Cambodian Journal 2011, Part 14 – Back to the Village of Pom Prei

In the beginning, when tourism was still an abstraction, we would ride out to Tuit”s village on the back of a motorbike, each one of us having our favorite driver. In this way, we had direct contact with the land, riding through clouds of red dust while waving to the people who were not yet accustomed to foreigners, chasing cows off the road, and avoiding potholes. When the Asian invasion began, stimulated by budget airlines, the over sized tour groups were stuffed into giant buses, which along with overloaded trucks, gave an increased element of danger to traveling the narrow roads. We retreated to the relative safety of the tut-tut and then to Eddie”s car, which decreased the otherwise hour trip to thirty minutes. Today, Eddie is working seven days a week, and Donald and I are back in the tut-tut, to the pleasure of Burin, our favorite Siem Reap tut-tut driver, whom we have know from the beginning.

We were taking Tuit to visit his family and not wanting to arrive empty handed, we purchased a 50 kilo bag of rice from Cinnamon. Recently, she has started a small business selling and delivering rice. Of course, she did not hesitate to bring it to my attention that if she had a better moto, as her original bike has been stolen, she would be able to do a larger business. Yes, Cinnamon I heard what you said as Burin heaved the bag into the tut-tut. Tuit was waiting for us by the school gate and climbed into the tut-tut wearing his new jeans, his new shirt, and carrying a small suitcase. He was going home looking all spiffed up but he too was not returning empty handed.

The drive to his village is through classic Cambodian countryside. The iconic sugar palms are scattered through recently harvested rice fields. Now lying fallow, spiky rice stalks cover the paddies in swaths of dusty beige, as skinny cows and water buffalo graze. Private moments are lived out alongside the road. We observe women, modestly wrapped in sarongs, gather around the family well to wash, soaping up and pouring small pots of water over themselves. The people are very superstitious and large stuffed figures are propped up against trees, charged with warding off evil spirits.

This is the season for making palm sugar. In front of every house, bubbling cauldrons set over wood fires are reducing the palm liquid until it resembles our brown sugar. It is then artfully wrapped in palm leaves, for their own consumption or sold to the tourists . Bags of charcoal, made in clay ovens, line the road waiting to be picked up. Even though there is still no electricity and only the fortunate have wells, usually provided by foreign donations, the people seem to be doing better. More wash hangs on the fences, more cows in the fields, and more roosters, chickens and ducks scurrying about. We see more plots of vegetable, important when they run out of rice, and more bicycles. More motorbikes are parked under their stilted houses. More people are involved in selling handicraft items and their success in the tourist trade depends on their willingness to pay the bus driver or the tut-tut drive a commission.

A small crowd is waiting when we arrive at Tuit”s house. Maybe Tuit called ahead. They watch as we pull off the road, momentarily lost in a cloud of red dust, and negotiate the wooden planks placed across the drainage ditch. Tuit has not been home for several months and we are curious as to how he will be received. The children gather around him and he seems to slip back into an easy relationship with them. One of his friends rides up on a bicycle and he introduces us to him. But unlike the mothers I know, Tuit”s mother does not rush out to hug him. We are from the West with its custom of dramatic expression. Maybe this is not their way or maybe there are exchanges of feelings and emotions that are invisible to us. We only observe, not seeking an explanation. We see Tuit open his small bag and hand two little girls adorable jean jackets and he slips his younger brother a 1,000 riel note (.25) As for us, Donald and I both hug the mother and she thanks us for the rice which Burin places inside their concrete hut. She hands us a fresh coconut with a straw and handfuls of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and packets of sugar palm. We look over the crowd and the usual collection of dusty, dirty, raggedy children. We know most of the older women, part of Donald”s primary group. Each comes forward with big smiles, presenting us with more palm sugar, packets of rice steamed in banana leaves, and sticky rice and red beans stuffed inside bamboo cylinders. Life must be better for them as never before have we received this much rice. We are always touched by their kindness and willingness to give back and very thankful they never expect us to taste their cooking. Donald gets out his medical kit and as timeless as the rice fields and the palm trees, we are back in it again. The mothers with their children in tow step up and wait their turn while others squat in the dust talking amongst themselves. Young mothers carry one baby on their hip while nursing another. Children fall down, their mothers do not rush to pick them up. They do not cry because they already know crying produces no results. I sit amongst the women. We smile and laugh, no need for translation. For a moment in time, we are once again part of their world.

Like returning to the old neighborhood, Donald and I walk down the road. We find the spirit house still standing behind the police station, filled with burned joss sticks (incense) stuck into cut down plastic water bottles filled with sand. The police station”s previous collection of ducks and chickens has grown into a sizeable operation. Donald wants to visit with his police friends but the only policeman on duty is asleep and Donald does not know him.

We continue down the road to visit with the police chief, his wife, and their beautiful daughter. This is definitely the dominant family in the area and we have known them from the start. The police chief, Nam, and his wife, Lam, are sitting on a wooden platform under the shade of a massive tamarind tree, the same place where we said goodbye to them last year. They too seem genuinely happy to see us return and after the proper wais, putting our palms together with a slight bow, we hug them. Burin is with us to do the translating and we learn Tia, the daughter, is living in Phnom Penh with her husband, also a police man, and their two children. Lam tells us they are now in business to raise catfish. Recently, she was reunited with her uncle who had fled to America in 1979 after the Vietnamese invasion. He had offered to take them with him but Nam refused to go and Lam would not leave without him. In America, the uncle opened a restaurant, became successful and through various agencies, he was able to locate her. Several months ago, he visited and gave them $10,000 to start this venture. They have constructed three pools and hired someone to run the business. We have no idea if they know what they are doing but the money has been invested and they expect to sell their first crop of fish for Khmer New Year in April.

Through the course of the day, we did see Tuit and his mother talk and she had her arm around him but when it was time to leave, he had no trouble hopping back into the tut-tut. Burin told them we would return the next Sunday and hand out clothing, but it was to be for family and friends only.

Being a Westerner, I prefer shopping where the prices are fixed, not open for negotiations. Having experience buying many items for the villagers, I have an idea for what things should cost. Like most expats, I hate to be ripped off by the locals. I avoid the Psar Chaa, old market, in the center of town, as the tourist wise merchants have become just too greedy. No, I will not pay .50 for a bar of Lux soap when the price should be .25 or less and no I will not pay $13.00 for Tuit”s sandals when $5.00 is the Khmer price. Often when buying for the village, my requests for a discount are met with stony silence, as if the merchants have forgotten they are not that far removed from village life or care less. In Buddhist societies, there is that tendency not to be thy brother”s keeper because one”s desperate plight in this life is only the result of a dissolute former life. The old concept of karma, cause and effect, working its way out.

Several years ago at the market on Sivatha Street, I meet a young woman and as we engaged in conversation, her English was very good, she told me she is a Christian. After I inform her I want to buy 96 tee-shirts in assorted sizes to give away to village children, she makes a small blessing over my head and offers the t-shirts a $1.00 per piece. I assume at this price she must still be making a profit. As in the past, this year I returned to her. She remembered me and I left with a head full of blessings and a sack of tee-shirts under my arm.

Another week passed as quickly as the one before. By the following Sunday, Tuit had already been involved in his art lessons and we told him we would go to his village early in the morning and return in time for art school. Eddie was still being busy and we returned to the village by tut-tut.


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