The world grows more inviting: Obama’s inauguration from abroad

Tuk tuk drivers celebrate Obama's Inauguration - Siem Reap, Cambodia
Tuk tuk drivers celebrate Obama’s inauguration in Siem Reap, Cambodia | Photo by Lauren Girardin

With the twelve hour time difference, Todd and I have to stay up past midnight to watch Obama‘s inauguration, hours after most Cambodians go to bed and also very late for anyone who has spent a sweltering, dusty day pedaling around the temples of Angkor on gearless beater bikes. Since we’re rocking the late shift, Todd and I will have to skip dawn at the ruins tomorrow. But, Angkor will endure for hundreds of years more – even with the wear and tear of tourism, smog, and political upheaval – and dawn happens every day. Today is the only day to celebrate the inauguration of the U.S.’s first black President along with the rest of the world.

Watching Obama's Inauguration at The Warehouse - Siem Reap, Cambodia
Barangs watch Obama’s inauguration at The Warehouse in Siem Reap | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Todd and I are sprawled on bamboo papasans at The Warehouse, a bar-restaurant in Siem Reap, Cambodia owned by Jed, an American who’s an old friend of friends back home.

While we wait for the inauguration to start, we swap travel stories and advice with an international melting pot of travelers: Aziz, a Tunisian who we keep crossing paths with in Southeast Asia; Carlos, a goofy and blissfully opinionated food critic from Taiwan who’s living in Canada; and Johan, a tall and tranquil man from Sweden. We’re surrounded by about a hundred other travelers drinking cheap Angkor draft beer and banana shakes while waiting out the final hours of the Bush administration, which lasted too long for anyone’s good.

As Obama begins his speech, if I look over the heads of the crowd of mostly white barangs to the flat screen TV broadcasting CNN, it’s easy to forget that I’m in Cambodia, thousands of miles from Washington, DC. But, if I turn around, Cambodia’s right there in the tanned, worry-line marked faces of the hard-working tuk tuk drivers queued up just outside the open-air bar. Though the drivers are hanging around, as always, for potential customers, they are also cheering for Obama along with all the foreigners.

In his speech, Obama said, “For the world has changed, and we must change with it.” Damn right! The world has certainly changed – or at least the people we meet on our travels have already changed their perceptions of Americans. Before Obama was elected, when someone found out that we’re American, they’d usually look askance at us, prompting our hasty reassurance that “Yes, we’re American, but we didn’t vote for Bush and we believe the war is wrong,” much to their relief.

The Warehouse is pro-Obama - Siem Reap, Cambodia
The Warehouse is pro-Obama | Photo by Lauren Girardin

I’m ready to change too. I can’t wait to have new, optimistic conversations with people about what America can do right from here on out, rather than kvetching about all the things that went wrong under Bush’s rule. For the first time in eight years, I can venture into the world without apologizing for my President.

As Todd and I leave the bar, the tuk tuk drivers are wearing smiles as big as ours. When asked, we proudly confess to being American. They each joyfully shake our hands saying “Yes! Obama! Thank you!!” before trying to sell us a tuk tuk ride back to our hotel.

Much of the world has been hoping America would come to its senses and is now ready to celebrate a new era of leadership with us. It’s a welcome change for any traveler.