The day to day activity always seems mundane to me, wherever I am, until I take a step back and perspective-ize. I feel quite lucky to be here.
Saturday, however, was not mundane. The other part of the bargain is coming into focus: open water certification for scuba diving! I read the skills book while on the bus to Thailand, took a quiz the next morning, and wheup! Before you can say “bubbles” I exhaled – and inhaled – at 9 meters below the sparkly surface! Diving is fantastic. I’m not totally ready to ditch all plans and become a divemaster (I miss my bike and the snow too much) but wow. Another world. Fish goofed around, coral blanketed the ocean floor in their fractal patterns, white worms munched microscopic yummies, and I floated, weightless, watching, a dumb smile allowing bubbles to escape my lips.
The island still feels unique to me. The local staff is genuine; the foreigners not so much, but more on that later… Few people are lucky enough or want to travel, less travel for an extended amount of time, and fewer still truly make friends with people who live in the country where they breeze on through. While the language barrier limits the depth of emotional connection, authenticity and caring of humans who share experiences is in itself commonality that gives rise to “friendship”. And, of course, shared meals is a major ingredient in the friendship stew.
Barangs (foreigners) and Khmers eat all meals together. Authentic Khmer, Vietnamese, and Thai cooking continues to be delicious, especially after a hard day working, and I’m so grateful to taste actual, un-self-conscious Khmer cuisine. Anybody who says Cambodian food is boring is eating only in tourist places.
On my first building in Israel, years ago, I remember writing something about the sharing of building and the sharing of food being the most basic foundation upon which human society is built. Sund, Sol, Kla, Jinky, and I are building our own community here, not based on language or communication, but on creation. We craft meals and create this structure and compile some type of camaraderie. This is some way to travel!
Among the triumphs of making friends with my coworkers lurks the annoyances of island life. The materials I need for the foundation still do not arrive. After six weeks working on this building I will accomplish what should have taken one. Beyond frustrated, and as much as leaving something unfinished bothers me, I feel no need to devote more time to the project – but the experience has taught me heaps. I have a better idea of what to look for before accepting a job. Are the facilities taken care of? If yes, the boss cares. If trash is strewn about and locks dangle from door frames, an “eco-building” will never be successful. Care-taking isn’t in the vocabulary of somebody who runs a business solely for profits. Also, as Phnom Pehn erupts into protests over minimum wage hike to $160 a month for garment workers (quelled by military police and resulting in deaths of civilians, read about it here) the two boys who help me (when they want to) depart for Thailand. They are paid $100 and $120 a month, including food and shelter, for working an undefined number of hours a day, 7 days a week. Sund says he can earn $200 a month in Thailand on a fishing boat, no problem. Sal says the same, no matter the job. Here starting wage is $80 a month and the cook, who has worked for 7 years and has the most hours, is paid $240. The boss cares not for the well-being of the workers, or if families are split to search for higher wages in the neighboring country. I see a reflection of the mass Cambodian migration to Thailand on our island and the importance of valuing employees over profit is conversely evident.
I sit in my favorite book/coffee shop on the mainland writing this post, reflecting on the island, and downloading more podcasts for the last two weeks in Cambodia. Jazz swirls around my head as I stir sugar into my golden tea with a tiny golden spoon. I’ll miss this bookshop with her fake Dali paintings and eclectic collection of cast-off books, and the free caffeine I get for trading bulk books every two weeks. I won’t miss the island gossip – I couldn’t care less who the instructors sleep with, if somebody cooked pork when they asked for chicken, or if the boss actually overcharged his staff $400 dollars for an equipment upgrade. The whole place seems to be built on a network of deception and a carefully woven cloth of lies, knotted to squeeze the most money from the operation. Koh Rong Samloem is place to observe, take notes on how not to run a business, and cleanly sever all ties. I can’t wait to migrate to Thailand with the boys…