My second bicycle ride in Kampong Cham in 2013 was with another Australian nurse and a German doctor. Four years ago perhaps even to the day, it was the end of the rainy season and the Mekong waters had receded. Planting on the floodplains was well underway, with lush green crops contrasted against deep blue skies. We cycled dusty country lanes, visiting golden Buddhist temple grounds, photographing village life and farm scenes, and enjoying the calls of “Haaallooo” from excited children, on a 50km circular trip. We observed that some of these villages were Islamic, noticing the mosques and colourful attire. I have since cycled these tracks many times, been thrown from the tuk tuk and (per Chom), “landed in the banana flowers” on our most dramatic tuk tuk ride of many, delivered a baby on a wooden motorised canoe traveling over flooded cornfields, met Paula and her family, and so many other momentous experiences. I continue to feel wowed by this little patch of the world but four years ago I could never have predicted that the scenery so impressing me was actually a blank canvas upon which a million human brush strokes were about to paint colourful details into my life.
When we took Paula to the US for surgery an Imam in the American Cham community picked us up at the airport and drove us to the hospital. Some time later he informed me that, referencing the city skyscape on our horizon, Paula said to him in Cham from the front passenger seat “It will be okay if I die after having this experience”. When the local Cham community descended upon us in droves, killing my western hopes of solitary independence, even in America Cambodia showed her power to rip my notions of world order apart. The Imam explained that he had grown up in a village a few short kilometres from Paula’s home. Upon questioning, I was as astounded as him, to realise that I knew his home village! I was even able to produce a photograph of myself standing beside his neighbour, an elderly man who had approached and stood with me as I waited for my friends at a turn off near his village oneday.
Last week the Imam contacted me with this message:
I am planning to ask my uncle from Phnom Penh to go to my village, would you have time to go visit my village? He bringing my books to give to students in my village. Could you please go with them? This is his family and I already paid for everything for them. This is his daughter and she speak English very well. Please let me know if you interested. About safety don’t worry because almost all villagers are our relatives.
Familiar enough now, to know that any invitation from the Cham community makes my world bigger and better, I jumped at the opportunity and so plans were put in place. When I asked if I should put a scarf on my head when I go into the school he replied No you don’t have to do so because we know and understand the culture. Just dress what ever you like. Just show them that we are different but we still can make friends.
Early on Thursday morning a car pulled in at my riverside hotel in Kampong Cham. I climbed in to the back seat with greetings of Salaam Ali Kim to Imam’s aunt and uncle. We made our slow journey out of town as they said they had been told I spoke good Khmer, soon learning they had been told wrong! In three months the track has transformed from floodwaters to slush to mud to impacted dirt. Our low suspension scraped along the rough surface more than once during the journey as they asked about the state of roads in Australia and I tried to give a rudimentary reply without any of the vocabulary I needed. As we passed the waters, now reverting to cornfields again, where Boat Baby was born almost three months ago and then Boat Baby’s semi-flooded house, I wished I had the vocabulary to tell that story. We passed the turn-off to The Eyes who are coming to town tomorrow for their appointment on Monday with SEE International. Through familiar villages, past temples, mosques, hay stacks, fields, markets and over familiar bridges. Almost an hour later yet only 20km from town we arrived in their village, immediately greeting family members walking along the track from the car windows, before continuing a short way. At just after 7 o’clock in the morning, we drove into the tiny school perched on a little hilltop on the edge of the track. Immediately children appeared from nowhere in their vibrant outfits of hijabs and flowing skirts, skull caps and tunics, obviously rehearsed in forming orderly rows for school assemblies in the dust. My heart immediately melted at the extreme cuteness.
Teachers coordinated the growing rows of children. One teacher approached me to introduce himself, explaining that he teaches English to the children once a week on Sundays. Villagers milled around facing the children and I was ushered into a small classroom where 85 books were awaiting distribution, a small yellow envelope to be given with each book. A short photo opportunity was taken with the teachers, uncle, aunt and I, before we were given a pile of books and envelopes each, proceeding out to the waiting rows of students. Encouraged and reassured by a teacher approaching each child ahead of me, some of the children were too timid to speak, others uttered oor kun (Khmer thank you) and some knew the words “sank you”. Soon enough all books were distributed and I was asked to give a short speech, so I spoke in single sentences for the young man translating, who is home from university studies in Saudi Arabia, of the joy of knowing Cham people and giving books to children and having cycled through this village many times, and how special it was to come here again for this occasion.
With formalities over, we formed a procession and walked through the village to what I guess was one of the teachers’ homes, where breakfast of beef noodle soup was served. To me alone! When I suggested I shouldn’t eat alone (thinking, especially not about two hours since breakfast and with this many eyes upon me!), Uncle took a small bowl and joined me. Bottles of water were presented, a child was sent away and returned with a packet of paper napkins, and atop a shaky bamboo ladder leading into a traditional wooden home, with dozens of witnesses, I ate a delicious but second bowl of breakfast on the shining wooden floor. As I photographed the open fire atop bamboo floorboards responsible for creating this feast, one of the women asked me was this unusual to me? I motioned that in Australia we don’t cook on open fires, we use ovens with doors, eliciting a lot of exclamations and laughter.
With breakfast eaten, we proceeded back onto the dust track to visit a number of other homes including the homes that my Imam friend grew up in and lived in until his move to America around 10 years ago. We sat around vibrant bamboo mats on a number of different floors, mutually curious about each other’s lives, and the Imam’s cousin translating at his father’s instruction, did I have children, did I have a husband, what about parents and siblings, when was I returning home, etc. At around 9am Uncle told me through his son, that he hoped I could visit again oneday, but for now, it was time to go home. With babies kissing my hand and waving bye-bye, more posing for group photographs and happy farewells, I climbed into the back seat before being instructed to get in the front. This time the family were traveling with us, so three adult children sat alongside their mother in the back! The ceremonious occasion had ended and an hour later I lay down in my hotel room, exhausted enough to sleep for three hours!
This tiny part of the world doesn’t warrant a mention on the map which reads as though it may be uninhabited. Yet this small area perhaps spanning a 60km radius across the Mekong river delta, has magnified my own world into a kaleidoscope of peculiar human experience and friendship.