Sweet Milk

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This whole enterprise could founder on a lack of good coffee within walking distance.

Coffee in Cambodia is served in plastic bags.  When I first came here, I would go to the coffee and coke stand between the center’s two buildings and order iced coffee (1000 riel) with milk (2000 riel).  (I never mastered the collection of syllables in the right order – I couldn’t keep straight milk and ice.)  The woman behind the counter would scoop shaved ice into a plastic bag, then pour strong coffee over it from a metal pitcher where it had been sitting all day, then a dollop of condensed milk over that.  (You asked for that in English as sweet milk.  The cans by the center were branded Good Boy and had a picture of a smiling blond boy on the label.  The cans near my guest house are wrapped in bisque paper printed with a cartoon cow.)

She would mash coffee and sweet milk together with a jointed plastic straw, and tie the ends of the bag around the straw.  I carried my coffee back to work hooked over my little finger.  I couldn’t tolerate the sweet milk at first, but halfway through my first year I was up to two at a time.  They’d sag together on the desk, sweating into puddles of milky water.

Now the carts have started to sell coffee in plastic cups with plastic handles to fit over their bubble lids.  Some of the carts are dedicated to coffee only, because foreigners need so much, and these have raised their prices.  One has separate arabica (5000 riel) and robusta (3000 riel) menus.  None of the carts patrol the riverside, maybe by arrangement.  My guest house offers only glassy americanos atop a custard of gelled sweet milk, and nearby there are a host of bars and full-English dives where you can order unpalatable drip coffee for a few dollars a cup.  I’ve found the cafe with an air-conditioned upstairs patio, but their most cost-effective menu item is a coffee milkshake, so I’ve had two.

When Colette was asked for advice for aspiring writers, she said never write at a circular table, because your elbows will slip and your neck will ache, and then you will be distracted.  And Alicia Steimberg always said coffee, first I drink coffee, lots of coffee.

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