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Chapter 18: Call Sign Echo 4 India

Day One was a round of meetings, hoops and frustrations as Brielle and I tried to get our bearings as DESs. No longer merely UNVs in training, we were in charge. In charge of what wasn’t clear. Téphanes met us at the hotel, greeting us like long-lost sisters. She welcomed the other DESs to Kampong Cham and cheerfully sent the twenty of us on to the UN field services office.

The weather was perfect and the skies a deep azure blue. It was an easy walk from the hotel along the riverfront and, like a tourist, I gawked at the large mud-brown expanse of the slow-flowing Mekong before arriving at a squat two-story newly white-washed cement block building, reminiscent of the anonymous office complexes that sprang up around US suburbia in the 1960s.

“I only found out yesterday that you were arriving today.” squat, middle aged American greeted us as we filed into a large air-conditioned office housing the UN’s facilities management and electoral staff.

“Do you have maps? They didn’t have maps in Phnom Penh,” a Polish DES demanded. “I really want a map.”

“I only found out yesterday that you were arriving today,” the man repeated, gritting his teeth in the tight smile most notable in bureaucrats. He turned and looked hopefully in the direction of a woman garbed in a huge quantity of bright floral print. The woman returned his gaze with an imperious look.

Raena’s briefing was even more to the point. “I have absolutely nothing to do with you. I’m merely here temporarily until the new provincial electoral officer, Bruno Milnes, arrives from Phnom Penh,” she said, leaving us to speculate as to her exact purpose. And leaving me to speculate as to how Bruno’s presence in Kampong Cham would work out for me.

“What about housing?” one of the group called out, returning our attention to Sam, the facilities manager.

“Each team will find its own housing in its own district. I suggest that you look in the market towns if possible. I can help you negotiate leases if necessary but, really, that isn’t my job.” His tightly curled black hair glistened from sweat. Apparently he had nothing more to say, and no apology to offer, so he promptly sent us over to the Australian communications barracks.

Collectively in shock and muttering over this newest bit of information, we all packed into a small makeshift prefab. Radios and vintage receivers that looked left over from World War II were stacked willy-nilly around the room, on metal desks and in open boxes on the floor. A tall, lanky army captain named Chad, in fatigues and with an accent as thick as crocodile skin, stood by one of the big square receivers with a walkie-talkie in one hand and a beer can in the other.

“G'day, mates,” he drawled. Casual and relaxed, he held up the walkie-talkie and said, “I’m going to give each of you an individual call sign to use with your hand-held radios.” As he distributed them among us, he continued. “I’m also going to give you the rules of the road about using these little darlins’, so listen up.”

We listened to warnings about losing our radios and not using them as telephones; Chad also gave us the frequencies to use for business purposes and private conversations. What kind of private conversations? I wondered. For setting up a tryst? I could imagine half of the UN eavesdropping simply by changing channels. I would have to remember that ‘private’ had a whole new meaning with a walkie-talkie in my hand.

“Havra, Echo 4 India.”

“Havra?”

Brielle punched me on my arm. “CJ, he says your sign. You are Echo 4 India.”

I am Echo 4 India. Who is that?

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