Expat Tales – Chapter 4 (the continuing saga of what really happened after I quit my job.)
Friends have recently commented that I made starting over look so easy, but that’s so untrue! It was not easy and there were days when I totally fell on my face – literally.
Before I left my life in the US for the unknown, Cambodia was on my list of places I thought I could live, but after one really bad day I had to rethink that. It’s a wonderful country with intriguing history and amazingly resilient people, but it’s sometimes frustrating and inefficient. Great place to visit, but living there?
Bus Ride from Hell
My “Bad Day” began when the shuttle bus from my Siem Reap hotel was late, arriving at the main bus station just as my express bus to Phnom Penh was pulling away. I was more than a little annoyed (actually, really pissed) when I spotted a young girl, no older than 10 or 11, who was about 8 months pregnant. I realized my bus issues were really minor compared to hers.
The next bus to Phnom Penh was a local bus, old and dirty and packed with all kinds of people and animals, and I was the only foreigner. This was not a lav-equipped bus and our 4-hour ride (that stretched into almost 7) was punctuated with impromptu pit-stops. The driver stopped on the edge of the road, shouted something in Khmer, and all the men got off the bus and peed into the ditch. The women were just out of luck.
When I finally reached Phnom Penh, I found a crazy tuk-tuk driver who was unable to locate my hotel so he dropped me off at Raffles Hotel, a very posh hotel which was close in location only. I tried to get into the lobby to ask for directions but was intercepted by the security guard at the metal detector in front of the main entrance. Tired, frustrated, sweating and cranky, I set my dirty backpack down and collapsed on the sidewalk, obviously not blending in with the posh Raffles crowd. I looked a little homeless and more than a little crazy.
Finally, a Raffles doorman took pity on me and gave directions to my hotel – “…only about 500 meters that way” he assured me. Being a dumb American with no concept of metric distances, I figured that sounded walkable. It was, but not with a 20 pound (44 kilo) backpack, in the intense late-June Cambodian heat. Sweating and cursing, I finally made it to my hotel, located in an unfamiliar area of Phnom Penh – an area strategically located near the US Embassy where I had business to take care of the following day.
Much of my time in Cambodia was spent in the “paper chase” required to apply for English teaching jobs in Korea. Along with having a TEFL certificate, another important step in this time-consuming process is an FBI background check, which requires fingerprinting. Sounds easy, but in Cambodia it’s not.
>I arrived at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh early the next morning, mentally prepared for some minor frustrations. The US Embassy “Guard Dog” informed me that I was in the wrong place and that the Phnom Penh Police Chief was the only one in the country authorized to do fingerprinting. The “Guard Dog” made a phone call and then gave my tuk-tuk driver directions to the Police Headquarters.
I arrived at Police Headquarters and was shown into a small waiting room, made small talk with The Chief’s English-speaking assistant, and an hour later was summoned into a larger office for an audience with The Chief himself. It was like finally coming face to face with the great and powerful Oz. The Chief had issues with performing the fingerprinting ritual, since he’d never been approached with this request before. After an hour of intense Khmer-English negotiations, he began to understand my situation and made a deal with me – go find an internet cafe where I could make a copy of an official-looking document he was creating as we spoke, then track down another more powerful person to notarize this “official” document which would grant him permission to perform the fingerprinting ritual. Once I jumped through these legal hoops, I was to return to his office and he would consider the possibility of maybe performing the required fingerprinting ritual. (Huh?)
I sat there trying to wrap my mind around this bureaucratic bull**** and I couldn’t, so after 2 hours of wasted time I bolted. Stressed, frustrated, and pissed as hell, I ran through the police headquarters campus, through the maze of buildings toward my waiting tuk-tuk, hoping to get far away from this warped version of Oz, to the beautiful beaches of Sihanoukville. Running from the past 24-hours of non-stop Cambodian frustration and so focused on making my escape, I missed a step, went flying about 10 feet (3.3 meters) and landed in the dirt. Face-plant.
Humiliated, I picked myself up, brushed off the blood and dirt, and tracked down my waiting tuk-tuk driver. “Everything OK?” he politely asked. I burst into tears, sobbing in the back of his tuk-tuk as he weaved through Phnom Penh traffic to the nearest bus station where, once again, I ended up on the rickety local bus for a 6.5 hour bus ride to my beach escape in Sihanoukville.
Bus Ride Epiphany
The long ride to Sihanoukville gave me time to calm down, reflect, and put everything into perspective. I had encountered frustration in Cambodia, but at least I had options; I could leave. I could cross one more country off the list of places I could possibly live. This “Bad Day” was a learning experience and allowed me to make clear decisions regarding my future.
We finally arrived in Sihanoukville just after sunset. I bartered with the gang of tuk-tuk drivers clustered around our bus, excited to finally be here, looking forward to checking into my beachfront bungalow. I craved nothing more than a cold Angkor beer in my hand and the sand between my toes. As my tuk-tuk drove down main street heading toward the beach, I spotted a familiar face in one of the bars – Creepy Dutch Guy, my friend from the Mekong River cruise who I was bumping into all over Cambodia!
My tuk-tuk driver finally arrived at my hotel, a cute bungalow with a great view and perfect beachfront location and….closed!? Not just for today but closed forever. Closed? I had just booked it that morning!!! I laughed so I wouldn’t start crying, went to a hotel across the street and booked a room. Then I dumped my scummy backpack and headed straight for the one familiar face in town. And an ice cold Angkor beer.
As I approached my “Creepy” friend, he looked up from his beer, muttered something in Dutch, and gave me a huge hug. Later, halfway through my third Angkor beer, I told him about my 24-hours of hell and my face-plant story and we laughed and laughed. And then I reenacted it for him and we laughed until we cried. Great therapy!
Those connections made while on the road are such an important gift, necessary to maintain sanity while traveling solo on a journey to an unknown destination. Starting over isn’t easy, but those friendships make the bad, intensely frustrating days more bearable.
Next Chapter…Bangkok. Where fingerprinting is easy?