I was stuck in Chhlong, waiting.
I had been on a local bus for six hours with my co-workers from the NGO, a guy, Ratha, and a girl, Aya, both in their 20s, whom I’d met for the first time the day before. The bus caromed all over the road, which was barely two lanes, passing motos, cars, tuk-tuks, bicycles, and trucks by veering into oncoming traffic. The driver took advantage of winning by being the largest thing on the road and alerted other drivers in both directions that he was coming by beeping the horn approximately every 7.2 seconds.
We got off the bus, dragged three large boxes out of under-bus storage, and ate lunch at a roadside stand. I was wary of the boxes. On the bus, Aya said they contained a snake. She made a wide gesture with her hands and said the snake was to share with the youth club. She said we’d cut it up. I was terrified: Was it alive? Was I going to witness some kind of traditional ritual? Maybe it was sushi-style BBQ eel? All I could see in the boxes were piles of fruit, mangosteens and longans. I imagined them covering a snake ready to pop out like a jack-in-the-box.
Ratha ended a phone call and turned to us. “There’s a flood,” he said. “There’s no way to get to our village.”
Three and a half hours and one downpour later, an SUV pulled up and we piled in. Ratha said we’d take the car farther into the province, cross the water by boat, and a truck on the other side would drive us to the village.
As we drove I looked for the water. I imagined a river, ordinarily creek-calm, swollen with rainwater. I pictured us crossing in a small motorboat and feeling the pull of the current. The SUV pulled to a stop and Ratha and Aya gathered their bags. I didn’t see the river: maybe we had to climb down a bank?
“Here we are,” Ratha said.
And then I saw: we weren’t crossing a river by boat, we were crossing a flooded dirt road by ox cart.
And thus began my journey to another era.
We held on tight as the cart bumped and the oxen splashed. The road was rough and pocked, and the cart wheels dipped unevenly as the driver urged the oxen on. We passed carts going in the opposite direction; one was carrying a man and his moto.
Our truck was waiting on the other side, and we continued our ride on the dirt road. It was nearly 7 pm and completely dark by the time we pulled up to our host house. The only light came from the few scattered fluorescent bulbs hanging around. The village has no running water, and electricity is only available from 6-9 pm.
Our host family greeted us and ushered us to a table for dinner. I could see that the house, like many in the country in Cambodia, was on stilts, and we were eating underneath. The family’s dog, part pet and part guard, sat in the dirt at our feet, waiting for bones. The flock of chickens ran by. After dinner I made my way to the bathhouse, splashed around by flashlight, and climbed the stairs into the house. With the country darkness, and the smell of the woodburning stove breezing in, I slept soundly for the first time since arriving in SE Asia.
I woke in the morning to the family’s rooster crowing. By daylight, I took in the village, tropical green and flowering in the rainy season. We were staying in the biggest house, which looked like a rustic cabin on stilts. Next door was a bigger, multi-purpose building; the landlord rents part of the space to the youth club for meetings and activities. Behind the house was the new, paint-still-drying bathhouse: Through a recent initiative and funding, some of the homes in this village were building bathhouses with a squat toilet and a water reserve (from rain and well water) for bathing.
We met with the youth club that my NGO helped found, fund and support, and with the help of Aya as translator, I interviewed some of the members. In Cambodia, there’s a huge population of young people (ages 15-30), and many NGOs are working to empower and build capacity with this group. The kids told me about how the Kratie province youth club has been focused on environmental issues, including initiating trash clean-up projects and advocating for local forests and farm lands, which are facing land grabbers and deforestation. All of them said the youth club’s projects had made a big and positive impact on the village.
With the youth clubbers, we unpacked the boxes and prepared refreshment bags for the following day’s community forum. We sorted mangosteens, sliced apples, purchased cookies from a village store and finally stored the stuffed and finished bags.
It was a slow day. We walked the village, and I met children who’d never seen a foreigner. They giggled when I bowed in greeting and made a game of getting me to bow again. I saw a white water buffalo bathing and watched dogs and cats and chickens scramble under the tables and over the dirt together. I ate the best bananas I’ve ever had; they were green when ripe and tasted like conventional bananas but creamier and more banana-y. The banana tree was growing in the yard of our house. After lunch, I took a nap in a hammock. When the electricity was on that evening, Aya and I watched what looked like “Cambodian Idol” with the landlady.
I basked in my Little House on the Prairie fantasies, but I spent a lot of the time thinking about how this life impacts the residents of this village—and so many like it all over Cambodia. As I made my first trip to what many call “the real Cambodia,” I saw the country that exists outside Phnom Penh. Decentralization and destabilization are common, and part of the reason why there isn’t power or running water. While it’s clear that there are systems in place for daily living, and people are surviving and thriving in many ways, there are so many elements that gave me pause. Was it good for people, dogs, cats, and chickens to all share the same living, cooking, eating, and toileting space? Can people wash their hands well enough or often enough to successfully prevent the spread of disease? How can education, health care and dental care become more accessible? My colleagues told me there’s only a primary school in this village, and it’s difficult and expensive to get to the nearest secondary school. And how does all of this stack up in an increasingly connected world?
Starting early the next morning was the main event of this trip, the community forum. Held in the primary school’s yard, about 200 people from the village came. The village chief and two of his deputies talked, and Ratha facilitated a Q&A. The focus was the shared idea of good governance: What is it? How does it affect us? Who can participate? Who has rights? They highlighted transparency, accountability, consistency, efficiency, balance. They talked about what to do with people who are illegally cutting down trees, and how they can protect the village’s natural resources.
After the community forum was over, and we were getting ready to return to Phnom Penh, I remembered what Aya said about the snake in the box. I had seen everything in our boxes, and there had been no snakes; we had conducted no rituals. So, I asked. I made slithering gestures, I hissed. I asked if she remembered our conversation from the bus. She gave me a strange look. Snake? Snake? No, there was no snake.
It was the snack.
Try it: snake, snack, snake, snack. Have you ever noticed how similar those vowel sounds are? We laughed: relief for me. I made Aya and Ratha promise that we were not having snakes for snacks at any upcoming meetings.
And then we climbed into the truck to drive back to Chhlong. The flood had receded, but the dirt road was muddy and bumpy, full of enormous pits. There was still standing water, and I thought the truck might get stuck, but it didn’t. The ox carts were out again, but they were pulling hay and produce, not people and motos. In Chhlong we boarded an express 12-passenger van heading to Phnom Penh, and as we drove through darkening towns and saw light coming from bare fluorescent bulbs and TVs, I understood: it was evening, and the power was on for a few hours.