On what turned out to be my last trip to the province for interviews (thanks to a brief bout with illness on Friday), we traveled to the southwestern province of Takeo for interviews and then to the pretty coastal province of Kep to see the Pacific Ocean from the other side. In Takeo we met our interviewees at a memorial stupa and former killing fields. We interviewed two older ladies; the main interviewee has lost almost all her teeth (if not all) and is a former schoolteacher. She was probably about five feet tall. I think she was the first interviewee, at least for me, that really gave her whole story and showed her emotions. She was very passionate and eloquent, and had zero qualms about admitting her anger at the Khmer Rouge and want of revenge. Although she is a Buddhist, she does not want to forgive; she wants them to be locked up forever and she wants them to suffer for what they have caused. She was so direct, so certain. The interview got very emotional at times; the woman cried when describing how she was separated from her parents and constantly felt she would never see them again; the thought of her parents is what drove her to fight to stay alive. Even though she was imprisoned in an intense labor camp and came very close to being executed, she found a way to live. Later she found out her father was killed in the killing fields near where we sat; that is why she now lives in that particular village, to be close to her father and about 40 other family members that were killed at the site.
The second old woman sat quietly for most of her friend's interview, occasionally giving her word, until the end when we asked her specifically a few questions. I sat nearest her. She kept smiling at me, and at one point just took my hand in hers and held it tight. I don't think I was tearing up or looked like I was in danger of doing so, but she still held my hand. It was a very sweet gesture, and the look in her eyes was of pure compassion. After the interview we were laughing with our two adorable interviewees and the quiet woman who held my hand said that while Jessica and Francis (both Chinese) looked like they could be Cambodian, I looked German! I told her that I was at least 1/8 German, so that was pretty spot on. She did say, though, that my appearance could be Khmer, because I was wearing loose pants and a silk scarf tied around my neck. She patted my arm over and over, saying how German I looked, how Khmer I dressed, how very pretty my face. I fell quite in love with this old lady :).
After the interview we were informed a little bit more of the backstory of our two old ladies than they had told us. The animated, outspoken schoolteacher, after the Khmer Rouge, would be prejudiced against children of former Khmer Rouge cadres in school. On the other side of things, the quiet old woman who held my hand lost all nine of her children under the Khmer Rouge, and never once has she shown the need for revenge. She lost everything, and she still is so compassionate and kind to everyone, bringing small gifts and snacks to visitors and villagers. She is well-liked, and, I think, well taken care of. Suddenly her warm smile and comforting touch meant so much more, knowing what she's been through, what she's lost. Before we left, I took a picture with her. Again, she held my hand tight as she stood next to me, smiling and complimenting me in Khmer. Professor Kosal, as he took the picture, kept saying "picture with Grandma, Grandma with Granddaughter", and perhaps I was her granddaughter for that moment, in both her eyes and mine. I wish I now knew her name.
After the interviews we drove west to Kep and to the edge of the sea. We stopped for lunch in a small restaurant literally in the ocean; half of it was raised on stilts above the water. Lunch was possibly the freshest meal I have ever eaten. One moment we're sitting at the table overlooking the choppy waves, watching two or three people checking crab traps in the water. The next moment Kosal walks in carrying a basket filled with live crabs, and no one is in the water anymore. A few minutes later, the crabs return, this time steamed red and served on a large plate. As one girl put it, "that's probably that fastest something has gone from death to my mouth". You can taste the freshness, and what a difference it makes!
The coast is beautiful. I really don't mind driving far, because I like to watch the scenery. It's so different from the US; there are endless and endless fields of rice paddies with palm trees peppered along the way. Every so often a hill rises up in defiance of the flatlands around it, often with a pagoda perched on top and neatly surrounded by trees. The countryside is so beautiful. It does remind me of China, especially of Guizhou when, in the afternoon, the clouds roll in and the rain starts to fall. Most afternoons this happens, and it is still beautiful. I don't think there could be any type of weather that would make this country ugly. Then again, I do find beauty in the soft grey and barrenness of winter in New England, so maybe it's just me that finds every part of nature breathtaking. Cambodia truly is, though, and I am thankful for the long bus rides that allow me to stare out the window for hours and hours, rain or shine.