I have to admit that Tim and I have talked about fast-forwarding over the experience we had in Kratie, the experience that we've been teasing and leading everyone up to in our last few posts. In part that's because we've fallen a bit behind on the website again. But it's mainly because the story probably needs 5 or 6 posts to do it justice. We're just not sure how to write about it, and we're still trying to wrap our heads around the entire experience.
So I'm going to attempt to tell just a bit of the story in only 1 post, hopefully without doing the story a disservice. Rest assured, though, if ever you see a hedgehog in person that this story is one we will be telling in full.
It was a Wednesday afternoon just outside of Kratie, Cambodia. The temperature was probably somewhere in the high 80's, the sun was shining relentlessly, and local life was streaming past me on the side of the road as the motorcycle I was riding navigated it's way along the narrow road.
There were three of us on the moto – the driver, Sam (the boy Tim and I had made friends with a few days earlier), and myself. In my lap I held 3 kilos of fruit, much of which I had never seen before coming to Cambodia.
Tim was on the moto in front of me, riding with his own driver and our other friend, the monk. Because he was ahead of me, I got to see all of the curious stares and giggles from the locals as they watched a farang (Westerner) and a monk speeding past on a moto together.
The wind was blowing in my hair as I leaned forward and, talking loud enough to be heard, I told Sam that this was the first moto ride I'd ever taken.
"Are you scared?" asked Sam.
"A little," I said.
"Don't worry, you'll be ok," he replied.
A few minutes passed before it occurred to me that Tim and I had never asked Sam something.
"Sam, are we the first foreigners you've brought to your village to meet your family? Have you brought other friends there before?"
"No. You are the first," he replied somewhat nervously.
"Are you scared?" I asked
"Yes, a little," he said.
I patted him on the shoulder and said, "Don't worry, you'll be ok."
The Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia advises when visiting a Cambodian's home it is polite, although not expected, to bring a small gift for the family. I had no idea when I read that piece of advice that I would actually use it.
We were sitting in the Red Sun Falling restaurant early in the morning and talking to the owner (and our friend) Joe. Joe has lived in Cambodia for 5 years and has a number of Cambodian friends, and so we told him how Sam had invited us to his village and we asked Joe if we needed to bring a present with us.
"Well, it would be nice, but you don't have to," Joe told us.
"What kind of present should we bring, do you think? What does a family in a small village need?" we asked.
"Hmmm, well, since they live on the other side of the Mekong, they probably don't get into town that much. I don't know…maybe fruit? You should ask your friend to see what his Mom would like."
Pausing a moment, Joe then asked, "Say, what time are you going over there today?"
We told him how we had plans to meet Sam and the monk around 9am by the river.
"Ok, well, I know this might sound odd, but make sure to eat before you go. They'll probably want to feed you, and it'd be impolite not to eat whatever they give you. But, well, sometimes what they give you is a bit…well, interesting."
It took us about 5 minutes to get from Sam what his Mom might like to have as a gift from us. He was extremely shy about answering the question. We were all new to this game.
After reassuring him repeatedly that it would make us happy to give a present to his parents, he admitted that fruit would be something she would like.
At the local market that morning, Tim, Sam, the monk, and I must have made quite a sight. And after picking out 3 kilos of fruit (we had no idea how much to get, so Tim and I kept asking the fruit lady to put more in the bags) and getting onto the motos, we probably looked even stranger.
But nothing probably looked as strange than Sam, the monk, Tim and I walking up to Sam's Mom and presenting her with 3 kilos with fruit. In fact, I'm not sure which looked stranger to her: Tim and I, or that much fruit.
The previous day, when Sam, Tim and I had been walking to his pagoda, Sam had pointed to a traditional looking Cambodian house still under construction and said, "That's what my house looks like. It doesn't have a roof yet, like that one."
In the excitement of asking us to visit his family's village with him, Sam had forgotten that it would mean we'd see his home too. And it was clear he was starting to feel subconscious about showing his new Western friends his family's Cambodian home the next day. And so every time he pointed out a house that looked like his, we would reassure him that it looked quite nice and that we were excited to see his home and to meet his family.
And the thing of it was is that many traditional Cambodian homes do look quite nice. In fact, some of them are just plain gorgeous. The houses, made of various woods, are usually high on stilts. The ground floor is open without walls and with a dirt floor, it's shaded by the wooden floor above it. In this area, there will be simple wood platforms with beach mats on them where families will eat together and nap in the shade during the day. The second floor is reached either by ladder or stairs, depending on the house, and is where the family sleeps at night. There will be little, if any, furniture inside. Instead you'll find more beach mats and some hammocks.
Some of my favorite countryside in the world is the countryside of Cambodia. And on the bus rides we took through the country I never tired of seeing the homes we passed by. Surrounded by palm trees and children playing, they are one of the things I will remember most clearly when we are home.
It had taken nearly two hours to get to his village, but finally the monk, Tim and I were all sitting on the platforms of the ground floor of Sam's house. Sam, meanwhile, was looking nervous and standing nearby. It was clear he very much wanted everyone to be happy, but was petrified at the same time.
While Tim and I made ourselves comfortable on the beach mats, Sam's mother kneeled on the ground in front of the monk to pray silently. Her hands clasped in front of her face in a wai gesture, she repeatedly lowered herself to the ground in front of the monk sitting next to us. Although Tim's and my presence in this remote village was an anomaly, the monk's visit to some of the villagers' homes was an honor. And every time the monk was introduced to another person in the village, the person would first pray with the monk before greeting Tim and me.
After praying, Sam's Mom busied herself distributing some of the fruit we had brought for her into two bowls: one bowl for Tim and I, the other bowl for the monk.
Looking at a little round and fuzzy ball, I said, "Sam, how do I eat this fruit?"
"Like this," he said, taking another little ball in his hand, breaking the skin with his nail and popping it in his mouth. Seconds later he spit the seed a few feet behind him into the grass.
Imitating what he had done to open the fruit (albeit less skillfully), with a mouthful of (very good) fruit I whispered, "Sam, what do I do with the seed?"
Amused, Sam pointed to the platform I was sitting on and said to leave it there. He assured me his Mom wouldn't mind.
Although Sam speaks very good English, the monk served as our translator for our day in the village. But in the first hour we were at Sam's house, giggles, smiles, and a lot of charades took precedence over speaking. That is, of course, because Sam's family comprised of several younger brothers and sisters – all of whom were too shy to speak to the monk in any language in front of these strange looking visitors.
Many months ago, as part of his preparations for his marriage proposal to me, Tim had taught himself origami. (That's a long story in and of itself, of course.) I'm sure he had no idea that he would later use origami to entertain young Cambodians. But that's exactly what he did for a good portion of the day, and now in a small village in the middle of nowhere there are around 20 origami pigs. (There's also a monk who now knows how to make origami pigs too. Despite his own doubts, Tim's a pretty good teacher. It's not often that someone gets to teach origami to a Buddhist monk in Cambodia.)
Having no awe-inspiring skills like origami-pig-making, I resorted to taking photos and videos of the kids. Every time I would turn the camera so they could see the image or video, I was met with giggle upon giggle. Amused by her children's laughter, Sam's Mom couldn't resist coming over to see what was happening, which was just enough time to pull her away from the kitchen for a family photo.
Perhaps a little self-conscious that his brothers and sisters were being uncharacteristically shy, Sam said proudly at one point, "I'm teaching them the alphabet. I started teaching them the last night I was here and they could say all the letters to me."
And sure enough, on the wood wall behind where his brothers and sisters were sitting, Tim and I saw the English alphabet scrawled out in chalk. Seeing we had noticed his make-shift chalkboard, Sam beamed.
"I'm sorry, I can not eat with you. It is tradition," The monk said to me, very apologetically.
Knowing that he was talking to me and not to Tim (monks are not allowed to eat with women), I reassured him, "It's ok, I understand. Don't worry."
While we had been playing with the kids, Sam's Mom had been busy in the kitchen making food. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the food was for us. And so we were quite surprised when she brought over a huge bowl of white rice and two ceramic bowls with ornate lids on top.
Indicating we should sit and eat, Tim and I settled on the other side of a bamboo wall so the monk and I were separated. The family, meanwhile, gathered around us with expectant glances. It was clear we were going to have to eat whatever was in those two ceramic bowls, and we were going to be watched doing it too.
With Joe's warning from early in the morning in the back of our minds ("…sometimes what they give you is a bit…well, interesting…"), we watched Sam remove the two lids.
Inside the bowls were two different curries, one with meat and one with vegetables. Scooping some of each onto our rice, Tim and I took our first bites. As Joe had advised us, we needed to eat whatever we were given in order to not offend Sam's family. Luckily, that wasn't going to be a problem: those homemade curries are the best thing either of us have ever tasted.
We did have one dilemma though: we knew that the family could only eat what we didn't finish. We also knew Sam's family was poor and that this meal was a huge present from them to us. And so after a lot of whispering to determine the right amount ("Do you think that's enough?" and "My god, I could eat all of this, it's so good"), we only ate just enough to not insult but not so much that the family wouldn't have food to eat too.
We spent the entire day in Sam's village. After visiting with his Mom and siblings, we visited his grandparents and one of his aunts in their homes too. Along the way we created many memories, far too many to cover in this post alone. On more than one occasion the monk translated that we were the first Westerners that a person was meeting. He translated Sam's aunt apologizing to me for not having a present for us, but offering to climb the pineapple tree in front of her house instead. And he translated when we were proudly shown a new addition to a local family: a baby water buffalo born just the week before our visit.
There are so many interactions that are engraved in our minds, snippets that will never leave us, tidbits that we can't wait to share more of when we get home from the trip.
One of our favorites, though, came at the end of our visit to Sam's village. Having returned to his Mom's house, we had gathered a bit of a following. At one point, nearly 50 people were sitting in front of Tim and me, watching our every movement as if they were watching a television.
The monk would translate people's questions and our answers to them. At more than one point the entire crowd would burst into laughter.
"What did he just say?" we would ask the monk.
"He just said your noses are different than theirs."
"And what did she say?"
"She says she can tell you love each other very much."
After a few minutes of silence (which was oddly not that uncomfortable given we had 50 pairs of eyes starting at our every move), Sam's Mom began talking to the monk. And slowly he began to translate.
Looking at me, the monk said, "She says she knows in other countries that people hug each other. She wants to know if she can hug you."
Smiling I said of course, and went over to where Sam's Mom was sitting on the ground.
While the rest of the village watched what was about to unfold, I motioned for her to stand with me. And as I gave her a proper hug that can only be given to a Mom, the entire village giggled and ooh'd and aww'd. Our hug had caused quite the amused stir.
It was late in the afternoon when the motos came to drive us to the boat dock. Before hopping on to the back of the moto with Sam, though, I rushed back to give Sam's Mom another hug. I told her "Aw kohn!" which means "Thank you!" in Khmer. Smiling and laughing at me, she said "Aw kohn" too.
If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these ones: