October 11th, 2016 – Almost 1 Month at Site
Reading: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
Brought to you from/by The Village Void
The 100-meter walk from my house to the café is still nerve-wracking every morning, but I feel better once I’m finally there. I also usually realize once I arrive that I was holding my breath for most of the walk while children either pointed and yelled or burst out crying as I walked by. Everyone and their mother wants to know where I’m going, what I’m doing, with whom! I gulped down two cups of hot coffee, the kind from Vietnam for about $2.00 per bag which has a mild liqueur-like aftertaste. I enjoyed chatting in some English, albeit broken, with the café owner’s son who’s become less shy around me. I was rainy out and I felt so cozy, could have stayed in that little bubble of familiarity all day. Soon I wrested myself from the café, though, and went to the health center. After some convincing, the vaccinator, Vuth had me going on vaccine outreach with him in our outer villages. I enjoy the moto-ride there but feel abysmally useless and incompetent when we arrive. The women swarm me with questions and demands I can’t understand and they fight my requests for them to weight their kids, the only thing I really understand about the whole ordeal. I can discern how well their kids are growing from the growth chart but still don’t have the tools or language about what to do when I meet a kid who’s weight has taken a nosedive or who just isn’t growing. Vuth seems confident that I’ll catch on eventually, though.
Back at the health center I sat and studied in the pre-natal care room until the assistant director, Channa, who has a penchant for teasing me, said I could go home. Mak left some fruit and palm cakes for me near the water jug motivated by what I’m sure was a low-grade panic that I had stopped eating lunch with them midday. She likes me! I raced to the bank in town on my bike and back came back with some school supplies to boot. A girl I’d recently met, (name: Srey Nat?) came over to fetch me for a playdate. She and Baoh, a fabulous new guy-friend who delivers flowers and does hair/make-up for weddings, showed me some of their favorite songs on YouTube and I resolved to try and learn a few of them on guitar. We made plans to meet later and I went home for a quick nap in the thick heat.
In the evening, I walked back towards Baoh’s house with my heavy guitar case and So Sieb and Channa, both health center coworkers, were sitting with some other uncles beside the road, playing cards. They waved me over and I fumbled through a few songs for them and they took some selfies with the guitar. Baoh carried his niece, Celia, as we all made out way out to the meadow on Kong Si, the peninsula that juts out from our village into the flood lands. They let me stumble through a few songs even though they didn’t understand a word of it and made me feel like a superstar. Baoh carried Celia home on his back after she’d fallen and scraped her knee which was sweet. I hovered around mak while she cooked until she let me decant some fish sauce and crush garlic. I felt like a daughter and friend today.
The next morning hit me with my first serious food-borne illness since our arrival in country. I know I should count myself lucky that I’ve held out this long against the fermented fish and cakes of unquestionable sanitation, but I feel like death. I’m feverish and my stomach is distended, I can’t keep anything down… or up. It’s been just as traumatizing for my host-family who I’m sure feel like if they break the new American will surely be put to trial. They keep bringing various foods to my door but I haven’t been able to eat anything, particularly the intestine-laden porridge. Mak finally blessed me with some coconuts and fresh oranges and forced opened my windows. I experienced then another first since having arrived: intense homesickness. I thought of that month I spent in and out of the hospital during high school when dad did his best to keep me in cold sherbet because it was all I could eat, even though I was developing a hatred for it with every mouthful. Mak stayed pretty stone-faced through the whole process but at one point before leaving she turned back around, put her hand on my forehead to check my temp, then stared at me. I asked for a hug. She cracked a shy smile and gave me one, a real hug.
it took a fever’s steady press
to expel the thin old sensation
of imitation tropical fruit
delivered cold and clinging
to my lips
sour with sickness
by a father grown insistent
watching my years wasted,
made ill kicking at comfort
today if my steaming body stirs
it is to choke on ripe gifts
by a Cambodian mother who knows
what cures, as I swallow again
the technicolor taste of love
that I fear
I will never repay