Dinner at Star Rise

We wait for our meal to come, two candles lightly glowing from the middle of our table. The family house and kitchen are perhaps two metres behind us, the open street in front.

We are in fact sitting in what would have been the front garden, now cemented over, with high concrete walls, a tin roof and a retractable gate that has been pushed to each side of the restaurant front.

A breeze sweeps through and blows out one of the candles. “Is ok, is ok. I fix,” says the daughter as she rushes over to re-light the candle.  We smile and thank her before she returns to the table next to us where she had been sitting with her father, older sister and two brothers.

As she walks away, it blows out again. We use the other candle to re-light it before she notices. Meanwhile, her family busy themselves with the street, watching the motorcycles pass by as twilight fades to darkness.

It’s 6:00pm on the fourth night of the power cut and even though Star Rise restaurant is open, we are the only guests. They offer anything from the menu that can be cooked with gas.

“Oh, don’t worry. It’s just mango rain,” my colleague had said on the day of the storm. “It will be finished in half an hour or so.”

That evening the afternoon sun shower turned to hail. The last time anyone had seen such a thing to occur was in 1992.

The morning after the storm I sent an sms to my supervisor:

Julia: Good morning, is there power in the office today?
Pisey: No, Julia. I think it might take a few more days to get them back.
Julia: Right. I will find a café in town to work from then. Do you know what happened?
Pisey: Some electricity poles are broken from the storm.

It was later reported that 26 utility poles supplying electricity from Thailand were damaged, leaving most of the west of Cambodia powerless.

Electricité du Cambodge, the state-run electricity company, started up their generator and offered support to hospitals and tourist stops. Other wealthy places, including some cafés, used their own generators to keep business going.

My workplace – three days on – remained closed.

The daughter brings over our fish amok with rice. By now, the only sources of light are our vulnerable candles and the neon sign of the affluent clothes store opposite.

“Soum tuk pi?” I ask in my limited Khmer.
“Yes, you want another bottle or glass?” the daughter responds in English.
“Yes, two more bottles of water. Arkoun.”

The humidity in the air is heavy – the breeze offering only temporary relief. I hardly feel hungry. I want only to drink and replenish my fluids lost to sweat. I eat nonetheless. The coconut and garlic go down easily.

We are all too hot and bothered to speak. The only sound is the hum of the generator running overtime across the street.

I put down my fork. I am ready for a cold shower. Inside the guesthouse, we will get some respite but not for long. Without the fan, the concrete walls will ooze the heat of the day. And because of the mosquitos, we won’t open the window in our room. We linger a little longer at Star Rise, working up the courage to return.

We don’t know it yet, but we will only have to endure one more night of restlessness. The power will be restored in the morning and we will rush to plug in all our devices.

We will start to joke about the whole thing and about how we survived, and then we will see the hypocrisy and remember that most Cambodians live like this on a daily basis.