Writing fast under a fan on the Cambodian coast...
Our guesthouse is a few rooms well away from the beach, across the road from the backside dumpsters and carparks of the Golden Sands hotel, and next door to another quiet inn with a restaurant out front where a lovely mother with the softest smile in the world squats down and cooks big heaping delicious plates of curry for her guests: a skinny young Frenchman with dredlocks and a young Khmer girl staying in his room, a older Frenchman with a younger girl, a deeptanned young Spanish couple, 3 British alchoholics in various stages of decay and a starry-eyed hippy named Spring, who is volunteering at a local community development group but got too stoned and drunk last night at a Christmas party on the beach and was still in the restaurant at 1 o clock this afternoon.
Sihanoukville is booming. Lying back on the beach, a string of lights curving under black hills, reflected against the gentle sea. Music pumps out of hastily constructed bars, frenzied competition for dollar bills, polite white shirted boys beg customers inside. Each crowd gravitates to a different bar, drawn in by Jack Johnson, Rage Against the Machine or the Black Eyed Peas. There are generally two kinds of bars, those with prostitutes and those without, but many more of the former, and the line is never clear. Look at the sparkling sea, where 20 Khmers are being baptized, holding hands in a circle, dressed in their best clothes, exuding happiness and hope, then look at the bar, where that ex pat is buying a girl a beer, and she couldn't be more than 16. And what do the local people know? That no army will come to kill them tonight, and rich people will give away dollar bills at the beach if one can find out what they want (everyone has their vice), and better wear earplugs at night to drown out the blasting karaoke and barking dogs.
There is a lot of good and a lot of evil in this land, and even though right and wrong shine brighter than anywhere sometimes, things are moving too fast and hard to always recognize the difference. Maybe the young Frenchman with the girl is living here, maybe his family was here before the war. Maybe that girl is really in her early twenties, and they are on their honeymoon, and two families of former enemies will come together. Probably not. But sometimes young men who I think might rob me approach with shy, hopeful smiles and write their addresses carefully on tiny slips of paper and ask me, so softly, if I like Michael Jackson and if I'll be their friend.
We are aliens here, from a place of incomprehensible wealth and beauty. America is a powerful ideal, and when I say that I like Cambodia better, they look at me as if I'm mad. Naive I'll give them. But America would do well to aspire towards Khmer values - strong family, good food, selflessness and above all, a people trying desperately to reclaim their culture and prevent another war. No one here understands the concept of 'senior citizen communities'. Children want to learn, so that they can help their younger siblings eat well and get medicine. And if they can't find a job, no matter how long they try or how fluently they speak English, or if the tips don't come for a little while, maybe younger sister will have to find the money for makeup and sexy clothes and, soon, cheap speed and antiretroviral drugs.
Just being in this country can make you cry.
Late night, the men gathered around a table under a farmhouse while three generations of women and two young boys sleep in the double bed. Sweet rice wine in two large Sprite bottles, one shot glass passed carefully around. The man on the my right, just a wisp, just barely there, deep dark eyes in a hollow face, croaking English learned 30 years ago, when there were schools, he would never talk without the wine but now he holds my leg and speaks urgently into my ear.
"I lost my language. I'm sorry, no English."
I tell him he speaks English well, and he shakes his head as if I'm missing the point.
"No. I lost my language. I work for the Nation United...."
His voice trails off but the hand is still there, gripping hard.
"I like Cambodia very much," I say, stupidly in Khmer, one of the only phrases that I know. "I will come back. I will come back to your village and see you."
A smile, but there have been too many years of hopelessness.
"No, I don't believe you. No, you won't come back. I don't believe you. You will not come back."
The next morning I walked along a timeless path through rice paddies with the sun coming up over the mountain to the West. A grandmother and four children waved me over to their fire of rice husks to warm my hands. A teenage boy runs out of his house to say "Excuse me please stop," and takes my fuzzy picture with a cheap mobile phone.
The man from last night lives in a small farmhouse set among banana trees and coconut palms at the edge of the rice field. But he is already out working with a scythe and two water-buffalo. I probably will never see him again.