January 16, 2010

Making Friends: Cambodia Edition

Today I took a big risk. Treading over sand, broken glass, and who-knows-what on the streets between CWF school and my guest house, I said “no” to everyone on a motorcycle except one. Instead of the usual scruffy man, a young Khmer woman on a nice motorbike pulled up next to me. Where you go? She asked. I was nearly home, so pointed down the street. Undeterred, she told me that she wanted to make friends with me and that she would take me for free. Her nice bike and light skin alerted me that she was perhaps rich. I wondered why she wanted to make friends with me (you know, because she hadn't really been exposed to my awesome personality and hilarious sense of humor yet...). In a fraction of a second, a dozen scenarios screamed in my head. Who was she? Why did she want to be my “friend”? Was she working for a pimp? Was I, Jena Lynch, champion of women's rights, going to be sold into a horrible life of slavery? Was she part of some scheme to steal my money (Dang, babytop is in my bag!!)? Or, was this something more innocent? Did she want to practice English? Was she as lonely as I? Was this a star-crossed meeting to change my life forever? I had to find out.

I got on the bike, felt no horrible gut reaction, and we sped down the block to my guest house. Famished from a morning that didn't go my way, I asked if she wanted to have lunch with me. Her face lit up and she told me that she would take me to her house for lunch. Okay, I thought. This is either good, or the next step in the plan to sell me. As we cruised across town, she tried to make conversation with me, but between not being able to lip read and the deafening horns sounding on the street, I could hear almost nothing. We pulled up to her house, gated as all Khmer houses are, and entered. Her brother, sister and mother were standing in the front room (also serving as garage). I did my best Cambodian greetings, and then watched as some type of magic happened.

Suddenly, a table full of authentic (seriously) Cambodian food appeared, and a small family gathered around the table. Nouna, the woman who picked me up, sat next to me; her older brother sat on the other side, and her mother watched over the operation, directing everyone in Khmer to adjust my food and make sure every bite was delicious. And it was! The mystery fish thing—the brother told me it was a mixture of fish eggs, chicken, bacon, and something else—was served with a red chili and lime (how can you go wrong?). A big bowl of rice and an exotic chunky tilapia and veggie soup accompanied the fare. Nouna also flagged down the coconut guy rolling past the gate and bought me (sic: she bought it) a coconut to drink. As I ate the food that this family had graciously offered me, the mother (in Khmer via translation from older brother) showered me with compliments: how beautiful I am, how talented and wonderful, etc. All true by the way! Even my frizzed-out hair and sloppy, stinky clothing have a certain appeal.

Sometime during the next hour, it was decided that these people were my Khmer family. I was calling Nouna my sister and the mother, M'dai (Khmer for mother). The brother was a different story because the mom was trying to hook us up (awkward in any language). Actually, he seemed like a descent suitor by all Khmer standards. His job brought him good work building infrastructure (with someone he had to call “his majesty”--prime minister's assistant, I think) in the province, and he was well-dressed and had nice teeth. I pretty much gave up my speculations about the mafia or sex trade by the time the mother asked to take a picture of me for her cell phone wallpaper. Although simple, the Khmer house felt warm and comfortable (except the stairs—what a horror story!). The mother offered me to stay in their house while I live in Cambodia . It's amazing how generous the Khmer are. I wished I had something to offer in return.

Nouna, a law major from the Royal University, is also dabbling in social action. Out back, she owns a line of shacks that she rents to families for $20/month. Yeah, take a deep breath on that. These shacks were the size of a bathroom, and not much cleaner. But as usual, the people were bright and curious as they offered me compliments and adoration.

In a show of generosity and social status, the family drove me home in their car, a sporty Carolla. It's high style in Phnom Penh, and I appreciated the change of pace from edge-of-death motos and tuk tuks that feel like an unpopular ride at the county fair. I have plans for lunch, the palace, and a swim on Monday!

Every single day is an adventure, and every day is an opportunity to learn!