If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my three weeks living in Cambodia, it’s this: Never get attached to an outcome.
In fact, don’t even expect anything to be remotely like anything you might expect!
Never was this more evident than this weekend when we went away for the weekend, courtesy of DPA (the organization where I’ll be working) to observe and visit some of their projects in rural areas of the country.
We were told we’d be going to Kampot, a town on the south coast, so we all showed up at the DA office on Friday afternoon and were escorted to a pick-up truck where they loaded our backpacks into the back and introduced us to our driver, Huang, who spoke little English but made a valiant effort at conversation.
Our group consisted of fellow volunteers, Meghan and Eliza and myself since Skip was, unfortunately, sick and unable to make the journey. We left the city, expecting a 3-4 hour drive to Kampot and after 90 minutes had our first surprise. Huang pulled into the Kok Thlok guesthouse in a little town named Takeo, informed us we’d be staying the night and that he’d meet us at 6:30 for dinner. It was a nice enough place and fine with us but we were nowhere near our anticipated de stination of Kampot (where the three of us had planned on extending our stay for another night).
The following day, the surprises continued. Huang picked us up at 6:40am and took us to breakfast in a place called Golden Friend Chicken which looked like an American fast food joint but the breakfast menu consisted of bowls of rice or bowls of noodles (with meat, seafood or vegetables). Oh, and you could also order a “capusino”.
After breakfast, Huang drove for about 90 minutes through the countryside in the southern region of the Cambodia. There were scrawny-looking cows everywhere, staring at us with droopy eyes and tiny barefoot children playing in the dirt as their parents worked in the field or scrubbed laundry in large plastic bowls.
All around us, the countryside was lush, vibrant green and verdant. We passed through field upon field of leafy bushes and soaring palm trees. We drove through villages with grass-roofed homes and houses on stilts, where the inhabitants store their rice supply while itwas drying or dangled in hammocks in the shady space. We watched a lazy buffalo linger under a clump of trees and saw emaciated cows either pulling wagons or just wandering down the dirt roads.
Our first destination was the villave of Prae Kmow (“black forest”), a tiny grass-roofed hamlet in the middle of rice paddies. The population is a mere 903 people and 11 of them were sitting on a large grass mat as our vehicle pulled up, when they all rose to greet us.
This, we were told, was the “village committee” who, after we were seated among them, asked us (through Bonareen, our English-speaking DPA represantative), to “Please present your proposal”.
Huh? Proposal? Presentation? We all looked at one another in confusion. Nobody had asked us to to a presentation.
So..when in doubt, ask questions. The next hour consisted of us asking them all about their village….their access to healthcare (a doctor was located 2km away), schooling (one school for 1,000 children around the region), farming (800 hectares for growing rice) and much more. The visit ended with the entire committee escorting us into the field (literally) for a 70-minute sweaty walk (in flipflops and a skirt) through the paddies pastures and buffalo fields to observe their agricultural program. Even though nobody spoke English (except Bonareen), everyone smiled and attempted to communicate with us, picked berries for us to taste and waved goodbye when Huang drove us to our next destination.
Our next ädenture” found is sitting on a table (a raised platform covered in grass mats), surrounded by 10 dishes of tasty home-cooked food in the village of Krop Run (population 3150) where, once again, we were guests of honor at a meeting of the village committee. Our “table”sat under a wooded hut with open walls so we were observed by four droopy-eyed cows and a dozen or so chickens which ran around the foot of the table. during lunch, the heavens opened and torrents of rain poiured from the sky, causing our hosts to comment how we’d brought them luck in creating the much-needed rain or the rice fields.
After lunch, they hauled out a giant whiteboard, hung it from a beam and proceeded to give us the low-down on the village activities of farming, literacy, healthcare, forestry and education and Meghan uttered the immortal words: “Shall we now get down off the table?”
The village chief was a delightful middle-aged man with a face which crinkled when he smiled and who apolotized profusely at the end of the meeting for the cow which delivered a very stinky poop during his presentation! Just another day in the office…
Our next challenge was one of our own making since we still had to find our way to Kampot.
Huang was returning to Phnom Penh but took us to a nearby town where we could catch a bus for the 90-minute journey to our destination. We sat with him and drank coffee as we waited for the bus, which arrived 30 minutes later.
Not knowing if the next one would have seats, we went in pursuit of a taxi. After hearing the cost, we decided to take our chances and, lo and behold, another bus arrived less than an hour later.
Not allowing such a slight obstacle to get in his way, Huang managed to persuade the driver to take us — seated on tiny plastic stools in the middle of the aisle!
And there we sat. Three western women among a busload of Cambodians (with a handful of French and English thrown in), our bags on our laps, perched in the center of the bus to Kampot.
After a while, a couple of people disembarked so that we could have seats but the bus kept stopping every few miles for unexplained reasons. One time, it ground to a halt in the middle of a village and the driver hauled a fire extinguisher from behind a seat.
Never a good sign.
However, it was just so that he could remove it and reach the toolbox. Ah, a toolbox — so much better1
He disembarked, tools in hand and everyone poured out after him to observe his mysterious tinkering around the wheels.
Twenty minutes later we were off again, without a clue as to what he’d actually been doing and whether there really was a problem at all.
It was the longest 90-minute ride we’d known as four hours later we reached Kampot! We were dirty and hungry but all agreed it had been a wonderful day where we’d seen, in action, the crazy unpredicability of this country where nothing really happens the way you think it will.
And, in this case — while it may be a cliche — the journey really WAS the destination!