April 24, 2017 – 7 Months at Site
Reading: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Brought to you from/by The Village Void
There have been too many sweet moments lately to let them go unrecorded. Mak Yaay finally gives in when I offer to tow the veggie cart home from the market and my host-sister and I have more and more little interactions. Even tiny exchanges about when and if I can do my laundry, yes I can eat that or no that’s for mom, are worlds different than our usual vacuum of silence. What’s more, our current country director, Sue, recently visited my village. When we were done visiting she offered to put my bike on top of the Peace Corps Land Rover in which she’d been driven to my site so that I could ride to and bike from our provincial lunch in Takeo Town. As our driver Borey loaded my bike up top, several neighbors dropped what they were doing to come over and ask, basically, “Now just what in the hell is this all about?” Pa laughed and reassured that I would be back after lunch. I was tickled.
At the health center the other day, we had several big-wigs visit from the office our regional operational district of the Ministry of Health. They had come to do an interview and assessment with our midwives and asked to go around and introduce ourselves. Vuth jokingly pointed me out as his boss and we all had a laugh. Then something great happened: Srey Muel, the pharmacist and hostess extraordinaire, pressed some money into my hand and quickly whispered to go buy some coconuts, smash up some chili salt, and peel the green mangoes we had in the reception office so everyone had something to drink and munch on. Usually I am the kid being treated at the health center, especially in the afternoon when, if I wait long enough, someone will suggest snacks and either moto off to pick them up on their own or call to have someone deliver. It felt better than expected to be the one trusted with refreshments.
While the midwives underwent what they would later describe as “torture,” I got some long overdue chill-time with uncle So Sieb, the 63-year-old receptionist and oldest member of our staff. As I peeled the (acrid) mangoes, he asked me what type of meat I liked best, in case we had a party. After some thought I finally settled on duck eggs and/or the tiny freshwater shrimp we harvest from our lake. He walked me through his fool-proof directions for a perfect, red-yolked, soft-boiled duck egg. With my phone I showed him pictures of highly fancy Easter eggs, some dyed and some decorated, and explained the tradition of hiding them for kids and the myth of the magical rabbit who does the hiding. Noting my twisted face as the mangoes spritzed my eyes and nose, he asked if I wanted to see a magic trick for making green mangoes “lose their sour.” Soon we were dipping our green mango spears into the sweet-salty contents of an oral rehydration salts packet and, though I did not fully approve of such a use for a life-saving supplement, it was delicious.
Even though transportation here is an utter nightmare – being not only that I am a woman but that I cannot ride motos – the two uncles who operate my usual van to and from Phnom Penh are angels. Uncle Noy drives the van while Uncle Phey is the “hype-man,” who searches for and secures passengers and their luggage. Noy always calls me when he knows I am traveling to be sure I don’t miss the torrie home and both Phey and Noy always situate me in a quiet corner of the van hanger and shoo their obnoxious colleagues away from me. Recently, when traveling to the city from the village, there was no room to stick my bike in the van. In an act of super-(Khmer)-human dedication, Uncle Phey rode my bike for 12 km to Takeo Town where we let off a few passengers and had room to stick it onboard. He then refused to let me pay him the $1.25 extra for taking my back. On the ride back from the city, I was pleasantly surprised to find Teacher Laichea, from the high school, and the mother of one of my closest coworkers already onboard. Laichea and I launched into discussions about our cultures. She turned proudly to her friends at certain points, acting as a fountain of information about America she had corroborated with me. People date and live together before marriage in America, she explained, in order to try and understand one another and their compatibility before marriage. Also, they have such things as places where they send the elderly to live together but it’s considered normal and not betrayal of one’s parents. At this I nodded, enthused and not in the least bit concerned about propagating this tiny fib. My coworker’s mother asked how much I pay my host-family per month but cut me off before answering, said that I didn’t need to pay a cent and could live with her for free.
I hopped straight from the van and went to sit with Om Heng, Srey Heng’s aunt, on the wooden platform in front of our houses. Some monks who had also de-boarded came to ask Om about me, in front of me. Om Heng theatrically told them my life’s story until they were satisfied with details. With the monks off to do their monk business, I asked Om how she was doing. She surprised me by stating quietly that she was unhappy, but it was because of a private story within her family. She pointedly told me that not having a family was far easier, that I should hold on to my freedom for as long as possible.
At night another aunty, Srey Maec, came and dragged me to her place despite my protests. I was exhausted and grumpy but I ate her delicious stir-fry and played with her 2-year-old niece until it was time to be escorted home.