September 27, 2017 – 1 Year and 1 Week at Site
Reading: House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
Brought to you from/by The Village Void
“My stomach hurts, Kelsey!” said Vuth as he ambled into the pre-natal care room where I sat alone. He was just arriving from P__ D__ Village where the staff had been doing health outreach for the elderly. His stomach hadn’t been right since yesterday, he said, but he hadn’t eaten anything odd to his recollection. I ran through gentle things he could try to eat and drink but he gregariously stuck out his lower lip in a pout and shook his head before giggling and walking away. I smiled at his back as he walked away, feeling sweet that he had come to report on his health to just me, then subsequently guilty upon remembering how I had awoken him from his noontime nap the previous day when he was likely feeling lousy (but I had to double-check that I was taking the correct gardening posters to the print shop!).
Briefly at home midday – after tip-toeing across the wooden floor upstairs and reading silently for some 1 ½ hours – I suited up to bike and meet with several village chiefs in their homes from which they might escort me to the homes of our potential garden-workshop participants. I flounced past Pa who was at the tail-end of his lunch in which he of course immediately invited me to partake, a simple soup he had made himself. I gently declined and we laughed, our usual exchange, and wheeled my bike around when he suddenly asked about my itinerary for my upcoming visit to the States. I told him the basics, dates, times, layovers, and he considered for a moment and then shouted over to Mak who was laying out her salted fish to sun-dry. They discussed how many num ansom I should take so that they might ask Yin to make them for me and when. She told me to wait, she would ask Yin for me, and then broke into one of those rare, priceless grins (complete with her magical pewter-tooth) when I asked if I could help Yin tie the cakes for boiling. I said thank you thank you thank you, arkunnnn as Pa grinned and turned to the rest of his lunch with his back toward me.
I had previously planned to zip to Takeo Town and snag some fancy $0.75 Vietnamese salad-pancakes for lunch, but I was so hopped up on positive energy that veered off and headed straight to the village chief’s house in P__ P___ Village, first thing. He was reclining in a hammock as his grandson picked at his chin. He wrested himself from the hammock and got up to greet me upon my arrival (for which I was thankful given that I’d neglected to call ahead of time…), then threw some loose clothes on over his lounge-shorts. On his moto he led the way from home to home of the families whom he’d chosen to participate in our garden workshop, careful never to let his billowy-black-shirted shoulders slip from my view. As his land was a bit too narrow for a garden, he and his neighbor had discussed a replacement home, that of a neighbor whose existent garden was stunning. We conferred among the bell peppers for a bit, then I headed to town and ate. From town, I went to the home of the chief in P__ D__ Village. He also graciously showed me around each of the participants’ homes. He even marched on foot to the final site and ushered me to bike back home when the sky threatened to rain.
A threatening email from FedLoan Services concerning my alleged upcoming payment of $300 left me well-sobered for a chance encounter with Lokkru Mithona and his wife Neakkru Mey. Ever the political chatter-box, I steeled myself for Mithona’s latest commentary on US-Cambodian relations about which I was not permitted to elicit any reaction. Having read recently about Hun Sen’s very recent, very publicized suggestion that Peace Corps withdraw from Cambodia, Mithona asked discreetly about this “big problem” my organization faced. “For now,” I said, “we keep working normally.” We smiled at each other for a moment but neither of our smiles reached the corners of our eyes. He nodded and I watched the back of his tailored shirt as he moto’d off.
At vaccine outreach in O_ P__ Village later that week, the village chief approached me to apologize. On my run through the rice fields the other day, he had given me a start when moto’d up with a local police officer. They had come to escort me back, they’d said, for I couldn’t just run around in quiet places, willy-nilly, on my own. I tried to object, pointed out that I could see my house from where we stood, across the fields, but they were having none of it. It was known that the drug problem among young men in the area was increasing and news of terrible incidents and violence against women across all provinces was cropping up each and every day. I had been frustrated to say the least, yanked from some of my only solitary moments of the day, free from the village’s cajoling and constant bequests. I obliged, however, and trotted back toward the main road with both men in tow, escorting me on their motos. The chief who’d come to collect me that day had made some calls to my health center chief and host-pa, both of whom later accosted me that week, publicly, for my nasty, previously unknown running habit. With my runs effectively ended and my tensions running high, the village chief had sensed my animosity towards him the second I arrived for outreach with Vuth. He was sorry, he said, but simply couldn’t just let me endanger myself like that. He had something to cheer me up, though. He turned his back and rummaged through a compartment in the ceiling, leaving me staring. No sooner had he turned around than a long whine began, emanating from a traditional stringed instrument he’d produced from the ceiling. He expertly pulled the horse-hair bow back and forth along the two strings – “the child and the mother, see the small and large one?” he explained – for some ten minutes. An original song, for me, for my spirits.