The Completely Naked Lady
The next morning arrives at about 4:00 AM for people still in the thrall of Pacific Standard Time. From the balcony I watch the street below waking up. Quay Street is almost empty. A few people are strolling in the warm morning air. The western horizon is turning from gray to dull amber.
Directly below me is scant traffic. Across the street is a wide promenade interrupted by perfect landscaping, periodic trees and flagpoles. Just down the slope from the promenade the slow and muddy Sap River joins the Mekong River. The far bank is shrouded in trees. There is more of Phnom Penh beyond that. All of this serves only as only mildly interesting backdrop to the naked woman squatting on the grass on the promenade.
At first I thought she was another guy bathing in the sprinklers. I had seen one on a lawn on the way to the museum yesterday. He had no shirt, but he had not registered in my mind as buck-naked. The person four floors below me is squatting with her heels feet flat on the ground as only Asians can. Water is gushing sideways from the grass in front of her. I am guessing she is using a quick-connect, a metal faucet you can hook up to public irrigation systems if you know where to look. Apparently these things are all over the world.
I am struck by the presence of a complete nude in complete public, and the complete lack of response from the dozen or so people that are close enough to notice the total absence of clothing. Truly this is an amazing country. Is this just part of the city’s morning ablutions? Perhaps early rising is a good idea.
She is less than ten feet from pavement, but nobody approaches within fifty yards. Nobody points or laughs or asks for a phone number. A hundred yards up the street, sound systems are being set up for morning jazzercise. There are two groups, each with their own music, which is aimed out across the river. In fifteen minutes, the pulse of overly energetic ‘80s dance tunes is a muezzin call to the aerobic set. Even with the speakers aimed away from the street, the beat can be heard through our hotel walls every night and morning.
The exercisers are regulars. They must be. Rank and file, they form perfect matrices of unison movement. The clash of beats is disconcerting to me. It must sound like madness to the group that has formed between the aerobic dances. This third group is dressed in white. They have no music of their own. They are doing Tai Chi or something equally slow and measured. If you tune out the music, they appear to be meditative. That may be the point: going placidly into a world when all around you are distractions bopping to different beats or washing her privates in the public sprinklers. This is one enlightened country.
The nude bather is not alluring. I can’t tell if she is beautiful or not, but she is definitely not alluring. I’m not sure if it is because she is so plainly nude or because she is doing it as decorously as possible, or because she is so matter of fact about the business of washing. She has short, spiky hair. When she stands (albeit incompletely), she does not show pinup proportions. I have seen comparable breasts on overweight men. She does not look like the topless statuary in the National Museum.
She looks like an unspectacular Asian woman, which is to say she is not too far from the unspectacular Asian male. I’m sorry, did you say “racist”? Maybe, but you have to admit that there are physical differences between races, and that Southeast Asian races tend to have more angles than curves. My gender radar relies on pronounced differences in hips, breasts and facial features. Her face is too far away. The hips and breasts are not neuter, but they are certainly not as pronounced as I would like for positive identification
The naked lady puts her basketball shorts and black polo shirt back on. They must have felt clean and cool in the morning air. Her hair was short, her clothes baggy. She is a little bow-legged. When she was bathing, everyone else gave her plenty of space. Once her clothes were back on, the invisible perimeter around her dissipated. As she walked across the promenade to gaze at the river, her carriage was relaxed, confident and maybe even masculine. Hold on- was this a guy? I am four floors up and looking across a wide street on a gray morning. I am no longer sure what gender I am looking at.
I went down to the promenade to meet with Mollie and Stephanie, who were taking a sunrise stroll. A crowd started to form around a man who had the recently nude by the forearm. He was talking into a radio. He did not have a badge or uniform. She was apparently explaining that she lived on a boat, and that she meant no harm. After a few minutes, she left by herself. If it was police that had accosted her, he turned out to have other things to do with his time.
I take this as a lesson in decorum and remind myself of what I read in a guide book about confrontation: it happens, but try not to make the other person lose face. This will come in handy later when I try to arrange repair of a tripod that broke rather easily. I was the American, the ultimate consumer, from a petulant and self-righteous culture. However, I was determined to be polite and respectful. The owner of the camera shop was Cambodian, not necessarily the ultimate producer, but growing towards the role.
He told me that the part broke after I bought it from him, and perhaps I dropped it or bumped it on something. He refrains from saying that it was in good shape when I bought it, that consumer goods are not indestructible and that it takes some nerve for a rich American with an expensive hobby to ask a poor Cambodian to pay for my negligence. It was good, clean fun. I didn't get anywhere with him.
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Published on 12/14/10