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?"


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