Here’s my latest article for my hometown paper, The Index.
When I look back on my childhood growing up in Homer, one of the most pleasant feelings I have is remembering the small town environment. There’s a wonderful, friendly, uncomplicated spirit in places like Homer, where parents let their children play free without fear, where neighbors say “hello” when they pass each other on the street. No one’s in much of a hurry, and friends spend the evening chatting on the porch about how so-and-so is back in town, “Did you see him?”
This same spirit is one of the things I love about rural Cambodia. Don’t get me wrong, I am crazy about the energy of big cities, but there’s a grounding force that exists both in Homer and in the small Cambodian town where I currently live. Upon first consideration, you probably wouldn’t think these two places had much in common, but the pace of life, the friendliness, and the tranquil character is surprisingly similar.
The pace of life here is, well, relaxed. Some might dare call it slow. The unrelenting heat has a lot to do with it, stealing the energy from everyone and leaving them to retreat to shaded hammocks for the hottest hours of the day. All day long, really, life is lived outside the house, where the shade of a stilted home and a gentle breeze can take the edge off. Families and friends spend much of their free time talking about the weather, the harvest, and what they’ve eaten, as they sprawl atop wooden platforms used both as tables and beds.
Like in most small towns, there isn’t much in the way of formal entertainment. The closest thing to a Cascarelli’s we have is an outdoor restaurant where middle-aged men can be found watching the latest boxing match or playing a game of Cambodian chess. Whenever I walk in, I see the same familiar faces, drinking iced coffee made too sweet from the heaps of condensed milk.
Not too far away, there’s a small volleyball court, where the younger guys play a few games against friends for a pot of money. The women gather across the street at the market, the center of all social activity. Just down the road is the river, where you can find men casting their fishing nets, and children splashing around.
During this time of year, bright tents and loud music fill the streets, a sign that wedding season has arrived. The multi-day marriage celebrations are the most extravagant of all the rituals observed here, although housewarmings and memorial services are also big events.
No matter where I am though, the people in my town will respond with a smile, a “hello,” or a polite inquiry about where I’m heading. They’ll slow their motos down to ride beside my bike and ask about my latest English class or how my family is doing.
The young people are especially friendly. High school students are often eager to practice their English any chance they get. The younger kids holler as they play outside together in flocks. With no real parks or playgrounds, the kids can be seen inventing toys using anything from a tree branch to a pop can to a sewer pipe. Besides the risk of illness, which is great of course, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Like Homer, it’s a quiet, safe town where the children can play as they like, largely undisturbed.
There are moments where I can feel each and every one of the 8,000 miles that separates this place from where I grew up. However, there are so many more – when I stumble upon friendly strangers on the street or see neighbors chatting outside– that I’m taken back by the similarities and try to breathe in that small town spirit.