I've spent more time overseas than most of my classmates. The thing that draws me back again and again is that while abroad, you must be always on your toes. You are forced to live in the present—a very zen and peaceful place. Part of the territory is generating a much higher level of interest than back at home. Sometimes I catch furtive second and third glances, other times the gawking is full-blown without even a half-hearted attempt to feign indifference. I'm a bit of a curiosity over here. Sometimes the attention is endearing, other times exhuasting. At certain landmarks in Indonesia, crowds of small women in hajibs wanting photos have swelled in my wake. Sexualization is the extreme. Sometimes the cat calls seem almost sinister. Men in Asia have approached me with offers of money for sex more than once. One time a man exposed himself to me in a park and chased me (a Korean friend assured me this was highly unusual). I've never gotten myself into a situation where I've felt my safety was unduly compromised, but it's a rare thing for me to completely blend in and not be the center of attention. But sometimes it does happen. For example, I've recently been an involuntary witness to two traffic accident deaths, and it was very shocking.
There are 5 William & Mary Law students in Cambodia this summer. Four are working at NGO's through the school and 1 is at a law firm. The 5 of us meet up for a drink in an open-air bar on the third floor of a building overlooking a large, busy intersection near Independence Monument in Phnom Penh. The techno music blaring from the speakers makes it difficult to hear anyone talk if they aren't yelling into your ear. I stare out into space, content to soak up the positive vibe and hear, but not listen to, the conversation between my classmates. It's a hot night, but I'm in the trajectory of the fan.
I zone out. A terrific howl of protesting metal shoots through the air, crying out even over the pulsing music in the bar. I watch my classmate's face gall. His eyes spread wide looking past me. I whip around and there, out in the spotlight, the beginning of Act I of a grisly play of horrors has already begun. I see the littered belongings, the lumpy motorcycle, and the man lying so still on the concrete--a constellation of human artifacts shaped like Orion's belt. "Get up and move," I urge in my mind. "Move, please, just move." Whoever hit him is long gone.
People on the sidewalks and in the nearby stores all appear on the edge of the street. A moment of stillness and anticipation holds them back, frozen in time, and then, without any indication why, the spell is broken and one by one they trickle toward the center. Most beeline to the motorcycle. One person approaches the man and then quickly sidesteps away. Time moves by so slowly while the techno music continues to sing gleefully in our ears. The drunk tourists at the table next to us sing along. The crowd surrounds the man and his motorcycle so thickly that we can't see him anymore. Still we stare. Small squares of light from the sillouhette of the mob blink at us, indicating pictures are being taken on smart phones. An eternity passes. Traffic begins again and motos and cars push through the crowd, sometimes frightfully close to the man. The waiters in our bar are all watching too. One tells us the people on the street below say the man is dead.
The music continues its chirpy chorus—it's a grotesque spectacle and I'm a shocked audience member. It's not real, it can't be real. An ambulance appears, no one in the crowd moves aside. Two men emerge with a stretcher. The lights are flashing, but they aren't in a hurry. The ambulance lumbers out of the thick of it and continues down the street, business as usual. The crowd thins. There are wild arm gesticulations from those remaining—people perhaps relaying to others what they saw. I want to cry, I want to scream, I want to laugh at the music in the bar, but I just sit mutely in shock. The music plays on. At last the crowd completely scatters. A few lingering people remove the wreckage. I don't remember seeing any police officers. A dark puddle of blood reflecting the shine of the streetlight is all that remains. The curtain closes.
The 5 of us part ways without really making eye contact. I get in a tuk-tuk with a young man who says he knows where he's going, but 30 minutes later we are still encountering dead-ends. At one point three men stand in the street with their arm crossed up ahead. Maybe it's just my mindset, but they appear especially menacing. I would do anything to be off of this tuk-tuk. I finally make it home. I call my dad in Texas, tell him I'm just calling to say I love him. I don't know how to admit to what I just witnessed. Sleep is uneasy.
Two mornings later it's 5:30 AM, and I'm standing in front of the office to be picked up for my 12 hour bus ride to Banlung, Ratanakiri. A man on a moto scoots past me with an impossibly large cargo of what are maybe mattresses. It's not so hot as during the day. Time passes. I sit down. I watch a dog howl at his neighbor down the street and hear a bark back. The dog smacks his lips in satisfaction. He marks his territory. He paces the sidewalk for a bit, then crosses the street and marks that side too. The traffic picks up. The frequency of cars increases. The dust starts to pick up. I examine the band-aid on my foot, already coated in dirt.
I'm picked up by a van covered in Korean words at 6:15 AM. Korea sells a lot of its old public transportation vehicles to Southeast Asia. Already inside are 16 people. We stop at a bus station. I buy a sweet dumpling filled with sausage and onions. I buy a second for the woman begging from me. The driver of the van is using a hammer to pull out a metal frame from below the bus. Another man straps a bag of rice to it. An old woman in yellow pajamas carrying a plastic bag of fruit takes the seat in the van next to me.
An hour later we stop for breakfast at a rest stop by the side of the highway. I go through the patio to the back. I find squat toilets, no toilet paper, and no soap. I'm old hat at bathrooms such as these, I am unphased. There's a loud screaching of rubber and a crashing noise. "Surely not," I think to myself. I walk back out to the front. Something immediately feels different. A big group of people is gathered by another van. I notice a moto sideways in the street maybe 15 yards away. Immediately my heart sinks because two flip flops lay next to it. The kids from my van are hanging back near me. The old lady in the yellow pajama set pushes her way through the crowd. "Don't move," I think to the van and crowd blocking my view. "I don't want to see."
Very soon the van drives away, taking with it a substantial portion of the crowd. When it moves, I am witness to a shirtless man being rocked by the old woman in the yellow pajamas from my van. I am afraid to look at his face, so I stare at his feet. He is so close. I count his toes. I feel my eyes start to water. I am so close. I look back over to the moto. A huge jagged piece of red plastic from a car's rear lights is in the road. I quickly dart behind our van to see if it was us. It wasn't. I don't see any missing red from the back of any van in the parking lot. It must have been another hit and run.
I feel like I'm in the Wild West. Here we are, in a dusty open-air restaurant on the side of a highway, which is really nothing more than a long dirt road in the middle of nowhere. I can't bring myself to go over to the man. I close my eyes and will for time to pass. When I eventually look back up, the man is gone, and some people are talking to each other around the moto. When they pick it up and move it, I see a huge puddle of blood turned black in the dirt. I never heard an ambulance. The driver of the van motions for everyone to get back in the van. The old woman in yellow pajamas sits next to me. I feel like the aura of death might rub off on me, but with 4 of us squeezed into 1 row there's nowhere for me to go. I look out the window when we drive away and see 2 police taking a statement. I call my dad again and tell him I saw a car accident. He said he knows, I already emailed him about it. I say no, again. He sounds incredulous, "again?" I can barely believe it myself.
I feel numb the rest of the drive to Banlung. I drift asleep for an hour or so in-between stops. The men in the front row take turns driving. During the breaks they pour water on the engine, and I feel the stares of rural Cambodians. Normally I smile and wave, but I just don't have the energy for it. During the times I'm not asleep, I am painfully aware of the old woman's decision to use my love handles as her elbow rest. On the bumpy parts of the road, her elbow pokes me really hard. My bottom is too wide for the seat and I feel an extremely hot patch on my left side where the old woman's leg is fully pressed up against mine. My hips feel achy.
The scenery is gorgeous—bold tropical plants in various levels in front of gently sloped mountains in the background. The van driver lays on his horn every time we pass a moto. The horn means, "get out of the way because I'm not slowing down." Cambodian songs from the radio in the front compete with a Cambodian talk show played on a smart phone in the back and my ear drums are collateral damage inbetween sound waves. I had been led to believe the road to Ratanakiri is completely unpaved, but only parts are really bumpy. The old woman starts to eat her fruit and throws the pits on the floor of the van. It stains her finger tips purple. I stare at them. I can't bring myself to look at any other part of her, lest I see blood. I am so relieved she is using her elbow for something else other than jabbing me. Some of the pits land on my feet. I wonder if it is intentional. She doesn't seem very impressed by me. She talks in Khmer to the woman sitting to her left. No doubt she's complaining about the large, sweaty, sullen foreigner taking up too much room. The adults are more discrete, but the eyes of the children bore into the back of my head. They look surprised when I look back and wave at them, attempting but failing to smile. I might be the first foreigner they've ever seen. I wonder if they saw their first death today, too.
We pass a bulletin board showing 2 very pretty girls wearing helmets on a scooter. Behind them is a picture of a car crash. A public service announcement with a worthwhile message. When I'm finally dropped off in front of my office at 4:30 in the afternoon, everyone in the van strains to look out the window to read the sign. They were probably all dying to know what business I had coming to their small, faraway town.
The lawyer's assistant, Sophoes, appears in the doorway with a big smile. He says he will take me to a guesthouse he booked for me. He gets on his moto. I freeze and say that I want to take a tuk-tuk, I say I will pay for a tuk-tuk. He laughs uncomfortably, tells me that it will difficult to get a tuk-tuk where we are. I say that I have seen 2 people die on motos in the past 3 days and I don't want to get on. He says I will drive very slowly, you can wear my helmet, it is normal for Cambodian people to use a moto. I don't want to be difficult, but I think I will burst into tears if I get on his moto. We compromise—he will take my bags on his moto and I will walk behind him. He says something in Khmer to the women sitting in front of the store next door and they all laugh. I assume they are laughing at the silly foreigner who wants to walk instead of ride a moto.
He gets on his moto without his helmet. I yelp. I ask him to please wear his helmet. He says he never does. I ask him to please wear it for me. He laughs uncomfortably and puts it on. I follow him to the guesthouse on foot. The walk to the guesthouse is a straight-shot 10 minute walk down a hard, red dirt-covered road. The man working behind the counter in the guesthouse is wearing a cubic zirconium pin that spells out free wifi. There's no wifi signal in my room.
I get dinner alone across the street from my hotel because everyone at the office already had other plans (or, more likely, they didn't want to struggle with English for an entire meal). I stare at my Beef Lok-Lak and push some rice around on the plate. Life is such a struggle and it can end so quickly and violently. I think about what is important to me. I feel a little guilty for living away from my family for 7 years, but I feel grateful I've gotten to see the things that I've seen. I ask myself for the millionth time what kind of legacy I'll leave behind. Surely more than a puddle of blood in the dirt? I know I want to keep working overseas, I know I am interested in human rights, the environment, and international law, but I feel limited by my language ability and a lack of knowledge of what options are available to me. Perhaps I only feel discouraged because of what I've recently seen. I want to make sense of what I feel, but it's difficult. Sophoes' nonchalant reaction to my story of seeing the dead people comes to mind. I muse on the general Cambodian mentality about life and death. I remember the story from the Killing Fields about the songs the Khmer Rouge would play on overhead speakers to drown out the screams of prisoners they systematically killed in the 1970s and have a flashback to the neon-splashed death scene from the rooftop bar. I go home and fall asleep in the hot hotel room immediately.
The next morning I'm still dwelling on death, but I resolve not to make a bad impression at work. I walk past children on their way to school, and they yell "halo!" at me. I smile and wave hello back. A naked boy is being hosed down in front of a small wooden house. Dogs and cats and chickens meander about. Miscellaneous buildings sell various sundries and snacks. The air is not so hot because it recently rained. I feel an overwhelming sense of euphoria. I am so happy to be walking on this road at this moment in time to my first real day of my first legal job. It's a wholly unique experience that was only made possible through months of hard work and trekking halfway around the Earth--no one else did this for me, I did it for myself. These moments of bliss and pride and contentment are what I live for.
Sophoes coaxes me onto his moto to go buy a bicycle by promising to drive carefully because he has a wife and a child on the way. I reluctantly agree on the condition that I wear his helmet. He runs a stop sign, and my mood crashes again. At the bike shop, he translates for me to the woman who works there. He tells me she wants $45 for a used bike. It looks to be in bad shape, and I have a gut-feeling that $45 is way too much. I offer $30 and they talk. He says she'll go down to $40. I ask if she's giving me a bad price because I'm foreign. He laughs uncomfortably. Talk of including a helmet and lock brings the price to $57. She turns to me and, in English much better than Mr. Sophoes', asks, "Which bicycle do you want? I will fix it up for you." Largely irritated, I say that any bike is okay since they all look the same to me.
Sitting in a red plastic lawn chair at the front of the store, I can't hear anything over the music droning over the loud speaker atop the next door restaurant. A barefoot kid runs around in the plastic bags near the oils and lubes lining the store floor. An old man wearing a Billabong hat takes a long drag on a cigarette. A mutt sniffs around and curls up in the shadow of the Lexus next to me. A young boy is putting a basket on my bike. He fills the tires with air. The people in the restaurant are staring at me. Sophoes leaves to deliver papers to the attorney, Mao Sary, who is working at the courthouse. When he comes back, he yells to me over the music that the tires are flat. I yell back that I am worried that the bike is not good because the tires were recently filled with air. He yells that it's okay.
I pay, put on my helmet, and nervously join the traffic in the street. When we get to a traffic circle, Mr. Sophoes continues straight on his moto, but my chain comes off and motos are rushing toward me, so I stay with the traffic and head to the left. I am so scared I am going to be hit and killed. Mr. Sophoes pulls up to me. He follows me as I shakily walk the bike back to the shop. I feel like I am going to cry. I ask the woman to please give me back my money because I am just going to walk and I don't want an unsafe bike. She motions for me to follow her inside because she can't hear me over the music. I ask again for my money back, and she responds with an offer to fix up a different bike for me instead. At this point I am ready to just part with my $57, but Sophoes offers to take me to look at an apartment to rent while they fix it. I say okay just to get away from the infernal music throbbing in my ears.
In front of the apartment a pantless boy runs around with some chickens. A baby screams from inside one of the rooms. Two men on motos pull up, one is a court clerk and the landlord of these apartments. They show me the room and inside is a bed frame and nothing else. No mattress, no curtain, no fan, no stove. The oppressive heat makes even simple obstacles seem insurmountable. I feel despair and tell Sophoes that I cannot move a mattress by myself into the room and that the room needs too much stuff for me to live in it. He laughs uncomfortably and takes me back to my hotel. It's time for my 2 hour lunch break to begin.
After the break, I walk back to the office while squinting through sweat dripping into my eyes. I apologize to Sophoes for how long the bike situation took in the morning and thank him for his patience. I tell him that I am still really scared of the traffic and that I had never seen anyone die before a few days ago. He tells me that in Cambodia people should be careful when they drive, but that they cannot expect to live for a long time. The lawyer shows up, introduces himself, and apologizes for not being able to speak English. He invites me to watch a trial at the court house tomorrow. I perk up. Sophoes tells me he has found a different room for me to rent that is fully furnished at half the price. I start to feel my old enthusiasm return.
I could have seen a person die for the first time in America. Traffic accidents happen all the time. As it goes, I first witnessed death in-person as a summer intern in Cambodia. Today was difficult for me emotionally. I didn't have any distractions because the power was out at the office, and I still feel unsure of my surroundings. Tomorrow will be better. I think of all the signs of life in Cambodia. Puppies and chicks and babies are everywhere. New construction projects of houses and hotels and roads are ubiquitous, even up here in Banlung. In my office the attorney's 3 year-old son Bom runs around upstairs, squealing with delight. He's a little shy, but I will try to make him warm up to me.
Life and death take turns leading the way. I resolve to keep a positive spirit. My new co-workers are very kind and patient. I don't want to become desensitized to death, so I will use these experiences as a reminder to focus on living in the moment and practicing gratitude. I hope that life guides the rest of my summer. I am reminded of a favorite quote of mine from a Buddhist sermon called The Diamond Sutra:
Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.