"The land is dying. There will be no Cambodia anymore."
It was one of our last nights in Cambodia. Tyler and I were staying in a village on the banks of the Mekong River in Kompong Cham province, in the heart of the Cambodian countryside. Our host was an American named Don, a huge Frank Zappa fan with a masters degree in poetry who had married a Khmer woman and was trying to make a living by farming a section of her parent's land. His house was surrounded by old mango trees, pineapple gardens, and concentric circles of banana trees guarded by a hedge of lemongrass. Past the garden was a parcel of land Don called "the back forty," a stretch of dry brush criss-crossed with cattle trails that led down a gentle slope to a marshy area near the river, where a few tenant families living in shacks irrigated a garden of cucumbers. Rice grew in the marsh, rising with the monsoon waters that flushed out the farmland every spring, leaving a small window for the harvest between the dry heat and the rains.
Don's wife, Chenda, had worked with the United Nations during the elections and spoke to us in gentle English as we walked across the land where her family had always lived. These sweet-smelling flowers on thorntrees could be sold to make perfume, she told us, $.50 a kilo. These scars in the sugarpalm trunks were from the fighting, the forest in the distance was a rubber plantation.
We arrived at the edge of the rice fields at the height of the noon heat. Boys crouched chest deep in shaded pockets of the marsh, minding their water buffalo. Chenda's mother was squatting in the paddy, a pinch-faced woman in her seventies grasping stalks of rice in one hand and wielding a sickel in the other, rapidly working her way down the rows of heavy-grained plants. She smiled widely when we walked up and spat out a burst of Khmer that made Chenda laugh but which she refused to translate.
"She's the salt of the earth," said Don. "Never been out of this province, real traditional, conservative minded. Used to tell her daughter that men are diamonds but women are silk; if a diamond falls into the mud it can be cleaned, but if silk gets dirty it's ruined for ever." He shook his head. "A real good woman, works real hard."
Chenda's mother was ready to break for lunch, and we joined her under a shade tree by the cucumbers.
"It's the first time she has met foreigners," said Chenda nervously. "But she wants to talk. Would you mind talking with her?"
And so we had a conversation, a long, delicate conversation on the edge of the marshy rice field. This woman had lived through French occupation, national independence, American bombing, civil war, the Khmer Rouge terror, a Vietnamese invasion, more occupation and crushing poverty. Could we ask about these things, Tyler and I wondered? "It's OK," said Chenda. "If she does not want to answer, she will tell me so."
So we asked, and she talked and we listened, tragedy after tragedy, matter-of-fact descriptions of death and displacement and starvation. But what struck me most was her answer to our last question, when we asked about Cambodia's future, and the for the first time the old woman looked truly sad.
"There is no future for Cambodia," she said, picking up a handful of dirt and throwing it to the wind. "The land is dying. There will be no more Cambodia. They cut down the trees and the farmland turns to dust. The river is muddy. The land is drying up. The air isn't clean. When I was young, living was easy. Rice grew everywhere - so did fruit. Fish were easy to catch. Now...everything is dirty and scarce and hard. There is no future here. The land is dying. When the land dies, there will be no Cambodia anymore."
And then she got up, and we said goodbye, and she went back to cutting rice, squatting in the mucky paddy water.