Mud & Water: The Kindness of Strangers in Rural Cambodia

The one true constant that I have found as I move around the world is the kindness of strangers. Of course, people have also been terrible. In every country I have met selfish people, hateful people, violent people, I’ve had things stolen, I’ve been followed home, and I’ve been harassed.

But these things don’t stick with me. I don’t remember the bad moments from Korea, Nepal, or any other country. What I do remember is the kind words and kind actions from strangers. The little moments when a stranger reached out to me, across cultural misunderstandings and language barriers, and offered me help or support.

20160914_180505But What About Battambang?

My weekends in Battambang are remarkable in their dullness. Please don’t think I am complaining. I work hard all week, slaving away at an underpaid NGO job, spending my lunch breaks and evenings creating content for my freelance writing clients to make ends meet. By Friday afternoon, all I can think about is the two days ahead of me filled with absolutely nothing.

Or actually filled with five to ten hours of writing, or seeking new freelance writing gigs… but also nothing.

This is a stark contrast from my life in Korea and Peru. In South Korea my weekends were full of partying, drinking, and weekend long excursions across the tiny country. In Peru, living in the Andes, my weekends were usually filled with hiking and backpacking adventures.

Here in Battambang things are different. It’s so goddamned hot every day, I can’t be fucked to leave my apartment. If I go out in the sun I’m immediately blinded and can feel the cancer cells erupting from my skin. Cambodia makes me feel that I am part Vampire, craving the darkness. Or maybe that’s the buffy I’ve been binging on…

Yet Sometimes I am Adventurous

One weekend, I made a conscious effort to get out of my house. A girl named Valerie recently moved into the apartment next to mine, and we hit it off right away. And even though I had been dealing with a persistent ear infection, and I knew I had other shit to do, I asked her in passing… want to go for a drive?

I wanted to check out a temple I had spotted on google earth. I got the sense it wasn’t a temple frequented by westerners, because I couldn’t find any mention of it in any blog, anywhere. Of course this only made me want to visit it more.

Now might be a good time to mention I haven’t really visited any of the tourist attractions in Battambang, except for the one I work for.

The Eventful Trip to O Krasang

20160918_124131So we hopped on my decrepit Honda Daelim 150cc motorbike and set off for O Krasang and the Angkor Era temple. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the road there would be a dirt road.

Or, in the dry season it is a dirt road. But now, three months into the rainy season, it was a muddy death trek of doom. When dry, the road would be wide enough for one car to drive safely, but two cars would have difficulty passing each other. In the wet there was one track, exactly the width of a motorbike tire and no wider, on which it was safe to drive. Everywhere else was either puddles or slippery muck.

As I set off onto this road, my whole body was tense. I wasn’t worried about myself or my bike. If I fell and muddied up the bike, whatever, it was just part of the story. But I was also responsible for Valerie’s well-being.

So this is what I am thinking as I start winding my bike along this twisting 5 inch wide strip of rideable road, desperately trying to maintain enough momentum not to get stuck, keep my eyes on the path in front of me, and not kill Valerie.

The tension was quickly broken by the source of my worry, Valerie. Instead of acting scared or stressed out, I heard her shouting behind me “Yeah, Megan, you got this!” “This is so cool!” and “There are so many cows!”

Pretty soon we are both laughing, and I was really enjoying the challenge of motoring along the muddy death trap. The road probably took 20 minutes to traverse, and I’m proud to say I didn’t fuck up once.

After the 20 minute joyous ride of doom, we turned onto a paved road and the rest of the trip was smooth and comfortable. 10 minutes later we pulled into this small temple in the middle of a Cambodian village. I probably don’t have to tell you that we were the only foreigners there. They didn’t even charge us an entrance fee. In Southeast Asia if they don’t charge you an entrance fee, it means you are the first foreigner ever to set foot there.

We explore the temple, wander around the footpaths into the jungle a bit, find ourselves in someone’s backyard, work our way back to the temple, and eat a picnic lunch. Eventually it’s time to go home.20160918_121306

On The Way Back, Things Get Interesting

As we are hopping back onto my trusty steed ancient scooter, I mention to Valerie that I had seen a different way home on the map. It would take longer, but be much prettier, following a stream as it wound through the jungle and farmland. Was she game to try? Valerie, the embodiment of adventure, consents. We decide to try out this wilder route home.

Of course, it isn’t a paved road. We find ourselves facing another muddy dirt path, winding along a murky river swollen from the recent rains. Overconfident from our recent success on the 20 minute ride of doom, I turn onto the street and rev the engine.

We hadn’t even gone a quarter of a mile before we’re faced with a muddy patch that outdoes everything we saw on the way to the temple. It makes my earlier “ride of doom” feel like a cake walk. Instinctively I know, 5 seconds too late, I can’t do this.

But of course, my hands don’t follow my brain. My brain says NO! Stop! Turn around! My hands drive the bike into the muck. I hit mud, I slide, step my foot to the side to catch myself, my foot hits the mud and slides uncontrollably backwards, my bike slides to the left and I fall into the mud. I feel Valerie fall behind me. I push my hands into the muck and they sink a good 6 inches. I try to push myself up and that’s when I realize… I’m stuck.

When my foot hit the muck, it slid backwards and Valerie fell on top of my leg, trapping me in the mud. I try to twist my face over to look at Valerie and ask her to get up. That’s when I realize she can’t. She is trapped under the motorbike.

Okay, I think, you’ve crashed your motorbike on top of your new friend. Time to pick it up so she doesn’t get hurt and hate you forever. I grab the handlebars and try to pick up the bike. But every time I try to move it, I just slide deeper into the mud. I can’t get purchase to leverage up the bike. I can’t move it.

Shit. I’m trapped under Valerie, who is trapped under the bike that I can’t move because I’m trapped under Valerie. Things were not looking so good.

20160918_164419

That’s when I heard him. A man ran over saying something in Khmer. He grabbed the back of the bike, I grabbed the handles, and we lifted the bike up a few inches, enough for Valerie to get out and me to stand up.

He took the bike and walked it out of the muck, setting it on its kickstand on the side of the road. I realized we had crashed right in front of a house with a family sitting outside. A woman came over to us. She grabbed Valerie and motioned to me. She led us into their compound and beneath the house.

Traditional Cambodian homes are raised up on stilts. Beneath the house, the family will set out tables, hammocks, and a few large jar shaped cisterns to store water. The woman led us to one of these cisterns to wash ourselves off. By now her husband had joined us again.

I thought they might give us a bucket to wash off the mud, but no. The husband walked over with a small plastic bucket and started to wash Valerie himself. She is laughing and saying thank you “akun, akun, thank you so much” over and over again. He turned her around, washing her legs, her arms, his wife standing behind him, pointing and fretting. They clean her cuts, her feet, he even tries to clean her face.

The wife steps up and tries to help me clean myself as well, but being the rather shy person I am, I gently shake her away and set about cleaning my feet. She settles for cleaning my shoes.

Once we’re all tidied up, we turn to the family and try to say thank you, over and over, in both Khmer and English. They shake off our thanks, smiling shyly. There is probably some huge gap of cultural understanding behind our desire to say thank you, and their unwillingness to accept our thanks.

Taking us in and helping us get clean would have filled my daily quota of unsolicited kindness, but of course, there was more. The family walked us back to the bike and watched to make sure we could get it going again. When I was too flustered to start the bike, the husband came over to start it for me.

We made the intelligent decision to take the paved road home, and the rest of the trip was uneventful. Except for the very strange looks we got from strangers as we drove down National Highway 5 on a motorbike completely covered in muck.

All in all, a good day made excellent by the kindness of strangers.

Pay it forward.

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