Sunday, April 24, 2011

Natural Living in Phnom Penh?

I’m out of access to my regular cornucopia of health and body treatments around here. I suppose I could look around and find a French pharmacy or a Chinese beauty supply store, and that most of the deprivations and homespun remedies are my own imagination. More likely, we are buying less stuff because we—meaning Ernest and I working and the other three running away—have to carry it out to the street, load it into a tuk-tuk, and ride home sitting on top of it. Tiny bottles of second-rate American shampoo at 14 bucks, and the pint-sized vanilla Haagen Daz at 44 make the Costco-mom cringe, (if only these shoppers could ride in my flat-bed cart in Arlington!) and sense the necessity for invention. 
So we are trying to go natural, so-to-speak. That’s not going natural the way you’re thinking of—farmers markets and 4-dollar-tomatoes. No, there’s a separate market for those kinds of shoppers around here, and I really can’t figure out what is the guiding ethos. There, pale, freckled, long-skirted women agonize over small baskets of bruised bananas and wilted greens in narrow, high-real estate storefronts with hardwood floors and ready-looking Khmers in crisp aprons. It’s a ridiculous-looking foreign translation, set alongside a skinny young man carting an oversize basket of ripe mangoes on his bike, and an old woman squatting next to a pile of pomelos, chewing cashews, outside.
No, we are going natural by default. Cramps? Lay down. Hot? Take off clothes, then lay down. Constipated? Raw garlic and kimchi, then move around. I find myself shopping along the top and bottom shelves of the Asian aisle at Lucky Supermarket, and making my money in the produce section. Once you are past the fear of food-borne illness—which is to say that you know it’s everywhere, that you gargle with tap water, and you don’t ask about your ice cubes—there is a really wonderful variety of fruits, greens, herbs and melons here. The large, unbruised, perfectly ripe papaya probably is locally grown, and at 85 cents, it’s nature’s cure for stomach bugs. Green peppercorns and baby eggplants—the key ingredients in Thai and Khmer curry dishes—are piled up next to lemongrass (for soups), ginger, bitter melon, and three different colors of basil. You need curiosity and a sharp knife here. Many of the fruits don’t look like fruit (think about the discovery of rhubarb) and wear a worty skin or spiked armor, or ooze a milky glue. It’s a test of persistence and appetite.
So from the financial decision to give up air conditioning to the pioneering choices in diet, I feel us becoming natural animals again. I certainly smelled that way after a week of intestinal purification on raw garlic. And when I sat on the couch drinking coffee and watching Yoshi strangle his sister, push her to floor, then take an elbow to the ribs and leap up, run back, and dive forward again, I thought—yeah, we are spending this Sunday like animals. The natural way.