August 4, 2017 – 10 ½ Months at Site
Reading: Villa Incognito by Tom Collins
Brought to you from/by The Village Void
The past few days have been excellent, largely because I’ve been venturing out into the village midday and afternoon to visit people and take photos. There is always something wonderful and terrible going on. I visited the wat during music lessons and watched the skilled young guys and their traditional chimes and drums as some admiring uncles watched on as well. On my way out, feeling dreamy, one of those uncles put out an upturned palm and implored me for 100,000 riel ($25 USD) to fix up the female elephant statue. “Her skin has grown too thin and the paint on her hips is peeling. Please help me – Uh, help the community, I mean.” I told him I didn’t have it to spare and his face went stony. I sat on the raised steps by the lake’s edge for about a moment before another uncle arrived, this one younger, maybe 29. I stiffened and prepared for harassment (“Oh, you came alone? No husband to escort you? No boyfriend?”) but it did not come. He was a sweetheart. He was born in Pursat Province, about 8-9 hours away by car and came to live here for his wife. After two years in our village he claims he hasn’t made many close friends and puzzles constantly over why people can’t throw their trash into bins or burning sites. We both stared at the gyre of plastic bags, candy wrappers, empty bottles, and Styrofoam accreting where the lake repeatedly compounded it against the pagoda half-wall with its lapping waves. When the lake fills a bit more, he says, he’ll drive my friends and me out to Borei Mountain. We’ll take a boat and visit the temples, the most ancient not only in Takeo but also in Cambodia, predating the Angkor Era. I thanked him and we each left.
On another day, recently, I walked down to the boat landing behind the market and snapped photos of the men loading rice bags for export to Vietnam onto a large barge. Everyone giggled and flashed some picture-perfect grins as I squatted with my camera for more dramatic angles. In a small hovel on the perimeter of the action was a make-shift beverage shop where I ordered an iced-coffee and chatted with the aunty making the sales. She gave the coffee to me free-of-charge and we took many a selfie.
As the coffee nixed all possibility of as midday nap, I meandered over to my (new) tailor’s house where her mother was making num kroc, plump little orbs of fried rice flour batter with green onions for dipping into a fishy sauce. With treats on the brain, I went to the home of my friend and village-crush, Yin, who audaciously sells the best rice-porridge in the village despite protests about his capacity as a chef given that he’s, well, a male. Yin’s mom is famous for her various traditional rice cakes and I had heard she was wrapping some later that afternoon. After she invited me following some hints I dropped over tea, I went home to rest and write. In the afternoon I lead a quick training session at the health center for the (incredibly disinterested) midwives about breastfeeding and was pleased to see them individually mulling over the handouts as I departed. At Yin’s house I watched his mom wrap some 10 dozen sticky rice and sweet mung bean cakes (num channh) and attempted two of my own with little success, but she boiled mine along with the rest in good humor. As they prepped the cakes for boiling, his mom suggested I stroll down to the lake-front behind their house where the water was calm for the moment and you could see the mountain. Yin’s cousin was cleaning some fish by the water with one of the family dog’s standing dutifully nearby. It was a peaceful moment. On the way out I bumped into Yin and stuttered when he asked where I was headed and we all laughed.
When I got home mak was sitting on the giant family lounge-bed with Long Hien, a tiny little relative on mak’s side – her youngest brother’s oldest kid – who has been visiting. He’s a pretty cool little person, three almost four years old and has enough personality for the whole house. Long Hien is always busy, building little houses or shooting galleries for rubberband guns. He’s also the most inquisitive Khmer kid I’ve met, always playing the Why game about everything anyone tells him. There seems to be some unspoken consensus between mak and my host-sister, though, that I don’t want Long Hien around me. Any time we’re sitting any playing, the two of us, one of the women comes to extricate him and redirect his attention. “He’s the only person in the house who acknowledges my existence, can’t you give me five minutes?” I want to say. With mak feeling like a total stranger most days and an outright bully on others, it’s at least nice to see her soften around Long Hien. She really loves the little guy.