I sat watching a Champions League soccer game on the restaurant's TV, dangling my flip flop from a shaking foot and hoping a Cambodian beer was in my immediate future. No one waited on me, and I look around to see that every frat boy backpacker had been served and content for seemingly hours. After waiting about five minutes, the slate of my mind was wiped clean, and I stood up rather robot-like and walked towards the street, much like Forrest Gump before his cross-country running spree. I said to myself, "I sure hope this city is safe."
I walked with a notebook in hand, clasping it nonchalantly, yet tight enough to keep my dollar bills and Cambodian riel lodged within the pages. Taking a left, I passed by some roadside eateries still blazing their lamps for business. I held my pant legs above my ankles to avoid the slowly disappearing rain rivers that earlier washed a layer of sand across the pavement. I couldn't get over the purity of the air. I felt comfortable, instantly at home.
Walking by many restaurants and bars, I found an illuminated chalk sign that said: Happy Hour 5pm - 10pm. My kind of business. I barely looked both ways to cross the street and landed in the doorway of my new favorite establishment. I quickly ordered a pint of Angkor for less than a dollar, and the ecstatic young barkeep ran across the street to fetch the brew. I guess this bar wasn't stocked with the local beer of choice. Odd.
When I first walked in, the young man at the counter smiled without hesitation and showed me to the closest chair to the street for public viewing. He muted the Arsenal game and turned on his mix CD of popular American hip-hop. Soulja Boy's unmistakable "YOUUUUU" resonated throughout the bar. One look at his face, and you knew he was deejaying to impress. I felt incredibly compelled to stand up and teach him the dance, a bit of a cultural exchange, if you will; however, something compelled me to stay seated and continue to laugh to myself, writing down the things I was experiencing while sipping on the frosty mug.
The restaurant across the street closed up, and workers flocked to the sounds of Usher and Lil Wayne coming from our watering hole. A young woman sat alone on a barstool, sipping her drink with a smile plastered on her face. Being in Cambodia as a newbie, I immediately believed she was there to get free drinks, make a new friend, and cash out in the morning after making a load from a local or foreign businessman. Chances are she was a neighborhood teenager in need of a wet whistle, and I'll stick with that interpretation until I reach cold cut proof of the other.
I bade my new friends adieu and returned to my $10 a night luxury suite for some light-hearted merriment. Cambodian TV is an insomniac's paradise. Never have I laughed so hard at the tube than when I delighted in the fashion, karaoke, and Thai soap opera channels at the Green Lantern Guesthouse. There is great fascination in those parts with watching uneventful music videos about a boy and a girl longing for each other and singing along to it, karaoke-style. It's entertainment for the worldwide masses. I burst into laughter (audible from two rooms away, at least) at the melodrama of the soap operas I couldn't even understand. And fashion TV transported me from my guesthouse in Cambodia to a sorority common room or a Californian cocktail bar.
Lying there on my stomach with a pillow propping my gaze and a remote poised, the experience seemed a somewhat lazy, albeit fulfilling, approach to the act of cultural osmosis. The programs' hilarity and fuzzy reception were constant reminders that values, geography, technology, tastes, and desires can and do space worlds apart, meanwhile giving travelers a reason to keep going. What is mainstream at home is a delightful import elsewhere, and those treasured pastimes of distant lands are our special windows to other worlds with a dash of foreign charm.
Anyone coming to the United States looking for culture will either be smacked by it or have to whip out a magnifying glass to find it, but as a techno-centric society, all a traveler would have to do to see our values and humor would be to turn on the TV. Does that mean my experience in a different country could be enlightened by observing their local tube offerings? And at a time when so much is accessible from a simple hotel room or a satellite receiver, the question of why one should go and spend and weather and endure on location never ceases to probe.
As evident by my ramble, it can be very hard to describe even the most subtle realities of traveling abroad to those who are back in the solid mindset of home and the familiar. The nomad's world is an academic one, and with every hour comes a challenge to the things already known or believed. There is no rest for the mind and its running list of values, which is why one becomes wiser and fulfilled but less happy and wearier while wandering without fail for months on end.
I fell asleep to the sounds of a downpour outside my open window. The world was being flushed clean. Cambodia was a clean pipe when I awoke the next morning.