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Chapter 24: The Blue Cap

“Brielle, have you seen my black high heels?”

She sang out in reply, “Under the bed, they bite you if you go there.”

I pulled them out, dusted them off and squeezed them onto my feet, which were now accustomed to flip-flops. As we walked down the hotel staircase, our host the Indian CivPol commander joined us. The commander was a tall, elegant Punjabi, with a huge waxed mustache and bright white turban. Taking us each by the arm, he walked us into dinner—and not the usual dusty, dank dinner at some gritty restaurant.

The hotel lobby had been turned into a dining room right out of a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. Men wore their country’s uniforms, mustaches were groomed, hair was combed and hard-soled shoes were spit-shined. People were so used to seeing us look like sweaty grunts that even the Cambodians complemented us on our appearance, telling us we looked beautiful: saat, saat na!

The commander tapped his glass and stood. “Tonight I welcome you to Kampong Cham and toast to your success.”

With a nod from Ele, the staff handed out the UN’s powder-blue ball caps. I studied mine, turned it around in my hands, savored the texture of the embroidery and traced the outline of the UN patch with my right index finger. Brielle and I exchanged looks, swallowed our giggles and forced our faces to look solemn. We placed the caps on our heads.

I couldn’t help but notice that Brielle was a happy young woman, not the dour “a bit difficult” Belgian roommate the UN volunteer had warned me about the day I first arrived in Phnom Penh. She still had her moments, like when she went into a fist clenched, red-faced rage because I had asked her to buy ten yards of screen for the windows of our house in Skon.

“Barbarian! What terrible language do you speak? Yards, what are these yards?” Brielle ranted. “They don’t have yards here, only dirt. I don’t know your request, your yards are making me h’angry!” She stormed out of our hotel room, saying only that she was leaving for Phnom Penh.

Despite occasional turmoil, in the brief span of a few weeks Brielle and I had survived the acquisition of a house, electricity, offices in our adjacent districts and an embryonic staff. For good or ill, Untac was well aware of looksray Kampong Cham, the ladies of Kampong Cham, madames Havra and Carré: Echo 4 India and Echo 4 Juliet.

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