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Chapter 7: Night Crawlers

I watched from the bed as Brielle opened the door, poised to leave on one of her frequent secret outings. “Where ya’ going?”

“Je sors.”

Not much in the way of information, I’m going out, but I was in need of a diversion from language lessons and inept bureaucrats. What did I have to lose? “Take me along?”

She introduced me to a trio of UN cartographers—night crawlers, she called them. Apparently big on the UN party scene, they lived in Guest House B fifty meters up the road. One of the night crawlers, a tall African man from Mozambique, had sought out Brielle when he learned that she spoke Portuguese. One more language, one more reason to dislike her.

Already in country for several months doing preliminary mapping for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia—Untac, we called the acronym, as if it were a word—the cartographers had knowledge that I lacked, making them rock stars in my eyes, and they were quite happy to accommodate my impression with raucous tales of their perilous adventures in Cambodia’s rural provinces. I wasn’t sure if Brielle would continue to share her friends, but I was hungry for their information—something we weren’t getting from our occasional Untac briefings.

“A decartographe is back from the provinces up near the Thai border. The night crawlers celebrate his safe return,” Brielle said as I stood in the doorway of our bathroom, toweling off from a late afternoon shower. “They’ve organized a dîner at their guest house. They insist you come, too. We have to be there by six.”

The cook, a Nepali with black hair in free fall across his smiling face, was grilling fish and squabbling with a Nigerian about spices, while the guy from Mozambique was trying to find enough clean dishes for all of us when the door opened. A woman with a sweet round face and light wispy red hair stepped inside tentatively. Smiling, she said in a whisper-soft voice, “Smells good. Enough for one more?”

The two Africans embraced her and the cook, who was trying to rub the fish off his hands, blew her a kiss and said, “Tashi shi deleg. Everyone, this is Téphanes. She’s part of the advance team that’s taking Cambodia’s first census. Essentially, she’s making Cambodia ready for you blokes to hold the election.” She was also on leave from the International Red Cross and spoke a little Khmae and fluent Chinese, as well as French and English. I felt a pang of jealousy.

The fish was spicy hot, and I didn’t recognize most of the side dishes that I assumed were a blend of Nepali and African cooking. As we sat on a big reed mat on the floor, with our plates balanced precariously on our laps eating Nepali-style with our hands, the conversation became an orientation—something sorely lacking in our Untac briefings.

“Phnom Penh is a metropolis, when you compare it to the other provincial cities,” Téphanes assured us. “Can you believe that, only a few months ago, no one was in Phnom Penh and no cars were on the roads? Pigs, cows and chickens roamed the streets.”

I marveled at the difference between Téphanes’ description and the bustling, chaotic Phnom Penh that I’d come to know.

I was so engrossed in Téphanes’s information that I didn’t hear the knock at the door or notice it open. Téphanes immediately recognized the slim, tall young man standing in the doorway. He was introduced as another cartographer named Leannán. Even before he spoke, the freckles and reddish-blond hair gave away his Irish roots. A dish full of fish and a cold beer was shoved into his hands, while Téphanes made introductions all around. I noticed that Brielle looked up with interest—something she rarely displayed—when Téphanes called our newcomer a poet and an unrepentant grass-roots activist. I was looking, too—sensing that this smiley, flirty guy would be a charming addition to our group. But as he found a gap in the circle to sit, I returned my attention to Téphanes.

In addition to her other qualifications, Téphanes was a provincial supervisor—someone with answers and experience that was measured in weeks rather than days. “Right now the advance team is collecting the census,” she explained “This first election will be based solely on population by geographical region; political parties and second-level sophistication will follow. Battambang in the northwest borders Thailand, making it one of the most important and contested provinces. Lots of Khmer Rouge guerrillas are still operating in and around the area, still resisting the peace process and raiding villages. They are doing this despite attempts by Untac to rein them in and confiscate their weapons.”

Leannán, who earlier in the day had returned from the north-western provinces, frowned and said, “The Khmer Rouge are dogged about repopulating areas of Cambodia under their control. They care nothing about the dangers from disease or landmines, and they are everywhere people gather to talk about the elections, waving their grenades and AKs. Their threats are not idle, either. An entourage of political operatives representing Hunsen’s CPP party were captured by the Khmer Rouge barely inside their stronghold, Palin. They were stripped, castrated and hacked to death.”

My mouth fell open mid-chew and I sucked a large piece of fish into my windpipe. I started coughing, trying to restart my breathing, while Leannán, his grey-green eyes wide and white with either fear or rage, continued, “I was thinking I’m a mad man to be here.” So much for the United Nations peace plan for Cambodia.

Because it was more exciting and more dangerous than other areas, lots of UNVs had asked for postings in the northwest. But long before hearing Leannán’s chilling account, Brielle and I had already decided that we didn’t want to go anywhere near it. “I want to be assigned to a province in the remote northeast mountains, where elephants and tigers still roam the jungles,” I said, looking to Brielle for affirmation. “That would be an adventure. I’ve heard that hill tribes still live like they did in the Stone Age.”

“Those provinces are malarial zones,” the cartographers warned in unison.

“How about those spiders the size of dinner plates that eat birds and mice?” I asked.

“No,” Téphanes said, “those are in Australia, not here.” I was not the slightest bit reassured when Obi, one of the Africans, chimed in.

“Girls, cobras and vipers live in the countryside. They like to crawl inside the outdoor toilets,” he said, laughing so hard he had to stop. It was his turn to choke on a big mouthful of fish. Gulping air, Obi continued, “Did you hear about the villager who got eaten by a tiger in Mondulkiri? The world is just a big restaurant. I think we should always keep that in mind!”

I glanced sideways at him. “Too late to worry about that, but I will definitely only live somewhere with an indoor toilet,” I said, nibbling at the red saffron spice that was staining my cuticles. “We’ve already made our choice.”

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