One Person I Met

I don’t remember his name but he was our local guide as we hiked 15 km in the Cambodian forest. The hike was one of the most physically demanding things I have ever done in my life. We climbed up hill on a muddy wet path that had no level place to put your foot. We went over slippery rocks and under waterfalls and picked leaches off our ankles while we wore our best hiking boots and clung to our walking sticks. Our guide, 21 years of age, sported worn out flip flops with a hole where each big toe should be supported, and no walking stick at all. The whole hike we pondered how he was possibly hiking this bug ridden trail from hell like that. In the midst of our hike we came across a valley with a small cabin on it. Our guide said this was his aunt’s home and she took care of two young kids. They walked over to us half naked, just back from bathing in the river, and shyly smiled.

We continued our hike, and when we finally reached the top we were all starving and couldn’t wait to eat. A thin watery bowl with not much but fish spines floating in it was dinner, until I found a caterpillar cooked into mine and couldn’t eat any more. Our guide waited until every single one of us took our first bite before he sat down and served himself. After dinner we all sat around the now empty mat in a long oval and our guide pulled out homemade rice wine stored in an old two liter soda bottle. We passed around one shot glass, our guide pouring a new shot in the cup for each of us. I was seated directly to his right so I was the first to go. It was like swallowing watered down hydrogen peroxide, but somehow our group of ten got through four or five of those large bottles.

I was anxious to ask our young guide questions about himself. He told me he grew up on the mountains we were in, in a very small village. His village survives off of money earned doing manual farm work and that is his late father’s legacy. There are few elderly people in Cambodia, because of the terrible regime that killed so many only decades ago. Despite this farming tradition that started long before the boy’s father’s time, his mother supported his decision to temporarily leave home and work in the tourism industry, Cambodia’s rapidly growing largest income sector. He would have to return soon, as his 22nd birthday was approaching. In his tribe, when a man turns 22 and a girl turns 18, they must be wed. He has the freedom to choose which girl as long as both mothers approve. I asked him if he had dated any girls in his village and he laughed and blushed. They don’t date or even kiss until after they are married. When I asked him again, because I couldn’t believe it, I made a kiss motion to make sure he understood my English and others turned toward our conversation, equally blown away that this 21 year old guy couldn’t bear the thought of kissing a girl.

There was a young girl and a middle aged woman who had made us dinner hiding in the small shack next to us. I asked our guide about them, and he said that was his cousin and his aunt, which I wondered if all these women really were his aunts or if that was just the English word he knew to describe them. He called the young girl over and she timidly hid behind her supposed cousin. He joked with her. She sat down with us, no older than 11 years old, and she threw back a shot of rice wine. They asked me about dating in the U.S. and the young girl told me she would one day love to come to the states. I asked our guide if he wanted to come to the states, and he said no. He has only ever left his tribe to travel the few miles to this mountain where tourists come.

Below the mountain is a very small town that our guide said was the biggest city he had ever seen and he was deathly afraid of it. He is terrified of the mopeds they ride and says it is too loud. I couldn’t believe someone could have this mindset and live such a closed off life, but he is far from alone. There are thousands of people that don’t have internet access and can’t imagine a city bigger than the closest small village. There are also people who have internet access, like people across the United States, that end up having a similar mind set because they never travel far from their home town.

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