Cambodian Journal 2011, Part 18 – Preah Vihear, the Conclusion

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The children raced to the car, reached the wheel before Eddie and after Donald pealed them away one at a time, Eddie reached under the car, slipped on the washer and declared it a per fit. Now for the most important part, the nut. Eddie twists and turns and fiddles, but the nut is too small. A short conference produces Plan B. Eddie and the new guy, named Chum, who we later find out is an employee of the first guy, will go in the other direction. They will ride south to the larger town of Dam Dek, about forty minutes away, where there might be a better opportunity to find the necessary part.

Dusk was getting ready to unfold and the cicadas had begun their nightly ritual when it became apparent that Eddie would not leave his car there over night and Donald, following the code of honor among pilots, “stick by your wing man”, would not abandon Eddie. As for me, I was useless, had nothing to contribute. At the time I did not understand what Eddie needed and how confident Donald was that Eddie would find the right part and they would be on their way soon. For me if Plan B failed than Plan C would require an overnight in Eddie”s car. Since it would not accommodate the three of us, I decided I would hitch a ride into town. Maybe I was thinking I would go for help?

Chum revved up the engine, Eddie climbed onto the back of the motor bike, and they set off for Dam Dek. Donald and I stepped on to the road ready to flag down the next car. If I could get as far as Dam Dek from there I could find another ride into Siem Reap. Standing on the road we waited. We passed up the pony cart pulling a load of logs and thought there would not be sufficient room for me and on the moto transporting a large pig to market. Finally, a white van was spotted and Donald and I waved it down. A driver and guide with two tourists. The guide conferred with his customers and it was agreed they would take me to Siem Reap as they were going there also. I said goodbye to Donald, gave him a book in case he got bored waiting, and I was off.

MY STORY
Five minutes down the road, I felt awful. At first, I had figured, instead of waiting on the side of the road, I could go to Siem Reap and there be in a position to find a Toyota distributor and obtain the proper part. But then I realized I was a deserter, the going got rough and I bailed out, leaving them alongside the road. I called Donald only to find out he was relieved I was gone, one less thing to worry about.

I turn my attention to the tourists who are having an animated conversation with their guide. Listening carefully, I know they are not speaking Khmer. Finally, the younger one turns around to speak. My name is Sasha, he is Sergei, and we live in small town near Moscow. My name, Alexandra and yes I nodded, it is a Russian name, same same as Sasha. Sasha”s English turns out to be minimal so I do not try to explain that I am not Russian, only named after my grandfather who was Hungarian. With the language barrier, I know I will not find out why the Khmer guide speaks Russian. Sasha manages to communicate that Sergei is a doctor and he is an engineer and his son and daughter work in the United States, one in San Francisco the other in Los Angeles. Sergei does not stop clicking photos. He sees trees that interest him. The van pulls over, he clicks a few rounds at a kapok tree, then photographs the seed bed of small rice shoots, brilliant green and fragile, which will soon be planted in the flooded rice paddy. Later we stop; he photographs a grove of bamboo, even later a fichus tree in the clutches of a strangler fig. We stop by the side of a drainage ditch filled with cows. I point out the old Angkorian bridge that is nearby, but Sergei is only interested in photographing the cows. A pair of oxen pulling a wagonload of red clay pots comes down the road. These pots, famous all over Cambodia, are made in a small village near the town of Kompong Chhnang. This is a colorful scene, a thick slice of indigenous life. Sasha shows some interest and Sergei remains with his cows.

Back in the van, Sasha wants to know where I am from. Knoxville, Tennessee reminds him of his favorite author, Tennessee Williams. Same, same I reply. There is plenty of time for him to mention his other favorite authors. He has read Mark Twain, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. I counter with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. He has enjoyed Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Updike. I mention Chekhov and Gogol. He mentions Graham Greene but I do not try to tell him he is British not American. Our literary name dropping ends with his lament, today children no read only work computer. I agree, same same in America.

I keep a look out for Eddie. We pass through the market at Dam Dek and there is no sight of him. Thirty minutes later we are in Siem Reap. They bring me to the hotel. I ask how much do I owe. They all agreed nothing for them, just pay the driver. One ten dollar bill leaves the driver smiling, we wave, they drive away. Five minutes later, I am back in the room; ten minutes later I step out of the shower leaving puddles of reddish water finding its way down the drain. On the patio, a slice of Gouda cheese in one hand, a glass of chilled white wine in the other, I feel guilty.

DONALD”S STORY
The children lose interest and disappear back into the countryside. Donald now sits on the side of the road with the young man who had originally taken Eddie to Svay Leu. He turns out to be from Saigon and similar to the children before, Donald dusts off his Vietnamese vocabulary. He finds out his name, Thanh, his age, twenty-seven. Donald uses his longest phrase, “may I give you my business card”. Thanh understands and they exchange cards. After a few more phrases, Donald depletes his inventory. In Vietnamese, Thanh tells Donald he speaks English. Donald understands and the conversation continues. He seems very willing to speak English, words tumble out of his mouth as if he needs to talk to a native English speaker. He tells Donald he has been living in Svay Leu for six months. He is the supervisor for a Vietnamese phone company and because he does not speak Khmer, he hires only those Cambodians who can speak English. He is tired of living in such a small place and finds the Cambodians not too smart and rather lazy.

Donald tells him he was a soldier in the American Vietnam War and asks him about his father. He learns the father was a Viet Cong, a South Vietnamese who fought on the side of the North. He carried a RPG (rocket propelled grenade) fought the Americans in the Iron Triangle and often hid out in the tunnels at Chu Chi. He tells Donald that his grandfather fought the French and was killed in the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Donald makes a statement, the Vietnamese won both wars. Thanh thinks, tilts his head to one side and says yes, it was good to be rid of the French but we would have been better off if the American had won. They would have developed our country, there would have been no Communism, and business would be better. He is not the first one willing to alter history.

What do two men sitting on the side of the road have in common? They agreed that Angkor Beer is good but they both prefer 333, the Vietnamese beer. Thanh says he has a girl friend in Saigon and they will be married soon. She is far away so he likes to boom boom with Cambodian girls. They are very nice and very cheap. Donald replies, he cannot compare, he only knows Vietnamese women and that was a long time ago. It is around 5:00, the slanting rays of the sun find them, their projecting shadows lengthen. What has happened to Eddie?

EDDIE”S STORY
Eddie and Chum, Thanh”s Khmer assistant, motor down the road and reach Dam Dek in about forty minutes. Eddie is looking for the Khmer version of the Pep Boys and finds a shop alongside the road selling a variety of auto and motor cycle parts. They pull off the road, the wheels of the moto coming to a stop, whipping the loose dirt into clouds of red dust. They park the bike under a shade tree. To reach the entrance, they step over motors, skeletons of their former selves, hard to tell if they are in various stages of decay or in the process of being rebuilt. The shop is rather primitive, the only light coming from the open door and the cracks between the wooden strips masquerading as walls. Out of the murky interior, a young woman appears. Eddie and Chum take turns explaining what they need. They enter the shop, walk on a dirt floor adjusting their eyes to the dim light. She walks ahead of them, the clutter of the front does not prepare them for the orderly nature of the shop. Woven baskets hold parts that have been sorted and graded by size and use. Eddie stops in front of a basket of nuts, examines each one with the discerning eye of a trained auto mechanic, after all, he is one. He selects what he considers the proper size. The young woman disagrees with his selection and hands him another one. The total cost is 2.00. Chum disagrees with her and the price drops to 1.50. Eddie gives her 6000 riel and the deal is complete.

Eddie knows there is no room for error. He must find a garage that repairs Toyota Camrys so he can double check if he has the right size nut. If that fails, he is prepared to find a Khmer driving a similar car and offer to pay him for this piece. An old Camry is not hard to find and after all, part of Cambodian”s “charm” is that most anything is available for a price. They make the right hand turn at the market and a short ways down National Highway 6, Eddie finds what he is looking for. Stepping into the garage, he finds a Toyota Camry up on blocks. In the back room, he finds three Khmer mechanics asleep on cots. No need to disturb them, he crawls under the car, assesses he has the correct size, and he and Chum leave without being noticed. Cambodian style, even the security guard was taking a nap. Eddie wants to fill the motor cycle with gas but Chum will not allow this. He insists, Chum also insists. Chum wins.

The entire process in Dam Dek takes around fifteen minutes and then they are on their way back. Eddie arrives, with just minutes of daylight left. Back under the car, he tries the nut he selected, then tries the one the woman handed him. Something about the quality of the thread. The latter fits better and he stores the other one in the glove compartment. Nothing wrong with having a spare and who says the Khmers are dumb. Donald and Eddie both try to give Chum and Thanh money, they are grateful for their help, it would not have been possible without them. They will not accept any payment; even refuse when Donald tries to slip it into their shirt pocket. “Akun”, thank you in Khmer and “cam on” in Vietnamese. They promise to come by the field and Eddie will give them a free flight. They part as friends.

Back on the road, Donald and Eddie head toward Siem Reap. Eddie goes slowly at first, just to test it out and then they are driving as before… just as if nothing had ever happened.

Donald calls from the road. Meet us at Queen”s BBQ, we will be there at 7:00. I am ridden with guilt; I wimped out, but after all this story is not about me. It could be a story of friendship, developed over the years between two trike pilots or it could be a testimonial to Eddie”s skill as a mechanic. Regardless, the story exists because…. only in Cambodia……..

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