Being an American, Being an Ass (Tuesday 3/4)

Today I’ve had it happen for the first time that I well and truly made an ass out of myself. 

The streets here are often unnamed, resulting in Yellow Pages addresses like:

English as a Special School Language
Mondul 3
Street next to Por Langkor Pagoda 

Now I was looking for that school, and in retrospect maybe I found it.  I had assumed I was lost.  I ended up on a long path that became a semi-shantytown, broken by a few of what you might call “gated communities” — walled enclosures with old, modest, smartly-built houses; they looked like farms or like the SE Asian version of an Italian vinyard — and the rare mini-mansion.

The semi-shantytown that lined both sides of the road was a series of huts with tin corrogated roofs that half or a third of the time were built up onto more substantial buildings, which I can only describe as looking something like chicken-coops built for humans.  This dirt road was broken only by smaller dirt paths that looked like they headed nowhere I belonged.

But the road was quite busy, and motorbike traffic passed me frequently, along with bicycles and the occasional land rover.  And the corrugated metal-roofed shacks to the side were always open to the road, walk-in style.

There was a great deal of industry going on inside these enclosures.  One shack would have an old woman washing a motorbike that was up on a raised pivot for the kickstand, tilting the bike forward and back to get around the carburator — she was about seventy.  Or one would sell bottled water, or one would have Khmer doing some mechanical thing that looked something like pipe-fitting and something like welding that I didn’t understand.  Or there was a Khmer pharmacy — one open shack had a flag bearing a green cross outline enclosing a single snake coiled around a staff.

As I walked down this road, I became increasingly of the opinion that I was out of place.  And the Khmer, as they watched this 6’4″ redhead in the new but slightly-mismatched plaid shirt and shorts, seemed to be of the same opinion.

That’s all fore-shadowing.  To make you understand the scene.  This is what happened:

I found a school.  Not exactly the school I was looking for, I thought — but now I think it might have been — but an English-teaching school even so.  Fair game:  I went in.

There were a lot of little kids running around playing.  Like recess in a middle school.  A lot of them were shirtless.  A minority had new-ish clothes.  I wandered in and made for the first adult I saw.

This was, as it turned out, not a janitor or security guy, but a street food vendor who had set up shop inside the quasi-parking circle.  He didn’t understand English, but obligingly tried to serve me some weird steamed cabbage-like roll thing with what looked like chives poking out in random directions.  I waved that down and he grinned; he couldn’t help me.

Most folks downtown could speak a little English, but this was out in the ‘burbs.  I walked around — there was a big central hall with narrow bench-table furniture, empty — I circled back around to pass a series of doors, the last of which said, ‘DIRECTION’.

Direction sounds good, I thought, and stepped in.

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Published in: on August 20, 2009 at 5:02 am  Leave a Comment  
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