The Engineer and the Architect

A stop on our winter excursion was the world’s longest bamboo bridge, which stretched 700 meters over the Mekong. Dazed and cranky from the long car ride and the blazing noon sun, we started noticing other things about the bridge. “World’s quietest bridge,” Eliot said as the bamboo slats creaked and squealed under our shoes. “And sturdiest,” Sabrina added as the entire structure swayed. We laughed, our irritated moods dissipated thanks to the bamboo bridge.

This is a roundabout way of saying: BRIDGES ON BRIDGE YEAR! LET’S GET LITERAL!

Bridges are beautiful. Without bridges, we would be stranded on separate shores, only able to understand what we see from afar. In Cambodia, these marvelous unions of land have deeper significance than everyday transport. Ancient temples are surrounded by water and can be accessed by bridges carved with Naga: half-human, half-serpent deities in Khmer mythology that symbolize the connection between the human world and heaven.

If our Bridge Year was personified as a literal bridge, what would it look like? At first, we might envision a formidable feat of architecture, like the ancient Laterite Bridge on our 5000 riel note (Kampong Kdei, the oldest bridge in Cambodia). These are the moments Bridge Year is playing exactly how I imagined: full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, wonder at everything, never letting a day go to waste.

View of the Independence Monument from across the Sangkae River in downtown Battambang. You can see the buildings glowing with light, which is reflected on the river's surface. The sky looks pink, purple, and black.

View of the Independence Monument from across the Sangkae River in downtown Battambang

Battambang Town lies on the Sangkae River, and its bridges are how I–hopelessly directionally challenged and unable to navigate my own hometown–visualize the city.

The first bridge along the way, closest to our neighborhood of Wat Kor, is the route to language classes at the university. We bike across it at sunset, orange skies dripping into the water below. No matter how many months have gone by, it’s always the moment of day I am startled with the revelation: “Wow! I’m in Cambodia!”

The third bridge, located in the busiest part of town, connects us to the program house. During the rainy season, the river swallows a good part of the bank and even some of the surrounding streets. Palm trees are submerged to their fronds and uniformed kids play in makeshift pools outside their school. This bridge is also where we watched boat racing in the Water Festival back in November. The streets transformed into bustling markets as the entire city celebrated. It was a wonderful blur of carnival games, fair rides, concerts, and lantern-lighting.

The fifth bridge is my enemy. It is the farthest from our neighborhood, next to my work placement site, and is the only one that is arched. As the hot sun beats overhead, I struggle to pedal my bike up this bridge as cars and motorcycles fly effortlessly by.

An honorable mention is at my homestay—though admittedly this is not like the majestic suspensions over water mentioned in the rest of this post, but their dry-land, domesticated cousin: the driveway. I love returning at the end of the day and shouting "jum reab sua" (hello!) to my dad, who responds, “Okay.” He is constantly beautifying the driveway. Once, I came home to find a massive pile of rocks barricading the entry. I peered over the slope to find my dad smiling at me on the other side, excited to spend the next few days lining the cement path with gravel. However, sometimes our scenic driveway is a little too inviting. Multiple times, Western tourists have wandered straight into my house, taking pictures of the flowerpots and gaping at the birdhouses. 

These tourists were amusingly shaken by my perfect English paired with nonwhite appearance. The first tourist, upon learning I’m American, immediately responded, “You don’t look American!” The other two made a weird game of charades, pantomiming what they meant because they weren’t sure I understood them. Khmer people are confused as well when I talk to them in the market or around town. “Nationality?” Vendors, neighbors, colleagues, and just about anyone asks when they first meet me. Depending on my answer, I will either be regarded as a fellow Asian or a complete foreigner.

But I hesitate. Where am I from?

View from Satori's homestay, through a covered outdoor area, flanked by greenery, toward a sunrise in the distance

View of the sunrise from Satori's homestay

It's exciting to think about where a bridge might take you, but an equally important part is where you started. I often find myself looking back to be eluded by mist. Growing up outside any culture and being mixed, it’s difficult to explain where I come from. I know there are the pine-covered mountains of Colorado, but behind that? There should be the banks of the Tigris, a small coastal Scottish village, a reservation on the cusp of an endless lake. And yet, these scenes are incomplete without the other, fundamental images (language, food, family reunions, and cultural knowledge) that claim a person as belonging to a certain group. I’ve always been troubled by this mist, but on Bridge Year—this open-ended realm between college and high school, the first time we get to explore our interests outside of academic settings—my lack of identity sends me spiraling.

My bridge sways, full of loose ends and tattered rope, as I become full of doubt. I think, “I’m in Cambodia! What am I doing?” I seem to have blundered forward without fastening the other end properly. I was always more of an architect, daydreaming of idealistic skyscrapers, than a practical, down-to-business engineer.

But then I think of our charming savior, the bamboo bridge. Every year, rainy season floods wash it away, and it must be rebuilt. Our time in Cambodia is similar: though it’s only for a year, a lot of care and effort goes into it. But also like our lovely bamboo bridge, it’s not realistic to be able to build something flawless in nine months. Existential crises, days spent rotting in the hammock, and self-doubt are all valuable experiences on Bridge Year. Sometimes, the best questions have no answers, and the best bridges are permanent in their own way.

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Satori McCormick