When in Rome
It’s a crap adage but helpful. One of the first things you need to do is abandon your Western habits in favour of local ones. Even superior Western habits will not serve you if you cling to them. Take littering for example. In the West we don’t litter and those that do are despised. Not so in Cambodia. In the first week I found myself carrying around plastic bottles and wrappers searching in vain for a bin. There were none. Nor was there a rubbish collecting service. The system, as far as I could make out, was that people would throw their rubbish on the floor and once in a while rake it up and make small children burn it. Given the fact that I didn’t have the time or inclination to implement and run a village sanitisation service, I started littering.
Don’t underestimate the power of culture shock
If you are planning on plunging into a different culture you should prepare as carefully as if you were doing a solo diving trip to the sea floor because what you are about to do is going to seriously stretch your coping skills.
Stepping off the plane and it begins. The senses are galvanised; the mind yawns open to receive huge amounts of new information. Normal reality filters are found to be useless and are disgarded. Reality floods in. A sense of “What the fuck?” pervades. Everything seems to slow down, the tiniest details of life become laced with significance, senses are heightened and sleep is disturbed from jetlag.
There is a sense of unreality, not like a dream, but a sense that, at any moment, you may collapse from the overwhelming strangeness of it all. Try doing all that while learning to crap in a hole. It’s difficult.
Just because Bruce Parry did it doesn’t make it right
Bruce Parry is the documentarian who spent a couple of years living with the world’s most remote tribes. I thought, well, if Bruce Parry can do it, so can I. What I hadn’t realized was that Bruce Parry had a film crew with him the entire time. He wasn’t really solo in a tribal village, although it was filmed to make it seem that way. Also, the longest Parry spent with any tribe was two months, and sometimes it was only a matter of weeks. Not a year. Not on his own.
These are all factors I failed to take into account when planning my trip (not that I planned my trip). I was lucky enough to meet some wonderful Westeners in Phnom Penh who helped support me, without them, I might have had to fly home crying, covered in mosquito bites. Moral: make sure you have support for when times get tough.
Learn to love rice
I had an advantage when I moved to the village. I already loved rice. Most of my home cooked meals involved it in some way. Brown rice, wild rice, white and basmati I love them all. But no matter how much you might think you love rice you will never love it as much as a Cambodian. I know Cambodians who went to Europe and got depression due the relative scarcity of rice. When I ate with village families I saw that they would only add a dash of soup to their bowls of rice. I thought they were being polite and making sure there was enough soup to feed me. Not so, they just love rice. To them, rice is the main bit of the meal, the veg and meat just a dressing for the delicious grains.
Living in a Khmer village and not liking rice is like living on Earth and not liking oxygen: it’s a significant disadvantage.
Have a policy for dealing with local urchins
Hellowassyourname, Hellowassyourname, Hellowassyourname, repeat ad nauseum. In the village, children are free to harrass the weird foreign guy as much as they like.
At first it’s cute. Hello, they say. Hello, I reply. Hello, they say. Er hello, I reply, Wassyourname? Nathan.
Wassyourname? Nathan. They giggle and say hello again. It’s an infinite loop.
On realizing this I walked away but they followed; infatigably calling Hellowassyourname, hellowassyourname. To my shame I admit that a couple of times I lost my temper when I was trying to work and four kids poked their heads through the window and constantly made clicking and wooping noises at me until I roared “Dow Chen” (go away) at them. This hurt their feelings.
So what is the solution? The power of ignoring. Now I have an effective system. They get one smile and hello and after that I ignore them. After a week of this system they got the point and left me alone. Of course I sometimes still play with them but boundaries must be maintained in a dignified way. Luckily, being a mature adult I have a better developed sense of patience then them, and I can wait out a full five minutes of harassment without responding until they get bored and wander off. Victory is mine.