Chapter 64: The Soaps
The situation in Cambodia was deteriorating. A continuous stream of UN personnel had left the country, mostly due to the nightly death toll from guerrilla and government firefights.
Assigned to the forbidding little province of Poŭthĭsăt, I was about one hundred seventy klics north of Phnom Penh and a two-hour drive south of Battambang. According to Leannán, it was dirt poor, primitive, isolated and risky—a place that no rational person would want to be. Then again, my reason for going there was completely irrational. With two-thirds of the mission behind me, I was no longer momma thom thom or the DES with a ninety-nine percent registration rate. I was just the Polish major’s girlfriend.
I drove past endless flat expanses of sugar palms, interrupted only by the occasional orange spire of a pagoda or a ceramic roof. It was the dry season, so no brilliant emerald patches of rice paddy brightened up the dusty ochre fields. At the ferry crossing, I lined up with a couple dozen other distinctive white UN vehicles—Land Rovers and 4x4s—most on their way to Phnom Penh, to wait for the rusting hulk of a transport that would carry us across the lower tip of the Tonlee Sap. As usual, there was a snarl of traffic—lumbering Russian trucks, carts and horses, motorbikes and bicycles—but I squeezed on deck, watching warily as we pushed off toward the distant shore.
Getting off the ferry was as daunting as getting on it had been. Motorbikes slipped and fell over; cars got stuck in the muck at the shoreline; and trucks belched up diesel poison as they struggled for purchase on the soft sand. I drove northwest, listening to cassettes of 60’s music to divert me from obsessing about where I was leaving and where I was going. The landscape changed to rolling hills, and I could make out the Cardamon Mountains in the distance, green and cool against the bright blue sky. I knew that I couldn’t get too lost, as there was only one partially paved road into the provincial capital, Poŭthĭsăt town, and I was on it. Stephan had given me the impression that it was a boring, ordinary town with little to offer—especially in the way of restaurants.
“Stairway to Heaven” played on the cassette. Was I climbing one? Suddenly unsure whether I was on the way to happiness or death, America and safety seemed to be getting farther and farther away. I turned off the song and let my mind wander. I tried to picture Stephan, his large warm hands and twinkling eyes. He would be waiting for my arrival at the guest house where he had reserved a room, with wilted flowers in his hand and sweat beads streaming down a face red with heat and impatience.
But no Stephan stood waiting, with or without flowers. All that greeted me was a hand-painted sign, “Baykhlor Guest House,” nailed to a rickety wooden fence. I parked the Land Rover in the empty driveway in front of a long, single-story cement building, found the manager and checked into my room.
The room was barely habitable, even by Cambodian standards. The fake linoleum that covered the floor was cracked and moldy, and the fan kept turning off. Dead flies littered the corners, while those still living buzzed around my ears. I was intending to unpack and shower before officially checking in with the provincial HQ when someone showed up at my doorstep. “I think you need to see your major.” The words tumbled out in a whoosh from a middle-aged man, who was standing at my door. Robin, the Australian assistant PEO, introduced himself and continued with some urgency. “Yes, you really need to go see X-ray Poppa 2, Stephan’s new radio call sign.”
I tucked Robin’s scribbled directions into my pocket, splashed water on my face and got back into my truck. Although the drive was only five klics, the road stretched out forever as my imagination conjured up one dire issue after another awaiting me at Stephan’s camp, the Polish logistics compound.
I reached the edge of a large complex, empty of trees and grass, which was surrounded by a twelve-foot-high chain link fence. Razor wire was strung along the top, protecting big earth-moving equipment from would-be thieves. Large trucks lined one side of the compound; small square metal trailers used for barracks lined the other side. The office looked like any other construction site: a long, low, one-story wooden structure that could have been mistaken for a warehouse.
I pulled in through the large double gates and parked in front of the office, where I could see Stephan standing behind the screen door. Before he could open it, I began to speak.
“What was so urgent that I didn’t even have time to unpack?” I asked as I braced myself for some impending disaster. “This had better be good.”
“I only wanted to make sure you got here okay. I didn’t know how to wait.” Smiling sheepishly, he caught me by the elbow and, pulling me into the storage room behind his office, whispered as his mouth met mine, “It will be good, I promise. It will.”
A feeling of pure lust tickled me deep inside. A tinny voice, like an alien robot, echoed in my head. “Resistance is futile,” It said.
I didn’t bother going back to the guest house to shower. Feeling giddy, with a twinge of happy anxiety, I went directly to check in with the provincial electoral unit. The HQ building looked remarkably similar to the one in Kampong Cham—sixties style, made of brick and plaster, with window air conditioners rattling as they struggled to cool the large open office, which reminded me of the police detective bullpens in Hollywood crime movies. I was directed to a small, partially partitioned room off to the side. Locked in a single direction, a floor fan buzzed, adding to the noise of people talking. Beyond the fan, seated behind a metal desk strewn with papers, was a large man mopping beads of sweat off his brow.
My new PEO, Abayomi Tshuma, greeted me in an over-sized voice when I approached his desk, his first words underscoring my new identity. “Ah, we heard about you coming here to Poŭthĭsăt because of the Polish soldier.” I found him shrewd and reasonable. I liked him. I liked him even more because he wasn’t Bruno.
Abayomi was a robust, ebony-black former diplomat from some African country. “Yes, CJ. I see no reason why you cannot live in Poŭthĭsăt town, near your major’s camp, rather than in Bakane, your electoral district,” he said lavishly. With that concession, I was no longer Echo 4 India; I was Echo Charley Bravo 1.