On our first morning in Battambang, Leah, Bridgette, and I woke up early to grab some American breakfast at a Chinese restaurant next to the hotel (American meaning eggs and toast...I've eaten so many eggs on this trip that my blood probably just looks like yolks). We've all become a little addicted to the iced coffee here; when you ask for milk with your coffee, all the restaurants give you the condensed version. We've decided to write a letter to Starbucks when we return to the US, because condensed milk iced coffee is just the type of heart attack in a straw that America needs to round out our morning meals. Plus, the sweetness of the condensed milk covers up the fact that ALL the coffee I've found so far has been instant, which makes my soul cry a little each day. When I get off the airplane in Richmond in August, I need to go straight to a 7-Eleven for some real beans.
After eating, we packed into a car to drive out to one of the villages to meet with a client involved with a land dispute. Actually, that's not exactly true. The lawyer and administrative director hadn't eaten yet, so we went for a second breakfast. This was odd to us, since we had been told to hurry because apparently the land dispute was reaching dangerous levels, but apparently no emergency is too great to miss eggs.
I'm not going to go into much detail about the specifics of the cases in order to protect client information, so here's the basic background to give you an idea as to what's happening with property rights in Cambodia. A lot of land was converted to government property, specifically military property, after the KR regime ended in 1979. Many farmers, having no actual title to the land, have nonetheless been working plots of land, many for over 20 years. (The saying among rural populations is, "He who works it, owns it.") The military, however, has had this habit of gifting those same plots of land to their favorite officers (again, no title, no documentation). So now officers and farmers both try to claim the land, each trying to prove that they are the rightful owner; very difficult, without any title or records of transfer. The land isn't always given just to officers; wealthy business owners or people who are politically connected can very easily find a sympathetic court who will find that yes, indeed, they are the true owners of land on which they've never lived. It's really intense, because if we lose these cases countless families will have absolutely no where to go.
The disputes can turn violent, as we saw with the first client. During breakfast (the 2nd), we received a call saying that the client was being threatened by men with guns saying that she needed to leave the land immediately. We jumped in the car to drive out to her. I kept sizing up the lawyers and law students in the car, hoping that at least one of them knew some sort of kickboxing/karate/James Bond skills. We all looked like we'd be more comfortable behind a desk with an Excel spreadsheet instead of in a cage fight. It was time to start worrying.
Luckily, when we arrived the client happily told us that she stood her ground, and the men ran off when she said she had lawyers coming. We ended up walking the land (Plater students!) to see the crops that the officers had destroyed (hence more flip flop destruction). The lawyer talked about the upcoming case with the client, and we were back on the road.
That evening for dinner, they took us to what I can only describe as The Melting Pot for the Cambodian countryside. We all sat around a gas hot plate, ordered beers (the two main brands in Cambodia are Anchor and Angkor...we aren't sure why the marketing departments felt it would be a great idea for the only two main brands to be separated by two letters), and then had plate upon plate of uncooked things brought out to the table. We had some trustworthy, identifiable items like dark leafy greens, rice, and chicken, but some of the other items...well...led to conversations like this:
Leah (sifting through soup bowl): I see some spinach, and some mushrooms, and hmm. What's this white rubbery piece with the crisscross pattern? I've never seen this before.
Lawyer: Cow stomach.
Leah (flipping the stomach back into the bowl): Ah.
We made it through the dinner, stomachs and all.