We were talking about first impressions, my class and me. A textbook unit, an ESL unit, one of many. "You never get a second chance to make a first impression": trying to explain what that meant, watching their young faces puzzle out the strange and melodious logic of American expressions. It's not just people, I was saying. You can have first impressions of buildings, cities, even countries.
"So what was your first impression of Cambodia?"
Good question. Interesting question. When you live in a foreign country, you get asked all the time, daily, sometimes hourly: "What do you think of (insert country name here)?" You are a guest in the country, so you have to say good things, positive things. Nobody wants to hear you slag their homeland, and I wouldn't want to do so. There's a time and place for everything, and a classroom full of teenagers do not want to hear that their country is majestically fucked up.
So. First impressions? Like, first first impressions?
When one lands in Cambodia for the first time, excitement is tempered by anxiety, bordering on panic. At Pochentong Airport in Phnom Penh, a seated line of grim-faced workers in grim-green suits sit behind a counter that greets you after stepping off the plane. They want your passport. They need your passport. You hand them your ten, twenty bucks for a visa, along with a passport-sized photo for the visa, and then they make you wait. The passport is passed along from soldier to soldier, while you wait and wonder just what the hell you are doing in Cambodia in the first place. (Okay, they're not soldier soldiers, but they sure as hell look like it.) After they've deemed that your money is valid and your purpose is valid you are allowed to pass through customs. After that, well, you are on your own. You are in Cambodia. Holy fuck, you think. (Or I think, anyways. I'm from St.Catharines, Ontario, after all. They didn't cover this kind of shit in my Geography classes. Sputtering, skipping, newsreel-like films about the Russian economy from the 1970's, shown to the class while the Soviet Union was in the midst of falling apart, rendering all the information moot and void, introduced by my apologetic-but-not-really teacher? Check. How to survive in a third world country on your own? Um, no. Missed that class. Maybe had a race that day or something.)
Three years ago, when I first came here for a week of English teaching, there was no taxi service run by the airport itself. There were taxis, yes, but they were outside. Problem was, not only were there taxis, there were also taxi drivers.
Why was this a problem? Because the moment you stepped out of the aiport ten, fifteen taxi drivers descended on you like crows on carrion. They all shouted "Sir! Sir!", grabbing you, trying to lead you towards their car, their taxi, their meal ticket for the day. They were short and thin and chubby and tall and male and female. They were poor and you were not.
What to do, what to do, what to do. I sure as shit didn't know what to do. What if I picked one and the others got royally pissed? What if they ripped my arms off and gnawed them like chicken wings? (Such are the thoughts of an ignorant traveller.)
So I did what I had to do, which was pick a taxi-driver, and he looked happy, and the others looked pissed. But that was it. As soon as I chose one driver with the magic-wand of my outstretched finger, the others let out a small moan of disappointment, then dispersed. Instantly. They didn't give me a sour look. They didn't fight with each other. There was some kind of code at work which I did not understand, but I did recognize, instantly, that perhaps this place, this land, was more civil than I expected. (Crazy, yes, fuck yeah, but civil. In its own, outrageous fashion.)
My first impression, then? That out of some kind of chaos came a small and precise form of civility.
Now, it's different. Now, at the airport, taxi drivers no longer linger to grab you and pull you and beg you to feed them for a day. There's a tidy little desk with a tidy little man who will book a car for you, arrange a driver for you, handle all the details.
That's nice. It's easier.
But still. I remember that first hot day, those initial surreal moments in Cambodia. Those tugging, insistent drivers. Their dejected but calm acceptance of my disoriented rejection. Looking back, it was, in the end, a good first impression, all things considered. It was very strange and real and indicative of what would follow in the following two years. Madness tempered by grace.