December 6, 2017 – 1 Year and (Almost) 3 Months at Site
Reading: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Brought to you from/by The Village Void
They’ve nearly finished the new, looming stone fence between the Heng’s house and ours. Om Heng is clearly in charge of all the going’s on over there but I can’t help but wonder if my family chipped in at all for the wall given that we are also benefitting from the imposing white sanctuary it casts. I’d never ask, though, of course.
I’ve never participated in the cliché complaints about Mondays because, especially here, I feel my happiest, the most motivated. I was gliding around the health center, sweeping with Na Vy as we rattled off our usual morning exchange of ailments. In spite of my gooey head-cold, I beamed at this little ritual of ours and saw her smiling to herself as she knocked spiders from the light-fixtures. Midwife Vanchurrn perched herself atop the giant wooden table in the center of the pre-natal care room and started cutting up a large roll of cotton bandaging. I took my cue to help fold the little swatches up for sterilization, relieved for something so rote and communal to do between patients. Conversation with the midwives and Srey Muel, the pharmacist, was easy and took many turns as we folded; from the latest price of freshwater prawns to a potential New Year’s party, various ancient methods by which one can influence the sex of their unborn baby, if I would cook everyone some “spa-keh-TEE” (spaghetti…) for Christmas, and finally to the dilapidated rice wine factory out on Kong Si, the thickly foliaged peninsula that juts out into the flood lands north of our village center. By then all 10 of the staff members had crowded in the room, ducking in and out of folding-duty and playing on their phones, chatting. Somewhere in there I realized that this group of people in this place had become an environment where I could interject or ask a question of the entire group instead of relying shyly on quiet sidebars with trusted individuals to help me translate.
Later midwife Phia helped me educate two expectant mothers about the danger signs during pregnancy as well as the 3 food groups and I felt fabulous and proud of her. Vuth watched me write over my shoulder and sounded out some of the English syllables and words as I ate my oatmeal. Our chief popped in suddenly, eating a banana with great vehemence. “Hey, Kelsey,” he said, startling me, “Help me write report about everything you did last month, how many people you educated, about what, when you went to the schools, that kind of thing. You can write in Khmer by hand and I’ll snap a picture and send it to my supervisor. Thanks.” I froze. For a few weeks now I had heard from other volunteers across several provinces that their supervisors were asking for reports cataloguing our productivity, some with pictures, but my chief had yet to say a thing to me. Now my number was up. Peace Corps had nothing to do with these reports, we knew, and the directive was coming from higher up in the Cambodian Ministry of Health. The first of us were asked to begin reporting soon after Hun Sen included Peace Corps on a list of foreign organizations in Cambodia which should be monitored. I turned wide-eyed to Vuth who already had his hands spread out in reassurance. He took my pen and asked for paper so that he could write as I dictated. I flung all of my various folders and notebooks open on the table and began rattling off my stats, all of the patients I had educated last month about what topics, their ages, etc when he stopped me. “Too many details! Don’t stress. Keep it simple.” I slowed my roll and gave him the bare-bones and broad strokes. “Done. I’m headed home,” said Vuth as he hopped on his moto and left. With the paper in hand I knocked on my chief’s door who answered quickly, now eating a red sweet potato. He accepted the paper with a “thanks!” and shut his door, behind which some Khmer dance music began to play.
I walked straight to the ice-saleswoman from work and asked for a large block which she insisted on giving for free. At home I tossed it hurriedly into my new Styrofoam cooler wherein I feared my last batch of beans had already spoiled. I turned on my heel and headed to the market to help Yaay. “Tomorrow,” she said immediately, “you will ride with Yaay to the wedding of your cousin, north of Takeo Town.” “Oh,” I said, and asked if we would be back that same night. We wouldn’t, she said. We would go midday tomorrow to help set-up, pray, sleepover a night, then participate in the full festivities on the second day from 4 AM to 7 PM, then come home. I would need a lot of different outfits. I asked if I could bike there midday on the second day so I wouldn’t have to miss work. Yaay simply looked off in the distance and said, “Your cousin’s wedding…” in such a way that I capitulated and agree to ride with her to the whole shebang and she beamed.
Chewing over the sheer logistical nightmare this presented, I quickly calculated that I would have exactly 0 minutes to myself beginning tomorrow. I slung on my guitar and biked around looking for a quiet place without people. At the peninsula north of the village, I found only water buffalo, ducks, water hyacinth, boats, and empty hammocks which I tested out in turn.
I sang loudly and without fear of being laughed at or shushed, sang until the rain started and raced home, braced for teasing and flirting along the road of which there was none due to the rain. Preparation for my wedding adventure was due so I began post-haste. First: laundry. I removed my clean clothes hanging from the metal rack in my room and moved the rack to the balcony (the only remaining corner of the house which mak has left for me to utilize for this very purpose), yanked my full hamper downstairs, filled a basin, and scrubbed.
I was on edge with mak stomping around and prepping her fish when she stopped suddenly nearby, squared to me (never happens), and my blood froze. “Tomorrow,” she said from above, “you will help serve guests at Srey Maec’s aunt’s father’s 100-day funeral.” “Oh,” I said and then began to ask about the wedding to which Yaay had just invited me but mak gave a curt head-nod. “Not possible. They have asked for you at the funeral by name. Yaay and I have discussed it,” and she left. Laundry became instantly more enjoyable in that way that any task becomes blissful when your larger affairs are being managed by others beyond your realm of influence. I hung up my clothes and swept upstairs.
With the sun right below the horizon, I trotted out front to help Yaay pack up her veggies. “Tomorrow,” she began, “you will not go to the wedding. You will help at the funeral. Thursday, 4 AM. THEN we will go to the wedding.” I nodded, smug about my prescient laundry dripping upstairs. A granny grilling banana cakes gave me one for free right before Yaay and I shoved the cart away for the night. I lit some incense and stuck it below the dinner table to protect our feet from mosquitoes while we ate while mak watched a Thai soap opera and pa reviewed the day’s news on his phone. Sister Ieey brought out the rice which we ate in silence, per usual, until pa broke it. “Tomorrow, you will-” at which point sister and mak cut him off. “The women have sorted it out already, she knows!”
“The funeral?” pa asked them.
“And Sunday?” he asked.
Silence. Pa grinned.
“Sunday,” he said, “another wedding. Another cousin.”