September 18, 2016 – 3 Days at Site
Reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Chabon
Brought to you from/by The Village Void
My first day at the health center! I was so! frickin’! anxious! I nervously chatted with folks on the walk to the coffee spot and drank the hot little cup in about two gulps, half-hoping I’d choke to death on one of them and get to skip work. I rolled up to the health center around 7:30 AM and things seemed to be bustling already, so I made a note to come a bit earlier tomorrow. Everyone was terribly sweet. Each of the staff introduced themselves to me excitedly in between sweeping and opening things up for the day. Soon our chief called a meeting and we crowded into a room with a sign over the door which read “Bird Spacing” which someone had corrected with tape to read “Birth Spacing.” I drowned in the clipped Khmer of the meeting and sat idly by until I realized that 1) the chief was reading from a printed document with the Peace Corps logo at its top and 2) the document was most certainly about me. The staff suddenly applauded and went around introducing themselves again in welcome. We took some pictures in front of the health center and then the chief happily told me to grab my helmet. No, not that helmet, my moto helmet. Two representatives from a tuberculosis outreach organization (ASHA), one woman and one man, would be speaking at a local pagoda about common tuberculosis symptoms and everyone wanted me to attend. The moto ride was brief and beautiful and the pagoda was full of well-dressed men and grandmothers. One of the men happened to be the commune chief (surprise) who greeted me warmly. I was being fawned over my grannies as the ASHA reps gave their shpeal when suddenly it was time to go. I was anxious and pent-up after such a social morning – especially given that I had understood an approximate 17% of what was said to and about me – but the ride back was breath-taking.
The staff at the health center had been prepping for a little party while we were gone. The ladies were cleaning out some small bowls and polishing some cutlery while the guys rolled out some rice mats and set up several coolers with ice. I would later glean that this was a celebration to congratulate my coworker, Tuong Channa, on his promotion to assistant/vice chief. An aunty moto’d up with a giant stew pot balanced behind her and Channa’s wife, the pharmacist, Srey Muel, stuck it atop the little fire in a terra cotta burner we had going. Srey Muel tended the big stew, the other women picked and cleaned some veggies, and a ton of men started to arrive. I recognized a few of them as officials I had just met – the commune chief, some village chiefs – and assumed that they were pretty important men in the community. So, I became tense and self-conscious. The guests chatted and joked, cracked open a few beers, as the women continued to prep. “Taste this, p’on (younger one),” Srey Muel beckoned from over the stew pot, “It’s delivious!” I asked her what it was as she ladled some of the dark stew into a little bowl for me and she said, “beef.” I double-checked. “Beef? Cow? COW, right?” and she laughed and nodded excitedly, “Yes, water cow.” Okay, so water buffalo, I thought. The stew was rich and unctuous, one of the more flavorful and satisfying things I’d eaten in awhile. I was sopping up the dregs with some baguette when Srey Muel stuck the ladle in the pot and extracted a jaw bone lined with teeth. Cows don’t have canines, I mused, and it was my last thought before the staff saw the color drain from my face and they began to laugh. Sieklin would later explain that “water cow meat” is a euphemism for dog meat.
After my lunch trauma I biked back to that same area for some exercise and ran into Sokha, the director of a local NGO primary school. He reminded me to come by any time, gave me some water, and went back to tidying up around his school. The thing about getting to exercise lately has been that my body always feels well-worked once I get back but my mind is simply exhausted. Any time I’m out in the village, especially villages other than my own, the volume of stares and things shouted at me is kind of jarring. It’ll probably get better but for now it’s really tiring. Anyhow, I tried and failed to help my host-family scatter their rice out front for drying and defeated went to nap upstairs. Later I played some bocce with Bo, a younger cousin who’s been staying with us the past few days, and then he helped sketch out our family tree. I succeeded in politely (?) putting back some of my rice at dinner when I felt over-served and made plans with pa to go to the police station and pagoda tomorrow. Made some language flashcards and did a little workout. I feel busy!