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Chapter 20: Potholes, Chickens and Landmines, Oh My

The sun reflected off of ten shiny silver dollars that were laid out in a straight line on the bureau in our noisy hotel room. I looked at them and then at Brielle for an explanation. “Leannán gave them to me while I was visiting him in Phnom Penh,” she said. “He got them from your friend, Hon. You can make the Chinese battalion’s commander happy to share his generator with us, yes?”

I picked up the coins, and said to Brielle. “Yes, we won’t die of heat stroke—only mosquito bites, if we don’t get the screen for our windows.”

“I get them today, je promets,” Brielle said. I thanked her and left for Skon, my pockets full of the jingle-jangle of heavy silver.

Leaving town, the asphalt road turned to dirt as I drove on the familiar potholed drive to Skon and the house that Brielle and I would share as we prepared for the election. The village of Skon was a market town situated at the critical crossroads of the routes to the current Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and the ancient capital, Angkor Wat.

What in the hell was I doing here? Why was I attached to a manic depressive Francophile? Marilyn, had tried to warn me not to take the mission, not to use Cambodia as my geographical cure for dependence on my soon-to-be ex-husband. Why hadn’t I listened to her?

I was admonishing myself when I saw a landmine sign for the first time. The red square board stood in a field like a devil’s scarecrow; it was erected near enough to the roadside that I could easily swerve to avoid a pothole and hit it. Letting go of the steering wheel, I rubbed my hands and smacked them together in an attempt to ward off hysteria.

In a country of only seven million people, there were an estimated ten million landmines in Cambodia. Did the placard mark one mine or a field of mines? What did that UN briefer tell us during training in Phnom Penh? Something like forget going out at night, never stray from well-traveled roads and it’s best to follow directly behind the vehicle in front of you. I grabbed the wheel and pushed down the gas pedal. Phantom landmine victims, without legs and arms, followed me the rest of the way to Skon.

I hadn’t yet turned the ignition off when a young Cambodian man approached the truck. “Your landlord does not know how to make a Western-style toilet, so he give up. He say he will build you a good Khmer outhouse,” the young man reported in surprisingly good English.

“Thank you, Nhean. Your name is Nhean, isn’t it?”

I stepped from my truck, gazed up at the cheerful blue shutters of the traditional house and wondered what made a good outhouse. And what about the vipers and cobras? Top of my To Do list: get a plastic pee pail for my bedroom.

“Yes, I am Nhean. We meet the other day at the well,” he said, looking down at his bare feet.

“Thank you for letting me know. Maybe you can help me talk with the landlord about the outhouse later, okay?”

Ban, I happy to help Untac,” he said, smiling and bobbing his head up and down—looking at me rather than at his feet.

It didn't take long for me to see the treasure in my new neighbor. His English was good, he was motivated, and he was available. I decided to press my advantage at once. “Excellent. Then can you please come with me today to visit the villages? I need an interpreter.”

But first I returned to my truck and headed over to the Chinese engineering battalion. I needed them to hook up our house to their generator. Now that I had the silver dollars, it was time to complete the negotiations.

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