My mother would yell at me if she had seen me this morning, climbing into the back of a pick-up truck and squishing onto the back corner, careful not to lean back as we sped off to find yet another passenger. I had been waiting in front of our office, hoping to hop in a car that was heading to Siem Reap, but none with any space had come by in the last fifteen minutes. I knew the pickup would take much longer, stopping many times along the way, and that maybe I’d be late for my 8am meeting, but I also didn’t know how long it might be until a speedy car came by…. so I hoped in.
Seven in the front cab and 13 of us in the back…. 14 now. Another woman gets in, smiling and saying hi to another girl in the truck. Maybe their cheerful greetings are because they have known each other for a long time, or maybe they are because they can see their own joys and concerns in the other – both pregnant and heading into Siem Reap to visit the children’s hospital to check on the progress of their unborn babies.
The older man next to me turns and asks:
“Where are you going? Where are you from? How old are you? Are you traveling alone? How long have you been here? How did you learn Khmer?”
A nun, with short white stubble on her nearly shaved head lets me know my Khmer is “chi’bah”. “Not SO clear,” I say, “I’m still learning.” It’s easy to know the few words to answer his questions as I get to practice often with this Cambodian sing-song of introductions.
He used to speak French, he says. Before the Khmer Rouge, before the war, when French was taught in schools.
“Do you speak French?”
My high school French teacher would be sad to hear it, but I don’t really, I say. Sorry Dr. Rodgers.
“Do you know where Pailin is?”
He asks and points. He knows exactly which direction we are going in and where each other major town is in relation to us, pointing in each of their directions and telling me a bit about them.
“I used to live in Pailin.”
Before I can stop it, my brain starts judging. “Perhaps he lived in Pailin as a Khmer Rouge solider,” I think, remembering it was one of the last strongholds. His smile is so wide and he’s so eager to make friends with the “barang” on the truck, I say to myself “Well, even if he was a soldier I am sure he didn’t want to be… and either way, as a soldier or as a laborer in the regime, he would likely have seen many loved ones and neighbors killed….”
The attention moves away from me and my thoughts of the deaths of the past and on to a more recent one. The man across the bed of the truck, with RAY BAN written in large letters across his plastic sunglasses, is showing a picture of his daughter who has recently died. The photos were of her funeral… she’d died in Thailand. They had likely gone over to work as day laborers. I couldn’t understand well enough to understand more… I wish the old lady was right and my Khmer was indeed perfect.
15, 16, 17. I didn’t think we could fit more people, but now the final three are sitting on the wood that is protruding from the back of the truck. A moto goes by with a basket full of more than a dozen piglets, pink tails sticking out to wave at traffic. The driver has his helmet resting on the front of the motorbike. It’s too hot to put it on, perhaps, but it’s there ready in case he passes a police checkpoint. I’m sure my mom would suggest I should be wearing one of those, especially if we add more people.
18. We’ve turned down a dirt road. It’s unfortunate you see, as I’m meant to be back in Siem Reap in a meeting starting in 10 minutes. That said, I’d just done a training with our team the day before about how we can’t always control what happens around us, but we can control our emotions and reactions. I decide just to forget worrying about the call and enjoy the bumpy ride. As if knowing I needed a distraction, the man turns back to me and says:
“How many cows do you have at home in America?”
Hmmm…. “I don’t have any cows,” I say, wondering how that will go over. At first, a bit of shock, but that quickly fades into understanding.
“Of course! You use a tractor to plow your fields, yes?”
Ummm….. “I don’t know how to drive a tractor, actually!” Disappointment. “I really should learn,” I think, as if the judgment of this older man and others like him was enough to justify the desire to prove that I too can grow things from the earth. Well… maybe I could. Probably not well to be honest, I think as I watch the man in front of us, tilling his field. Two cows pull the small but very heavy plow and the mud-covered man pushes down on the top of it to keep it digging into the earth.
“Do you have fields like this in America?”
I describe that we do, just not so many near where I grew up. We are looking out onto an endless expanse of green. Like patchwork, each plot of land is a slightly different color, planted at a slightly different angle, making the land look like a large quilt. Dotted throughout, as holes in the pattern, are coconut trees. I notice the similarity in the landscape to the clothing of many of the passengers, holes here and there, or patches covering over where holes had once been, like the patchwork on the boys knees next to me – small cuts and scares from previous scrapes.
“He’s heading to the doctor.”
The old man points out. The boy is meticulously plucking each kernel from an ear of corn, one by one and popping them into his mouth slowly as his mother hugs him close.
As we’re gradually making our way down the dirt road, an older woman in the bed of the pickup starts making a betel nut packet. She takes out the leaf, puts white paste on it from her carefully opened container, and places some seeds into the mixture before placing it in her mouth.
It turns out that we’ve taken this detour to stop at a Wat. There is a celebration going, and I notice that most of the passengers in the cab are also nuns. Half of the truck piles out at the Wat which is full of music and people dressed in their most respectful clothing.
“Come visit some time! I live over there, we have coconuts and many fruits.”
He points in the direction of his home. We smile goodbye, and I hop into truck bed to grab a seat on the floor, no longer worrying about being late.