I had my usual death grip on the small metal handle curved around the edge of my seat. The traffic was lighter at that time of day, near noon, but it only meant that everyone drove faster. A quick burst of speed into an open lane and my new hat went flying off behind me. I turned to see it land on the dusty street and get run over by a moto. I turned back and pouted, sure that it was gone for good.
A minute later, I held it in my hand again. Another moto driver had picked it up off of the busy three lane street and caught up to hand it back to me. It was an ugly hat, bought only to save my sensitive head from the hot sun, and now it was filthy. But I didn’t care, I smiled so broadly and profusely thanked the man who retrieved it. He gave me a weak grin, shrugged, and raced off ahead of us.
I needed that hat. But more importantly, I needed that moment of kindness.
Phnom Penh can be a tough city, and Cambodia, a tough country. It is still recovering from genocide and civil war, and coming to grips with its own growth and influx of foreign tourists. It can be infuriating one moment but entirely brilliant the next – throughout our month there I tossed furiously between appreciating it and counting the days until we left. I was fond of driving through the countryside but didn’t care for its most popular beach town. I adored the temples, but was sorely tormented by the intense violence we witnessed.
I wish I could say I loved it. So many people do, and I fully expected to. But every time a flicker of affection was felt, that spark would quickly be extinguished, whether by witnessing the heart-wrenching exploitation of children, learning about crimes against our friends, or something else. It is ultimately a beautiful but challenging place to be.
I’m so glad we went. I’m glad we experienced Cambodia. But after one month in the country we were both ready to move on, and for now have little desire to return. So instead we left with some great memories, others that we wish we could forget, and one dusty hat to save my head another day.