Chapter 19: Cheerful Blue Shutters
Finding a place to live took precedence over almost everything, but we also needed to open offices and establish our presence in our adjoining districts as well as meet the locals and the other Untac units in the field.
Still based in our room at the Mekong Hotel above a raucous nightclub, Brielle and I combined our search for housing with meet-and-greets with the two districts’ local government bosses. Courtesy calls at the UN’s Indian and Chinese military battalions, both in my Cheong Prey District yielded flirty smiles from the handsome Indian commander and officious handshakes from the Chinese major.
Téphanes, who was based in Kampong Cham Province, encouraged us to meet the local Unmo unit and the UN Civilian Police—hash tag CivPol—who were also billeted in my district. Teams of eight multi-national police officers were supposed to be training local police in proper procedure and escorting the electoral units that registered people out in the villages. But I hadn’t seen any CivPol around on my visits to Skon; they were MIA, as far as I could tell.
Brielle and I tracked down the Unmos at the local government compound, not far from the barracks housing a battalion of communist Chinese military engineers—road builders—and the local market. Their white-washed wooden house was up on stilts and surprisingly roomy, boasting an indoor bathroom with a bathtub.
A swarthy, stocky Croatian in his early forties, the unit’s leader, Major Radush Korobov, greeted us. His black eyes reminded me of a chocolate lab puppy I once had; they were impenetrably dark, yet held a touch of sadness. Another member of his team, a balding, gregarious Algerian, welcomed us with one word: coffee. The coffee was served in china demitasse cups—a nice touch, despite the fact that it was Nescafe.
Radush took a big gulp of water, puffed out his barrel chest and, looking straight at me, said, “I dislike your capitalism more than Europe’s. You Americans are greedy. Even here the US controls Untac. its foreign policy is the same as it was during the period of the so-called Cold War. The sights of US foreign policy are set directly on Eastern Europe. But you should know that.” He winked at Brielle and continued. “You are probably CIA. Why else would an American professor be in Cambodia?”
I didn’t respond, and no one came to my defense. In the silence that accompanied our impasse, the major studied my new high-tech world-time wristwatch. I speculated silently that his attention was based on either envy or disdain. As if reading my thoughts, he said, grinning wolfishly, “Your watch looks too big for you; give it to me, or maybe I buy it from you.”
I shook my head. “No, the watch is new and I like it.”
“Your countrymen are unfriendly. They look down their noses at the rest of us. We’re great peoples,” he resumed. He wore his inferiority complex like an overlarge winter coat that he was desperate to fill, his eyes revealing his lack of self-esteem despite the verbal challenge. I wasn’t the ugly American, nor did I want to be drawn in to some competition of his making. But I wasn’t going to live in a safe little suburb in Orange County, California; I was going further into the heart of darkness, and I needed all the allies I could get. Even this guy. Even if it meant eventually giving him the watch.
Then, smiling as if we had merely been discussing soccer, Radush attempted to coax us into living near their compound. “Ladies, there is an old bank building near the district offices that you could turn into a home and office. Closer to us, we can keep you safe. We can help set it up for you; our help will be nice, no?” He grinned like a schoolboy and laughed maniacally. It didn’t take much imagination to see that he had made the offer in the hope of neighbors with benefits.
Finding housing in Skon fell to me as Brielle was busy in her own district, Battheay. After seeing several ‘not on your life and no effing way’ possibilities, I went to inspect an unfinished two-story house a short walk from the Unmos―close to their compound if we needed their help. A woman, who was nursing an infant, sat on a hammock surrounded by crates and boxes of merchandise. The whole first floor looked like a garage. But the second floor was a traditional-style wooden house with cheerful blue shutters. With scarcely a nod, the woman waved me up the wooden stairs to a roomy roofed-over balcony that overlooked the road. Spreading my arms wide, I inhaled the pleasant openness of the porch.
Brielle approved of my choice, and joined me to make our final arrangements. After some haggling with the landlord—who wanted us to hire his sister as our housekeeper—he agreed to build an outdoor Western-style toilet and a scoop bath within three weeks. I was totally sold on the idea of going native.
Whether we would have electricity by then was another matter altogether. Negotiations with the Chinese, who possessed the only industrial-size generator in the area, would be dicier. The battalion’s commander wanted a “contribution” of US silver dollars, a rare commodity in Cambodia, before he would agree to connect our house to the Chinese compound. My only possible source was Hon—my friend and local money changer. I would radio Leannán in Phnom Penh to find her and hope she could secure the coins.