My bed is on fire. Every fold in my body contains a river. At four in the morning it’s 100 degrees. All air has been sucked out of my room. Why so much heat? Is this really necessary? Turn it down, Cambodia. The earth smells like melted crayons, like a burned out asteroid, like a crematorium at sunset. Where are the monsoons? The bindings in my books have lost their grip. They dive off the shelf, fall to their death. No matter. Words are no use in this climate. Water is a mirage beyond the horizon, just fooling.
When I first arrived at site, I was told the previous Peace Corps Volunteer left four months before the end of her service. The month was April. I could not believe it. Why would anyone leave so close to the end of service? Surely one could tough it out—after twenty months on the job what’s another four? Then I lived through April in Cambodia: it is the cruelest month—it is the Hot Season.
Cambodians have seen it all before, they know what to do. Mid-April is the Khmer New Year holiday. No school for three weeks. Noisy Phnom Penh grows quiet. Even the little roadside coconut shack shuts down. The holiday honors ancestors while planning good luck for the new year. Choul Chanam Temuey Khmer literally translates as Enter Year New Khmer.
To those of us from the Northern Hemisphere accustomed to four seasons it’s startling to experience this different arrangement of only two seasons. In the tropics where we are so close to the equator a shift in seasonal time does not occur. Whereas in Sweden the sun barely sets in the summer, while winter in Colorado grows dark at 5 p.m., sunsets in the tropics are regularly scheduled for 6:15 p.m. And there’s no lingering sunset, for you mister—it’s lights out at 6:20, pal. Seasonal shifts at this latitude are marked by the Rainy Season or the Hot Season. When our group of Pre-Service Trainees arrived at the end of July, we stepped off the plane onto melting tarmac. It was nearly midnight. And it was the Rainy Season. Apparently this was what NOT HOT felt like. Naturally, most of us thought it couldn’t get much hotter than HOT. We were so wrong. How hot? Afternoon temperatures rise from 90°F to 110°F until nothing seems to matter anymore. You are devoid of thought or genuine feeling. Without cloud cover the temperature rises like a toaster oven on broil. White bread foreigners like me are toast.
Folks who are accustomed to the heat, like my Khmer friends, stay cool by keeping their attitude chill. They move slowly down the road in rubber flip-flops like they are on roller skates. They don’t even sweat—just glisten a little. They know how to nap in the afternoon. You can always spot outsiders. They’re the ones standing in their own pools of sweat. When I would video chat home, my family would ask, “Just got out of the shower?” No, this is how I look all the time. Misty.
Now I understand the PCV who could not abide another April in the Southeast Asia. I like to think my tanned skin is tougher than the mere climate. But just to hedge bets I’m headed for the coast during the break. I’ll be in the shade sipping a coconut from that roadside vendor who arrived just ahead of me.