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Chapter 69: The Mer People

I slipped in beside the pilot and rammed the earphones on my head. Soon all of Poŭthĭsăt lay spread out beneath me as the Tonlee Sap glittered off in the distance. Klara and I were flying to its shore to negotiate polling sites in the floating villages that dotted the lake. Below the thick canopy of the jungle, hidden from view, were the dozens of small villages that I knew concealed both farmers and guerrillas, the people who would soon be electing the leader of their country.

We landed in the mud at the southwest edge of the lake and hiked calf-high in the muck to a small bamboo fisher's hut built on higher ground. A woman with a small boat agreed to ferry us out to the chief of a large floating village, a thirty-minute ride from the shore. As we slipped slowly through the muddy water, I inhaled the warm swampy smells of the shallows and heard the calls of the herons and the twittering of sea birds that glided over us.

I marveled at the ingenuity that had created these villages. Comprised of varying numbers of houseboats tethered together, a village would stay in position as the waters rose. When the rainy season was over, the whole village would lower with the water, and the houseboats would essentially be dry-docked in the same configuration as they were when floating in the middle of a monsoon-fed lake. Despite this marvel of engineering, the water that flowed as streets also served as the villagers’ only supply of water to wash with, as well as their toilet.

We arrived at a houseboat with a small wobbly deck loaded with small fish. Eight or nine people, with the precision of robots, were cutting off the fish heads and tossing them into large reed baskets. The chief paused long enough for us to talk about possible polling sites and then went right back to his decapitation duty. With little time remaining until we had to return for the chopper, I hurriedly gave a quick civic education lesson on voting—only to wait an hour for another boat to deliver us to the shore.

Trudging through hot, murky water to get to dry ground, I could see that the chopper was taking off without us. The French crew left us some water and a package of dry crackers as they ascended, promising to fetch us in two hours. “Au revoir,” they called out cheerily as they waved goodbye. “Ciao,” I replied faintly, letting my arms hang limply at my side.

Klara’s lank blonde hair stuck to her head. Mud covered me up to my knees. We headed back to the fisher’s hut, where we passed the time chatting or quietly sitting with our eyes closed against the intense glare of the sun. With no running water or power, we began to feel vulnerable. The Khmer Rouge were notorious for attacking the boat people, who made easy targets. In these circumstances, so did we.

When we finally heard the helicopter’s descent, I told the fisher folk aw kuhn and left my mud-soaked shoes and socks behind. Klara, covered in muck from her neck to her toes, rolled her eyes and asked, “What do you Americans say? All in a day’s work?” “Yeah,” I replied. “Adventure and drudgery. That’s the job of a DES.”

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