Slowly catching up. This is from May 13. The story’s not over. I’m in Siem Reap now and my perspective has changed a little bit, but I’ll get to that soon!
Every summer since I was eight years old, the Compton Clan has trekked up to the Pisgah National Forest with our church family. Everyone stakes out their spot and proceeds to set up impressive compounds in two valleys carved within a meandering mountain stream. Aptly named Cove Creek, the campground is nestled below the Blue Ridge Mountains. The combination of refreshing air, hiking, and a personal Sliding Rock is the perfect antidote to the busy pace of our suburban lives. Every year I come home rejuvenated, having invested in valuable relationships and increasing my appreciation of Creation. For four days, we live a little more rustically; an outhouse and a water pump are as close as we come to first-world comforts. Those four days are some of my favorite of the whole year.
Thirty-seven kilometers outside of Siem Reap, I have found a new Cove Creek. Far from our low-end luxury hotel in Phnom Penh, we are now in a home-stay, sleeping together on a tiled floor almost entirely covered in two rows of white mats and mosquito nets lined right next to each other. You have to crawl under the compound of nets to get from one side to the other, and without air conditioning, I am trying to find my Zen in this heat; others just suffer. After sweating all nine plastic bottles of water we’ve each consumed in the past twelve hours, there are no showerheads to refresh ourselves. Instead, we scoop rainwater from concrete silos; a shower could not feel as refreshing as these. There is no indoor kitchen, just a tent with a gas stove and a few coolers, yet the food we have had so far is phenomenal. For many on this trip, this is seriously roughing it. I see it the other way around. The family we are staying with are treating us like kings. They have served crispy pancakes cooked in the perfect amount of butter for breakfast and plates of fresh fish, pork and pineapple, bock choy, vegetable soup, deep-fried shitake mushrooms, chicken, and sautéed vegetables for lunch and dinner. This is not your average PB and J. At the end of a meal, they won’t allow us to do any work. We wash ourselves at least once a day and have plenty of time to relax.
While the heat does take some getting used to and it’s not a five star resort, I love this environment. I also know that with access to clean water and food, a real toilet, and a sturdy, simple house, these people are still in the top single-digit percent of the world’s wealth. I think they think our incessant need to keep clean and be cared for is ridiculous. I’m beginning to agree with them. Americans get so caught up in the person who has more, but being here makes me want to just have enough. Family, health water, food. Okay, AC, power, and maybe internet are some additional modern inventions that I would like to have. All of these appliances and cars and antique furniture – they’re nice, but when you start thinking you absolutely need them, or worse, that you deserve them, it’s time for a trip to a lower standard of living.
While we’re in the countryside, we are helping with a service project to renovate a bathroom at the local children’s school. This morning I poured my arm strength into sanding the whitewash off of the back wall. I mainly prayed and sweated and collected dust in my nostrils, but occasionally, in rhythm with each back-and-forth rub, the syllables played in my head: vol-un-tour-is-m. It might have been a little violent. Are you catching on to my dislike for tourism? I have a deep passion for service, and I am all about adventures in places vastly different from my home, but I hate this feeling of consumption and uselessness. If I am serving halfway around the world, I want to be offering skills or knowledge not readily available. It’s monotonous and I don’t mind doing it, but the twelve year old who watched me with deep concentration and amusement could have sanded that wall, and he probably would have done a better job. I always imagine what the locals think. Look at these weak white people! They need a break every hour, they’re inefficient and whiny. And they think they’re helping? Outwardly, Dam Vuttha and the others show great care and are impressively patient with us. But I think it’s just part of the job description; they have learned how to serve the high-maintenance tourists, and they do it graciously.
Still though, I am glad to be here, in a constant state of learning about the culture and the people of Cambodia. Yesterday we stopped in what looked like the middle of godforsaken nowhere. It’s actually called Sambor Prei Kuk, the original capital of ancient Khmer before Angkor Wat or Phnom Penh, and evidence remains of its past prosperity and power. Several hundred meters down the trail, we reached a stone towered Hindu temple from the year 600. An altar which was once the pedestal for a great statue of Vishnu still stands. Today, the ruins draw tourists, but once, this was a place for holy rituals. When the country practiced Hinduism, the priest would drop water over Vishnu, and the part that ran down became holy. I certainly don’t see architecture like this every day.
We were also greeted with Cambodia’s most persuasive salespeople – the kids. Buy a scarf from me? Buy two? One for sister? It gets annoying, but the ones in here were not quite as experienced as the city children, and thus, they were also less persistent. The first one I made eye contact with, Mana, walked alongside me through the whole forest. Their English is selective, and they sounded like repeating recorders as we walked along. “Careful, watch your step,” four times in a row by different kids. “Lion Temple,” “B-52 bomb crater.” Because they were less incessant, you could try to communicate with them. At one stop, I drew pictures on the ground, and we exchanged word meanings. As we walked, I learned, and have since forgotten, the first four Khmer numbers. The interaction was fun.
In the countryside, most people do not know English. The seventy-five year-old matriarch at our homestay is bald, hunchbacked, and usually smiling. Every time I see her, I wish I could have a long, deep conversation. This morning I approached her, pointing to myself and telling her my name. The way she is bent over, I imagined she was in a lot of pain, and I tried to ask her if she would like me to rub her shoulders, using corresponding body language; my grandmother loves that, so I figured she might also appreciate it. To anything I said, she just repeated “Khnom Menyol” over and over – “I don’t understand.” Vuttha happened to walk up, and I asked if he could tell her what I said. He said I could do what I want, but there was a hint of hesitation in his voice. He treats us so well, accommodating our every need and desire. I get the feeling we break cultural and materialistic norms regularly (the water bowl has decreased by half a foot in the twenty-four hours we have been here, and no one has said anything), so I pressed. He told me that in this culture, it is actually very rude to touch the head and shoulders of the elders. Anyone above fifty deserves utmost respect. After living that long, one’s wisdom must be recognized. “But go ahead if you want,” he added at the end of his explanation.
There was no reason for me to already know this, but I was horrified to think I was so close to violating such an important custom. I’m even more concerned about the way anything goes for the Americans. While I am here, I want to help, contribute, and be a part of this grand country.
|Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner|
|Farmers save hay during the dry season so they have food
for the animals during the wet season when all of the fields are flooded
|Emaciated (they all are) Cambodian Cows
Kayla, I took this picture specifically for you 🙂
|Many people in the countryside make bricks for a living. This is a brick kiln under construction|
|When it floods in the wet season, this village looks like a bunch
of floating houses. The water brings in a harvest of fish and marine life.
|A whole (very cute) family|
|The river in the dry season|