Back from a country where stuff works

There is comfort in the raucous purr of garbage trucks and robotic street sweepers, in the familiar sweesh-pfff of a bus stopping and the off-beat chanting of a labor protest. They’re the sounds of a country where stuff works.

Thirteen months and a day to my landing in Phnom Penh, I took off for 5 weeks of vacation at home in France. I am returning today, now sitting in the Ho Chi Minh airport, contemplating my return to a country where, let’s face it, stuff doesn’t work.

My posts typically relate travels and beautiful discoveries in my current home, Cambodia. This is not that kind of post.

There is no way to honestly relate the feeling of returning home, even for just a short time, after a year in a developing country without sounding terribly un-PC. That may be why such a topic is usually reserved for closed-circle expat conversations, but I was never good at keeping secrets. My Cambodian readers will pardon, I hope, the following unleashing of frustrations.

Most apparent among said frustrations are the material conditions that locals have always lived with and that you, privileged Westerner, must learn to no longer see as inconveniences. (And if you do, don’t say it because you still have it better than 99% of the country.) Examples? No dairy in the supermarket because of a storm in Bangkok. Shoddy construction standards in all 13 apartments you were made to visit. Thigh-high water downtown during monsoon rains. Daily black-outs. Mounds of garbage at every street corner — hence the comforting purr.

Then there’s the really frustrating stuff. The omnipresent misery: the material kind you were expecting — the kids tapping you on the shoulder for money at stoplights — and the intellectual and moral kind that sneaks up on you after a few months. The bad news in the paper every morning, with which bad news back home bears no comparison. The obviously undemocratic and unfair actions of government and others that make you boil inside while locals don’t flinch. The violence. The dawning realization you can do next to nothing about any of these things.

While I concede it has issues too and its small share of misery, Europe is a cocoon away from all that. You empty your brain of all those issues, even have a conversation or two about how scr***d up you think [insert host country here] really is, wilfully leaving out stuff that does work to better vent. You put your feet up in a movie theater and (try to) blissfully ignore the horrors of the world.

I know a handful of expats who have been in Cambodia for many years and seem to have made it their true home. Most, however, say a year, two or three, and all matters cited above are no stranger to their decision to leave. And when you stay, a trip home every once in a while is a vital necessity. 13 months was long. The consensus seems to be a trip every 6 months is ideal, when you can afford it. I know one Frenchman who’s going on 3 years and traveling home this fall. Enough to go berserk with frustrations IMHO. So I went home and got lulled to sleep by the sweet purr of garbage trucks.

PS: I wish we had a phrase resembling Africa’s TIA to allow for shorthand venting of said frustrations between trips home. Something to brainstorm.