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Chapter 43: The Art of Satisficing

I hadn’t even rinsed the sleep from my face, much less had time to brush my teeth, when my office manager sent Nhean over to fetch me. “The FSA guys are here to install our new computer work station, but our generator is too small,” he said. “You come talk with them.”

I walked across the road. The two technicians stood around drinking water.

“What’s up with the PC?” I asked. They looked at each other and shrugged. Then the younger of the two men said, “Your office generator ain’t big enough.”

“So, can you get us a bigger one?” I inquired with a smile.

“No can do,” the older man said. “The FSA said they only pay for the computers; the Electoral Unit should buy the bigger generator. But if you ask me, they can’t sort it out, so no one is getting anything.”

I could think of nothing to say to make it right. The more I saw of Untac, the more fed up I was with the mission. I sat down and stared menacingly at the technicians, who tossed their empty water bottles into the waste bin with more force than necessary. Wordlessly, the two men skulked from the office. Untac needed to get right with god.

At the next DES meeting, we were given our marching orders although not even a backpack’s worth of equipment. “Registration will begin on October thirtieth and continue for three months,” Raena said, confirming the rumors of an early start date as matter-of-factly as if she were giving a daily weather update.

I had been in my district for months. We were officially open but my office was barely equipped. It had a computer, but the generator barely kept the lights on. We had training videos, but no VCRs. What misguided optimism had led Untac HQ to believe that we could be ready in less than a month’s time? I tried to look at the plus side; a deadline might serve to get us up off our asses and force HQ to give us what we needed to do the job. However, I already knew that the target date was only hope and PR, not a mandate with dire consequences if not met. I wasn’t drinking the Kool Aid yet.

Given the inadequate generator and impossible deadlines, I was still angry when Hoay’s brother, the baker’s son next door, came looking for a job. Raising his red and bumpy arm, he pleaded, “Momma CJ, soom toh, please. I need to work with you. The ovens burn my skin. I work too hard,” he complained, but quickly added, “I happy to work too hard for you.”

I put some ointment on his arm. “Okay?” I asked. He looked at me expectantly. Did I mean his arm or a job to escape the ovens and the yoke of his harsh labor? “Aut panyaha. Your English is la aw, good. Come tomorrow to the office and fill out the forms,” I said. Plantation owners knew when a trivial largess could secure much more work than the lash. Was I becoming a plantation owner?

Asking Wati and me for jobs became a daily occurrence. Slick politicians sweltering in European suits and widows bent over from harvesting rice, and dressed in loose black trousers and dusty mandarin-collar black shirts, came to beg jobs for their children. Even the chubby monk wasn’t above recommending his brother. We interviewed the supplicants until we had our registration teams, our drivers and our office staff. The pay, a dollar or less per day, was still three times the average salary of a government worker.

I radioed Bruno, now firmly ensconced as PEO in Kampong Cham. “We’re good to go.” I didn’t add, “Once you get your act together.” It wasn’t only that I had little faith in Untac’s efficiency, I had an instinctive dislike for this PEO—he was cocky. From the time I had arrived in Cambodia he had elicited a sort of hold-your-nose ewww response from me. He wouldn’t have the necessary equipment ready anywhere close to our timetable.

As if to prove my point, the registration kits finally arrived. Two young men carted the equipment into the office. Wati stopped almost as soon as she began to unpack the boxes. “What’s this? There is enough for only three teams.”

“Seriously!” I wailed.

“Yes, look, they’ve sent only for three.”

“We have eight teams!”

The two young men shrugged, made a quick exit and drove off.

The screw-ups continued, the challenges mounted, and I put one foot in front of the other, hoping that I was going in the right direction. It was time to teach the team leaders how to use the radio. Pronouncing the letters V and R was particularly troublesome. One leader whispered; another’s lips were on the radio; and some couldn’t remember to hold down the button. By the end of our session, they could all say a recognizable, “Send, over and out.”

In addition to missing equipment and team leaders who could barely use the radio, our staff grew evermore jittery about the Khmer Rouge. So Wati and I had volunteered, once registration commenced, to sleep in the villages with our frightened teams. Although we were earnest, we were hardly enthusiastic. Radush and I conferred about the reality on the ground. “There is much negotiation happening,” he said, “but so far the situation is not much improved.”

I ran my fingers through my short hair, rubbing my itchy forehead. My skin often itched when I was nervous, and sometimes my elbows would bleed. It would take a lot more than ongoing negotiations to convince my staff to allow me to sleep in my own bed.

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