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Adrift on Tonle Sap


Chong Kines is a small fishing village built on the Tonle Sap Lake, not far from Siem Reap. On the periphery of the lake there are a few traditional Khmer houses, on stilts. But most of the houses are floating on the water. The homes range from elaborate rafts and barges to simple, covered fishing boats. Apart from the fact that the 6,000 villagers use small rowboats to do their shopping and make their daily rounds, most lived a normal, Khmer lifestyle, the same as in any landlocked village. There are schools, shops, restaurants, temples, and even a hospital, all built on boats.

In Chong Kines, my guides, Samban, Thavrin, and I rented a powerboat to take us approximately 12 nautical Km across the lake, to the bird sanctuary.

By the time we began this boat trip we were several long, hectic days into our adventure tour of Cambodia. We were all exhausted, and just wanted to sleep on the boat. Summoning up all of my internal reserves of power, I fought off the fatigue and in an adrenaline burst of optimism asked Samban if there was an interesting story or some ancient legend associated with the lake.

Samban was half dosing. But through the thick fog of sleep he answered. “Yes, there is.”

With alacrity I opened my notebook and prepared to write the story. I waited a long time, finally, I decided that Samban thought I was asking a yes or no question.

“Thank you” I said. “This will make good reading for the folks at home.”

Even fulltime professional travelers can get tired of traveling.

The views along the river were breathtaking. The blue water spread out like an ocean reaching all the way to the horizon. The sun had only risen a half-hour before, and splashes of gold bobbed upon the wind driven waves. Fishermen toiled, bringing in their nets, among a virtual jungle of greenery, which floated on the surface of the water.

Our first stop was at the wildlife conservation office, which was a houseboat, next to a floating restaurant. The office was merely an empty wooden shell built upon a floating barge. There were two occupants in the dank enclosure, neither of which seemed particularly knowledgeable or happy to see us. The older one was clearly in charge, and the younger one was clearly in the dark, not that the older one knew anything, but he was clearly in charge.

We asked what birds we could see in the sanctuary, and they took us to a wall chart, which looked like a 1960s era public school poster from the United States. Most of the birds were large, aquatic fowl with long necks and bills suitable for fishing. Inexplicably, the bird poster, which was dogeared and falling down, was hanging beside a picture of the Yokohama Bridge.

“Golden Monarch, Admiral Bird, Oriental Darter” said the older one, reading off the names. The poster was in English, so, I could have read it myself, but I humored him. The only bird whose name I recognized was stork. And now, I would finally get to ask the question that had plagued me since childhood.

“Where do babies come from?”

“Silver Darter, Asian Turn, Eastern Woodland Cock” At first I thought he had answered my question. But then I realized that he was ignoring me, and just continued reading the chart. Of course, it was my own fault that he was so fixated on reading the chart. When we arrived we told him I was a writer, not a reader.

Remembering that I was burning sponsor dollars for this opportunity to write a story, I snapped back into business mode.

“And which of these birds will I see when we go into the sanctuary?”I asked.

“Silver Backed King Fisher, Shuttle Cock, Passenger Pigeon, Do Do Bird”
I was too busy writing the names, to notice.

“Do Do Bird! But they are extinct. I think you are just babbling the names of birds.” I told him. Then, I looked at the list again, “Some of these aren’t even birds.”

“Pteradactyle, Ominus Nipitus, Sanctimonious”

When he switched to Latin I washed my hands of the guy.

“Samban, try and get some information out of this guy or I will have to resort to more unpleasant measures.”I warned.

Samban was a true peacemaker. Khmers have an uncanny ability to pretend not to see what is going on in front of them, if by doing so they can help someone else to save face or help to avoid conflict.

Admittedly I am too hard on people in Asia, and just a tad bit judgmental. But that is the luxury I have, being from Brooklyn, being Italian, being big and strong, and knowing that when the book is finished I would leave. But for my translators life was never so simple. Saving face was such an incredibly important aspect of Khmer society. A man would much rather die than lose face. So, looked at from another angle, causing another person to lose face was akin to murder.

Saving face constantly frustrates my work. Fifty percent of the Khmer population is under the age of 25. So, by way of statistics, at thirty-eight, I am probably older than 70% of the population. This means that I am in the position of higher authority in the Khmer hierarchy. Where this becomes difficult is when I don’t know something, and I ask a Khmer for help. Since a younger person can never admit that he knows something that an older person doesn’t, they may just play dumb, and say they don’t know. Or they may not answer at all. Assuming that they didn’t hear me, I will repeat the question louder. This frightens a younger person, and he retreats even more. Finally, I find myself screaming and becoming threatening. And of course, once you do that in Khmer society, you may have destroyed that relationship forever. At the very least, you aren’t going to get the information you needed.

I have been on tours where the guide refused to go first because I was older. But since I didn’t know the way, we kept getting lost. At every fork in the path I would ask, “Do we need to go left or right?” And the answer would always be “Up to you.” Before I could speak Khmer it was even worse. I would go in a restaurant with my assistant, my driver, and my translator and they would want me to order for everyone. I didn’t know the Khmer dishes. I couldn’t read the menu. And I couldn’t communicate with the waitress. Still, they would insist that I should order. “Please order something!” I begged, handing them the menu. “We are not hungry” they answered.

When a Khmer person asks me a question, they will never accept “I don’t know” as an answer. In Khmer society, an older person would never admit to a younger person that there is anything he doesn’t know. One of my students brought me some kind of Asian tropical fruit and asked me what it was called in English. “I don’t know.” I answered. “We don’t have this fruit in Brooklyn.”

“No, teacher, I mean what is the English name?” She said, repeating the question.

“I don’t know the English name of this fruit.” I answered, getting a bit angry. “I have never seen one of these before.”

“Yes.” She said. But in Khmer, yes is just a polite particle. It doesn’t signal agreement. “And how is it called in English?”

“I DON’T KNOW!!”I shouted. “We don’t have this fruit in Brooklyn. Probably we don’t have this fruit anywhere in America. In fact, I would bet money that there isn’t even an English word for this fruit.”

The student backed down, not because she finally accepted that I didn’t know. Once you get angry, the Khmers understand your emotion, but stop listening to what you say. Since the Khmer goal is always to make peace, they will always stop questioning you at that point. But don’t be fooled into believing that anything has been resolved.

“You are busy now.” She said, walking back to her seat. “Maybe you can tell me tomorrow.”

“I won’t know tomorrow either.” I began, but then I dropped it.

Because I speak Khmer now, translators are more or less obligated to let me try on my own, and fail. And even when they see that I am hopelessly failing to communicate, they still can’t jump in and save me, or I will lose face. So, I have to beg them fifty times to help me. And even then, although hey have been watching and listening, they can’t just jump in where I left off. They have to ask me a thousand questions about what exactly I want to ask, before translating.

It was the same thing here. When I had given up on this conversation and turned the mike over to Samban, he went through an entire interrogation before he would begin translating. “What did you want to ask him? What did you want to know? Why are you asking?” The pre-interview questioning went on so long I wondered if he had completely missed the point of the last five days we had spent together. Did I really need to start right from the beginning and say, “Samban, my name is Antonio. And I am here doing a book about adventure tours in Cambodia. Now, I need you to ask this momo what birds I will see if I go in the sanctuary.”

In easy, comfortable Khmer, Samban asked the man which of these birds would be present in the sanctuary.

The man answered. Then he answered again. Then Samban repeated the question. Then the man babbled. Thirty minutes later, Samban was ready to translate the answer. I eagerly gripped my pen.

“None.” Samban announced.

N-O-N-E I dutifully wrote in my book.

Samban followed with a completely incomprehensible explanation as to why I couldn’t see any birds. If the answer was because it was too late in the day or it was the wrong season, I wasn’t sure. And actually, I didn’t care. I had heard no once. I didn’t see any point in wasting more time here.
“If there are no birds in the sanctuary, and no expert to tell us about the birds, I see no point I going.” I told Samban. “I could learn more from a book back in the hotel.”

“Yes.” He repeated, and to my horror, he translated.

The old guy and the young guy had a long discussion. Then the young guy riffled through a disorganized jumble of crates in the corner of the room, and came back with a mildewed bird watchers book, which was missing its cover.

They held up the moldy old book as if it were the Bible. The old man cracked it open and thumbed through the English pages, as incomprehensible to him as Latin, Greek or Hebrew to a novice Catholic. A small boy ran through the village announcing “The book! The Book!”

Villagers herded their children in doors. Priests prepared sacrifices. There was so much ceremony tied in with the opening of the book, that I was reminded of the cult in the film, “Return to the Planet of the Apes,”which worshipped an unexploded nuclear warhead.

“This book is all we have.”Said the old man, with gravity.

“Ye, it is.”I agreed. And all you’ll ever have. I wanted to add.

“You can look at it here, but the precious words can never leave this shack.” Pronounced the old man. A hush fell over the assembled crowd of worshipers. I had been given a great honor. Or had I? Perhaps he meant that once I had looked at the book I would not be allowed to leave.
I declined, thanking the man profusely. I placed my hands in the prayer position, high up on my forehead, and backed out of the room in supplication, but also, a little on guard.

Our trip to the floating village had gotten off to an inauspicious start. But the life of the aquatic villagers was fascinating. Near the wild life office there was a temple, a school, and a hospital, all floating on the water. Outside the school was a sign saying that it had been provided by UNICEF. All of the houses had a TV and an antenna, although most had no power-lines. Two girls selling food allowed guests to board their canoe and eat breakfast. Whole families floated by in small rowboats. Even young baby girls already had pierced ears. People went to and fro, crossing the street and running errands just as they would in any other village. All the while, they were careful not to damage the water hyacinths, which covered the surface of the lake. Samban told me that they ate the flowers in salad. The stems were dried and woven to make hammocks.

On the porch of a houseboat, two medical technicians played music on a loudspeaker to attract people to come and be vaccinated. Women holding small children sat politely on the floor in Khmer fashion, with their knees together and legs out to the side. The medics explained that babies and mothers were being vaccinated for polio, small pocks, and other diseases on a regular cycle. In addition to the usual host of childhood illnesses, children living on the lake were particularly susceptible to diarrhoea due to a lack of hygiene. Apparently, the villagers were drinking the lake water, which they also used for bathing, toilet, cooking, and washing dirty dishes. The health problems increased in the dry season when the water level became lower and the concentration of contaminants increased. “In the dry season,” explained the female technician, “the water is low, muddy, and full of dead fish.”

“Some people are afraid of the vaccination.”She explained. “They go to Kru Khmer.”She said, meaning the traditional healers. “They have many stories of ghosts. When they are sick or have a sore throat they go to the traditional healer who mixes potions and medicines for them to drink.”

Although there were obvious problems with hygiene, the villagers looked noticeably healthier and heavier than poor provincial farmers. We guessed there were two reasons for this. First, they were probably getting much, more protein than farmers because of the easy access to fish. And second, they were sitting all day in their boats and weren’t burning calories by walking around. Some farmers live very far from their land and have to walk as much as two hours at the start and finish of each very long work day.
A big boatload of tourists came through the village. Suddenly, several small boats paddled like mad, looking like ants swarming on an elephant, selling food and other goods to the foreign visitors.

The woman form the health service asked why I had come. We told her that I was writing a book. She smiled politely, but it was possible that she had never owned a book, much less read one. Even among educated urban Khmers, reading is just not a common pastime. In the provinces, illiteracy is extremely high. I always wondered what these people thought of me when I said I was a writer. In university English classes where I would ask thirty students to write as many occupations as they could think of I five minutes, writer came up less frequently than astronaut.  My Khmer friends have told me that most people think I have a very strange job. I am inclined to agree.

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