... AU$100...a new pair of shoes...about 30 skinny lattes...car parking in Melbourne city for 50hrs... Keep listing them, though I cannot imagine you will believe me that in Phnom Penh, US$70 buys you one months rent. Yes, folks, for only US$70, you can live in a one room apartment in the centre of the capital city of the Kingdom of Cambodia. At least that is what my US$70 bought me today.
Nika, the Happy School Coordinator/eccentric Khmer lady, picked me up at the guesthouse at 11am for lunch. At around 10 past 1, I was starting to wonder where she had gotten to, as I didn't think her one to be late without notice. Sure enough, a text message drew my attention from Chandler's History of Cambodia, which I am attempting to digest for a second time around, to my phone. 'I cannot find your place. Please we meet somewhere or you call me now.' I replied with directions, and next minute, Nika was parked outside the guesthouse, drenched through from the relentless downpours of the last 12 hours. 'Nika! You are wet!'. 'Yes, I been driving for one hour to find you!', she said with a smile on her face. Most of us begin cursing at God, life and the darn road system in Australia if we couldn't find an address within 5 minutes of schedule. Nika, well, she just smiled and greeted me warmly.
We putted down Monivong Blvd to Friends Restaurant, and chatted over more spring rolls, delicious Khmer fish soup in a coconut shell and grilled fish with salsa. Nika had ideas, many ideas, and by the end of lunch, we were both so excited, that we instantly decided to begin our 'projects'. First thing on the list was to find me somewhere other than the over-expensive Okay guesthouse (US$6 per night) to stay. We dodged traffic on her little green moto, and scanned the expat living quarter for 'To Rent' signs.
We stopped at the first house which looked smallish and not too flash, as I didn't want to spend too much money. Nika called the number on the plaque, and next thing, she was laughing and hung up the phone. The metal sliding gates on the dwelling were being opened as Nika crossed the road towards the property. 'The lady is just here!' We looked at the modest one bedroom apartment, which had a tiled floor, small balcony, TV, couch, bed, new bathroom, etc. Although it was nice, the lady wanted US$160 per month, and the vibe of the place just wasn't right for me. The bedroom had no windows. Next one...
An old Chinese man with two of the loudest dogs I have ever encountered showed us his top floor apartment. Balcony at both front and back, though the smell from downstairs was sifting up into the small unit. Hmmm. Not the right one either.
Take three. Very close to the Psar O'Russei (Central Market), this place was in the thick of Khmer life. One the streets below, the market had seemed to spread out of its bounds, with sellers marketing fried fish, tyres, fresh water lilies, plastic matts. The surrounds, though not prime expat territory were full of life with traffic and chaos everywhere. I had a good feeling...
The elderly lady and her daughter frowned partway into their conversation with Nika. 'What are they saying?', I asked her. 'They want US$80, but it has no furniture.' 'Let's look anyway.' We ventured up the steep stairs so common in Khmer arcitecture to the top floor of the tri-level house. We came onto a huge verandah (probably 8m x 10m), and the landlady unlocked the door to the unit. At first glance, I wasn't exactly thrilled. The place had only the one room, and although it was large (8m x 12m), it was literally empty save for a timber bed in the corner. The kitchen was tiny, with only an old sink and a small square tiled bench in the corner, onto which I gathered a gas cooktop could be placed. The 'bathroom' contained a toilet and cold water shower. No vanity, no mirror, no fridge, no A/C, no TV, no sofa, no stove,...
'Nika, I like it. It has a really great feel. There is so much air up here. What do you think??? How much will it cost me to get some furniture?'. And within twenty minutes of this conversation, I put my fingerprint on the rental agreement for my new apartment for US$70 per month. My very own place. Though it is not everything I have ever dreamt of, I know I will make it my home. I am still trying to work out how I will get around the lack of fridge, though the market is so close, I could just get fresh food before dinner every day. Peeled durian, pineapple, watermelon, bananas for breakfast.
So now that we have accomplished step one of our 'project', namely to find a place where I can live, and Nika and I can work together, we are onto step two... Put together some proposals for projects that make me estatic just thinking about them.
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