Wariness wilts in Cambodia's warmth

We stood in the middle of a dusty street in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, as the sun and humidity competed to knock us senseless. Backpacks with a month's worth of clothes and travel gear weighed heavy on us as the neon sun lowered in the blue-white sky. Dusty white cars with tinted windows and ornamented tissue boxes in their rear window decks bumped by over the deeply potholed street, as a few young men standing on the corner by some motorcycles screamed for our attention: "You need a guesthouse! Where are you going!"

Sunset had been a long time coming. We'd started the day in southern Vietnam, where rickety wooden boats had transported us via the Mekong River toward Cambodia. After border checks in open-air huts, a 14-year-old boy took eight of us Americans, Australians, Dutch, and Germans in a six-seat boat toward the dock nearest to Phnom Penh.

"You need a guesthouse! Where are you going!" a thin young man shouted again.

Aaron, Christina, and I, fellow English teachers vacationing from our work in Japan, exchanged questioning looks.

"I don't know, what do you think?" Christina asked us. "Should we just ask one of these guys to take us to a guesthouse?"

A round-faced 20-something man, wearing baggy jeans and a well-fitted black shirt, observed us deliberating and emerged from a group of friends to approach us. He looked a lot like Drew, a kid I sat behind in my high school social studies class.

"Hey, let me take you to my guesthouse. It's five minutes from here and if you don't like it, the ride is free, and I'll take you to a different place. My name is Nop."

Nop showed us where we were on his map, and explained where he would take us. We soon realized that we had no way of discerning the truth of the simple statement, "You are here," but we agreed to accompany Nop to the guesthouse.

Nop led us to his large white sedan. Its windows were tinted black, its interior was velvety red, and a gold-framed Cambodian flag hung from the rear-view mirror. I sat in the front seat, inhaling pine air freshener and trying to figure out if what we were doing was normal and safe.

As Nop maneuvered around the gaping holes of the city's muddy streets, I noticed he was wearing a huge gold pinky ring with a black stone. That set my mind running along the paths of paranoia. Maybe it's the Cambodian mafia's membership ring, and Nop is sent into the streets to recruit ignorant foreigners. Where are we going? Who would know where to find us? Why did we get in this car? My New York-bred lack of trust was on full throttle.

In between these thoughts, I heard Nop explaining the layout of the city and advising us on some good nightspots. "We're going out for dinner later, if you guys want to come," he said. We were noncommittal and skeptical.

It took about five minutes, just as Nop had said it would, to arrive at the front door of an immaculate guesthouse. Nop's friend and co-owner Dara greeted us in the white-tiled lobby, showed us a white-tiled room for three, and told us it would be US$6 for the night.

An hour later, we walked down the stairs just as Nop and Dara were getting into the car to go to the restaurant.

"Come on, aren't you guys coming?" asked Dara.

We piled into the car as sultry Khmer music blasted, and made our way through the glowing city night. Teenage boys were getting haircuts in barber chairs on sidewalks, and neon lights burned bright red and yellow above signs full of swirled writing. At restaurants with no front walls, children, parents, and lovers ate boiled meats and fish out of steaming pots.

We arrived at a dimly lit open-air hall with well-dressed young people eating and drinking at crowded round tables. On stage was a striking woman with long black hair and a short pink dress, singing a karaoke version of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" with the vocal finesse of a pop icon.

Nop ordered fried chicken, a whole fish, spicy beef, and vegetables, and we got to talking. Dara and Nop gave us their version of stories we'd read in the news.

"The population of this city is young because so many people's mothers and grandfathers have been murdered," Nop said, "but it's not like we go around thinking about that all the time. We just want to keep moving, keep going, live, just normal, like any city."

Dara and Nop both spoke unaccented English. We conversed with them in Japanese, too. When Dara started comparing the sounds of English and Dutch, I finally asked, "How many languages do you speak?"

"English, Japanese, French, and only a little Dutch, German, and Spanish," Nop and Dara answered.

How had they managed that? Their answer was casual and modest.

"We learned on the street," Nop said.

"We were motorcycle drivers for 10 years before we started the hotel," Dara said. "We'd wake up at 7, study English for an hour and a half, drive all day, and then study for two more hours at night."

"If you want to talk to travelers and do business with travelers," Nop said, "you should speak their languages."

We got our food and dug in heartily, as Nop and Dara explained more history and politics, told us what we should do and see, asked about our home states, and answered questions about opening a hotel in Cambodia. ("One simple rule: savings.")

As we finished our meal, and as Nop threatened to play Whitney Houston on the karaoke box and make me sing along, we decided it was time to get the check.

Nop played with the toothpick in his mouth, and I looked at him across the table at him, thinking again about how much he looked like Drew from high school. I thought about how I had questioned whether to trust him earlier, when he was just another guy offering us a ride.

Maybe I should let down my guard more readily or more often. It turns out that "You need a guesthouse?" may extend to a conversation about history or the fundamentals of opening a Cambodian hotel.

It seems that a gold pinky ring does not signify mafia status, and that a taxi driver may be trilingual.

In fact, it seems that legions of educators may be hidden in plain sight on street corners or sitting behind the tinted windows of dusty white sedans.

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