At the beginning of July, Leah and I went on another trip out to the provinces with members from the Land Law Program. We were told to be ready at 10:00 a.m. sharp, and that the manager would pick us up at our respective abodes.
When someone tells me I have until 10, I will use every second up until then to get ready. Part of the reason this takes so long is because of my mandatory morning iPod dance party. The longer you give me to get my day started, the more songs that are added to the playlist. I'll reward myself for brushing my teeth by discoing to some KC and the Sunshine Band, or celebrate washing my face by jumping around to Lady Gaga.
So needless to say, I wasn't exactly ready when the call came through that the car was 15 minutes early and waiting outside my door. Stopped midway through step-ball-kick-changing, I cradled the phone in horror as I realized I needed to be going now. Glancing at the one, lonely sock that had managed to actually make its way into my weekend bag, I squeaked that I would need a minute or two.
After a whirlwind packing job, I raced down to the company car. Unlike the last trip, which was spent in a rather roomy Toyota Camry, our trusty steed for this journey was an extremely cramped truck. This was the type of truck where the backseat, consisting of three inches of foam and an unforgiving metal slab, was a manufacturing afterthought. I jumped in, already sweating, and apologized for holding everyone up. We pulled away from the curb, drove two blocks...and stopped. Turns out, the manager wanted to check on some passport paperwork (he's visiting the U.S. soon), and figured now would be a good time to run some errands. Hurry up and wait at its best.
Our coworker in the front seat took this time to excitedly reveal that he brought a snack for us for the road. He opened a styrofoam carton, immediately releasing a stomach-churning stench that could only belong to one fruit: DURIAN.
Durian is described as the "king of fruits" in Asia, and is sold along the streets everywhere. It has a really distinctive, horrible smell; it probably became king by suffocating all the other fruits into whimpering submission. Not exactly a kind, gentle ruler.
I just looked it up on Wikipedia, and found that this description sums up durian quite nicely:
"The edible flesh emits a distinctive odour, strong and penetrating even when the husk is intact. Some people regard the durian as fragrant; others find the aroma overpowering and offensive. The smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation to intense disgust, and has been described variously as almonds, rotten onions, turpentine and gym socks. The odour has led to the fruit's banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in southeast Asia."
Durian has the consistency of a mealy avocado, and peels out of it's spiny covering in segments that look like insect nests. It was not exactly a passenger I wanted on a five hour car trip. We politely declined, and, once our manager leisurely returned to the truck, began on our way.
During our trip, we got into a discussion with our three male Cambodian coworkers about marriage and gender roles. They were explaining that traditionally in Cambodia, the husband would earn all the household money, but would hand over each paycheck to the wife, as she was the family financial manager. They explained that the wife knows how much day-to-day things like shopping for food and basic things around the house cost, and it was easier for her to be in control of the cash so she wouldn't have to ask the husband all the time for money. For big purchases, they would decide together, but otherwise she was calling the spending shots. This led to the following conversation:
Me: But does the husband have to give all of his money?
My Boss: Yes, everything. Because otherwise he wouldn't spend it on what is best for the family.
Me (lazily not thinking): But let's say he makes $500, can he keep $50 of it for just some personal spending money? You know, to go to lunch with friends, or, I don't know, go to karaoke?
Uncomfortable laughter ensues all around, followed by a quick "no".
Leah (whispering to me): Remember that karaoke bars are usually places of prostitution here.
We headed north for Kampong Thom so that one of the lawyers could meet with some clients and Leah and I could attend a protest being held by people from a village involved in a land dispute with the government. Kampong Thom ended up being a blink-and-you-miss-it-but-frankly-you-want-to-miss-this type place. The entire downtown area consisted of three blocks, one of which was a garden area with a pond filled with what I think malaria would look like in a liquid state. A fake crocodile and a random bronze statue surrounded by barbed wire completed the setting for a family-friendly atmosphere.
Leah on the bridge over poisonous muck:
Leah, by the way, earns the award for most patient travel buddy, as she ended up being my nurse for about 2/3 of the trip. About 30 minutes after going to bed on the first night, I woke up with severe food poisoning. This was despite my best efforts of playing "Push the Food" (busying yourself by moving your food around the plate throughout the meal and flattening it to make it look like you've eaten more than you have) and "Spoon Hiding" (pile up the worst things you don't want to put in your mouth on one corner of the plate, then quickly cover with spoon and give to waiter. Cannot be played with chopsticks.) during each of our group meals at questionable roadside establishments. I spent the entire night huddled on the floor of the bathroom, plotting ways to get back to a doctor in Phnom Penh in between waves of illness.
I, however, did not have the worst medical issues that night. The walls of this fine establishment were eggshell-thick, and the man in the room next to ours was dying from something awful. He had rattling coughs that choked him to the point of suffocation; at one point, we thought we might knock on his door and politely say, "Excuse me, sir, but we think you have consumption."
So between the coughing guy and me retching in the bathroom, Leah found herself in an impromptu hospital ward. She was incredibly nice about it the next morning when I was finally feeling better, and even went out to a gas station to get me some crackers and Diet Coke for breakfast. I decided to carry on with the rest of the trip.