We’re rocking and thumping along on our last great Cambodian bus adventure—a weekend in Kep. We’ve just settled down in the Sorya bus after more than an hour waiting in mud at the side of the road. We said a wistful goodbye to the Gulf of Thailand as an all-night rain was coming to an end, and the turquoise fishing boats were heading out into choppy surf. We are stopping, as usual, every kilometer or so to pick up more passengers from muddy turnoffs here and there, riders carrying one small bag on their journey. Dogs are crisscrossing the road ahead careless of our approach, and women are squatting along the roadside with large pots of cashews, guavas and lychee to sell. The kids are one by one dozing off, and I’m using Yoshi’s back as a surface to write.
Now that we are seeing regular afternoon rains, the fields are bright green shoots of new rice, dotted with colorful stooping backs and the white frames of grazing cattle. This year they say the rains have arrived early, so there could be three rice-growing seasons. Farmers are encouraged to plant while rice prices are high. For us, the rain made for a damp and chilly weekend in Kep, but not cold enough to stop the kids from swimming. We sat through a gusty afternoon storm looking out at bouncing fishing boats and wondering how the boys working out there in thin T-shirts and flip-flops could stand the chill. We were wrapped up in damp towels shivering, and Yoshi’s skinny legs looked purple. Seems our bodies got used to heat.
On the Sorya bus we are the largest, albeit decrepit, vehicle on the road, and everything smaller—boys on bicycles, young couples with baby wedged between, old ladies carrying baskets—must yield to us. Transport in Cambodia makes any expat think about safety. It also gets me thinking about fairness.
When we had just pulled into Kep, the kids and I rode a tuk-tuk up the hill into the forest preserve, already more developed since our April visit with tree-top hotels and eco-restaurants built over the jungle canopy. We stopped for lunch at one called Veranda, a platform restaurant high in the trees overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. Yoshi was impressed with the pomelo, shrimp and cilantro salad. I watched with a puzzled eye the young Khmer waiter writing in a delicate, swirling script on a chalkboard, “Israeli couscous, lamb and feta vinaigrette”. What’s with us expats, anyway? We headed back out to continue our walk, and Puck almost bumped into a wiry Khmer worker, bent awkwardly with a large bucket of freshly-mixed concrete on his shoulder. He was setting another walkway through the ‘preserved’ forest of his home town.
From the top of the hill in Kep you look down at a roundabout, the road leading to Kampot, the provincial hall, and an orphanage to the left. I pointed it out to Yosh. It is a quadrangle of old yellow buildings set among palm trees along the beach next to the sea. Yoshi thought the Kep orphans are a pretty lucky bunch. It really is a beautiful spot. And all along the beachside road we spotted kids Puck’s and Tika’s size splashing in the surf, swimming naked or in underwear. A boy stood further out on a sandbar spearing crabs or fish with a sharp stick.
When the bus stops along our ride back to Phnom Penh, there are still more kids, Tika’s and Yoshi’s size, holding sticks that dangle small plastic baggies of sliced mango and pineapple, pushing up into the bus as the driver thrusts them back. They press in around us when we step down. You buy! You buy! Ladeee! You come back you buy! Yosh has become so accustomed to the sing-song, nasal incantations that he mimics the kids right back to their faces. They are undeterred. Finally I buy some fruit. When we settle back into our seats, I begin to dole out the snacks. Puck pushes his round little body between my knees and nuzzles into the bag. Yum-yum? Yum-yum? He is imitating another chant, this from the grimy, shirtless little boys who hang from our tuk-tuk and poke at our bags and then their mouths every time we leave Lucky Supermarket. But Puckie is smiling his happy eyes at mom, because he knows he will get a treat.
I guess I think about fairness on the bus, because we are usually seated up toward the front, and I can see the moms with little ones dodging us on motorbikes and kids on bikes narrowly missing the front bumper. It doesn’t seem fair that some babies would get flung off the front of motos and some are digesting shrimp and pomelo salad and getting sleepy on the bus. Tika doesn’t think it is fair that mommy buys donuts for her and another kid puts his hands into the bag outside of Lucky’s. It doesn’t seem fair to me that our whole ideas of safety and dignity are tied up with where we’re sitting.
Maybe we should re-visit Monticello when we get back to America. If Yoshi had stayed in his school in Virginia, he would be studying Thomas Jefferson right now. TJ enjoyed those units with Ernie and said we’re a lucky family, because our kids can look right at the Declaration of Independence and walk around Mount Vernon. Maybe Yoshi would have made a poster about certain unalienable rights, and we would visit the National Archives. I got thinking about Jefferson on the bus back to Phnom Penh. Particularly the part about being endowed by our Creator. Because that seems to be the catch, if you take a critical look at how un-equal everything is looking around you. We might not look equal, we might not be treated equal, but there is some invisible seed planted in us by God that gives us an equal measure of the same stuff. And in my skeptical moments, well, that just seems like a dodgy hypothesis.
Yoshi won’t have a full year studying Virginia history, since social studies over here has been a bit of Chinese imperial history and Bible study. We will certainly have our day-trips to Charlottesville, Leesburg, and Arlington, though. At Yoshi’s age, I thought Jefferson was awesome, up there pretty close with Henry David Thoreau, who I sketched and hung over my bed. But I’m not sure what kind of relationship Yosh will have with him. Next year he moves on to world history, that’s a series of units on colonial empires.