall, which is miraculous when one considers that we have zero mountains or altitude and for a good portion of the winter it actually gets too goddamned cold there to even snow.
That is where I came to Cambodia from, and quite directly: Yet another endlessly bleak Minnesota winter stretching off forever into nowhere like a featureless frozen tundra, blindingly white and lit up bright by the harsh glare of a sun giving off illumination without the merest hint of heat, and everything around me covered in icy mud and dirty snow.
I’m not a fan of winter weather, either.
I don’t know if March came in like a lion, but it didn’t much resemble any kind of lamb I’m familiar with as it exited, except possibly a lamb that’s been doused in gasoline and put to the torch. March melted, sizzled, bubbled, blistered and left no trace but a sooty stain and the lingering smell of burnt hair to welcome in April. April needed no welcome. April just laughed as it chewed great mouthfuls of burnt mutton and dared us to approach. April is the cruelest month if you ask T.S. Eliot, and in Cambodia it isn’t so much a month as it is the Gregorian Calendar’s hidden torture chamber, a place where Time itself gets off to the sinister and the sadistic.
Once you’re locked inside of a Cambodian April the only way out is to make it to the other side. The path goes forward, sometimes leading into the Heart of Darkness, but more often just to Howie’s at 4am. Where was I? Oh yes. April is, in this particular piece of personal lore, metaphorically both a vulgar creep and an evil location. Take notes if you need to.
Cambodia’s weather records, its meteorological rap sheet, tells us that in April, Cambodia’s temperatures range from 90 to 98 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the day, typically, with the Dew Point up at 25 and creeping higher as the month staggers along. If anybody ever tells you “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” you can tell them that, no, it’s not the humidity. It’s the fucking Dew Point. A Dew Point of 25 is rated as “OPPRESSIVE.” It was 25+ every single day here in April. Then again one could argue that for some in Cambodia it is in fact “oppressive” here every day of the year, weather facts and figures set aside. Seriously folks, you’ve been a great audience.
Cruel April, with the first day being Fool’s Day, it’s also my brother’s birthday, though most might say that the fool in the family is Me, not He. The latest in a lengthy line of excellent evidence favoring this proposition was that gentle January had, on his calendar, been brightly circled as the choice and chosen time for him to travel to Cambodia. Not for him, this miserable March, or this ugly ever-burning April. All for me.
It was April and I was reminded, by my bank balance and my mother, that I had come to Cambodia to educate, not recreate, though I’ve always been partial to idle pursuits, in a manner above and beyond the love of leisure enjoyed by many others. Idle hands? Certainly, but the Devil had long since fired me from his workshop for never showing up on time. I took it all in stride, it was just one more mystery gap amongst the many in my employment record, a document so incomplete as to be apocryphal, hinting at jobs and rumors of jobs, enough holes to fill the Albert Hall. I’d had plenty of jobs. I’ve worn all kinds of different hats, donned all manner of costumed finery, killed time working in every imaginable capacity, and it isn’t that I get bored so much as it is the job, you see, that is boring to me.
Lucky, then, for the likes of scoundrels such as I, that Cambodia just happened to be a place where everyone was born anew without a need for any documented history!
Lucky for somebody, perhaps, but I felt cheated when I finally understood, when I fully realized. I was ready this time. Teaching, I was taught, is serious business. Teaching, so I thought, took effort. Teaching I was taught, is an art where practice is paramount. Teaching, teachers taught me, is a skill that demands your due diligence and a profusion of patience. Teaching, taught by teachers, is imparting incredible insight into important ideas illuminating inspiring ideals. Teaching, I was taught, is a noble and lofty calling pursued by the admirable, charitable, selfless, and kind.
I was truly none of the above, historically speaking, but I’d already set about righting the wrongs that had laid wrong too long. Teaching, so I thought, was right up my alley. I liked to talk. I’d spent considerable time up in front of crowds over the course of my life, so that was no problem. What’s the difference between a bunch of twenty-something college kids or punk rockers, or an audience watching Romeo & Juliet, and a group of Cambodian 2nd graders? None at all! Not any that you’d notice. I’d have trouble telling them all apart without some clues and hints. Add to all that: I’m a veritable font of general knowledge and I’m downright encyclopedic when it comes to certain more narrow topics (particularly those topics which no one else is remotely interested in.)
This time around, I’d live life differently. I’d do things correctly, straight, squared away, legitimately. I’d plan ahead intelligently.
For this incarnation, I required total silence from everyone in the room, a volunteer from the audience, and a round of applause for my lovely assistant. A wave of the magic wand, 8 months of volunteer teaching, and 20 some credits in grad school classes later, and for the first time up on stage in Cambodia we’re introducing: Teacher Ned! He’s not as dumb as he looks, kids. He is that fat though. Sorry.
These personal story edits and life revisions required that I finish one degree and begin another. To do this right, to become a teacher, I needed to know how to teach, I figured, and so I learned. At the very least I learned what was necessary to begin teaching and thereby earned what would prove to be curiously unnecessary to begin teaching in Cambodia: actual qualifications and credentials from a ranked and reputable university.
It was hot. Just like they said it would be. I inched out of my bedroom wearing my “job interview” clothes, a button down shirt, slacks, even a tie. I didn’t know that nobody really much wore them here yet, that’s how new I was.
Within moments of exiting the refrigerated vault I’d managed to turn my bedroom into (through copious expenditures of power and some ad hoc insulation) sweat had begun to blossom and bead and drip off of me. Flowing off my forehead, rolling down my back.
My strong inclination was to shuffle back inside the frozen cell and continue to allow the sun to hold me in captivity by day, and covertly emerge to travel only under cover of night. Unfortunately, most places didn’t do any of their hiring at night. However, on the other hand, and to be perfectly fair – it really was too hot and so I very much was of a mind to Cede the Day instead of trying to seize it.
And then? Silence. That layer of surprising silence that always lurks just under the machine hum of modern life, so easy to forget it was ever there. The power was out again. It went out every day, sometimes for 2 hours, sometimes for 8, but it almost always heralded my retreat from the house into, at the very least, some mini-mart with a decent generator. Fans whirred to a stop. The air conditioner no longer relentlessly terraformed the hostile environment of the bedroom. Within seconds, almost imperceptibly but inescapably, inexorably so – the air became just a little warmer to me.
My frosty hideout discovered by creeping tendrils of burning heat, I turned fugitive and fled the place in horror, now denied all refuge from the noonday sun. I booked passage into town, tried in vain to dry the sheen of perspiration on me that I knew would turn into a flood before too long, and for the first time in at least a few years, I was on my way:
To a job interview.
Ned can also be found on twitter.