Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Home for Hip Geezers Part 2

Here in Cambodia if you aren’t at a rural property full time everything that isn’t firmly nailed down will get ripped off. As a rule, Cambodians are a very warm, friendly, easygoing and welcoming people – every kid is taught to say hello to every Western face. Also, incidents of violent crime or robbery are nowhere near as likely as in many places in the States and many other parts of the world. Thievery, however, is rife.

For quite a long time my land wasn’t fenced off and was routinely used by the neighbors. After I built a barbed wire fence, which really doesn’t keep anybody out but is more a symbolic barrier, it still was used routinely whenever I wasn’t around, which was most of the time. I rarely got to the fruit before the locals and one especially cheeky bastard, in the words of an expat friend, cut my wires to bring in his cows to graze.

If I wasn’t going to be there full time, I’d have to hire a caretaker which wouldn’t cost much on a monthly basis but would require the expenditure of a grand or two for a shack for him to live in. I know people who’ve had no problem at all hiring locals but my luck has been dismal.

Many of them work on a peasant mentality. I hired my immediate neighbors to clear brush and told them I didn’t want any burning. People the world over love to burn: it’s cheap and easy and gives an immediate short term boost to soil fertility but in the long term it’s a disaster. It’s far better to chop up the brush, compost it and return it to the soil. That’s especially true here in the tropics where very heavy rainfall tends to leach out most organic material. They agreed to cut the brush but not pile it since it didn’t conform to their way of doing things… who’s paying whom, I ask?

I had a similar problem later when I hired a guy at the recommendation of a Khmer friend. I told him I didn’t want any burning, he remarked to another local friend that he understood I didn’t want any burning but when I returned to the land a week later there were ashes from many burn piles: What the F? I was being generous in compensation but he couldn’t stand to do it my way.

Everything has turned out not the way I planned it or imagined it. Half the fruit trees I planted have died, either from inadequate irrigation since I’d be gone a week at a time, or have gotten eaten by bugs or vandalized by the local kids. I got off on the wrong foot with a group of them right from the start.

The vegetable garden started off ok but most plants got done in by the neighbor’s free ranging chickens. I built a makeshift fence to keep them out but it only worked for a short time. Meanwhile, the tomatoes, which the chickens weren’t interested in, looked great at first but then all died out before they could produce much fruit. The soil is super easy to work with, but being mostly sand doesn’t have much in the way of organic material or nutrient value.

The ornamentals I planted suffered similar fates as the others with the final straw being them getting waterlogged by a storm last month which dumped 5 inches – 12cm – of rain in 24 hours. As mentioned previously, it would be relatively simple and straightforward to drain the upper part of the property into the rice paddy. Simple, that is, if I either had the energy to do it myself or hire someone else for the task, but I don’t. Otherwise large sections of it will be underwater for months. Nearly all the above problems would’ve turned out better if I were there full time.

Meanwhile, I’ve got a perfect setup in my rental house. It’s a single family on a city sized lot full of fruit trees which offer perfect shade for my ornamental plants. I’ve accumulated more than 100 potted plants there. Since I started spending 5 or 6 days at a time in Kampot I’ve had to bring the plants from Phnom Penh that can’t handle that period without water. On the outskirts of the capital on my way to the little berg, the highway is lined, for about one kilometer, with at least 100 small plant stores/nurseries. I often must stop and buy a few. Finally, I’ve had to bring those I planted at the land back to town since they were doing so badly there.

My landlady is a widow with grown children with family living next door. When I’m in Kampot she stays with family; when I’m in Phnom Penh she stays in the house: she cleans it, including washing my sheets, and keeps the plants watered. Because the family is next door and the neighbors all know each other, it’s much more secure than the land. She’s thrilled with my presence since my $150 rent has given her the money to improve the property and pay for college for her kids.

In the process of being turning off to the land and feeling content at my rental house, I’ve discovered that the hour or so I spend every day puttering with the plants or just gazing in awe at them is about all I need and can handle. When you add that to the couple hours I spend writing, a bike ride to town to check out the internet and maybe do some shopping and/or lunch, quality hammock time and my afternoon nap, my day is full. If my landlady does want the house back at some point, the plants are all potted so easy to move.

Breaking News: Kampot is under water with much worse flooding than last time. It’s more than a foot deep inside my house which means my plants are under water. I’m in Phnom Penh so I don’t know the extent of the damage but I fear for my green babies. A two meter storm surge combined with heavy rain has made for a watery world. The last flood only had water lapping up to the front stairs: the house is only a hundred meters from the estuary so if it goes over its banks it hasn’t got far to go to invade the house.

This is another case of me ignoring my own prognostications. Kampot is essentially at sea level on an estuary, so rising seas caused by global warming will eventually, or maybe sooner than we think, render much of the town uninhabitable. Which needn’t to have stopped me from enjoying the place in the interim. However, I clearly knew all of its cosmic problems in advance so I shouldn’t have tied myself down with property, which as it happens is now worth less than I paid for it. The land itself won’t be much affected but without a vibrant town nearby it won’t be the same.

So I’m thinking about selling. Conventional wisdom says real estate values always go up eventually so I should try to hold on till they do. Cambodia in general and Kampot in particular are still on an upward trajectory in spite of the global downturn so values might start to trend upward in a year or two. Or maybe not. By my calculation, backed by others who probably know more than I do, 2011 or so begins a prelude to a severe resource shortfall that peaks in the middle of the decade. As I see it this will bring on a galloping inflation, intensified in turn by extreme debt levels across much of the developed world. And, of course, this all happens as global warming begins to create havoc with the world’s climate.

I’ve heard that people who owned property during the Great Depression fared a lot better than the landless. But in this case it would clearly also depend on where the land was located. The land I have now does not seem to be the place for me in the long run. Maybe I should take the omens and get out while I can: during the coming instability, it might be difficult to sell. I’m no less committed to Cambodia for now, but need to stay light on my feet.

Everything is a learning experience.

Hey, this was supposed to be about hip geezer homes…

To be continued.

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