Heading home warms my heart and lifts my spirits

Whittier, Alaska, which is dominated by a building in which almost everyone lives.

Whittier, Alaska, which is dominated by the Begich Building. (Photo by Jessica Spengler on Flickr)

When I moved from Manhattan to Phnom Penh toward the end of last year, most of my friends and family made clear their impression that I was heading to the least desirable outpost of the civilized world.

They were clearly wrong.

During my travels over the last month, I discovered Whittier, Alaska, which must rank on any list as one of mankind’s least hospitable municipalities.

The driver of the bus that dropped Lin and me at Anchorage Airport after a 90-minute drive from Whittier through a one-lane tunnel noted that the city began its life as a secret military base during World War II.  He put the current population at 168, but the official government site claims 218 “distinguished citizens.”

The Pentagon selected the godforsaken place, which the driver put at 350 miles from the coast of Japan, because the weather is so bad most of the time: Pilots in the enemy’s aircraft would be unable to see through the cloud cover, he said.

The rude high school had all of three graduating seniors this year. The school resembles nothing more glamorous than army barracks, and there never are snow days thanks to an underground passageway from the condominium in which almost everyone lives.

Why anyone would make Whittier their home is a mystery to me, though I realize that money from cruise ships that dock there must be a powerful lure.

Even the mayor doesn’t have a home in a community where boats outnumber residents two to one.  He commutes periodically through that tunnel — which changes direction at intervals to accommodate motor vehicles — and each time pays a hefty toll out of his own pocket.

Visiting Whittier, Vancouver and New York City enabled me to confirm the virtues of living in Phnom Penh.

We walked from downtown Vancouver across the long bridge to Granville Island

We walked from downtown Vancouver across the long bridge to Granville Island.

In contrast to Whittier, Vancouver is a lovely city.  It has greenery and scenery that make the place easy on the eyes and inviting to navigate.

Traffic rules are enforced and getting around on foot or by means of public transportation could not be simpler.  The streets are clean; the people; polite; excellent restaurants, plentiful; goods and services, abundant; cultural diversions, in great supply; the weather, usually delightful.

Still, I can’t help but think of Vancouver as pleasantville, a location that reminds me of the Midwest and a city that Garrison Keiller would love.  To me, Vancouver spells eventual boredom.

As for Manhattan, I had two contrasting reactions: 1. It seemed as though I had left only a week earlier; 2. I felt like a tourist.

In addition, I had forgotten a few things.  One of them was the existence of a version of what we call cyclos in Cambodia and pedicabs in New York, the striking differences being the condition and design of the equipment plus the age of the operators.  Here, as I recently wrote, the drivers are old and poor.  There, they are almost exclusively strapping young immigrants who seem to be doing quite well charging tourists (and infrequently residents) an average of $3 a minute — a minute! — on glossy vehicles.

A ride in one of New York's numerous cyclos can run $45 for 15 minutes.

A ride in one of New York’s numerous cyclos can run $45 for 15 minutes.

Although there was much that I have missed while in Cambodia — for example, great chocolate desserts, profoundly delicious steak (in which I rarely indulged while living in the States), close friends with whom I otherwise meet only on Skype, and products that either are unavailable in Phnom Penh or are of questionable quality — I found myself comparing favorably the city in which I have lived since early December with the metropolis in which I had resided for decades.

Despite its drawbacks, or even because of them, Phnom Penh offers the sort of grit and vibrancy that makes my life here so agreeable.  That I have acquired friends here more easily than I ever did during my 11-year hiatus in Washington, D.C. from New York is no small benefit.

As our jet descended to the runway at Phnom Penh International Airport, an unexpected emotion gripped me.  It was the knowledge that I was going home.

E-mail: malcolmncarter@gmail.com

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