Chapter 41: The Patron Saint of Party Planning
Hon’s smile spread from ear to ear, forcing her eyes to squeeze shut. “Madame CJ,” she called, before boasting to the nearby sellers that her American friend had come to visit her. “Why you here, CJ?” she asked, her smile barely fading.
“I’ve come to buy some things for our official office opening in Skon and to check on your pregnancy and marriage.”
Her eyes disappeared again as her smile covered her face. “My big belly, you come to see my health?” She caressed her rounded stomach lovingly. It didn’t take much observation to see that she was in excellent shape. Her skin was radiant, with no acne and no further need for the UN’s antibiotics that I’d given her. They had cleared her face but, when I had taken them, they had given me a terrible itch.
“Yes, but first we buy some things I need and then a special gift for your new baby. You must tell me what you would like.” This request wiped the smile right off of Hon’s face. I had put her in an untenable situation. For Cambodians, livelihood depended on ksae, patronage, and if they lost it, there was no safety net. Not having a patron meant vulnerability. In Hon’s mind, I had become her patron. I had traveled all the way from the countryside to honor her, but I also wanted her to ask something of me. Power didn’t operate that way in Cambodia. My request was unthinkable.
“Hon, consider it a wedding present and a baby present. Between friends,” I added, trying to coax her back to being her usual jovial self. “Besides, I’ve lots to buy, and without you my shopping trip will be a disaster. I’ll be cheated and aut sabaye.” That fixed it. There was nothing Hon loved better than to bargain for me and regale me with how many riels she had saved me; there was nothing she hated worse than thinking I was unhappy.
We picked up the items on my list, including tacky-licious organza dresses for the little girls in Skon. I had kept Hon too long from her shop, but she never complained. Despite working twelve- to sixteen-hour days, living on the edge of abject poverty and caring for Dara’s old, disabled auntie, she treated my infrequent visits as if they were gifts. She merrily chattered on about her sweet Dara and how her business sense, coupled with his talents, were sure to bring them success. And she confided her hopes for a healthy baby—a sharp contrast to her earlier brush with matrimony and heartache.
Finally, after roaming up and down the stalls of baby goods and listening to Hon reject everything I suggested as klai nah—too expensive, unnecessary and extravagant—I gave up and forced a one hundred dollar bill into her hand. “No more Hon, I must get back to Skon. So you take this, and you and Dara figure it out.”
Hon was beginning to heal. Fatalism spread among Cambodians as if it were in their water, but she had learned to spit it out. No longer trapped by old fears and fighting to escape set patterns of thinking, she was evolving into someone strong and ready to embrace infinite possibilities. She had become her own heroine, so she was also mine. I chuckled as I got into my 4X4 to return to my village. If Hon was the face of the new Cambodia, then Southeast Asia had better watch out. A new tiger was about to emerge.
“Authentic, right; that’s what I want, too. But no jungle spiders,” I said as Wati and I discussed our office opening. We wanted it to reflect the local community in Skon. We invited the chubby monk to bless the office and our work, and we ordered Cambodian food from Skon’s local restaurant. In preparation for the big shots coming from Phnom Penh, Brielle and I gave each other manicures and pedicures. As she painted a cherry red streak down my big toe, Brielle looked up and said, “I don’t know what you worry for. You are more beautiful and smarter than all those dreadful people at HQ.”
“Well, hmm,” I said. “Maybe a knight gallant will attend and sweep me off my feet.”
Shaking her head and smiling slyly, Brie said, “Chère CJ, tu es vraiment femme fatale.”
Concerned that painted nails were likely not enough for the occasion, I also decided to bleach my hair in streaks with the care package of necessary chemicals I had brought from the States. As I sat in the sun on the porch with bits of salvaged tinfoil in my hair, the little girls across the road noticed me. Keang, Hoay and Moam-Moam bounded up the stairs.
“Momma, what do you do?” Keang asked. Like Nhean, she had intense eyes, full of curiosity.
“I’m making my hair a new color.”
“Red? Yellow?” she asked, her eyes wide with amazement.
The girls squatted down on their haunches and studied the tinfoil sticking up like little antennae all over my head, eagerly waiting to see my new hair color. As we sat silently and waited, I was tormented by mental images of wild, multi-colored Bantam roosters.
After guessing at the processing time and drying it, my coiffure was tolerable. Although I certainly didn’t look like I had walked out of Garren’s in New York, I was relieved.
I gave our constant minions the cotton candy-colored organza dresses and a special assignment; their job was to keep busy any children who attended. Wati and I prepared bribes―little bags with balloons, candy and cookies―to keep the children quiet during the speeches.
Keang, Moam-Moam and Hoay—who were scrubbed to the bone, with their hair washed and their feet in their best shoes—put on their frothy, flouncy new dresses and pranced around, holding hands and giggling. I grimaced and yelled “chope” for them to stop. They lined up straight-faced in front of Wati and I, with their heads erect, promising to “take care the chillrens.”
The large number of attendees from HQ in Phnom Penh and KPCC surprised me. Our district Unmos, and CivPol, the district chief and countless other Cambodian officials milled about or sought bits of shade. I took my place on the woven mat, with my shoes off and my feet tucked under me. The village elders and local staff were already sitting on rough wooden benches, all facing towards the monk. Children tickled my feet. People talked, prayed, ate and smoked―all at the same time. This was nothing like a Methodist church on Sunday morning. Nhean placed my Buddha necklace on a plate lined with a handmade snowflake doily and put it before the monk. He asked the chubby monk to bless me as well as the office. Wati, a Muslim, preferred to watch.
Heads bobbed as I exchanged bows with the monk. He began chanting a mantra, a blessing for our health and Untac’s success. I felt as much as I heard him sing 'ei-mi-tuo-fo' in a soft throaty tenor while shaking stalks of sweet-smelling flowers dipped in holy water, sending a spray that soaked me and everyone kneeling before him. I let the droplets of water wash over me. With my palms pressing against each other, I scarcely felt the tips of my fingers. My eyes closed, my jaw slackened and my shoulders dropped. I let the robotic chanting lull me into a state of tranquility that I rarely experienced.
The chanting stopped, the spell broke and Nhean helped me up to the toothless smiles and bowing heads of the village elders. Something was going on; some link was beginning to form. I couldn’t communicate well enough with anyone to create an individual connection. Rather, the bond was forming between Cambodia and me.
After the requisite official speeches, Kosal translated my few brief remarks. Faithfully following speech etiquette, I mentioned the dignitaries that I could remember and thanked the staff profusely. Bruno wrapped up the formal program by raising the UN flag.
The cacophony of languages from people standing around chatting and eating was nearly drowned out by the boom box screaming 1960’s American rock music. Wati and I looked on beaming with pride until Kyrill returned with his new video camera slung across his shoulder. “CJ, prah-blem, I think.”
“Problems? What? I’m tired, and the party was a success, da?”
Apparently, our opening had managed to upset just about everyone but the locals. I had neglected to mention the Unmos and other military personnel, which angered Radush. Bruno was insulted because I hadn’t recognized him in my speech, and other VIPs expressed similar petty complaints. Bruno had invited all the bigwigs from Phnom Penh to show off the DESs in his province, but we had failed to follow his script. Screw them, screw him. I resented their reactions, although I pushed back against self-doubt and took comfort in the smiling faces of my staff.
I decided that, if I ever won a Nobel Peace Prize, I would thank the world’s total population by name. Until then, I would send a short apology note to Radush to keep the peace and forget the rest of them.