December 31, 2017 and January 1st, 2018 – 1 Year and 3 Months at Site
Reading: Walden by Thoreau
Brought to you from/by The Village Void
“Funeral, wedding, funeral, wedding, party, party, party, funeral! Ugh, this month!” Vuth was lamenting about the crushing social obligations felt by all these past few weeks. In between rushing from outreach to zip over to someone’s 100-day funeral, though, he had promised we would prepare the garden dirt this weekend. We had been trying on and off for months to pry up the allotted garden land behind the health center will little success. The rains have been heavier than expected and although these men are strong, the dirt has been stronger. Vuth delivered on his promise, however. On Sunday morning, New Year’s Eve, he moto’d by the house in a wife beater and jean shorts, gave me a solemn head-nod when he spied me up on the second-floor landing, and I knew it was go-time.
He and other co-workers, So Sieb and Channa, went from wiping sleep from their eyes to full-farmer in five minutes flat. Channa, younger, arrogant, and prone to harass, began a dirt-clod war early on with So Sieb, older, reserved, goofy when teased or otherwise prompted, and we all had to duck periodically to avoid becoming collateral damage. The heavy clayish dirt was especially unforgiving in the morning hours when it was at its coldest and thickest. We struggled for two hours when So Sieb finally suggested we rent a tractor to till things up. Vuth and I both objected immediately. “This labor is our community contribution! Exercise! Integrity!” and so on and so forth. Channa let forth a series of complaints about the thick dirt, made some calculations about how long and impossible this land-prep would take. I was getting irritated but finally hit him with a Khmer proverb: “Drop by drop fills the bucket, sir.” Vuth reeled back in laughter as did So Sieb. Channa put up his hands and bowed his head in surrender and I felt smug.
“How much will you say our labor is worth on the grant report, Kelsey? For one of us this morning? Hm? Fifty dollars per person?” Channa.
“Please! You haven’t even done anything! I did this entire corner while you were taking selfies by the papaya tree!” So Sieb.
“Hey, one of you grab the file, I need to sharpen my pick.” Vuth.
“You know, Kelsey, this is like the Pol Pot years, this labor. For months all we would do was dig. If you complained they would bash at you with shovels. Ridiculous. And all we ate was porridge, not even the good kind.” So Sieb.
“Couldn’t you have just caught some fish in the ponds? Look, like that pond over there. You know, just catch a fish and eat it in secret? Doesn’t seem like it could have been that hard.” Channa.
“No, IDIOT, you couldn’t just catch a fish and eat it, what’s wrong with you!” exclaimed So Sieb, and so their dirt-clod exchange reared up again as Vuth kept chopping away at the dirt and laughing. Midwife Vanchurrn came out back and noted the water bottles I’d brought. “Oh, are these for everyone, Kelsey?” to which I replied, “No! Just for the guys working so hard, see?” but she snagged one anyway and scampered off as the guys protested. So Sieb suggested the tractor once more, claiming he could get his neighbor to till up our plot for $10. This was cheaper than Vuth or I had expected and we shared a quick glance in which he intimated approval. “Let’s go for it,” I said and after another hour we disbanded for lunch.
Between the health center and home I swung by next-door at the Heng’s to see if Srey Heng was enjoying the translated copy of Harry Potter I had given her for Christmas. Om Heng was moving some rocks around and smiled as I walked up and asked about the book. Quickly she clutched my arm and looked about, then began whispering. “Kelsey, I didn’t invite you to our house-warming party because I didn’t want to invite your host-family. This is just a Cambodian thing. I wanted you to come and I know you could hear us partying and all the beers and sodas being opened and you wanted to eat the food but I only wanted you to come, just you, and not your host-family. And if I did that it would only make it more obvious how little love there is between our homes. It’s just a Cambodian thing, it’s not your fault. I know it’s hard over there, especially since we talked that morning you were crying outside, but you have to endure, your mission is almost done. Come eat my rice any time, it’s not delicious but it will give you strength. We love you, I love you, and you have to make sure I know what day you will leave and your phone number. Srey Heng can show me how to call. Just hang in there.” I was grinning like a fool and told her I understood, everything, and had never been mad at her for a thing. Srey Heng came around the corner and read aloud to me from Harry Potter, chapter 1, page 9.
After a beautiful afternoon of reading, biking, and eating Vietnamese pancakes, I went out front to help Yaay pack up the veggies for the evening. One of our neighbors, a local police officer who has never had anything good to say to me even once in all my months here, meandered over to stir the pot. He stood with his arms akimbo and a critical cleft in his brow as he we all waited to see who he’d start in on. It was mak. The uncle asked how her youngest kid, my 22-year-old host-brother, Chiev was doing. Since last year when mak and pa began funding his involuntary pursuit of an associate’s degree in Takeo Town (to mask the fact that he’d failed his university entrance exams, obviously) Chiev has been working his ass off in an effort to become the most tremendous f*ck-up this village has ever known. His latest exploit involved wrecking his moto (again) while driving drunk (again) and fracturing some facial bones and losing two teeth (new). The uncle turned his antagonism toward me. “Kelsey, you’re a doctor, why don’t you just wash out Chiev’s wounds? Why are you forcing your poor mother to pay the hospital all that money? And I’m sure Chiev wouldn’t mind it, am I right? You won’t do it, huh? Pfft. What use even are you?” and with that he walked home. In classic Khmer fashion, Yaay had no words of defense but instead was quiet for a moment, then put a bag of sapodillas between us. Sapodillas look like kiwi fruit but are hairless and their copper flesh tastes like brown sugar. We got lost in them. We each had one, and then another, and another, laughing at our gluttony as we kept egging each other on. “Just ONE more, they’re so sweet! So sweet…”
My sister, usually an incredible cook, served for dinner one of the handful of dishes which I simply cannot stomach: a sour Vietnamese soup with pineapple, tamarind, bean sprouts, and boiled fish which when combined yield a consistency not unlike sour snot. I ate some courtesy bites and then sat awkwardly by with my book. A cousin arrived to invite mak and my sister over to mak’s mother’s – the grandest grandma in the family – for New Year’s festivities. Mak told pa to stay at home and the two women headed for the car. My cousin then invited me, giving mak a start. “Oh, did you want to come?” I was fine, I said, and returned to my book. Soon I went upstairs onto the north-side of the balcony where it’s always breezy. It was dark and the moon was strong so I laid my back on the cold tile and propped my legs up against the railing and watched the stars elude me behind clouds. I sang to myself some, listened to the various dance music and poppers sounding off around the village, enjoyed the palm fronds clattering together in the wind, and closed the 2017 volume of my life.
We were back at it again in the morning, the tractor fellows having churned up the dirt for us the previous evening. The men went about raising the soil into rows and Vuth sent me to buy some plastic sheeting. He’d seen a garden in a neighboring village that used the plastic to heat the soil and prevent grass from growing. I hoofed it to the market, did some snooping and bartering, then walked back with the giant roll on my shoulder in addition to some bananas for the guys, free, courtesy of Yaay. Upon my return there was a man with a machete in the large moringa which hung over some of the garden space who was hacking at its branches and that is when I realized that in Cambodia when you want a tree cut down you call one man with one machete. He took the thing down branch by branch in about half an hour with all of us making timberrr!-like calls with each limb. Another coworker, Makara, had joined us and was scampering away from the falling limbs near Channa.
“What are you afraid of! Death?” Vuth.
“Of course, I’m still a young man, grandpa!” replied Makara and with that we all laughed. Two little boys, one being the lumberjack’s son and the other his friend, were flitting around watching us and enjoying the atmosphere of labor and productivity. One began crying after the other plucked a hair from his head and Vuth tried to appease him with a banana then moved the offender several feet away but the hair-plucker doubled back before long and stole the crying boy’s banana which was frankly awesome to watch. So Sieb tried to console the crier. “Give it ten years, kid, you’ll get your revenge. Eat a lot of good food and get bigger than he is, then go after him.” Vanchurrn appeared again and spied the bananas. “Oh, bananas this time, Kelsey?” and all the guys whined and tried to shoo her off but she was already eating a banana on her walk back inside. We covered up the rows and all felt terribly industrious as the condensation began to form on the plastic sheeting. “Look, Kelsey, the grass is dying already! HA!” laughed Vuth in triumph.
The rest of the afternoon followed a pretty typical course. I biked to a neighboring village to ask the rice-mill owner if we could buy 21 bags of his rice husks. He agreed but we’d have to arrange our own transport. Yaay and I got the veggies tucked away in record time and I made a bean salad for lunch. My body had had it and needed to rest, but I made the mistake of checking several of my social media apps which were rife with all the photos and videos of my friends living it up in Phnom Penh for New Years the previous night. I fell asleep envious, the fear of missing out coursing strong. I took comfort in the garden progress we had made, though, and knew it just couldn’t have unfolded any other way, that I was meant to be home this weekend, and then somehow slept.
I woke about an hour later, scarfed down some pumpkin porridge my aunt was selling across the street, a gratuitous waffle, and went back to the health center. None of the guys were there but their motos were out front. “Off playing cards,” said Vanchurrn and we rolled our eyes. I went out back to enjoy the rows spread out in front of me, played some Black Keys on my phone and felt like a pretty cool lady. With my tennis shoes already on, I took right off on a run along the paved road that leads out of the village. With NPR in my ears I could more reasonably ignore all the shouts and gawking on my route. My phone rang about 2 km in and it was Channa. They were working, he wanted to let me know, but I could come whenever. They were having fun. About 30 minutes later I had circled back and cooled down on my walk back into the village from its outer limits. Everyone was putting away their rice for the night, walking around with toddlers for fun, playing volleyball. When I jogged up to the health center the guys were out back and they had put up two sides of the fencing already which shocked and delighted me. “We’re short on the thick bamboo, we don’t seem to have as much as you and I bought back in November.”
“You mean people have been stealing it?” I asked.
“Well,” said Vuth, “they have been taking it.”
I shared my concerns that we couldn’t afford to buy more but he said it would be no problem. He walked over the pile of felled moringa limbs from this morning and cleaned a few of them up with his ax, then propped them up where he planned to nail them along the fence. Channa objected. “Those are an eye-sore, they don’t match the rest of the pretty wood.”
“Yeah, but it’s a fence,” reasoned Vuth and he went back to hammering the fence together with the butt-end of his axe. Vuth gave me little things to do to feel useful, moving bamboo stacks around and fetching nails or wire, and we worked until it was dark and the mosquitoes came out. I smiled to myself as I heard Channa quietly ask Vuth if he thought we could do a little more work tomorrow morning. “If it’s slow and there aren’t many patients,” said Vuth and Channa nodded.
I towed Yaay’s cart in and took an icy bucket-shower, happily awaited our night-rice with my book. My sister presented for dinner one of the other few things I cannot eat and survive: stir-fried freshwater clams. I despaired momentarily but she quickly also produced some cabbage soup and fetal duck eggs, then put her (our) favorite Thai soap on the TV.