The Meanderthals

How do you say “I’m lost” in Khmer?

“Neak dtoe na?” (where are you going?),  the old women in headscarves waved to me as they stirred their breakfast rice pots. I smiled and waved back, ignoring their question, and kept jogging along the village path which ended. In a dead end.

I turned down the next dirt road and came to another group of people sitting in the sand. “Neak dtoe na?” they asked, and I realized why. The road I was running along went nowhere. I was lost.

Knowing I was only a few minutes from our ecolodge, I turned to the women. Hotel? Blank stare.Ganesha? (the name of the lodge). Nothing. River? Another blank stare. Swimming? (I waved my arms around in my version of a swimming stroke, hoping they’d realize I meant the ecolodge on the river). No recognition whatsoever.

“Plowe” said one. Aha! That meant “road”, which meant there was a glimmer of hope. I nodded and smiled as they pointed me toward the plowe and I headed off along the path again, waving to my new friends and clad in the very un-Cambodian garb of running shorts, tanktop and white sneakers.

I’d set off from our ecolodge on the river in Kampot early that morning, leaving Skip on the porch drinking coffee and Kirsty still asleep in the bungalow. I was pretty certain I’d been paying attention to the direction I ran but, after turning around, found myself in the heart of a tiny local village somewhere on the fringes of the lodge. No, there weren’t many roads. But those roads all looked the same and I was soon encircled by chickens, children on bicycles shouting “hello” and elderly women preparing their morning repast as I ran along the dusty trail.

I laughed at myself and smiled at the cows who sleepily watched as I ran down the road again, convinced I’d soon see the gates to the Ganesha lodge looming around the next corner. But, no. That would have been too easy. Instead, I saw the same corner food stand and the larger road that I’d run on earlier… when I’d been going the opposite direction!

Now I was faced with two choices: Turn back and try again (knowing I’d end up back in the same village with the same challenges of getting myself out) or find another way back to the lodge.

Sitting outside the food stand was a group of young men. With motorbikes.

I smiled and gestured. Moto? I asked, hoping they’d know how I could get a motorbike ride back to the lodge.

More familiar blank stares.


This time there was recognition. One of the young men pointed back in the direction I’d just run.

“Ot-tay” (no) I shook my head and waved my hands wildly around in circles, hoping they’d realize the strange white lady was saying she was lost.

After a minute or two of friendly staring and confusion, one of the men wordlessly pulled out his bike and sat on it, pointing it in the direction of the road to the lodge.

Assuming he was offering a helping hand, I jumped onto the back and whizzed with him along the dirt road, through the village and past all the friendly souls who’d seen me moments earlier.

And this is how I ended up back at the lodge, on the back of a motorbike with a strange man I’d never met.

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