Straws and sandpaper

It was kind of an inside joke between my father and I when I was younger that I would make fun of him for never using straws when he drank beverages. “Dad, it makes your life so much easier! You don’t have to bother picking up the glass. You just lean forward a little and drink. It’s great.”

My dad would shake his head at his twelve-year-old daughter. “Straws are superfluous. It’s an unnecessary step between me and my drink. I don’t need a tube to help me drink- I can do it fine on my own.”

We would argue like this back and forth. I don’t remember why such a mundane topic came up repeatedly during my childhood but it apparently occurred often enough for me to still remember today.

I promise this relates to Cambodia.

There are a lot of things here that can frustrate a foreigner. The buses are usually not on time; when they are, they usually still manage to arrive at your destination late. They stop at a small town to pick someone up and then drive two hundred meters to pick another person up. They are slow and inefficient. It can be frustrating.

On the days I go in the field I sometimes get incredibly dirty. I made the mistake of wearing a short-sleeve white button-up when driving to Khsach Kandal district, a rural area about forty-five minutes and a long ferry ride away from Phnom Penh. The roads in Khsach Kandal are dirt, which means passing cars, trucks, and motos disperse huge plumes of dust as they rumble down the street. If you are even the least bit sweaty (and I don’t think I have stopped sweating since I arrived a month ago) the red dirt turns into a very thin sort of mud that lines your collar and sleeves. It’s pretty gross and hopelessly futile to try to rescue the bright white color your shirt once was.

The roads in the rural areas are bumpy, even the paved ones. I have never gotten carsick but the bumps jostle your insides enough to make them start to hurt. I sometimes groan under my breath on the back of a moto (whose shocks I swear are nonexistent) and hold my stomach in a feeble attempt to keep my spleen and liver in their rightful places. I don’t know if spleens and livers can move to other parts of your body but to me it’s not worth taking the risk to find out.

Every meal is a gamble. Most often the ice is transported in large rectangle chunks without any sort of covering in the back of dirty trucks or on the back of motos. It is dropped, handled without gloves, and set directly on the street to cut into smaller pieces to sell to restaurants. I have no desire whatsoever to place a few drops on a petri dish and see what happens. The meat is possibly undercooked, the fish most likely left sitting out for several hours. It tastes delicious but the pleasure can sometimes be short-lived… two hours later your body makes you keenly aware of its disapproval in your lack of dietary discretion.

The electricity goes out, usually opting for the most inconvenient time to take its leave. It’s the middle of the day and 96 degrees outside and you have no fan. You have twenty-three Kiva journals to post before 5 PM and the internet has been out since 2.

Things don’t happen when you want them to, how you want them to, or the way you had planned. You are constantly inconvenienced, hot, sweaty, annoyed, tired, pressed up against the language barrier wall, put out by the cultural differences, pushed away from the comfortable and the expected.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t mind all of these challenges and quirks. I do mind. They are frustrating and emotionally and physically draining. But at the same time, there is something incredibly…. refreshing is the wrong word… cathartic?…. about not having every convenience handed to me. In Phnom Penh, I cannot step out of my air-conditioned home into my own personal air-conditioned car and drive to my health-inspector approved favorite air-conditioned restaurant, return the lemon pepper salmon because it didn’t taste quite right and have a new one brought to me at no cost, and drive back home to enjoy an evening of television and relaxation. But while I greatly appreciate being able to do this in the States, it feels good to experience something other than abundant comfort for a while.

My dad doesn’t use straws because they are waste of plastic and an superfluous convenience. The one-eighth of a calorie it probably takes to pick up a glass to him outweighs the desire to make his life unnecessarily easier. It’s a miniscule decision in his life but it’s representative of a larger perspective.

I had a friend one time describe a bad decision he made as one chosen out of the desire to “rub his thumb against a piece of sandpaper.” It was a conscious choice to step out of the ordinary and the easy and to place himself in an uncomfortable situation, to feel something rough and slightly painful, if only for a short time. I didn’t quite understand what he meant at the time, or why he would want to impose on himself anything less than the path of least resistance.

I think I understand it now. I think there is something to be said for not being completely obsessed with saving time and worshiping efficiency. The world is a dirty, dusty place, and it is natural to sweat. There are bumps in the road to Khsach Kandal and sometimes, just sometimes, it is nice to actually feel them, to not have hundreds of pounds of rubber and metal isolating you from the natural terrain. Food tastes better when it hasn’t been soaking in preservatives for three days, even if it might cause me a slight stomach ache later. I’d like to think my immune system is stronger if it does. Internet, electricity, and air-conditioning are luxuries; I am lucky to have them but I am not entitled to them. Power outages remind me of that.

It will be nice to go back home in a few months and take a shower at the precise temperature of my choosing, have a pizza delivered to my house with the press of a few buttons, to have constant access to information and people, and know with almost absolute certainty that things will go as I want and expect them too.

In the meantime though, I will appreciate living a life that is a little more natural, a little less insulated, one with slightly fewer straws and a little more sandpaper.

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