I believed Silken’s hospital scare was just a rock in the river, one we’d flow over. It was actually one of the last branches holding on for dear life at the top of Niagara Falls. Cambodia isn’t an easy place to be; the genocide’s scars are still blistering. Imagine if all of America’s universities, hospitals, banks and institutions were started from scratch in 1991 by the least-intelligent, laziest people in America. Pol Pot killed everyone except uneducated farmers – goodbye doctors, professors, businessmen, government officials, or anyone with a high-school degree. That’s not to say we don’t need farmers or that people without degrees are “lazy” – but society needs everyone to succeed, and Cambodia was left with the bottom of the barrel to reinvent the country with. It’s the blind leading the blind in a world with no solid infrastructure or policies. They rely heavily on foreign aid, as the Cambodian government is busy buying shiny Lexuses and Range Rovers for its employees. For example, Austrian and Singapore donors fund the school where we’ve been teaching English, Savong’s Happy Sunshine School. Phnom Pehn is a business center, but anything in Siem Reap is based on tourism and donations. While the people are amazing in Siem Reap, we began to feel exhausted as we realized we were their only source of income.
We’d offered to help the teacher buy supplies for educational activities with the kids. We purchased a few Khmer-English posters to spruce up the bare walls, and then she inquired about the rest of the promised supplies. She arranged to go to the market with us on Friday, and then we’d spend class Monday creating crafts – like a flower garden on the walls - with the kiddos. The 20-something teacher cluelessly led us through Psar Leu market, the same local chaotic market Hout took us, and was quite precise about the paper and string she wanted. My patience was wearing thin; I doubt the Khmer language even has a word for “efficiency.” Small talk with random shopkeepers is the highlight of their day.
After a long week, we were excited for our girls’ trip to Kulen Mountain Saturday. We could’ve booked it through any tour company in town like I did last year, but Hout was adamant about using his friend with a van – said we’d get the local’s rate this way. Anything to support a friend and the local economy. It was no inconvenience, except that Hout was adamant we leave at 7:30 AM and felt the need to call me several times at 5 AM to confirm that we must not be late. At 7:32 AM, we slid open the van’s door and were greeted by Hout’s entire family (minus Hout): his mother, his wife, his four-year-old son, and one-year-old daughter. I put in my headphones to silence John’s “ABC’s” rendition, thinking that while the company was unexpected, it still was no real inconvenience. Once at Kulen Mountain, I figured we’d see the same sights as before: the giant golden Buddha in his cliff-side temple, the river flowing over ancient Hindu carvings, and Kulen Waterfall. But instead of stopping at the cultural sights, the doors opened at a picnic area. But not any picnic area – this was a riverside picnic area where you must pay $5 to sit down. So we paid. And sat with Hout’s adorable family that can’t speak a lick of English. The first hour was OK, but I took the breastfeeding as a cue to go see something else. “Hey, we’re gonna go see the waterfall.” Driver: “Ooooh, but waterfall is no open to foreigners right now, you can’t go.” Me: “I went last time. We’ll be right back.” The waterfall was dope, straight out of Neverland: girls swinging in flower chairs and boys back flipping off rocks.
Back at the picnic site, the family was not ready to leave. “Can we go see the temple?” “Ooooh, but it’s raining. Not open to foreigner.” “I saw the temple last time. Can we go see it?” “After the rain, maybe.” So we sat there in uncomfortable silence for another decade while it down poured. The river began overflowing and we feared getting stuck on Kulen Mountain forever. “We should probably go before the roads get any worse.” After much prodding, we used a mat to shield Hout’s family as we walked like a Chinese Dragon Parade float or huge ass caterpillar back to the van. The driver drove, and drove, and drove back to our hotel, offering only to stop at a dinky roadside market. Then he needed payment – the day cost me twice as much this year as it had last year. Speechless and defeated, we trudged back to our triple at Jasmine Lodge and ate pizza in bed, making use of the flat-screen for the first time.
The rain was ceaseless on Sunday as well, but we biked to an expat bar to be social for once in four weeks. Nicole turned 23 at midnight, and we had new friends in town – Tres from USC and Anika who used to babysit me in Hudson, Ohio. We rang in 23 with sangria, Jenga, laughter and nutella pancakes.
Monday was another classic Cambodian miscommunication – we were looking forward to integrating English and Art in our classroom, but our teacher had used all the craft supplies already. She slaved away all weekend making 200 origami birds with her friend. On Monday, she put on cartoons so she could fold more birds and attempt to hang them. We were the school’s only native-English speaking volunteers, and we had a week left, so we got into a little tiff about needing to review the ABC’s. “Fine,” said the teacher, “but I need to focus to fold.” Silken and I exasperatedly tried to teach, but no one could focus so we ended up dancing to the Beatles and Jason Derulo.
Tuesday was an even more classic case of Cambodian “communication.” I wasn’t feeling too hot so I skipped class for the first time, since we were going to have a strenuous day visiting rural villages with Hout from 11 AM – 7 PM. Silken and Nicole taught, and at 10 AM the administration decided to cancel school for the rest of the week. Because of the holiday next week. Wait, what?? We’d planned to bring in a piñata for a proper farewell fiesta on Friday, and now I couldn’t even say goodbye?
We somberly followed Hout to hectic Phsar Leu market; not a place to be if you’re not in a good mood. Our patience was wearing thin from cultural miscommunications and differences. We were on a tight timeframe, but Hout decided to lounge around the raw meat concoctions. Female butchers reclined next to bowls of ground mystery meats mixed together and stuffed inside fish heads and other organs. Dead pigs stared at me impatiently tapping my foot and plugging my nose. To break the silence while we chilled next to fresh carcasses, Hout asked, “Are you hungry? I’m hungry. Do you want soup?” I mustered, “Can we eat somewhere vegetarian?”
Hout is truly one of the most kind-hearted humans, and at lunch he was on his best behavior- worried about “Soken’s” recent sickness, he kept asking her if she was OK and wanted fried rice. She really didn’t want any, but he plopped some ketchup-drenched fried rice on top of her cheese pizza. Not on the plate next to it, no, he smothered the damn slice. It made my day.
We crammed into a tuk tuk and soared past Angkor Wat to the same rural jungle village we visited a month before. On this ride, Hout told us that for the next 90 years the Vietnamese collect ticket revenues from Angkor Wat. Wait, WAT?! And there goes the only thing supporting the fragments of Cambodian infrastructure. Zooming through the jungle, my face went white as I noticed a thick spider wearing some kind of medieval armor on Silken’s eyebrow. She assumed my ghost-face meant “snake,” and panicked until the tuk tuk halted. Then I got a scratch, tried to open rubbing alcohol, and popped the whole bottle into Nicole’s eyes and mouth – nearly blinding her. Then our tuk tuk broke down. This was all within five minutes.
Trusty Hout and Sadam fixed our tuk tuk in no time just like Indiana Jones and we arrived in the village, greeted by hoards of children. It was even more heart-breaking a second time there, as the village leader remembered Silken’s name and nearly cried as he anxiously told her that his pig was sick, meaning no food for his growing family and village. Sokchea Lork was his name, and when he’s not managing the village he’s a social worker making sure local children receive education. All the man does is give, even when he gets nothing in return. We passed out school supplies to the children, medical supplies and food rations to the elderly widows. Their eyes filled with joy, but the kids still didn’t feel comfortable around us strange pale giants. Fair enough.