Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas from Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Cambodia overwhelms me. I've never been anywhere where the people are so poor, where tragedy is so fresh. The dignity they maintain, the way everyone tries so hard to please, the genuine smile that lights up a little girls face like a torch when I overpay for a bottle of water - she quoted me 500 riel, which is about 10 cents, and I gave here a dollar. How offensive most Westerners are - haggling over pennies with moto drivers struggling to care for a family on $30 a month while stumbling out of a bar and asking the driver for boom boom at the chicken farm.

One night in a farmhouse somewhere near a town that isn't on my map. Khmer houses are built on stilts, with most of the living down underneath the floor, in the shade. Chickens strut about, pecking and shitting, competing with scruffy dogs for scraps. A pig digs furiously out back. Some honking geese, a turkey in the tree.

Water buffalo haul cut rice through the fields, green mountains in the distance, scattered palm trees, many scarred by hot lead bullets. All I can think of is The Lorax by Dr. Suess, which everyone should read. The illustrations are Cambodia.

Young monks in orange robes thrilled to speak English, living in the shade by an ancient temple set in a cavernous auditorium of limstone. Local boys guide me, holding torches made of dried leaves and wax.

Traffic, more auditory than visual, everyone out in the road, not wrapped up in an AC car interior but hanging onto trucks, bikes, motor scooters, cows - bouncing about on the potholes, dodging chickens and naked children, World Bank signs lead to smooth black top.

The food - always rice, and baguettes for 10 cents in the market, better than the bread in Montreal, curries and bottles of Angkor Beer. A $2 steak seems like an unnecessary expense.

There is an island off the coast - big on the map, just visible as a dark patch on the hazy horizon. It's called Koh Rong. There might be a fishing village, but no hotels. I'm trying to find a fisherman to take us there tomorrow.


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