November 21st, 2017 – 1 Year and 2 Months at Site
Reading: A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
Brought to you from/by The Village Void
Things have been pretty grim since mid-service training in late October. Late-October was “mid” service plus a bit of spill-over once the arithmetic dust settled: we were 15 months in (12 months since arriving in July ‘16 + 2 months of pre-service training + 1 more month at permanent site) out of 24 months total, thus we had something like 9 to 10 months left. Factor in the unstable politics of late and who knows when we’ll actually be scrambling to finish projects, close grants, say farewells, flying home. In any case, something in all of our minds irrationally whispered, “You’re practically done and outta here.” As the holidays approach and the rains gum up everyone’s project timelines and momentum, motivation becomes as empty and flashy as the energy-drink adverts here. Today was a day which began deep in the mud but by its close had emerged and scoured itself to some degree, at least around the ears.
Swimming in a head-cold, I called Leakhana first thing as I crawled out from the bug-net, to skirt early-morning tutoring, pathetic and gooey and craving some quiet time before work. Simultaneously I set the electric kettle to boil a half-quart of rain water, put some Vietnamese coffee grounds, chunks of turmeric, and ginger root in my French press, and dashed my bucket of rain water with some bleach then let it sit as I swept last night’s bat droppings from the upstairs landing – all the while avoiding mak as she rushed to stomp off to the market. With pa’s hot-water thermos topped off and my water-filter replete, I finished reading A High Wind in Jamaica and started The White Tiger as the village rumbled to life with the arrival of rice-shipping trucks and public vans to the city. As the coffee dwindled I hatched a plan to bike to the provincial town midday and search for some wifi – I left my iPhone in a hotel over the weekend and the only other source of internet in the vill is a once-beloved café which descends into an utter cacophony from 11 AM on as some 40 uncles with nothing better to do eat up the wifi watching boxing on their phones, each bellowing blasphemous pleas to the athletes on whom they’ve staked yesterday’s earnings. With a sunhat on and my bag strapped and wrapped on the back of my bike, I zipped the 30 meters to the market to let Yaay know I wouldn’t be able to help tow the veggie cart home at noon today, I would head to Takeo Town right after work.
“An American doctor is coming today, from your country, this afternoon,” was her response, ever adept at catching me off guard. She produced a small paper, a flyer she said they had just distributed as they walked through the village. “The United States Health Company,” read the top of the paper in Khmer, the below was listed some 20+ conditions which would be detected at the FREE screening portion of today’s information session. Some red flags went up, as did the flags alerting one of the potential for handsome and generous doctors of one’s own nationality. Yaay asked if I’d be there and I said I wasn’t sure. I biked the 6ish kilometers to P__ D__ village where Vuth awaited, inspecting the various baskets for sale off the back of a man’s moto. “This one if perfect for trash collection at home, Kelsey!” he shouted as I rolled up. Once the initial flood of women and screaming babes had settled, Vuth and I busied ourselves around the property of the village chief. I tried to entice cattle for a nuzzle, he walked around pointing at different plants and shouted to me whether or not that variety was edible.
The chief and several neighbors huddled around something at a table which, upon approach, I discovered was yet another flyer from the U.S. Health Company. “Do you know them?” they asked. I gave a definitive no and asked to see the paper, gleaning one of the 4 phone numbers at the bottom.
“Hello, sir, is this the… U.S. Health Company?”
“What? Oh, yes yes.”
“Do any of your coworkers speak English? English is easier for me over the phone.”
“English? Hahaha, no! Why would… Hey, what nationality are you, lady?”
“I live in K__ P__ village. You are visiting today, right?”
“Yes, we’ll be there. Wow, you have the sweetest bachelorette’s voice, and so strong, too.”
“I will see you this afternoon.”
“Do you live with your husband in the village?”
I hung up and told Vuth they were probably not American and they definitely had no manners. He laughed, told me to head out early, he could handle the stragglers.
A thirty-minute bike ride delivered me to Takeo Town, sweaty and starving from lack of breakfast, but my favorite bannchayu (beansprout-filled Vietnamese pancake with a mountain of herbs and peanut fish sauce dressing) place wasn’t quite open yet. I went to a favorite wifi café instead where the owner brought me my usual iced tea with lime as I set up my laptop and crushed my inboxes. From there, all business, of course, I headed to the provincial market in the center of town and wove through the inner labyrinth of stalls until a woman who I met some weeks ago recognized me. We laughed and exchanged pleasantries as she helped me pack up the blender I’d picked out – $20, 500 watt motor, perfect for making babyfood at the health center – and write up a receipt. She’d keep it for the night and Vuth would get in tomorrow. Finally, the pancake spot was open so I settled into a red plastic chair, depleting the napkin supply as I dabbed at my sweat. As I waited the table beside me filled with some younger men in business attire who assumed I couldn’t understand the crass conversation they began about me no sooner than they’d sat down. I studied the Coco Cola posters patching up the ceiling and did my best to ignore them, then one of them recieved a call. They were expecting two more, he told the server, could they pull over some chairs? “If there are going to be five of you, trade places with me. I don’t need all this room,” I said. They gaped at me for a moment and then politely refused before returning to Facebook on their phones. Our food arrived and we all ate in silence.
Another half our on the bike and I was back in the vill where I headed straight to the health center where Yaay had said the doctors would be. It was deserted. Then Piglet and his mom, Phia, the midwife, appeared from around the corner. Piglet squealed and danced up to me so I swept him up and we snuggled and giggled. When I asked Phia about the doctors she said she had heard they’d be at our pagoda. I called the number from the flyer again and asked where they were. He said A___ pagoda, the next village over, and he couldn’t wait to meet me. Back on the bike, I zipped over there, another 2 km or so. It was also dead quiet, save for the local village chief and man I didn’t know who were prepping some long tables with white cloth. The chief, who I’ve known for a long time now, looked startled to see me and then put on a big grin, no there wasn’t anything I could do to help, just relax. I sat down to read by a mural of Buddha’s childhood when it suddenly all began.
A car pulled up and several men hopped out as many grannies arrived on the back of family motos. The grannies and their kids/grandkids relaxed on the rice mats below the tables as the men set up their stations, all while one man among them spoke very loudly and enthusiastically. “So good of you to come, grandmother, a pleasure to meet you, no worries, we will know your ailments soon and we can find the right medicine just for you!” At one end of the line of tables they set up a laptop, printer, and a third machine reminiscent of a Battleship board with a small baton attached by a long cord. At the other end was a single guy with a large cardboard box beside him. One by one they called the grannies up to the computer station for their free “screening” wherein they held the baton for about a minute as a program on the laptop – depicting various animated organ systems smattered with red signals of alarm and an EKG (identical for each patient) – whirred and trilled. “Have you ever had a check-up like this before? No! It is so modern that no one has! Our German health-machine is perfect!” shouted the hype-man. Eventually the printer produced a three-page document for each patient with their full results. With results in hand the patients were directed to the man with the cardboard box who furrowed his brow at the papers and adopted a grave look, then spoke quietly to each alarmed man or woman.
By then I had moved close enough to watch the charade from just behind the main throng, arms crossed and constantly refuse the men’s offers for a seat outside or near the back of the room and feeling their glares or nervous glances give heat behind my ears. The talkative man approached me.
“You are the beautiful woman who called me this morning! She called me so often, friends, she couldn’t wait to meet me!” They all laughed.
“Why do you call yourselves the American Health Company? If your machine is German and no one here is American,” I asked him.
“Ahh, she speaks so much Khmer! I studied English for two years and know nothing! She’s clever too!” Some aunties nearby explained who I was, where I worked, etc.
“Doctor,” I shouted, feigning respect as he began to turn, “please answer my question.”
His eyes hardened. Quickly he adopted a smile and announced to all nearby that their American medicines gave the company its name and that I should only inspect the packages to know for sure. I turned to the man near the cardboard box who continued talking to the patients in front of him but had his eyes fixed on me. He stopped preaching to the aunties at his table as I approached and then invited me to inspect their premium medicines. In the box were 15 or so bottles of assorted Centrum daily vitamins, a bottle of fish oils pills, and some Malaysian tiger balm. The guy concluded some shpeal he was delivering by saying, “…are they not, ma’am, the best medicines one can buy from America?” I turned to a middle-aged victim in his little audience and asked, “How much is he asking for just one bottle?” She stared for a second and then turned her gaze at him as she answered, “So, so much.” He did his best to wave me off by picking up a bottle of Centrum and extolling its bone-regeneration qualities.
A small cluster of shaken aunties had gathered by a pillar, discussing their grave new diseases. As I approached them, Leakhana’s mom and younger brother appeared having arrived for screenings themselves. They walked over as I was telling the aunties there was no need to buy their medicine, the machine was fake, the results were fake, they are trying to scare us, and we have vitamins at the health center, anyhow. Leakhana’s mom looked around and quickly sussed things out for herself, then pulled me a half-head down to her level, “You need to watch it. These men… They have money and if they dare to pull off a scam like this, they probably have support from somewhere higher up. And if they dare to do this, we don’t know what else they will dare to do.” She flounced out with Leakhana’s brother behind her and they zipped home. Though most of the men were occupied terrifying the elderly, the medicine man still had his eyes fixed on me. I told the aunties not to buy the meds, not to believe these new diagnoses, and not to tell anyone I told them so, then left.
The next hour or so was spent toasting coconut, folding laundry, and performing other menial tasks as acceptance of my impending doom by vengeful murder cemented psychologically. A walking dead woman, I thought some final iced tea and kind words couldn’t hurt so I began the walk to Om Oen’s house. Om Oen is Phia’s mother-in-law and therefore the grandmother of dear Piglet, for whom I so often drink Oen’s iced tea free of charge as babysitting compensation as if I’m not twice the winner in such an arrangement. When I arrived Om Oen and her daughter, Mey, were skinning and scraping at about a hundred slat fish, famous for their dense flesh which is perfect for making prahut.
To be beckoned with laughter and pomegranates upon entering unannounced and uninvited into a home where you can still vividly remember once being a complete and total stranger is not unlike the sensation of biting into something which you expected to taste bitter but strengthening and immediately discovering that it’s not only nourishing but pleasantly sweet. The three of us drank tea and cracked jokes about which of them would be a better business partner for a Khmer sweetshop in America for more than an hour without intrusive inquiry into my personal life or sudden requests for money, not that I’d ever experienced such common lines of conversation in this home. This is largely due to the fact that Mey has only just recently returned from Korea where she worked for five years and misses all the time. She couldn’t get her visa renewed or she would have stayed there forever, she says, and we often talk about the feeling of missing a place until you’re there and then you miss the place from whence you came.
Piglet and Phia eventually showed. She’s been overwrought, having just discovered that her third child, the one in her belly, due in March, will be yet another boy. Piglet made a fuss until the four of us had established a reliable rotation of food and beverage for him as he wreaked havoc in the kitchen. Phia left him with his granny and I as she headed back to the health center where I was to bring Piglet when I came. The small man and I looked over Mey’s picture albums – some of ancient family photos, many from her Koprea adventures – until we were out of pomegranate and ready to go. On our way out, Om Oen said, “Can you believe those phony doctors that came through town today? What a lie! No wonder they had to hide at the pagoda, the health center chief would never let them set up at our hospital.” I felt vindicated.
Piglet and I marched over to that very establishment, always glowing from the fresh white paint in which Vuth keeps it awash. Most of the staff was sitting out front, enjoying the days fading light during their last few hours on the clock as Piglet toddled over and everyone hailed us, happy to have their boredom broken. No sooner had I sat down than our chief showed up around the corner with a wad of cash for whomever would order some refreshments. Phia set to work ordering us a round of snacks and sugarcane juice while Na Vy took a series of twilit selfies in the corner and Vuth set up a quick card table. Once the food was delivered by moto, Piglet alternated holding a bag of sugarcane juice up to my mouth with his left and jabbing me with a meat skewer on his right while I wolfed down all the fresh cilantro and Phia’s fetal duck egg whites which she discarded generously onto my plate. In between bites I mentioned the phony doctors about which everyone laughed, relieving both my sense of imminent death in my sleep and the seeming gravity and implications of the con. Lightly coated in limey black pepper and sugarcane juice, I waved over my shoulder and headed home where I figured the syndicate would let me sleep un-murdered at least one more night.