Sophoes calls me on Saturday at 6:30 AM to tell me that he and the attorney, Sary, will pick me up in 15 minutes. Thirty minutes later we are eating breakfast on the patio of Geck's Café discussing the logistics of the morning's program. Due to the onset of the rainy season, we have had to reschedule our community legal awareness program several times. The roads to the villages are unpaved and quickly become muddy and treacherous when it rains. Last night, however, the good weather held up so we're going to move ahead as scheduled.
For forty-five minutes we drive away from Banlung toward Vietnam, the Land Crusier bouncing down rust-colored roads that cut through a jungle landscape tinted in brilliant shades of green and blue. Mutts in varying stages of starvation growl and reluctantly move out of the way of the car. When I first came to Ratanakiri Province nearly 3 months ago, a fine layer of red dirt covered everything. The rains, however, have picked up the pigment and painted the people, buildings, and vehicles the same uniform shade of earth. People loitering in front of store fronts stare in open astonishment at the pale face peeking out from the back seat of the lurching vehicle.
We arrive at the school where the program will be held. It's the same long, mustard-colored building I've seen at prisons and courthouses in Ratanakiri and Stung Treng provinces. The room is lined with desks that can comfortably fit 4 small people each. After offering to help bring in the bottled water and packages of books and being told to sit down, I plant myself in the front row of the right-hand side. The room starts to fill up and I notice, rather self-consciously, that people are filling up the entire left side of the room before even sitting near me. I ask Sophoes if they are afraid of me, and he just laughs. Surveys and comic books are distributed. One of the comic books is about criminal procedure. The other one is about land rights. I flip through my own copies and speculate about the illustrator. Despite the lack of English, I can understand.
Sophoes told me earlier that normally about 30 people show up to the legal awareness programs, but people keep filling the room. Desks from an adjacent classroom are carried in to accommodate the growing number of attendees. People still try to sit as far away from me as possible. A rooster crows outside. Suddenly, Sary starts speaking and the room erupts into applause. The commune chief stands and starts to speak. He's dressed in black from his head to his toes, like Johnny Cash. He's got a big grin on his face, but his rusty voice doesn't quite match his appearance. It reminds me of Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
Someone behind me answers their phone and talks loudly. A baby cries in the back. The rooster crows again. The chief sits down and then Sary starts to speak from his chair. I look around the room and observe that everyone is hanging on his every word. Sophoes comes up to me and shows me that 99 people have signed the sign-in sheet. Sary is really working the crowd. He's cracking jokes and the audience chuckles and smiles in return. At one point he asks questions, and everyone yells something back to him in unison. He seems to really be enjoying himself. A few people now take turns standing and asking questions and Sary answers.
My attention wavers and turns to the graffiti on the desks, which resemble a Cy Twombly painting in some patches. The room is warm from all the body heat, and I can smell paint. The walls are stapled with laminated educational posters frayed at the edges. The windows have no glass, but faded blue storm shutters hang at odd angles in each one. The floor is a tan-painted cement pitted with several holes and cracks. The walls were probably white at one point in time, but now they are covered with blue writing, red dirt, and dark smudges. The ceiling appears to be the actual tiles used as the roof, supported by long skinny pieces of wood in the rafters.
The people are all very petite, even smaller than Khmer Cambodians in the cities. I assume they are indigenous. Most people are wearing collared button-ups and tailor-made pants. Several people wear layers of sweaters and jackets. The rainy season is a cold time for many Cambodians, a fact that is a bit mind-blowing to me. A few of the women are wearing hot pink lipstick. I wonder if this event is a chance to see and be seen. Sophoes passes out the water bottles and fruit. People are now talking to each other and Sophoes gives t-shirts to the few people who asked questions. Everyone is given a blank notebook with the IBJ logo on it and instructions to spread the word about free legal aid. The crowd claps and starts to leave.
Outside, a very pregnant woman takes a drag on a cigarette and shyly smiles at me. Half-naked babies stand on motos piled with entire families that zip away from the school. Some people are gathered under the shade of a tree, talking. I look back up at the sun-bleached building, the faces of the people staring at me, the attorney talking on his cell phone. It starts to drizzle and I look up at the sky. A faded blue and red satin Cambodian flag waves idly on a pole in the school yard. I smile. The sky is threatening to open, but held back long enough for us to complete the program. I hope that everyone who attended can benefit from their new knowledge of the law in Cambodia.