I arrived in Cambodia yesterday morning, and the man at the lost-baggage counter had a form waiting for me: my checked luggage had not cleared customs in time or without my help (something like, “partner carrier did not surrender luggage”) and would not arrive until tomorrow. I was left in my travel clothes, a pair of dark-dyed blue jeans and a black shirt with long sleeves and a cowl neck. By the time I arrived at the hotel, I was ill with the prospect of walking two blocks to the souvenir shop for a shirt, so I started a brief nap and woke up at the very end of the evening, when the internet cafes and restaurants are all shuttered.
This morning, I was interviewed by two groups of school kids waiting on the riverside with their teacher, maybe twelve or fifteen years old. Their assignment was to find foreigners at the riverside, ask questions, and record the answers. The first group asked me where I would travel during my stay, and what place I most liked. The second group asked me what I thought Cambodia could do to improve. I said that I thought Cambodia was already a wonderful country, that I was impressed each time I returned to see how much the capital city had developed, and that education was a big part of helping the country grow.
What do you say to a schoolkid who asks you how his country can improve?
I spent a lot of time complaining about Cambodia the first time I was here – the heat most especially, but as much the dirt, the inefficiency, the traffic, the confusion. What I loved about Cambodia, I loved in condescension – the kindness, the interest, the forthright humor, the daytime pajamas, the all-thumbs English, local innovations in transport and eating that tourists are apt to term clever when they arise in poor places. So funny, how suited.
Right now, Cambodia feels familiar. When I was preparing for this trip, I looked forward to this visit here, and now I’m marveling again at how gracious and friendly everyone is in response to this tourist who can’t talk to ask for a knife or a cup of coffee.