Friday, July 07, 2006

A Cambodian Story 2003

The Way the River Flows
By Nina Chaiyapin

Stand at the crossroads and look;
Ask for the ancient paths,
Ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
And you will find rest for your souls.
~Jeremiah 6:16

Flying raindrops pelted on a sheet of glass. The water snaked down the slick surface separating the two worlds—one of which was untouchable by the tropical rain. The rain had painted the landscape into a luscious green space, giving births to new lives and sustaining old ones. On one side of the glass with neon white lights stood a woman who, in her ‘marang’ attire that set her apart from the natives, was staring out the window of a mini-mart, hoping for the sky to clear up. In a town like this, any place with tile floors provided the best hideout from the storm. 4 p.m. She was hoping to spend her late afternoon admiring the beautiful sunset at Ankor Wat, Siem Reap. After all, her visit to Cambodia had been short. And the heavy rainfall—interrupting her flow of fun—drew opaque, swinging curtains, covering the pristine beauty that her soul longed to savor.

Many tourists from Phnom Penh, south of Siem Reap, took a speedboat up the Tonle Sap River that eventually reaches the Great Lake, the largest body of freshwater in Southeast Asia.

Cambodia, a war-torn country also known as Kampuchea, is the land of the extremes where one can discover the mystery of the jungle temple, coupled with the magic of the Ankor Wat; the Khmer rouge; the Pol Pot regime; the genocide of the educated Khmers; ‘a kingdom divided within itself’; the people so poor and yet so rich; constant border disputes and civil wars; unbearable violence trapped in unmatched kindness; the bombing of the Thai Embassy; the unsung heroes who secretly gave refuge to the Thai officials; naked children; squatter shacks; much to receive and more to give; desperate poverty of material possessions, yet rich in gratitude; a type of fertile soil for the souls long dead and forgotten in the midst of a busy life; a long and complex war history coupled with the simplicity of life; confusion mingled with clarity, the subject of much lesser interest in the “Western World.” Cambodia is still unbeknownst to many as the other “Wild, Wild, West.” Publicity has been on the down low, unlike Iraq or Nazi Germany. Although people have moved on and forgotten the horror upon this land, the race of people who have suffered the genocide will not. The Khmers cannot easily wash away the bloodstain and the pictures taken of prisoners before their execution.

During the rainy season, the Tonle Sap River reverses its direction, flowing north and flooding the Great Lake; thus, it is the only “river that returns.”

The woman in the mini-mart kept glancing at the clock. For two hours, she’d been sitting in the same seat, reading magazines in English. Her mind had been saturated with facts and figures about western economy and politics. It had been raining for three days now; puddles and dirty water could potentially ruin her sandals. However, the mini-mart’s walls and windows provided protection from the rain. Next to her, sat a group of Khmer men laughing heartily at their own jokes while eating cups of noodles with the label Ma Ma on them, a Thai product. The smell of the warm noodles filled the air. A hot cup of noodles before walking back to the guesthouse would nicely end this uneventful evening.

A cup of Ma Ma cost1000 riels or 25 cents, and she handed the bill to the cashier and walked back to her seat. Appeared a figure. Out the window was a boy with no shoes, palms together in front of his chest, scrawny, soaking, shivering. Inside the mini-mart, things seemed to go on as usual. The Khmer men were eating and laughing and other customers were walking up and down the aisles talking in different languages. Again, the woman looked out the window and vanished the boy. The cup warmed her hands. The boy shouldn’t be running around begging for money. His mom should feed him. Someone should. It shouldn’t be her responsibility. Or should it? Although she regularly gave to charities, tonight, her tired body chained her soul.

She was about to take another bite, then a knock on the window. His eyes reached down to her food, and she swiveled her chair. The shiny, well-wrapped products on the shelves were the objects of her fixation. It isn’t my responsibility. Is it? Another tug at the heartstrings. I just want some rest. The pull was so strong now that she finally mustered up what was left of her courage to face the boy.

But he was gone.

Tossing out her food, she grabbed her purse and rushed out the door. Without the protection of the mini-mart, the rain was seeping through her clothes and writhing down her skin. The murky water clung to her legs and feet and her beautiful sandals were deep in a puddle. Where is the boy? The boy with no shoes and a longing look in his eyes. Must I do something? Can I do something? Soon, she saw him next to a motorist who was filling up his tank at a gas station. The boy’s gesture was the same, palms in front of his chest. The motorist fumbled through his pocket and handed the boy a few coins. He bowed and ran toward the street. She quickened her pace, but the boy outran her. In the distance, he was jumping up and down with two other kids his size, all in rags and no shoes. A faint laughter broke through thin air. After awhile, the rain kept pouring and she couldn’t see them much longer. Nevertheless, the picture of the boy in the rain never faded, even through a flood of memories.

Although many Cambodians want to leave the country because of its political instability and extreme poverty, some people will stay. Some will have to stay. And some will return because they believe that good will come around in the land where the river does return.