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Chapter 21: Goodwill Tour

With the electricity secured, I returned to the house, still worrying over the toilet situation; squatting over a hole was not an image I wanted in my head. —Nhean showed up almost immediately. His black hair, matching his alert eyes, was slicked back. He was ready.

Electrified but apprehensive about our trek into the unknown, I started the engine of my white 4X4 and Nhean, grinning as before, climbed in the passenger seat. We took off on my quasi-goodwill tour, an effort to introduce myself and spread the word throughout the district that Untac was there and, with it, the promised election.

We visited several villages that straddled the narrow dirt and sand roads―roads no wider than the width of my 4X4.One road was so soft and eroded that I had to use the four-wheel drive, and still the truck planed and careened like a boat out of control. I finally understood why these trucks were equipped with winches. I decided that it was time for me to learn how to use one.

Five to seven thousand people lived in the Cheong Prey District spread out among small villages―all with pagodas and, in some of the luckier ones, primitive schools. The shelters in these villages were little more than huts on stilts. Livestock ambled in and around the dozens of naked children who played in the mud alongside ponds of lotus and fish. The smaller children rode atop huge water buffalo, while occasionally I saw older children walking along red dirt lanes to school in dirt-soiled white shirts and blue pants or skirts. At one turnoff Nhean asked if I wanted to visit a few villages where the Khmer Rouge guerrillas lived with their families.

“Are you nuts?” I asked. But faced with Nhean’s blank expression, I pointed at my head with an index finger and made a couple of circles in the air. “No thanks, I have already had enough of the Khmer Rouge for a lifetime.”

We continued going straight ahead. There were no turns and no other vehicles on the road except for the occasional rickety bicycle or ox-drawn cart. Yet I kept looking over my shoulder; an undeniable sense of being watched shadowed us.

I made an appearance at each village along the way. Jumping out of the 4X4, I made “tiny talk” with Nhean’s help and a smile—a smile I quickly learned was my passport to their acceptance. The children gathered around me, the braver ones taking my hand. I gave out candy and balloons as if the circus had come to town. Nhean repeatedly whispered Khmae greetings in my ear and encouraged me to talk as women stared, men smiled and shyer children waved from behind their mothers’ skirts. At one village police outpost, I observed automatic rifles and a missile launcher. More eerie than threatening, the weapons were old, and the police uniforms looked as if they came from the bin at a Goodwill store.

To the villagers, I could have been a witch. Possessions like my camera and my world-time watch were magic, not technology. I pondered how I would communicate when I had to say more than susdaye, chu mai CJ—hello, my name is CJ.

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