Saturday, May 10, 2008


Note: This post hasn't been edited. Read at your own risk of potential crappiness.

The guidebooks told me Cambodia was a land of light and dark. Riding from the airport in Siem Reap, the landscape was at times barren and sad, dotted with skinny cows and brokedown huts, patches of dry yellow grass. These stretches were interrupted by imposing, colonial-style luxury hotels with beautiful gardens, lush fauna as an exotic reminder that we are in the jungle. The green would end abruptly with the hotels. A flat dirt stretch would follow, where the locals have set up their fruit stands. They would laze about in the shade or share hammocks, talking and laughing, half naked children and dogs at their feet. The Cambodians are the poorest people I’ve seen in Southeast Asia, but seemingly the happiest, the friendliest.

We paid a steep forty dollars for the three day pass to the sprawling Angkor Wat complex. Wandering around the temples, we’re confronted everywhere with the former majesty and genius of the Khmer empire of over a thousand years ago. I ask Colin if he thinks there will be similar tours for the vestiges of the American empire. Leaving behind the towering spires, light-dappled passageways, and intricately carved deities, we’re intercepted on the way to our driver by half a dozen Khmer children. Wearing clothes torn and too big, they shove bracelets, guidebooks, and postcards in our faces: “Please buy, three for one dollar!” They follow us all the way to our tuk-tuk, exchanging clever banter with us in English. They won’t take no for an answer. It’s their livelihood. As we drove away, Colin said to the group of little girls who never gave up but didn’t make a sale, “Have a nice day.” One girl retorted, “I have a nice day already.”

The contrast is stark when you walk through the few square blocks of the growing tourist center of downtown Siem Reap. Warm lights, welcoming shops, backpackers reading and sipping coffee on restaurant patios. Signs in English advertise Khmer food (cheap!) and various kinds of Western food (also cheap!), and women on the sidewalk hand out fliers for their massage parlors. Tuk-tuk drivers ask if you need a ride, but politely retreat when you say no thank you. Loud music, internet cafes, paper lanterns strung through trees. But a block in the wrong direction and you’re literally stepping into darkness. The lights and sidewalks disappear with the tourists, and you walk along the side of the road, stepping over piles of debris, navigating around construction spilled onto the street until arriving at your high-class eighteen dollar hotel.

We had weighed the ethical pros and cons before signing up for the “Day in the Life” tour that involved going as a tourist to a poor village and helping a family with their daily tasks. We set out in the van at eight in the morning, the group consisting of us, two Dutch girls and a lone Canadian girl. Our guide, Lin, told us he was also from a village, and had gone to school until he was thirteen, when he started learning English from monks. He moved to the city where his English allowed him a job in tourism, one of the most lucrative industries for locals. The village we were headed to was called “Lady Bug” in Khmer, and it was home to 162 families, most of them poor. We drove slowly over the rough terrain of the villages single dirt road. Children walking along the road recognized the van and waved at us as we passed. Our first stop was the mayor’s house, which was a thatch hut. We greeted the mayor, who was a shirtless, shoeless old man, and then we bought some fish for lunch.

Our assignment was to weave thatch panels from palm leaves to help rebuild the one room house of a single, elderly nun whose son was grown and gone. For the home of a lone nun, the place was far from lonely. We sat on mats in the back yard that was shared by several houses, as well as dogs and chickens. Three little boys playing in the yard cackled at us as we fumbled with the tough stem we were using as thread. Neighbor women with their babies swung listlessly in hammocks watching us. Sure, they were amused by a bunch of tourists struggling to do their chores, but it wasn’t mean-spirited. A little shirtless girl floated nearby, holding a mango and gazing at us. The kids always liked having their pictures taken and delighted in seeing it come up on the digital screen. One of the Dutch girls panicked when she thought she was sitting near red ants, and changed places. Lin told us these ants were edible, and we’d have some for lunch. He was trying to gross us out, but after two years in Japan, it takes a lot to gross me out. He was the one who was disgusted when we suggested eating them raw: “You have to cook them first!” When the time came, the Dutch girls helped prepare lunch, mashing the ants that had been collected and drowned in a bucket of water into a fermented fish paste. The rest of the lunch was a local soup consisting of pieces of fish, eggplants, and some other vegetables, fruit, a standard curry that Lin had brought with him in case we couldn’t take the soup and fishpaste, and of course, rice. We sat in the nun’s hut, talking and eating. One of the Dutch girls was a bit squeamish about the ants, but overall we ate most of our portions without much objection. The paste, by the way, was totally gross, but it wasn’t because of the ants, which were supposed to neutralize some of the flavor or something. The ants didn’t have any taste, but the fermented fishpaste literally tasted like salty garbage. Something about fermentation, I guess. Natto is fermented soybeans, and it tastes like vomit. When I casually remarked, “Oh, I still have to finish my ant paste,” Lin marveled at how well we were dealing with the food, since most tourists freak out and won’t even help prepare it. Especially after being in Japan, I think there’s no point in being turned off by food just for psychological reasons. If something tastes okay, don’t worry about what it is, and there’s not much that’s so disgusting that you can’t just stop whining and eat it. I guess moral issues are different, though. Colin and I tried horse in Japan for the first time, and it’s really, really delicious. But we decided to refrain from eating it because it just seems wrong to go out of my way to eat a companion animal from my childhood. However, a while after making this decision, we were presented with raw horse meat (a Kumamoto specialty) at a set dinner. Since it was already prepared and in front of us and it would be wasteful and a little offensive to not eat it, we just shrugged, I said, “Neiiiiighhhh” and we dug in.

While Lin had worked so hard to gross us out, Colin and I were the ones to succeed in even grossing him out by talking about eating raw everything, live squid, and chicken knee-caps. The Dutch girls talked about their local specialty, which was really salty raw fish served on a big chunk of onion and eaten whole. I responded, “That’s kinda gross. I don’t like onions.”

We passed around fruit for dessert, and Lin asked if we thought it gave us good skin and laughed. We looked confused, so he told us he was referencing a Cambodian joke: “A man and his new wife are sitting under a tree in a temple, and they are in love. The man says, ‘Darling, have some fruit. It will give you good skin.’ When the man said this, a monkey came down from the tree and said to the woman, ‘He’s lying to you! I eat fruit all the time! Look at my buttocks!’” Lin laughed at his own joke, and we still looked a little confused. “Because a monkey’s buttocks are not smooth at all,” he elaborated.

While we ate inside the house, the nun and her extended family were chatting on the porch. Lin’s place was in the doorway, partway between us and the family. He chatted with them with amazing ease and familiarity, considering he didn’t really know them before that day. After exchanging a few words with the people on the porch, he said to us, “They are saying you have to be careful of red and blue numbers. There are three people in the village who have died recently because of red and blue numbers.” Of course something so cryptic prompted automatic demands of explanation. He told us the locals were saying that a call from outside the village will appear on the caller ID of a cell phone in red or blue. If you answer the call, some kind of X-ray waves or something will come through the phone and into your brain and kill you. The other girls immediately called bullshit, saying, “But doesn’t the color of the numbers just depend on your phone?” Lin looked at his own phone, laughing, and said, “My numbers are only white. I hope my supervisor doesn’t call.” He went on to say that the funeral of one of the men was going on now. “How old was he? Did he have any prior medical conditions?” the Canadian girl said. The man was only twenty-eight, but we mentioned how sudden heart attacks could kill even young people. Lin wasn’t defending their beliefs, but he wasn’t making fun of them as being stupid and provincial either. Once I understood the theory, I mostly stayed out of it. I don’t know if it’s because I avoid confrontation, or I try to stick with cultural relativism at least for a while, or what. But for the record, I did think the red and blue numbers were bullshit. I just didn’t see the point in arguing about it, since people believe what they want, and they certainly aren’t going to listen to a bunch of tourists.

Someone brought up the war.

Lin shifted his body and launched calmly into a history of the Khmer political situation beginning with the Vietnam war. He told of leaders who were mostly good but human, leaders who were mostly bad, leaders overthrown, leaders propped up by the U.S. government but wrong, foreign deals and betrayals, exile, and the rise of Pol Pot. He squirmed and grimaced when he mentioned the Americans bombing Cambodia, as if we would be offended, and added, “But you can’t really blame them. They were trying to bomb the North Vietnamese.” As if that’s so much better. One of the girls prodded for his personal experiences, a little crass, I thought, but he didn’t mind talking about it, and explained that he hadn’t been born yet, but his father told him stories. As he talked, shadows and sparks flitted behind his eyes, betraying the continuing impact of a genocide that he hadn’t even been alive to witness.

As the nun passed through to offer us pillows, Lin casually asked her about the war. She responded in a few words and slipped out. He told us that she said her husband had died during the Pol Pot regime, not in the genocide, but because he had been worked to death. The Canadian girl asked Lin what he thought about the fact that no one had been prosecuted for this, did he think there should be a trial now, or is it too late. “I think it’s too late.” He said, then seemed to look far-off. We looked down, because we were in the midst of an awkward silence with no foreseeable way out.

Then the little mango girl was peering at us through the doorway. We all said hello, and she smiled bashfully. The Canadian girl asked her to join us. Mango girl didn’t understand, so the Canadian girl asked Lin if she could come inside, and he posed the question to her family. He relayed to us that the family said she had lice, and they didn’t want her spreading it. Without hesitation, he started combing through the girl’s hair with his fingers, using great focus to extract the bugs burrowed into her scalp. The women snickered outside, and he told us, “They are laughing at me because they’ve never seen a man do this.” With surprising venom, one of the Dutch girls said, “It is only because they are lazy. If they sat down one day and picked out all the lice, it wouldn’t be a problem.” The Canadian girl and I simultaneously did a sharp intake of breath, and I thought about the two weeks I spent out of school in fourth grade, sitting in my pajamas and watching movies while my mother combed nits out of my hair.

After lunch, we returned out back to continue our thatch panels. A neighbor woman sat down, picked up some thatch, and started chatting with us, with Lin as our interpreter. According to Lin, she said, “You have tongues and lips just like Khmer, I don’t understand why you can’t speak Khmer, too.” In Japan, I’m constantly being reminded of how different I am. It was refreshing to experience otherwise.

After finishing the thatch, we visited the local pagoda. Lin picked plantains from the trees and gave them to us to eat as he explained the Buddhist murals on the wall. He showed us another building in the monastery complex, and told us that during the war it had been used as a prison, torture chamber, and killing room. He said that there was a similar pagoda in the village where he grew up, and you could still see the blood on the walls. We took a trip to the market where we were promptly rushed by little girls selling bracelets, and I got the idea to buy a few for some of my students, and then tell them that I had gotten them from little girls the same age as them who only go to school four hours a day, if at all, and then work to make money for their families. Yeah, if I had kids, I would lay all kinds of guilt on them.

Colin and I spent the next day exploring the temples of Angkor Thom, and tragically, the camera ran out of batteries at the beginning of the day. At Bayon, the structure with the giant faces carved into the spires, we could barely move because of the amount of tourists, monks, and religious pilgrims from all over the world who came to see a wonder on par with the pyramids. These staggering temples, tucked into the humming jungle, seemed so brilliant, yet like they should be serene and peaceful. Somehow, despite the volume of tourists with stupid hats and cameras, and the locals shoving the exact same merchandise in your face, there was always room for the occasional secret corner, and a bit of the serenity was preserved. We had been turning down magnets and postcards from kids all day when we encountered the modern pagoda on a lesser-traveled path. As we passed, three small children suddenly appeared from behind a column and lined up according to size, shouting, “Hello!” We returned the greeting, and they began chirping, “Picture? Picture?” “Please take a picture!” Colin stopped and said, “I would if I could, but my camera is out of batteries.” They didn’t understand, so I shrugged and said, “No camera.” The kids looked disappointed. They seemed more unkempt than the kids with merchandise, and unlike most of the other kids we’d seen around, there didn’t seem to be a relative or authority figure anywhere near. Then one girl saw the bag of pineapple I was holding that Colin had bought not long before. “Can we have pineapple?” she said, and the other kids echoed her. I handed her the bag, and they all clustered around it. From the distance, we saw a group of three tourists passing the same area, and the kids once again emerged asking for a picture. At first the tourists ignored them, but then they stopped. We were glad when the tourists finally did take their picture, and then showed it to them on their camera. We wondered who were these kids with no merchandise who want nothing more than to have their pictures taken by anyone who happens to pass.

Every day flickered between lightness and darkness, a sort of dual consciousness. Constant juxtapositions of a glorious past and a destitute present, a destitute present yet a sense of optimism, the hope and the ugliness that tourism brings. Cambodia bears the markings of somewhere that has been completely and thoroughly devastated by war, but is trying to pull together its pieces. Confronted with a modern world of progress, development, and tourism, it has a window to try to move forward but it’s still haunted by the past. It’s hard to forget a war when members of the offending regime are still serving in your government, and it’s hard to forget a war when its mines are still taking your limbs. It felt like a place that was stretching and straining through its chrysalis, but with crackling bones and growing pains. I don’t know where Cambodia is headed, but I know it’s going somewhere. I have a feeling that when I return it won’t even be the same place anymore. That makes me feel a bit wistful.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unedited is good- very raw and visceral. :p

Cambodia is a shadow on the horizon for me; I know what it is and what has happened there, and for the most part that is all I ever want to know. some little bit of me, though, brings me to find the reports of those who have braved its mystery and revel in them.

Personally I don't think that, say, Cincinnati will ever merit a three-day ruins tour.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Hey, Cassie-
great entry. i'm still laughing at that joke -- and the explanation. talk about culturally specific humor. that's awesome.

2:17 PM  
Blogger GLE said...

Have you ever seen The Deer Hunter? I watched it again last night and it reminded me a little of your trip. In the movie they use really footage from the vietnam war mixed with the movie. At some times it's really difficult to tell which is real which is the movie and it gets extremely disturbing. I don't know, it's a good movie.

Your trip sounds fascinating. I look forward to hearing about it in person. I would have freaked with the blood on the walls and horse meat and whatnot.

2:52 PM  
Blogger archipelagic said...

Actually, the horse meat was in Japan. Remember that first pub we drank at in Shi-town with Mark and everyone? They serve some really good horse. In Cambodia, they thought eating horse was weird. I saw The Deer Hunter for the first time a few months ago, actually. I didn't know they used real footage. I heard that the Russian Roulette thing was just made up for the movie, and no one actually did that. I wanted to go to Vietnam, but we didn't have time. The places we went were actually really different from Vietnam, though.

4:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No editing necessary-a great unedited piece!


2:11 AM  
Blogger Amanda said...

That was an amazing post! Emotionally evocative while keeping your personal voice about it. I loved this post! Nice joke btw about monkey butts not being smooth... NICE. Lucky me, in my job I get to see blood smeared walls, too! Even better, we have a kid who is a poop smearer! AND he picks at his anus until there are big blood clots. We've gotten to the point where he's not allowed to flush until after he shows us the toilet... nice. And you are welcome for those images. I'm in a linguistic anthropology class right now and I love it! It's really fun. Oh, and I had a totally weird dream about you. I'll have to tell you about it. I'm sending your makeup tomorrow... do you want anything else? Sorry it took so long! Oh, and I have MRSA abscesses again. Look it up, it's fun (sarcasm). Call me I miss you.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Natalie said...

I read this and was intimidated by the awesome into not posting... cause, what can I add? I keep calling your writing "awesome" and that is starting to get pretty one-note.

Oh, I know:
(on a kitty pic)

7:15 PM  

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