Have I reached celebrity status? Not quite, but I can empathize with the paparazzi-trailed superstars who just want a moment's peace to read a book alone in a restaurant or walk through a public place without being blazed with questions.
Meals these days are quiet, and I usually bring along a book or a journal in case I get bored with the people watching (or need to pretend I don't notice the locals staring). Friday night, I decided to try out a new restaurant and I was very much looking forward to diving into "The Pilot's Wife," but not more than a page into it, and I had a hovering waitress asking me all sorts of questions while the other staff watched from a distance. There's no Khmer word for "nosy," so the idea of privacy is just as "barang" as the fair-complected girl sitting in front of them.
Don't get me wrong, I learn a lot about the country and its people through these random conversations. Pai, my waitress, for example, is my age moved from the provinces so that she could be independent and make a living for herself. Her English is good, but she can't go to school because, like much of the population, her family can't afford it. However, you really get no choice in the matter as to when you get to be alone. So Friday night, I forfeited my book.
On Saturday, I decided to visit Udong Mountain, a community about 40km outside Phnom Penh, that used to be the capital of Cambodia. It was an about an hour's drive via moto, and once I got there I was practically attacked by people trying to sell me lotus flowers and other things. This is pretty typical.
Then as I began to approach the pagodas on top of the hill -- pretty much the reason you visit Udong -- three boys were trailing me, asking me all sorts of questions. Where am I from? What languages do I speak? How long am I here? They were cute and ended up being my tour guides for the excursion. They are all going to school so one day they will learn everything about the area and be the official tour operators on the mountain. They were great with dates and were able to help me learn a lot about what I was seeing, but what if I just wanted a quiet walk through the temples?
I've never asked to be famous. In fact, I'd much rather blend into the crowd then have all sorts of attention drawn to myself. But whether I like it or not, people here are going to be curious about me so I'm figuring out how to deal with that with grace and humility. In a way, it's flattering and kind of helps me cope with the day to day challenges of living in a place where I don't know anyone and can hardly communicate.