KLONG PURSAT, Cambodia — Roaring along on my uncle’s red motorbike past coconut and banana trees, I blinked away the dry, red dust and headed straight for a little, wooden hut perched on the thick stilts that keep it safe when the monsoons come.
This is so cool, I thought.
Sometimes I caught glimpses of curious faces looking at me flying along on my Uncle Sahk’s imported Honda Wave 110.
The thought of stopping was very far from my mind.
Back home in America, I never could have done this.
But I’d gone halfway around the world to Cambodia, where almost everything that is illegal back in the States is just fine.
On the fast lane toward an incredible adventure, I wasn’t about to stop for anything or anyone … unless something happened to get in my way.
And, wow, did something get in my way.
Let’s just say one shouldn’t be speeding down a dirt road in Klong Pursat at 75 miles an hour without a keen understanding that brakes were placed on motorbikes for a good reason.
America was about to make its mark in Cambodia and I was the one who was going to make it.
As soon as Uncle Sahk told me he’d teach me to ride one of the sleek motorbikes that his American relatives paid for, I hopped on one. My uncle climbed on the back.
I kick-started the engine and revved it.
My uncle said to take it nice and steady, but did I listen? No way.
I made great turns around the rice paddies and through the palm trees and down the path toward the bumpy, one-lane, pothole-filled, gravel and dirt route that served as the primary road.
I exited the woods near my great-grandmother’s house and got on the main road, where tractors and cattle traveled from village to village selling and transporting goods.
Adrenaline flowed through my veins and my arms trembled with excitement as my hair blew out of control. The wind caught my hat and nearly ripped it off my neck.
As I neared the entrance back into my great-grandmother’s house, I barely noticed my uncle’s signal to turn. The thrill of it all had blocked my senses.
I somehow forgot the brakes and just missed falling into a steep pit of sharp bamboo and rock, instead slamming sideways into a television repair shop and knocking my head against the wood panels on the side of the hut.
My chest smashed against the handlebars and my uncle flew from the back of the bike and scraped his cheek on a coconut tree.
Lying on the ground, with the bike covering half my body above me, I felt dizzy and saw green and white. My elbow and leg foamed white from my cuts.
My Aunt Som, my sister Jeania, and my mom – who were coming back from the market — saw the crash.
While my aunt ran to us, all I heard was my mom crying hysterically.
They brought me to a nearby clinic where they treated my wounds with alcohol and bandaged them.
I fell asleep and awoke later to find myself on a wooden bed with people staring down at me. I was alive!
My Uncle Sahk sat beside me at the clinic, his cheek all puffy and bruised.
Even though I almost killed both of us, I looked at him and we started to laugh.
The Trip of a Lifetime
Lying on a wooden bed frame tending to motorcycle accident wounds wasn’t something I expected when my parents informed my sister and me that we were going to take our summer family vacation to Cambodia.
My parents, natives of Cambodia, hadn’t been back since they arrived on American soil almost 30 years ago. First and foremost, my folks wanted to return to their birthplace and see their elderly parents once again before it was too late. They also wanted to expose me and my sister to our heritage and also to help with a family project: building a decent house for my paternal grandparents.
I can’t say I wasn’t worried about the trip. Heck, I’d never even flown before. To top it off, I knew nothing about Cambodia that would give me enough comfort and courage to say I was glad to go.
Besides that, Cambodia is a Southeast Asian country that not a lot people know much about, including me.
My parents told me about their life there. Their families were poor rice farmers, struggling every day to put food on the table.
Both of my parents went to school, but they were distracted with work and family problems, so they never made it past the equivalent of our primary school. Their main objective was just to survive.
My mom had to help raise five younger brothers by selling vegetables and bread. This still wasn’t enough; it was never enough.
My dad told me that few places had running water and this made things worse. My parents and their families got sick from the tainted water without proper medical aid. My mom’s baby brother died from malnutrition and lack of medicine.
My folks told me there’s been only minor progress since they fled the country as teenagers.
In Cambodia, they said, life was still as they left it – hard. As an American by birth, I never faced such tough times. I wasn’t sure how I would tackle the situation if I had to, and I wasn’t sure I was ready, either.
A few days before we left, we went to stay at my grandmother’s house in Providence, R.I., where we would be departing from the T.F. Green Airport. Here I prepared myself mentally for the trip. My maternal aunt and grandparents traveled to Cambodia two years ago and they talked to us about what to do and what to avoid.
From what my family told me, people in Cambodia will do anything in order to survive. I’ve heard stories of people getting their passports stolen – and then being blackmailed into paying a bundle to get them back. My relatives also said some people will steal their neighbor’s dog, and kill it to sell as meat.
Right off the bat, I felt afraid and I wasn’t even there yet.
I decided I wouldn’t be flashing around my passport, and vowed to myself not to eat any meat that looked like it could have come from something other than a cow, a chicken or a pig.
In case I got sick, people told me to bring along American medicine instead of depending on Cambodian drugs.
My folks told me that since I’m an American tourist, Cambodians will assume I have money and try to take advantage of me. They instructed me to keep a low profile and do my best to fit in.
I knew that could be tough since I’m husky, unlike the mostly-skinny native Cambodians. I also walk different and I have a mustache. Cambodian youths don’t grow facial hair until they reach their twenties.
My parents also advised me not to speak in public places like the markets because it’s easier for the vendors to pick out a foreigner when they hear them speak in a foreign tongue.
When one vendor finds out that you’re a foreigner, the rest of the marketplace will soon hear about it and that leads to trouble. Suddenly, everybody wants your business – but nobody will give you a break on the price.
Well that wasn’t much to remember, right? Are you kidding me? This was crazy. I couldn’t remember all this.
The night before we left, we had a farewell barbeque with family and friends to celebrate the privilege we had of going to Cambodia.
The mood was happy-go-lucky, but inside I felt nervous and excited – much more nervous than excited. I worried about how I would I fit in. How would I manage? The questions nagged me and I had a hard time falling asleep.
When I woke up, it was already time to load the bags in the back of my dad’s Pathfinder. Some of my relatives decided to come with us to the airport to say their farewells. The automatic doors of the airport terminal opened and I dragged my belongings into the building. This was it, the beginning of my trip.
I expected the worst, but I hoped for the best.
Stepping off the airplane at Pochentong International Airport in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia after days of tedious travel should have been a relief for me.
But I soon found much more stressful situations in store.
As I entered the arrival terminal of the Cambodian capital’s airport, I saw a mess of tourists eager to embark on their vacations. But things weren’t moving fast because the officials were unorganized and terribly sluggish.
The airport employees were Cambodian police who didn’t look very friendly. With straight faces and strict eyes they ordered around the visitors like prisoners in a jailhouse.
My parents and little sister were trembling.
My dad’s hands were shaking uncontrollably as he prepared to give one of the officers our passports and visa applications for him to approve.
I wasn’t ready to ruin my vacation so I stood my ground and did my best not to let these militants get to me.
Service was again slow as the officer working at immigration took his time to check passports. He only did so to annoy the visitors, who eventually would hand him a few American dollars and then he’d quickly stamp the paperwork and let them proceed.
My parents stubbornly handed the punk a five-dollar bill and he told us to go.
Things got even worse at baggage claim.
Hustling along with my family and two other relatives, we finished with our visas and immigration and rushed to find our luggage so we could hurry up and leave that hellhole of an airport.
At the baggage claim area, we got all our suitcases and bags, but something had gone wrong. When we left Rhode Island, our bags were all locked, but now the locks were missing and zippers and pockets had been opened.
Those damn Cambodian police broke into our luggage and took our valuables.
One of my relatives had her money stolen (luckily it was Cambodian currency, which only amounted to a few dollars in U.S. money). Some of my mom’s new clothes had gone missing.
We were all frustrated, but anxious to get out of the place.
We got luggage carts and prepared to leave, until a policeman came over to offer his unwanted assistance. My dad said no, but he persisted, so we went along with it.
As he took our luggage in circles he finally took us to the exit, where he then asked for money for his help. So my dad handed the lowlife a couple of bucks, just to get rid of the stupid pest.
Finally, we got out of the airport and entered the welcoming and pickup area.
My aunt from my mom’s side and grandmother from my dad’s side had come to get us.
As I walked out, I saw a mob of screaming and curious onlookers waiting to see if I was one of their visiting guests. But I knew who I was looking for.
Then I saw their faces, my aunt and grandmother were being squeezed and tossed around like rag dolls by the horde.
A gang of my cousins and uncles rushed to get our luggage and tossed it into a truck they rented for the day to bring us home. At first I thought they were thieves that came to steal our bags and were loading it into their getaway car.
Then my aunt guided me quickly towards the Nissan pickup truck. As I headed for the truck, a herd of beggars (they looked like escaped convicts) came up to me and pleaded for cash. I just looked away and prepared to defend myself.
Luckily I got in the car, so I didn’t have to unleash my inner rage. I might not know karate, but I know ‘KARazy!’
My mom, sister, grandma, cousin and I sat inside the pickup, while the rest (including my poor dad) sat outside on top of the luggage. The thing was packed.
When everybody was onboard, the driver and his caddie (drivers there have a partner to assist in transporting people) hopped in and revved the truck. We were off.
So long, Pochentong Airport!
That afternoon, we traveled through the overpopulated streets of Phnom Penh.
I saw markets there and here, vendors yelling, motorbikes and bicycles crowding the streets, people walking with raggedy clothes and pitching their products aloud.
Little children roamed the streets, doing their part to survive in this struggling nation by working their butts off to carry heavy goods and sell them.
The streets were an astonishing clutter of people, scooters and cars. At one busy intersection, I noticed a traffic officer standing in the middle of the chaos waving two batons, calm as could be.
This was the home of my parents and now I could see it with my own eyes.
But my eyes were getting too tired, so the driver found us an affordable hotel to stay for the night.
It was getting late and we were all hungry after the long plane ride. We decided to ask the driver to find us a good place to have dinner. As he drove us through the cluttered urban streets of Phnom Penh, I saw strange, unfriendly faces staring menacingly at our truck. Uneasy, I feared one of them would try to smash the windows and rob us. Finally we arrived in a busy center. On the corner was an eatery that the driver said was satisfactory – all the good restaurants were too far from the hotel, he said.
As I stepped into the noodle shop, a swarm of flies welcomed us. Waiters with filthy hands brought stained, dirty plates, bowls and silverware. A few minutes later another waiter came around with dust-covered glasses of water.
Another worker, trying to break a huge lump of ice, dropped it on the ground. After that, he picked up the pieces and put them in our glasses. I couldn’t believe it. This was their customer service.
Six-inch pale green Gecko lizards crawled up and down the walls of the restaurant, making little noises as they crossed the cracks in the plaster.
It wasn’t exactly fine dining.
We looked at each other with disgusted faces, ate a few bites and then left.
At moments like this I felt really, and I mean really, homesick.
The next morning we embarked on a nine-hour road trip to my final destination: my great grandma’s house in a tiny hamlet in rural Cambodia, between Sisophon and Batdambang.
For four weeks, I’d have to live without any American luxuries in the wilderness of the Cambodian countryside. My goal for those four weeks couldn’t have been simpler: SURVIVAL!
After a long and tremendously rocky ride from Phnom Penh, we finally arrived in the village of Klong Pursat, where my great-grandmother lives.
Boy, was it different from my house back home in Connecticut. But it wasn’t an old broken-down shack as I’d expected.
Her house, typical for the Cambodian countryside, sat atop stilts more than 12 feet high to prevent flooding during monsoon seasons. The living area was under the house, a room without walls. People hung out on two-tiered bamboo benches – at night, they served as beds for some – and talked about the rice crop and family news.
Upstairs, there was just one room that was enclosed. Otherwise, there were no doors on the house, which had just three walls. The front of the upper level, accessible by a set of sturdy wooden steps, was completely open. The large open room served as a kitchen, dining area, sitting room and sleeping space.
A car battery in the open room upstairs served as the power source for the house, providing juice for a television set, boom box and a long fluorescent light tube. Every time you finished using an appliance, you had to disconnect the wires to save energy. Once, I tried to hook up the TV and the battery acid leaked out and burned me.
My relatives left the light tube on while we were there, for safety, they said. When they don’t have company, they use candles and oil lamps.
Beautiful coconut and banana trees and lots of other lush, exotic vegetation surrounded the house.
I learned there’s nothing like a fresh, young, green coconut, tender and full of juice. Uncle Sahk frequently shimmied up the coconut trees and chopped a few coconuts with his machete for us to enjoy. The banana trees were short, producing tiny, sweet fruit. Pumelos, a sour citrus fruit, grew on the farm, too, as did man-sized stalks of sugarcane. I loved to chew on the spongy inside of the sweet sugarcane.
The earth on my great-grandmother’s farm was dry and clay red. She grew long beans, lemon grass and other vegetables, herbs like ginger root and basil and elegant flowers. The air was dry, but it reeked of farm animals, and of course I found later that it was a farm. Pigs squealed in the swamp behind the house. Roosters and chickens clucked about the farm and dogs barked and howled at us as we stepped off our taxi truck.
Things were going to get more complicated from now on.
A change of scenery
There I was living the life in the wilderness of the Cambodian jungle. Getting off the long plane ride and finally setting foot on land took away much of my stress. The palm trees and cracked earth had begun to seem normal, and living on a farm had its perks. I could get food from the garden beside the house. Bathing in swamp water wasn’t all that bad after all, but I did miss my showers back home in America.
After a back-breaking first night on my great-grandmother’s wooden floor, I was ready for a refreshing shower to rejuvenate myself.
Unfortunately my mind was still stuck in America – I forgot they didn’t have running water.
At my great-grandmother’s house, taking a shower means pumping river and swamp water into a huge cement tub and using a pail to bathe. To my surprise, the water was clear and free of the little creatures that I feared might join me in my bath. And happily, they had a bar of soap and very nice-smelling shampoo.
The big tub was enclosed in a good-sized outhouse that also included a toilet. Toilets in the countryside don’t come with a flush handle or siphon jets. After using the toilet, you have to wash and scrape everything down into the hole until it’s nice and clean. Luckily, I didn’t have to use banana leaves because they actually had toilet paper.
Recreation isn’t a big thing in the wilderness of Cambodia.
Palm trees and rocks scattered most of the land, but I was in a rebellious mood the day I managed to hop on my Uncle Sahk’s motorbike.
After I smashed into the television repair hut, word got around quickly.
People from all around were telling each other, “An American boy crashed on a motorcycle is all bloody and broke his legs and arm!”
Fortunately, I wasn’t so bad off.
But everybody came over to assist me to the reception area under my great-aunt’s house where I rested on the bamboo platform.
Following Cambodian tradition, all the elderly people tied white thread around my wrists to ensure that no more pain would be inflicted upon my body and soul – at least until the thread wore out and fell off.
That day, my wrists had a bunch of threads wrapped around them. Today, just one thread remains.
After that experience, I tried to calm down a little more.
I turned to football, or soccer, as Americans call it. I asked my mom to buy a ball from the thylat (a Thai word for market), but I forgot to specify the type of ball so she mistakenly got me a volleyball instead.
How can you be disappointed with that? It’s Cambodia! The key to surviving there is to make the best of what you have.
So I tossed aside the net, dropped the ball on the ground and started kicking it around with my cousins Kun, Som Nang and Sanon.
The World Cup had ended just a few months earlier and I was in the mood for some football. I may be on husky side, but I’m a closet soccer fan.
My three cousins were all on one team: The Kingdom of Cambodia versus the one man American.
I tried to act like a pro by dribbling the ball back and forth with my feet, but I stumbled and tripped like a fool.
Still, I was surprisingly able to hang to the ball. I lifted the ball lightly in the air with my left foot and kicked it with my right. It flew under my cousin’s legs and straight between the pair of coconut trees that served as the goal.
America: 1. Cambodia: 0.
After a long and sweaty game, my cousins whooped my butt by scoring multiple goals with their athletic bicycle kicks into and off my face.
I was beat and reeked of sweat, so I threw in the towel and headed for the outhouse to take a nice, tropical, warm bath.
I missed cold water.
My parents’ money paid for our overseas flight to Cambodia, but I never imagined it would be the hot topic of the entire trip.
Meeting so many relatives for the first time was overwhelming.
One side of my family seemed glad to see me and the other seemed more interested in what I had brought for them.
That totally ticked me off. I’d never seen their faces ever in my entire life and all they did was look for charity.
It’s sad to say that my much of my family was more interested in seeing the face of Mr. Benjamin Franklin than the face of Joe Keo.
Anytime they had a chance to talk with any member of my family, including me, they would suggest that we buy them this and get them that.
It made me annoyed and depressed.
I flew thousands of miles to see all of them and they treated me like an ATM machine.
They wanted the life we had.
We told them that our life isn’t just luxury and money. We work hard, too.
The relatives from my mother’s side were nice, but I couldn’t be too sure of their true intentions, while relatives on dad’s side were very serious and focused on what they could get out of my father.
Maybe my impressions of my relatives would be different if I spent more time with them, but all I can say is that first impressions last.
I put myself to the challenge to fly, for the first time ever, to see them and I got little from many of them. I expected more.
I knew they didn’t have much to give, but I wanted them to be interested in me and my life – and not just my wallet.
When I went to Cambodia, I brought a load of stuff.
I handed out Gummi Bears (yum!) to all my cousins. My two little girl cousins, Sinna and Sinnot, loved the teddy bear-shaped gelatin snack. They laughed and giggled before they bit off the bears’ tiny heads.
I also brought along a bag of mint LifeSavers, which my guy cousins – Sokun, Sanon, and Som Nang – hated with a passion. They showed me their wry faces to let me know they disliked the spiciness of mint.
We all got along well and managed to communicate.
I was part of the family.
My great aunt, Tao Korp (tao means “grandma”) and her family (my uncles, aunts and some sort of cousins) were the people I stayed with for the majority of the trip. Even though their native tongue is Khmer, they also spoke Thai well. So I resorted to speaking in Thai because I was taught Thai before I was taught Khmer (don’t ask me why, it’s all my parents fault that I can’t even speak my own tongue).
At the market
In Cambodia, I learned a drawback about shopping as an American, or going out in general: natives look at you funny. They never took their eyes off me. It was irritating.
Many of the natives looked like hardened criminals. They either have no teeth, some teeth, or just really bad dental plans. I was sometimes afraid to stray away from my family. Thoughts of being kidnapped or killed didn’t fall too far from my mind.
I can’t say I was ever at ease after my family back home warned me that people in Cambodia would do anything to survive: steal, loot, kill, kidnap or anything else in order to live.
Despite my fears, one of my family’s favorite pastimes in Cambodia was shopping at the dozens of local markets available throughout the country and city.
Markets there are like America’s open-tent flea markets. Hundreds of natives and foreigners from all over spend their money at the markets. Fabric, toys, cosmetics, shoes, stationary and tools – you name it, you’ll find it somewhere at the markets. Products there are usually bootlegged – fake name-brand clothes or shoes, for instance – or bought from the black market.
Muddy and jammed with people, the markets reeked of trash because there were no garbage cans around and people simply threw their rubbish on the ground. Vendors put their displays up on wooden frames to keep them clean. Tents and tarps served as roofs for the market stalls. Rain dripped through spots in the tarps, splashing unsuspecting customers.
Stands and shops were very close to each and there was little walking space. Every time I made a step or turned a corner I ran into someone and they would look at me like I was the devil.
Motorbikes scattered the market grounds. Vendors laid folded shirts on tables, hung toys from the tents, and organized perfumes and cosmetics in neat rows. Watches and jewelry stayed locked in glass cases.
Vendors’ children ran around the marketplace, stirring up trouble. Babies cried, motorbikes beeped and sellers shouted at me, trying to be heard above the noise.
Money changers sat like sentries at the market entrance, waiting to change foreign money either into Cambodian riel or Thai baht.
There are no cash registers, only handheld calculators. The best part of markets is that you can bargain and get good deals as long as you are persistent and clever. Anyway, things are cheap.
The market itself was mostly under a tent, but other stores surrounded it. Nearby buildings housed jewelry and electronic shops. Mobile phone shops stood out the most, with their bright, oversized billboards.
Other billboards displayed advertisements for cigarettes and car batteries. Another pictured an attractive model washing her already-perfect hair with one of the best-smelling shampoos on the market (and no, it was not Herbal Essence).
I walked around and window shopped.
Vendors are sometimes annoying. While one tried to persuade us to buy their products, another on the other side of me would pull my shirt and beg me to buy his goods.
After a while I got ticked off and just walked away to find someone who didn’t bother his customers.
My attitude was that if I want something, I’ll buy it, otherwise don’t talk to me.
I searched in vain for soccer jerseys while my mom and sister looked for fabric to bring home to sew. My dad checked out souvenirs to decorate our home.
The intense heat made me sweat like a pig and, suddenly, the sellers with fresh-squeezed, chilled juices caught my attention. But as tempting as the juices looked, I just wanted some water.
While I waited for my mom, sister, and aunt to finish their picky shopping ways, I sat around with my Uncle Sahk, looking at the bootlegged goods and marveling at the many different ways they could misspell Nike and Adidas.
I wanted a soccer jersey because that was sort of the trend in Southeast Asian culture. If you were stylin’ with the latest soccer jersey, you were the man. Attractive Asian women dig a man with a soccer jersey.
After my mom and aunt finished their shopping, they sadly told me that the only soccer jerseys that I could find would be in Polpiet, a large market city on the border of Thailand and Cambodia. I wasn’t about to drive all that way just to buy a jersey, so I asked my mom if we could head back to my great-grandmother’s place.
It was getting a little bit dark and the evening was cool. We headed to the watch vendor stand where my Uncle Sahk was standing guard over our motorbikes.
I hopped on the back of my uncle’s bike. My mom and sister doubled on my aunt’s bike. We rode off and got on our main route home, passing little restaurants and motorbike repair shops on the way.
The sky darkened and I knew I was in for some rain. Luckily we pulled into the house before the first drop of rain fell.
All that window shopping in the city took a lot out of me. I bathed and headed to the wooden paneled floors in the open living room, my usual sleeping spot, and fell asleep.
Summer in Cambodia
Life on a farm was starting to grow on me.
There was no need to ride a bicycle to the nearby market. Most of the meats and vegetables we needed could be found right at home.
Eating farm-raised food was hard at first, but as long as the meat was cooked thoroughly and vegetables were carefully washed I had no problem taking a bite of it.
Every morning I ate rice porridge, and in the afternoon we had rice with fried pork. For dinner, I either had instant noodles or another course of my favorite food: RICE!
But sometimes what I really wanted was a good old American slice of cheese pizza with a side of mozzarella sticks.
I was a bit of a bulky American when I went, but I came back a little bit slimmer due to the extreme heat and the rice I ate.
I missed the fun of having friends around, but my cousins made me feel at home.
They brought me out back to the swamp to go frog catching and fishing, I have to admit, my sister was better at it than I was. She was more willing to wade into the muck to catch her prey.
I spent most of my time reading “Watership Down,” my summer reading assignment, while swinging in the huge hammock under the house.
When I wasn’t reading, I’d help pump water from the swamp into the bathtub – that was the water supply – and sometimes I would help pick herbs and vegetable in my great-grandmother’s garden.
My great-grandmother, Yaih Doiyt, is in her late eighties or early nineties (people don’t pay much attention to age in Cambodia) and yet she was up and about the house gardening and housekeeping every day.
Things were simple and rules were stretched to the point of functional anarchy.
The whole vibe of the place was calm and easy – a far cry from my life back home in Bristol, where all I know is malls and asphalt.
I missed home, of course, especially my friends, my house and my bed. Sleeping on hardwood panels inside a mosquito net isn’t what I would call restful.
But in the Cambodian countryside, I could actually look up at the stars at night without being disturbed by a car horn or the sound of an ambulance.
At home in Bristol, I would be home in my bed, staring at my ceiling light. I’d be listening to music on my CD player and guitar riffs would fill my headphones.
With ease I could get up and open the door to my room, go upstairs and get a drink of water from the refrigerator. My parents and my sister would be listening to karaoke and singing along – and I’d be laughing.
I couldn’t play any of my CDs in Cambodia because my relatives only had a retro cassette player.
But I enjoyed their many tapes of classical Cambodian and Thai melodies. I just laid back and did my best to decipher the lyrics, which was always fun.
In Cambodia, all I had to do at night was look up at the moon with its vibrant glow. I had no curfew and no appointments to fret about among the mellow confines of coconut and banana trees.
I missed the Captain America and Batman posters on my wall, but at my great-grandmother’s house, there weren’t even many walls, never mind posters.
At times I felt ready to pack up and return home, back to Connecticut where I would actually have an address.
But Bristol was thousands of miles and many hours away from the jungles of Cambodia.
Wooden floors would just have to do until I could hop on a plane back to America.
Instead of waking to my digital alarm clock, I would wake up to the sound of a rooster.
As our month came to a close, everyone did their best to say their goodbyes.
The time I spent in Cambodia was incredible, something I can’t forget.
Even though I almost killed myself, I would miss this place. Back home, I can’t go to the backyard and grab a banana or a coconut anymore. The only coconuts I’ll see are the ones in the fresh produce section of the Super Stop and Shop.
The day before we headed back to Pochentong Airport in Phnom Penh, I sat on the floor organizing my bags and folding my clothes. My mom and dad struggled to stuff all our oversized souvenirs in their suitcases.
My cousins gathered around my sister and I as we threw all our loose belongings into our empty bag pockets.
I talked to them and recalled everything we did together, from crashing into a television repair hut to playing soccer on a rice paddy. We laughed and joked.
It felt like home, comfortable and secure.
Night fell and everyone was set.
The whole family gathered in the living room of my great-grandmother’s house. We turned on the tube and watched a movie.
I was too tired to stay up. All I could think about was how to say goodbye.
At times tears collected in my eyes. I wasn’t ready to leave and thought I could have done more during my visit.
Unfortunately, my plane ticket didn’t comply with my wishes.
I woke up early, a little after 4 or 5 in the morning. My parents had already bathed and were walking about the farm, probably trying to take in all they could of their homeland before leaving. My sister was still sleeping.
I washed up while my aunt cooked food to bring along for the ride.
When the whole family was finally awake, we heard the roar of a truck from a little way down the road. It was our ride.
My Uncle Sahk, who came with us to the airport, helped the driver’s caddy throw the luggage in the back.
I said my goodbyes to all my cousins. I gave long and heartfelt hugs to my great-grandmother and great-aunt. Surprisingly, I didn’t cry – but I wanted to.
The truck doors slammed and locked, the driver threw it into reverse and we rumbled away from the farm.
I waved goodbye from inside the car. We were off, with the next stop in Phnom Penh. After a short rest there, we were on our way on a long plane ride back to our American small town life in Bristol.
From the air I looked down from the plane and waved at the rice paddies.
Hopefully, I’ll set foot there again.
This story was first published in three separate issues of The Tattoo in January 2003. They are combined here. A story about Joe Keo’s family is here. The final issue, focused on tourism in Cambodia, is here.
Here are PDFs of each of the printed pages, followed by smaller scale pictures of each of them.
These are smaller scale photos of each of the pages. To read them, follow the links immediately above.