September 30, 2005
Humans adapt to force and momentum.
I believe this is one reason we are capable of so much. Inertia guides us, and we change to survive. I think it is why we have the potential to do such horrible and such amazing things. Yesterday I understood that horrible part of humanity for the first time. Yesterday I returned to Cambodia.
It had been a fine sleepy morning of getting to the Thai-Cambodian border, crossing over into Poi Pet, haggling with the border guards, and then for a taxi. I settled on a decent price, and hopped in the car with a Japanese kid wielding an enormous camera, two Khmer women, and our tall, balding Khmer driver.
The national highway between the border of Thailand and Siem Reap, Cambodia is one of the worst overland crossings I've ever experienced. Yesterday was my fifth time on that evil stretch from Poi Pet. It is a dirt road, with potholes a meter deep, and a constant flow of speeding, swerving trucks. It is the rainy season, which turns this highway into a pockmarked ribbon of mud stretching for hundreds of miles through neon-green farmland.
We drove for an hour, beyond the shiny new hotels, casinos, and then the shacks and rice-paddies. I had my sketchpad on my lap, drawing my name in Khmer while laughing with one of the women. I was trying to remember phrases I had lost as we were jostled and bounced about in the back seat. We were speeding, as everyone does on that road.
Our taxi-driver passed a motorbike, faltered, and swerved to avoid a head-on collision. The car began to slide as he lost control and in an instant we skidded and hit something. We had run over a young girl on her bicycle - the car had stopped.
In that moment I closed my eyes. There was nothing before me but a void, and in that void was no logic or justice – just meaningless suffering. I opened my eyes, and reached for the handle of the door, only to realize we were moving again – backing up. Our driver was looking over his shoulder, hastily revving the engine and then, as I blinked in disbelief, we drove away.
My mouth open, I looked at the Cambodian woman next to me. Her brown eyes were wide as she nervously smiled and said "it's ok... it's ok…" patting me on the leg. Our driver was now speeding as fast as he could away from the scene, spouting things in Khmer I could not understand.
I looked at the Japanese guy in the back seat with me – he shrugged and shook his head. I looked out the window at the scenery now flying by: little huts, rice fields, mud and dirt.
I could feel that broad momentum dragging us away from the accident. I could feel the driver's childlike desperation as he fled, pulling us all with him. My bags were in the back – my computer, my camera, everything. I wanted to get out of the car, but what could I do in that moment? The car was silent.
Every taxi driver in Cambodia runs away from the scene of an accident. Everybody knows this. It's commonplace here. There is no reason to think we should have been any different. Just another anonymous white Toyota Camry, one of thousands disappearing after an unlucky collision. There was nothing I could have done. Time to move on.
Why was I still scowling, clenching my palm, staring at the sky? Why was there a voice deep inside me quietly telling me something was absolutely wrong?
I felt something wash over all of us. I felt everyone in the car realize they were now part of something new. We were all suddenly conspirators, trying to justify what had happened, and I was no different.
Our driver continued speeding ahead. We all followed him silently.
There were no heroes among us. No Buddhas or Christ-figures. Only imperfect humans, adapting to change, being molded and shaped by the blunt force of one man in control behind the wheel, pulling us forward. Away from suffering, retribution, and that unlucky girl's reality.
For fifteen minutes I understood where evil comes from. For fifteen minutes I understood what it means to force yourself into ignorance – to shove justification and dishonesty down your own throat. I understood, because I tried.
After fifteen minutes the woman looked at me. "It's ok." she said, "We saw her get up. It's no problem in Cambodia."
"This is not ok." I said.
We had come to a town and the driver had pulled off the road, and gone down a long dirt alleyway between two small buildings. A mechanic's shop - the bicycle had done something to the bottom of the car and needed to be checked. The driver also wanted to get off the road. We all got out, and I walked down to the street. I looked back in the direction we had come. I felt the small pendant my mother had given me that I wear around my neck.
I heard the sound of a siren blaring in the distance, far away. The taxi had started up again, and the two women were ushering me back into the car. I got in, looked at the woman next to me and said, "Stop. I need to stay here. Where are we?"
She looked at me in disbelief.
I paid my full fair, and got out of the car with all my bags. I walked to a small guesthouse in this dusty unknown Cambodian town, where I dropped everything off, then found a motorbike driver. He did not speak any English. I found the regional office of CARE international on the main road, and asked them to translate for me.
"I need to find the girl hit by my taxi."
We drove around Sysaphon for five hours that evening, from the hospital to the dozens of clinics nearby, searching. We looked and looked, chasing the hazy ghost of that little Cambodian girl. At the end of the day, as the sun set and dust settled, we could not find her. I returned to my guesthouse, and collapsed face-first on my bed, exhausted.
The next morning I walked down to the local bus station and began to haggle, bleary-eyed for a taxi to Siem Reap. During the hustle and bustle I looked far down the street and saw the provincial authority for the police. Cambodia's police are notoriously corrupt, and were unlikely to do a thing. Yet that girl's life was worth my honest effort.
I went to the station, conversed with a chubby officer in broken English, and sat for an hour next to shiny motorbikes as he radioed every police post between Sysaphon and the border. I waited, and I hoped.
Someone radioed back. They found a girl, hit by a taxi the day before, in a clinic 25 kilometers outside of town.
I hopped on the motorbike with my same young driver from the previous day, and drove for an hour back into the countryside. A one-lane bridge on the national highway was being repaired, backing up traffic for miles in both directions. A common delay in Cambodia – one bridge out, cutting off the entire province. There was an alternative though: A massive raft made from bamboo and plastic drums was floating people and motorbikes across the river by a rope. I stared at the odd work being done on the bridge, as my driver took some assertive action. Before I knew it he had pulled his bike onto the raft and floated across the river, and we were off again. We found the dusty police post, and the policeman drove us to a squat wooden clinic. There I found her.
She was curled up on a bamboo mat in a little teak room, hooked up to an iv drip. She was staring sadly at nothing as yellow afternoon light spilled in behind her. It was such a sudden relief to look her in the face, and understand she was both alive and not horribly injured.
There were six people in the room, two of which were part of her family, and they were all amazed and baffled to see a foreigner in this poor rural village. I watched their faces as my motorbike driver emphatically explained to them in Khmer how my taxi had sped away, how long we had looked for her, and how much it meant to find her. The clinician told us that she would be healthy again with some treatment. I offered her everything I could afford towards covering her medical expenses and her broken bicycle.
Her name is Sut Dien, she is fifteen years old, and she will be fine.
Her aunt looked at me as we left and said something in Khmer with her brow knit together. "Thank you, thank you, and again thank you." She did not need to say it.
As we drove back I thought about this country, about how history had deeply altered the way these people think. When a whole society is guided by the inertia of a single brutal regime, people adapt to survive. There is no social contract or guiding principle between strangers. If thirty years of violence taught people anything, it's that you keep your head down, you don't speak out, and you live.
When I think of this, I understand what a great feat it is for so many of my Khmer friends to strive to make a difference here. They do so with more tenacity than anyone I know, because in order to push for change here, you need twice the strength. Their resolve is something I deeply respect, and has shown me again that they deserve my help.
When social momentum guides us away from the truth we know in our hearts to be right, it means that much more to say "Stop. This is not ok."
Published 2o06 in Montreal Serai Magazine