It was around this time that I starting writing to Rachel. A voice out of
the blue and it’s not even your birthday. How are you these days, how is
the ever-amazing Nadia? I’m looking at the sunset on the river. You would
really like it here.
For all I knew she was married to someone else by now. Her answer
didn’t sound married. She was cheerful and made cracks about how
much worse the subway was these days. Nadia had been through a pain-in-the-ass phase but was coming out of it fine. So good to hear from you,
I felt better at once for having her with me, despite the inconvenience
of her being 8,800 miles away. She was in my mind when I went about
the frustrating tasks of my much-loved job. Which I wished I were a genius at. I wrote, It’s still like nineteenth-century Britain in those factories.
Women faint from lack of ventilation. We’ve had strikes, two years ago
five workers got shot. Wages better though than when I started.
I thought of her when I took my walks. I knew what Rachel would
think about the tuk tuk guy who drove like an Italian or the exercise
class with blaring music in the park next to Wat Botum. I kept telling
her she should come visit. Nick, my friend at work, told me I was making
the place sound like Paris and she might notice it was more like Detroit.
“A lot of people love Detroit,” I said.
In fact I’d grown very loyal to Phnom Penh, where I now had certain
trusted buddies, experienced fellow nomads, including a French couple
who gave great dinners and a Brit with ironic theories. Nick called it our
Was I the only one utterly surprised when the old clown with his
orange hair was actually nominated? At least we’ll finally have a woman
President, Rachel wrote. We’re so behind everyone else.
On the morning of November 9, when the election headlines blazed
across my computer, I could only think that I’d been away so long, I
didn’t understand a single molecule of anything anymore. Rachel wrote,
I wish I could wake up from this. On the subway a woman was weeping
while she looked at her phone. We’re in a different part of history now.
I had to remind her of other elections full of bad news and worse to
come. George W. Bush. Ronald Reagan. Warren Harding. Millard Fillmore (name always got a laugh). I did find it comforting to think of bad
ideas the country had survived.
As it happened, I was living in a place that had lost a quarter of its
population to a bad idea gone rabid and murderous. Cambodians didn’t