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Chapter 17: Departure

We UNVs completed electoral training, signed our contracts and were taken off probationary status. Our positions were official; each of us was a DES—shorthand for District Electoral Supervisor. We had the weekend to pack and get ready before picking up our 4X4 trucks on Monday and leaving the next day.

Stuff was scattered everywhere—around the floor, on the beds and piled in the bathtub. Thinner, my petite self would swim inside my signature size six pants…if I still wore them. Keeping back my Ann Taylor black silk dress, I took a bundle of useless clothes to Hon to sell in the market alongside mountains of other donated clothing—a testimony to the over-consumption of the West. Hon kept laughing and grinning as we sifted through my formerly chic pants, dressy blouses and pencil skirts.

“This fancy American clothes, yes?”

“Yes,” I sighed, humiliated by the memory of packing with Marilyn. “Not so good for Cambodia.”

“I wear these when I am rich businesswoman,” Hon said. Her voice was defiant, although her eyes closed dreamily. “But not now.” Her eyes popped open. “I have secret to tell you. I marry my sweetheart and we have baby coming. I want to tell you before you leave Phnom Penh.”

Taking her hand in mine, I squeezed it tightly. “I’m so happy for you. This is a very good thing, yes?”

“Yes, my heart broken a long time since my baby boy died. I think I am nasty girl and punished. You are here and I will have a strong baby. My sweetheart is worthy man and we make a good life.”

Leaving Hon’s shop, we walked hand in hand, Asian style, along the quayside where the murky Mekong mingled with the blue Tonlee Sap. We bought an enormous grapefruit to share from a street hawker, said otay to the vendors of fried grasshoppers and paid a few riels to free a small caged bird into the air for good luck. Hon called our walkabout a dah'leng—a favorite pastime of Cambodians who could afford nothing more extravagant by way of entertainment. For a long while, we strolled in silence, swinging our hands like little girls, inhaling the fishy smell of the waterfront and enjoying the soft breeze that blew in from the channel.

Then Hon asked, “CJ, do you think my baby will visit you in America?”

“Of course. Once Cambodia is again part of the global community, children will have many opportunities. That’s why Untac is here.”

“That is why you are here.”

I flushed with embarrassment. I wanted to caution her, to warn her against having too much faith in the mission, in the future. At the same time, her optimism flooded my defenses and made me want to provide her with everything she desired.

My truck was packed Beverly Hillbillies fashion for my departure. If I had a partner, he’d have to be strapped to the top on a rocker like Granny Clampett. Hon showed up with a bunch of sweet-smelling champaca blossoms in one hand, towing a scrawny, smiling man named Dara by the other. I assumed he was her sweetheart and the father-to-be. We hugged in an embrace that made her giggle; in conservative Cambodia, people are uncomfortable with displays of physical affection, including between women. With eyes sparkling, Hon said, “You come to Phnom Penh for the baby. You are my luck in Cambodia.” Then, taking Dara’s hand, she left me to my work.

Standing on the bed of my truck, I called to one of the staff to hand me my UN flag, which I hoisted as if I were hitting the high note in “The Star Spangled Banner.” With it flying in the wind of my departure, I drove away from my guest house for the last time. Brielle and her partner—the Filipino who had made such a scene over getting his mail—were in another truck.

I took my place in the line of white 4X4 trucks in front of the Cambodiana Hotel. The heat pressed in through the windshield as I waited, predictably delayed. At least twelve trucks would travel together to our destination, Kampong Cham City in Kampong Cham Province, which were known respectively as KPCC and KPC.

In a mental war, nervousness about what lay ahead―malaria, no mail and the most primitive living conditions, all fueled by incompetence―dueled with my excitement about going to the edge of my known world and bringing hope to the heart of darkness. I don’t have a partner. Does that mean I have to drive alone? Suddenly, I didn’t feel very confident about driving a stick-shift truck for five hours on a potholed one-lane road and crossing a river on a decrepit ferry—not to mention the threat of landmines—and I still hadn’t learned to use a winch.

The road was narrow and rough, lined with little wood thatch shanties, humpbacked white cows, emerald green rice paddies and people waving as the caravan passed. I amused myself by monitoring the truck radio—listening to people who hadn’t left yet because they had locked their only key in their truck or were still trying to arrange flights and meetings. One guy wanted to know where his helicopter was; a Russian replied that it had flown to Bangkok.

Our caravan drove along at about sixty klics per hour in video game-like conditions, dodging bicycles, oxcarts and motorbikes. We were going too fast, which made the navigation of meter-wide potholes difficult. I would have loved to find a rest stop with amenities, but we pulled over for lunch at a ramshackle restaurant with no toilets but a swarm of vendors outside—mostly young, rag-tag women who pushed between the line of trucks―shoving and jostling to gain our attention. On their heads they balanced baskets, which were piled high with unfamiliar fruits, candy and food stuffs.

Repelled, I pointed at something that looked like giant black barbequed spiders on a skewer. Brielle’s mouth turned down in a mock frown and she laughed, “Ick, spiders.” These edible treats were called aping which, when alive, would bite and make you sick. Wanting to know the exact location where spiders were common cuisine, I tried without any luck to learn the name of the town. Then I remembered our prized possession, the one I had to pinky swear not to tell anyone about, and unfolded a precious map that Leannán had given us days before leaving Phnom Penh. We had stopped in my district town; we were in Skon.

Within an hour of leaving Skon, the caravan reached an Indian UN battalion at the edge of KPCC. We found our way to the only hotel in town, the Mekong Hotel―which the magazine on the plane from the Bangkok to Phnom Penh had rated “no star, vermin ridden and filthy.” The hotel, like the town, was shabby and in need of a good coat of paint.

A sign taped to the column by the information desk greeted us: ROOM 128 RESERVED FOR MADAMES HAVRA AND CARRÉ. I looked at the sign and then at Brielle. Leannán materialized from behind a column, grinning, puffed up and proud. “There are only eight rooms with air conditioners, and only five of them actually work. I reserved one for you when I got here on Tuesday by helicopter.” I grabbed his face and kissed him on both cheeks as Brielle looked on, her cheeks as pink as roses.

The three of us went to dinner at the only restaurant frequented by foreigners, so the place was loaded with assorted UN and military personnel. People called out greetings, exchanged names and scoped each other out as if it were the first day at summer camp. As we headed for an empty table, I saw a huge fat rat running across the floor before I peered into the kitchen. The scullery was a scene from Dante's Inferno; a greasy mist rose from the huge fry pans and woks. The floor hadn’t been swept for a century, and perspiration from the cooks’ foreheads seasoned everything. I thought about going back to Skon and ordering some skewered spiders.

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