Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Doing Lunch

Since we're so very near the end (I fly on the 14th, and arrive back at DTW on the 16th), my office decided that today would be a beautiful day to take me out to lunch. We all piled in the 3/4 ton Truck of Justice (a Ford Ranger pickup that ferries me about the countryside when I get out into the provinces to Do Good- or Interview People and Bug The Authorities) and rode across the Friendship Bridge to a little restaurant packed behind a series of row houses on the western bank of the Mekong river. That area, across the bridge (reconstructed by the Japanese after its destruction at the end of the Khmer Rouge era) is a bit of a boomtown now, and you can look one direction and see endless rice fields and sugar palms, and look the other and see high-rise hotels. We picked something in-between; a restaurant built on a slightly shaky wooden platform overhanging the riverbank.

There, my program manager and I engaged in that age-old game of West vs. East: The Weird Stuff You Eat game. We traded back and forth blow-for-blow; I was holding my own with reports on whale, raw horse, tarantula and other deliciously odd foods (yeah, tarantula. Cambodian delicacy. Tastes like almost nothing, like a big old ball of tapioca in a crispy shell) and my boss fired right back with crickets, bees, sashimi, and hot dogs. Then he got a grin on his face, and decided to press his hand.

"Have you eaten rat?"

Whoa, whoa, buddy. Rat? I most certainly have not. I have no intention. Have you?

"Yes. During Pol Pot regime, I eat."

The conversation had gone from laughably light to uncomfortably heavy, and he let it hang in the air for a moment before continuing.

"The rat that lives near people, in the village, it tastes horrible. But the rat in the fields, very good."

Without really knowing what to do next, I nodded, agreeing that a free-range rat probably beat a city rat any day. The boss went on.

"One day, I came home and my father had cooked a soup- like a curry, like amok (fish in coconut curry), but with a different taste. It was delicious! After dinner, we all were sitting around enjoying the last of the meal, and he got a kind of a smile on his face. He asked me if I knew what kind of meat it was in the curry. I guessed beef. Maybe he was lucky, bought some cow. He shook his head, and asked me if I knew where my dog was. He fed me my dog. It got sick, and started to attack people, so he killed it; and when it was dead, he couldn't waste all that meat."

Everyone over 30 survived the genocide somehow. It's hard to wrap my brain around that, sometimes. There are a lot of these moments here, where the reality of what happened rises up and makes itself impossible to ignore.

Then the boss laughed. "So you really ate raw horse? Was it good?"


Friday, August 03, 2007


Driving While Foreign.

Yep, yours truly got picked up by the police today at lunch. I was rolling along in a pack of motos on my way to lunch when a police officer stuck out his orange baton and waved me to the side of the road. "Stop sir. You pay money."

Before this becomes a tirade against the police, it's important to mention:

Cambodian police are perhaps the most underpaid and least appreciated police force in the world. They get 30 bucks a month with no medical, dental, retirement or other benefits. They have to buy their own uniforms and equipment. Training's a joke, and nearly none of them have had formal education as to what the laws they're enforcing mean; and law in Cambodia is fluid enough that the laws they were taught are likely no longer in effect. So they supplement their income where they can.

Like shaking foreigners down for cash.

Despite my best efforts to play dumb, my constant smile and my willingness to participate in whatever Kafkaesque procedures they had on offer, Phnom Penh's Finest's final demand was clear and unavoidable. "5 dollars."



On the upside, work's been great. I'm preparing reports, I've finished up most my assignments, and there's very little between me and a completed summer internship.

I hit the airport on the 14th- almost no time now.