Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hardwood Floors

Category: Issue 17

Every time I walk up the stairs to my apartment here in Cambodia, I think of so many wonderful things to write about, but by the time I get to the top, there’s just finding my key, opening the door, the cats, and the glorious fact that I have arrived. The cats want food, and I just want to change my clothes into something more comfortable, turn on the air conditioning, turn on the TV, maybe get a drink, watch National Geographic on TV and check out whatever newest books I’ve stolen from my local bar’s library. Maybe make a grilled cheese sandwich. 

All the way up the stairs, every time, I think of all these brilliant things to say, to write.  It’s a third floor “walk up”.  Holy shit.  I’ve got a sore ankle.  Inevitably, for something to do as I’m climbing the endless stairs, I am full of brilliant literary ideas.  Oh, well. 

It’s a third floor “walk-up”, and I never realized what that meant before I came to Cambodia, where there are lots and lots of “walk-ups”.  In Canada we have elevators.  On the other hand, in Canada there’s less freedom.  At least I can have two cats, smoke, and do essentially whatever I want in this apartment without having to argue with anybody or pay much rent.

When I walk up, well, climb… navigate… the stairs, half the time (at night), it’s in pitch darkness.  Can’t see anything.  I gently, intentionally, bump the toes of my feet against the stairs, all the way up, to make sure I don’t slip and fall and break my teeth or something.  This happens; westerners are continually slipping and falling on various stairs in Cambodia, but so far not me.  Some of the stairs, the first set, are really weird, like, the size of two ordinary stairs put together…and sometimes slippery,if it’s been raining… but you get used to it, like being blind and athletic at the same time. (I don’t know any blind athletes, but I’m sure they wouldn’t have too much trouble with my stairs, after a couple of tries.)  I have got the whole thing, the whole procedure of going upstairs, divided into three sections, and once you do that, it’s ok.  Phase Two is the first set of stairs, the weird ones; and Phase Three is the rest of the stairs. 

Amazingly, nobody mugs you on the stairs.  Sometimes there are young Cambodian males smoking something or other on the stairs, but I’m always polite to them and they’re always polite to me.  I say, “Hello!” and they say, “Sorry, madame!” and I say, “No problem!”  I’m not afraid of anybody on the stairs, although if you’d asked me last year I might have not been so sure.  If they’re smoking something, you can see the steps better.

I don’t even really want to see the steps better, because as I know from seeing them in the daytime, they are utterly filthy.  Cigarette butts, unidentified ex-food, ex-animals, ex-bugs, ex-excrement.  There COULD be a dead, decomposing rat on the stairs for me to step on/into, but so far there hasn’t been and I would probably have seen it on the way out.  Probably.  Anyway there’s no point worrying about it.  The cockroaches around here are also outrageously huge, but they don’t bite.  Apparently they’re Good for the Environment because they eat garbage.  Go for it! 

There was supposed to be a light on for the stairs, but it doesn’t work.  There’s no point talking to The Guy, the emissary of the owner to whom I pay the rent, really, because although he can have the light fixed, it will only work temporarily; then it will stop working again. We’ve been through this already.  The Guy, whose name is Vong, has a game leg which won’t bend. When he showed this place to me, when I was thinking of renting it, it was manifestly obvious that it was very difficult for him to get up all these millions of flights of stairs.  He did it, though.  He’s a nice guy.  His leg got hurt in a moto (motorbike) accident.  It won’t bend at the knee very well anymore.  He’s ok about it.

When my ceiling fan stopped working, Vong laboriously dragged himself all the way up the stairs to have a look at it for me.  He flicked the switch on the wall up and down, and, lo and behold, the fan didn’t work.  Just like I said it didn’t.  The ceiling is, like, twenty feet high… I have really high ceilings.  I was expecting Vong to DO something about this, because after all, I’m renting this apartment, and it came with a functioning ceiling fan.  He looked up at it and said, “Hmmm, maybe you have to buy small, other fan.” 

“Mph!” I said.  I don’t like to make waves, but I don’t want to live in an apartment that has a ceiling fan that doesn’t work.  It would ruin the effect of luxury after all those stairs.  “Can’t we get a ladder or something?”  Vong doesn’t like conflict either, but he obviously wasn’t into getting a ladder.  He went around behind my fridge, got the mop, and stood on his good tippy-toe to prod the fan with the end of the mop.  Yo!  It started turning again!

“Oh,” I said.  “I guess I should have tried that.”  Vong kind of giggled, and left. I haven’t turned the fan OFF since then, lest it not start again.  And now I’m really reluctant to ask him again about the lights.  So I’ve gotten used to the stairs.  In the dark. 

Every time I go up the stairs I think absently about the stairs themselves, of course, and count them. In addition to all the other brilliant ideas I’m having.

None of this even covers Phase One, which is the strange tunnel of a dark alley (which is also supposed to be lighted, but usually isn’t), before you even get to start climbing the stairs. You can’t learn how to navigate this in the dark, because the bottom is just dirt, or mud, depending; so the surface varies.  If it’s not lighted, you just take small baby steps until you get to approximately where you turn left and start climbing the weird stairs.  Weird stairs are Phase Two, and then the last lap is the longest:  Phase Three is six different directions of normal stairs, Up. 

On my “landing”—at least I’m not at the very top; there is another “flight” of stairs (I don’t know why they call it a flight, when it’s such drudgery) above this one, which I’ve never attempted—, you can, if you can find my key, get into my rather comparatively nice apartment. Hardwood floors, high ceilings, WORKING (ahem) ceiling fan, hot water, nice bathroom and everything.  At this point you stand there outside your door and listen to my cats meow as you rummage in the dark in my purse for your key. 

Of course, you could carry a flashlight (most English speakers here are from England, and call it a “torch”, which makes me think of “Frankenstein,” the movie). I have a “torch” in my purse, sometimes, unless one of the cats has previously removed it from my purse before I left in the first place.  These little torches cost about fifteen cents and they are irresistable to cats.  I have two torches; one is yellow and one is blue. (I have two cats;  one is a tabby and the other is black and white.)  Most of the time I realize, as I’m climbing the stairs, that the cats have got them both; I saw them lying under the couch before I left in the afternoon, and didn’t bother about it.  My cell phone has a light on it too, but I never bother about that, either.  Who wants to stand outside one’s own door, fiddling about in one’s purse, trying to find one’s cell phone in the dark, when one already knows where one’s apartment is?  I also know where my key is; I know where my wallet is; my key is in my wallet; I can find my wallet in the dark.  It’s somewhere in my purse.  Rummage, rummage. Clink, rattle. 

The other night, I had a nightmare in which I’d lost the key to my apartment. I agonized about it for ages until semi-conscousness reared its head, and then I realized that it would be impossible for me to be lying in bed in my apartment if I hadn’t had my key in the first place.  The doors are locked with padlocks and the keys don’t come out of the locks unless the door is locked.  So you could lock yourself out, but you can’t lock yourself in. So if I was in, which I was, I had my key.  Yay!  Logic in the morning!

This is all just a matter of what happens after you enter the dark alley of Phase One.  Outside are The Streets of Phnom Penh, which are another story.  But when I’m climbing the stairs, I’m mostly thinking of greater things.  I’m thinking things, brilliant literary thoughts which I intend to Write Up.  I’m writing the Great Cambodian Novel.  It’s not the stairs’ fault that I can’t remember any of that once I get in the door.  Blame it on Oxygen Debt.  Blame it on the contrast between the stairs and my apartment.  Blame it on the hardwood floors.

Posted by julianyway on 01/12 at 11:04 AM | Permalink
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