Phnom Penh, July 2014.
I often forget where I am. Everyday life takes over – I teach, I send emails, I go shopping, I cook, I (try) to write. I am busy (I make myself busy). I don’t have time (I don’t make time) to slow down and remember where I am and who I’m with and what’s going on with the rest of the world.
Then – a few weeks ago – the wet season began in Cambodia. Rain: a forced change in perspective, an unavoidable shift in schedule. At the mercy of the elements, and all that. Suddenly a normal, busy Tuesday afternoon became something necessarily – unavoidably – different.
Cambodia has a tropical monsoon climate that can be roughly divided into four seasons. November to February is the coolest and driest time of year, while from March to May the country is hot and dry. June sees the beginning of the monsoon rains; until August the weather is rainy and humid. From September to early November the rains continue but the temperature is cooler. Wet season rains are fortunately fairly predictable, generally falling in the afternoons or evenings for just a few hours. The wettest months are usually September and October.
On the afternoon of the first real downpour of the season I am reading in a cool, quiet cafe around the corner from my apartment. I leave just as the first drops begin to fall, and ride my bike as far as the travel agent a block up the street. I step inside, and the rain comes.
It doesn’t let up for at least an hour. I sit and read and stare out the window. I almost make it through an entire Alice Munro story. The rain is monumental; it literally pours from the sky. It is so loud, and somehow lonely. Street 63 rapidly becomes a river. Each time an SUV drives by waves swell up onto the pavement and under the glass doors of the travel agent. A while later the manager will pull down the metal shutters against the water. This is the closest I’ve ever come to being flooded.
It gets dark. Across the road young men from the tailor toss each other playfully into the water. A woman with two children on a motorbike is stuck against floating debris. She stalls. The boys from the tailor pull her out. A giant branch floats by, like a crocodile.
When the rain stops I wade (with my bike) through the aftermath; dirty water comes up to my knees and laps at the hem of my dress. Stuff (there is no more accurate a word for it) gets caught against my shins. I don’t want to know what it is. Bags of rubbish float and sink and split and vomit their contents into the water. I brace myself against the waves caused by cars.
Home with my feet scrubbed it feels like having been through something. The rainstorm is a pleasant adventure, a welcome shift in pace, for a foreigner living in a second floor apartment. I feel slightly guilty for enjoying this deluge and the change it brings, because of what it means for so many others. In 2011, 250 people were killed by flooding in Cambodia, and thousands of homes were destroyed. Heavy rain also damages crops, and increases the spread of diseases such as cholera and dengue fever. Facts like these are hard to remember as I sit here – safe and dry – at my computer.
The rainy season reminds me at once that I’m in Cambodia – and that I’m not really here. It reminds me that I live in a version of this country that only really exists for those who are reasonably wealthy; barely half of the population[i]. My Cambodia is one of air conditioning, ‘cafe culture’, and a guilty joy at the sight of a flooded street. I love living here – but sometimes it is a little too easy to forget where I am.