by Bill Scheffel
POSTED 23-MAR: 2016
I first visited Phnom Penh in January of 2005. The place was mesmerizing. A city with few functioning traffics lights but with traffic moving so languidly it didn't need them. Thousands of small motorcycles navigating intersections like fish adept at their instinctual migration. Markets dense with vendors who could sit patiently all day in twelve square feet of floor space, surrounded by mangoes. Young monks with glowing innocence wandering semi-abandoned temple grounds. Through subsequent trips to Phnom Penh I gradually met a circle of friends, simple people who worked the streets of the city that I encountered and got to know on my daily walks. One of them was Amoi.
Among the legacies of Phnom Penh's colonial period include the extant secondary schools and government buildings the French built as well as the many street vendors who still sell French bread. Small loaves of bread - noom paang as it's called in Cambodian - can be found and bought fresh for twenty-five cents throughout the city. Amoi was one of Phnom Penh's noom paang vendors. I met Amoi while I was learning Khmer, the Cambodian language. Once she got used to me saying hello and asking if I could buy a loaf of bread she became fond of correcting my Khmer pronunciation. I would part from her, for instance, by saying the Khmer version of "See you tomorrow." Amoi would gleefully attack my limp pronunciation of tomorrow, psa'aic. I wouldn't say it loud enough, aspirate adequately or put in a proper glottal stop. Amoi would tutor me until I did, insisting I say psa'aic five or six times until I got it right and as the smiles and laughter between us grew.
I'd encounter Amoi every morning, after I'd taken breakfast and on my way back to my guesthouse. Amoi worked in front of an elementary school and knew the young women who worked as teachers or secretaries behind a counter that opened onto the street where Amoi parked her bicycle and sold her bread. The teachers spoke English and helped me get to know Amoi and her story. Her story was not uncommon for people of her generation. Essentially all her relatives died during the Khmer Rouge era and Amoi had fended for herself for a long time, selling bread under the hot sun for eight hours a day, six days a week. She had no safety net but her bread and the stamina to sell it.
Amoi was probably in her late fifties, wore decent dresses, and still had good teeth. Her hair was gray, her smile fierce, radiant and winning. She was an attractive woman, perched between good health and looming old age; an orphan on the streets of Phnom Penh, a dot of human light in a city indifferent, populous and growing. Amoi sat on a plastic stool behind twenty or thirty loaves of bread and occasionally shut down her roadside shop to fetch more noom paang from whatever local bakery she purchased it from. One day, improbably and suddenly, she asked me if I would take over for her while she made a bicycle run for bread.
Thus I was momentarily hired into my first and only job in Cambodia, a crazy baraang (foreigner) with blonde hair and Ray-ban sunglasses selling French Bread on Phnom Penh Street #143. For the next twenty-five minutes I did pretty well. I knew enough Khmer to ask how many loaves a customer wanted, count change and say thank you. And customers did stop. Men or women on motorcycles loyal to Amoi's few square feet of concrete, who saw me and must have thought they wer hallucinating, yet urged on by habit and the desire for bread they stopped. I sold six or eight loaves, garnered many laughs and made a couple of dollars for Amoi. When Amoi returned she was nonchalant and loaded down with noom pang. She offered me several fierce smiles, but otherwise no thanks and no pay. When we parted I could at least pronounce "tomorrow" correctly.
This is one of a series of essays under the overall title, Cambodia 2015. - Bill Scheffel
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