Cambo Life: Dry Spell Hell

There goes the neighborhood—Literally! Our riveting family adventures of suddenly finding ourselves living in Phnom Penh’s newest hardhat zone.

27 July 2020

It starts around 05:40, just before sunrise.

The deafening thud after thud after thud is unmistakable. 

I tap the “up” volume button on my phone a few clicks, but my white noise app is no match for the sound of bowling-ball-sized chunks of concrete landing on the shallow bed of a delivery truck in our narrow alley.

I turn on my side, hoping in vain that it’ll somehow cut the noise in half. I’ve dabbled in industrial ear plugs, but they’re pretty useless in this case.

We’ll revisit that later.

Then, starts the crying — more like high-pitched screeching.

Our 21-month-old doesn’t need anything (except maybe to wake us up at ungodly hours, particularly after late nights of submitting job applications). He’s not in distress. He’s just angry that we’re not running in to answer his every request.

Long gone are the days of infant communication via crying. This crying is all about control.

He also throws food and water. Not occasionally. Every. Single. Time.

It’s exhausting.

It’s 06:30 now. In another hour, it’ll be pushing 90 degrees with 80% relative humidity.

We have AC, but it would cost us around US$20 per day to run it as much as we’d prefer, which would be warranted as it rarely drops below 90 in the house. But US$600 per month is just too rich for our blood.

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And so begins another day in our little alley in Phnom Penh — Day 132 of Covid purgatory. It’s never been full lockdown here, but rather a long, drawn-out soul-sucking no-man’s land of not-knowing.

The rains came this year, but they seemed short.

We seem to have found ourselves in the midst of a pronounced dry spell smack dab in the middle of the monsoon.

I think we last had a rainstorm about two weeks ago.

Unreal.

The Cambodian government has finally agreed to consider opening some schools.

Woohoo!…?

The top 14 schools in the country ranked by “hygiene” practices (read: the top 14 schools that pay the highest “taxes”).

Our kids’ nursery school is not on the list, or any other nursery school for that matter. The great majority are too small an operation to curry the favor of the powers that be.

But it doesn’t really matter. We’ll likely be gone before any school in Cambodia welcomes students back.

We’ve sunk into something of a routine that a masochistic zombie would appreciate. Splitting our time between our sweltering, noisy shophouse home, uninspiring coffee shops, and the increasingly challenging walk to and fro.

Why challenging, you ask?

For the THIRD time in the nine months we’ve lived in Phnom Penh, the utility company has torn up the whole of the sidewalks within a half kilometer radius of our place.

We’ve accustomed ourselves to carrying our two growing boys in our arms for hundreds of meters while hurdling meter-deep trenches, dodging motorbikers with death wishes, and negotiating vast pits of wet concrete, mud, and fresh sewage.

Our main solace in all of this is knowing we’re leaving behind this whole situation soon.

Maybe. Hopefully.

Up until very recently, however, we really had no idea when that might happen.

It’s an odd feeling knowing your time is short somewhere yet at the same time having little idea how short.

The day before everything in Cambo shut down for Covid, we purchased fully flexible and refundable tickets back to the U.S. for a crazy low fair. Round trip tickets.

You know, because we fully intended on returning…for another two years.

Thinking about those tickets here, four months on, seems ridiculous.

Our outbound flight was booked for July 19th. Two months out, being on that flight was already starting to seem increasingly unlikely.

Then, over the span of a couple of days in early June, Lori’s position here was eliminated and the flight was canceled.

So…we planned to reschedule our flight for early August when flights were planned to resume.

As the date neared, I joked to Lori, “Well, by this time next week, we’ll be in the U.S.” knowing full and well that wasn’t going to happen.

In the end, Cathay didn’t just cancel our flight, they decided they weren’t going to serve Phnom Penh for the foreseeable future.

Cathay wasn’t alone. Every single international airline carrier in the world made the same call…except for Korean, Asiana, and EVA.

The good news is, as of today, we do have confirmed tickets out of here on EVA.

It took several weeks and way more effort than marked-up one-way tickets that you’re footing 75% of the bill should, but we have them now.

But there’s no guarantee the flight will actually depart.

We hope it will. But it’s basically a flip of the coin at this point.

So, it seems that time is now ticking down.

We split our waking hours between keeping our kids from killing each other (or themselves), job hunting, quarantine planning in the U.S., trying to find someone to take over our lease so we can get our $1,250 deposit back, and selling off our furnishings, housewares, most of the boys’ toys, and anything else that won’t fit in a suitcase.

And, Lori’s still working full time.

About that deposit…

(Oh, you’ll love this.)

Eight days ago, we returned home to our quiet little alley after a nice little family outing bounding over trenches and getting repeatedly sideswiped by motorbikes, to find our Khmer neighbor a few doors down moving all his stuff out.

Guess he’s moving out. Wonder who’s moving in…

On Monday, we heard a bit of hammering. Man, that’s annoying. Guess they’re making repairs before the new tenants arrive.

Tuesday — All’s quiet on the Western Front. Glad that’s over. Hmm…but a trailer full of bamboo poles just showed up…

We’ve lived in Southeast Asia long enough to know those puppies ain’t for decoration. That there, my friends, is scaffolding.

Wednesday — Wow, that’s a lot of workers milling about that two-story shophouse. Up goes the green netting. Looks like we might be in for a remodel. Crap.

Thursday morning — Just as I’m getting out of the shower, I hear a BOOM! THUD! BOOM! THUD! Our whole place starts to shake. We rush down and take a look. Wow, that’s some major work they’re doing. As long as the roof panels don’t come out, we’re fine. Please, please, God, don’t let those roof panels come off.

Thursday afternoon

—and, there go the roof panels.

Which can only mean one thing, ladies and gents—

We’ve got a full-on demolition on our hands.

Three houses down. Three very narrow houses down. About 20 feet lay between the wall of our kitchen and the jackhammer. Since the buildings are connected, every time the jackhammer goes to town, it feels like we’re sitting on top of it, along for the ride.

That’s the scene currently out our front door. And, out the back door?

More of the same. DIT-DIT-DIT-DIT. DIT-DIT-DIT-DIT. THUD. THUD. DIT-DIT-DIT-DIT. THUD. BOOM! THUD. DIT-DIT-DIT-DIT. CRAAAASSSSHHH!

(repeat for the next 12 hours…minus an hour lunch break between 11:30-12:30).

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

Three days into this craziness, we returned from Saturday morning brunch (we’ve been trying to stay away as much as possible these days for obvious reasons) to another fun surprise.

In the midst of the constant, deafening noise, I headed upstairs to our bedroom to change. It was a bit dark in our room, so I threw open the curtains (on the opposite side of the house from the demolition) and was greeted by this…

Looks like we’ve got one house coming down to the west and one going up to the east.

Awesome.

So, Noe. Looks like you’re not going to get that nap again today. Oh well. Might as well come on in and watch the action.

This kind of thing is of course going on all around town. There’s literally no escaping it. Our little, established alley was well positioned to avoid the bulk of the noise and racket that’s seemingly unavoidable in Phnom Penh these days.

Cross the street into BKK1, and you’ll find various stages of urban development run rampant.

Villas like this being leveled by the week, making way for…

In Europe and North America, renewable, sustainable, environmentally-friendly are the buzzwords of the day when it comes to new construction.

It’s clear that Phnom Penh has adopted the far more destructive Chinese approach to urban development — level entire neighborhoods in the least culturally and least environmentally sensitive way possible.

Use the least renewable building materials as possible (making sure you choose the most destructive and extractive methods as possible — bonus points if your methods produce more carbon emissions).

Make sure construction is as loud, disruptive, and dangerous as possible (again, bonus points for not supplying your workers with respirators, safety glasses, harnesses, or ear plugs).

Incorporate as few trees and vegetation as possible (bonus points if you find a way to completely eliminate all existing green space within a kilometer of the site).

Oh, and make sure that your design requires maximum energy consumption (south-facing floor-to-ceiling windows are a must).

 

That’s quite a “guesthouse.” Reopening? I wonder what it used to look like…?

Ah yes…an actual guesthouse. Nice place. I would have stayed there. Would have.

Nice midrange clothing store. Lori and I peeked in not to long ago, to check out the sale. Didn’t know it would be their last.

Hey, I have an idea—How about another 30-story luxury condo building!!! I’m sure you’ll reach 10% occupancy in the next year or two.

A week into our neighbor’s demolition and things are looking, well…like there’s still a lot to do. Guess we can look forward to another couple of weeks of being serenaded by jackhammers, sledgehammers, and tile saws.

Until it’s time to leave our little slice of tropical paradise, that is.

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JAN FULLERTON

I feel so sorry for you all right now!! Hopefully, you’ll be on a flight soon for the states…