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Chapter 36: A Twosome

The word arrived. Like it or not, I was to meet my new partner in Phnom Penh at her orientation. I’d owned this part of my life in the district—flying solo and loving it. I didn’t want it to change. If this news wasn’t upsetting enough, I had promised HQ that I would say something about living in the provinces to the newly arrived volunteers. My prep time was the drive time there—a little more than two hours from Skon to Phnom Penh—assuming the ferry over the river was operational.

UNV HQ held the orientation in one of the familiar large briefing rooms from our training days. I wished that I had pictures of the villages, showing crowds of laughing children’s hands reaching for the hard candy that I carried with me, as well as soldiers with AKs and shoulder-held grenade launchers. If the new UNVs were anything like me, they didn’t have a clue about what life would be like after their assignments to the provinces. Sans audio-visual enhancements, I mustered my best cheerleader performance and spoke briefly about life and work in the districts. Then I left the podium to find Budiwati, my new partner.

A UNV staffer pointed her out. I crossed the room, navigating around small clutches of people and folding chairs that were scattered about in disarray. I stopped in front of Wati with my arms tightly folded across my chest. She was petite and thick, dark, curly hair framed her sallow face. An Indonesian woman, she could have passed for any number of Southeast Asian nationalities, including Vietnamese or Filipino.

She looked a little startled, but in good English she said, “Hello CJ, I am Wati. We are to be partners.” She smiled tentatively and then stepped back, as if I might bite.

Clearly she had been warned that I was not receptive to having a partner. The circumstances were not the same as they had been with Omar. I didn’t want him. In this case, I didn’t want anyone. It wasn’t only that I liked being in charge, with no boss and no competition. I’d brought my little world into balance, I was healing, and I was terrified over the prospect of inserting an unknown into the mix. I couldn’t bear risking it all falling apart. Wati was an unknown.

“You’ll need to find accommodations in Skon,” I said.

“I was told I will be living with you,” she replied. Her voice had a whiny pitch to it, like a motor gear.

“You were told wrong; there is no room in our home,” I countered.

“Don’t all female DESs in the district live with you?” she asked.

“My friend Brielle and I live together. I’m not supposed to have a partner. Therefore I didn’t look for a place with space for one, either,” I said, rotating on my heel to leave. “I’ll take you to Skon when your training is complete, and you can find housing then.” I walked away without waiting for her acknowledgement, preoccupied with questions about how this new partnership would work out.

Both Wati and the new interpreter, Kosal, settled in, as did the realization that the start of voter registration was only weeks away. I had to get beyond handing out twenty dollar bills. Our official work would be training local staff to register people, providing civic education and running polling stations. Untac’s goal of taking the country from zero to democracy in a very short seven months was mind-boggling.

Wati, although small in stature, was big in behavior. She was no stranger to electoral work, and we settled into a decent partnership despite my inexcusably rude behavior when we had met. However, my personal history with bureaucracy was based on the motto, “It’s my policy to ignore your policy.” Not Wati. Policy and rules kept her life organized. She liked hierarchy; I despised it. Tension from that kink in her persona aside, my new partner and I got along fairly well, with my place at the top of the hierarchy secure. After moving in with the Indonesian CivPol, she blended quickly into their household. I gave Wati credit for increasing their visibility in our district.

Kosal and Nhean bonded, too, and easily divided their time between Wati and me. I watched as Nhean showed him around the office. Kosal, unable to hide his excitement, took everything in, as if we were going to change the world.

“Kosal, come with me downstairs and help with some of the registration equipment,” I said, wanting to get to know him better. He followed like a puppy, unquestioning and eager to help.

When we were alone in the large storage area, I asked, “Why is this election so important to you?” Kosal stopped and stared at me, as if I were an inquisitor. “Don’t worry. I simply want to hear your heart speak,” I assured him.

Shifting nervously, he considered my question for a moment and then, standing stock still, looked at me. “My father, he afraid. He take me in a small room, hid by curtains. We do my lessons by candlelight to avoid the Khmer Rouge, who murder writers and teachers.”

He told me that the Khmer Rouge slaughtered anyone who wore glasses. I winced. I remembered the pair in Hon’s small wooden box where she kept the tiny Buddha I now wore around my neck. One wears glasses only to read, and reading doesn’t grow rice. Bile rose in my throat, and I struggled to keep my composure as Kosal continued.

“Momma, I want Cambodia to be free,” Kosal said as his face contorted and turned red.

“Kosal, khium mine, I understand.” Deliberately speaking slowly, like a newscaster on Voice of America, I continued. “Now - you - must - turn - your - passion -into - action - that -firmly - establishes - a – free - and - fair – election - as - the - cornerstone - of - Cambodia’s - government. ” I hoped that my tone made up for any meaning that he didn’t comprehend.

Ban, yes, yes,” he said, smiling, but not so much that his eyes disappeared. “I can try to make my heart’s ideas work.”

I had underestimated him. This kid had the soul of a Jeffersonian.

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