Last year, we went to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. It was on the way to Vietnam…the ruins of a civilization in Siem Reap that’s gone now. It was around this time last year that we were watching people zip through the city on tuk-tuks as we trekked a narrow dirt path to the site. Every night, when the sun went down in Cambodia, everything would turn a warm peachy hue and the hot and sweaty desperation of mid-afternoon would fade into late-night parties in stilted talapa houses where people would gather and play the crappiest 80’s techno music ever produced.
On our first night in Cambodia, we wedged a chair up against the door in our vacation rental because things didn’t feel right to us. We couldn’t put it to words or say just why, but we felt uneasy. At that time, I knew very little about the history of Cambodia and the culture there, or rather, what’s left of it…
It seems strangely appropriate that we were there, in Cambodia, last year because now, here in Mexico (as I sit down at my computer to write, my thoughts aren’t quite ripe enough to be put to words just yet)…I have urgent thoughts that are jumbled and desperate, but malformed like a bad feeling that makes me want to put a chair in front of the door before going to bed at night. But the view here is spectacular. There’s a parting in the mountains outside my window and in the valley beyond it, there’s a gathering of quaint little houses, huddled together like a secret city. The weather is mild. The trees dance in a light breeze. The cobblestone street outside is quiet. It’s utterly pleasant here. A man downstairs has been working on his motorcycle all afternoon. Kids are laughing and playing in the street. But still, I’m hopelessly and chronically concerned. I hesitate to label my preoccupation in writing because to do so isn’t popular. It could make it difficult for me to get back home again. And people are weary of the “news”. To them and to myself, I’m a political hypochondriac. I might be seeing the problems before the problems emerge. Or I might be imagining problems that aren’t really there.
I think to myself: even the doctor doesn’t know if the sickness is real…he sends me home with a prescription that’ll kill me before I can sue him. People send me “Get Well” balloons and leave me to convalesce in an isolated place at the back of the house…
“We’re either really smart or really stupid.” I say to Lydian as we unpack unfamiliar grocery items from a grocery store that’s entirely new to us. She chuckles, but her heart isn’t in it. She tries not to worry about home too, but she can’t help it. I want to reassure her that things will be okay for her and her generation, but she’s seen too much of the world and she knows too much. I can’t fool her with platitudes or a pat on the head. So I’ve labeled the problems in the U.S. as “uncertainty”. I say, “These are uncertain times,” which is diplomatic and balanced but, I’m afraid that, like many dark movements in history, like Cambodia, there will be nothing to label, no solid core to identify, until the darkness ends. No one will know exactly what’s really going on until it starts to impact the lives of the common man–the cogs in the machine. And even then, most of us will work hard to look the other way. Two generations from now, high-tech 3-D Holographic-Wikipedia pages will identify this time in our country’s history with heinous words like “holocaust” or “genocide”. Words that can only be uttered in retrospect by two generations hence after the sting of the loss becomes less real.
I hesitate as I write this. I can’t believe that I’m writing this about my own country: the USA. That strong and certain nation that kept our family, only two years ago, from being buried in a sand dune in the deserts of southern Tunisia. I would commit myself and call myself crazy were it not for the fact that others here, in the safe haven of these mountains in the center of a foreign country, are saying the same things about my country, the USA.
But the present tense will have to choose not to “know” until the door is forced open and hooded strangers come to steal the treasury of denial in the dark of night.
What happened in Cambodia is so strange and so horrible that it can’t be easily described in just a few words or paragraphs. To really understand it, individual Cambodian stories have to be told one-by-one and those stories are long and shocking. If you hear one person tell their story about what happened to them or to their family members in Cambodia and how it changed their lives, it’ll change your life. You’ll wonder how it was that these things could happen to an entire country of innocent people and you never knew anything about it.
There’s very little to buy or to have in Cambodia with its red dirt roads and rabid dogs. But still, with the sun still high in the evening sky on our first day there last year, the taxi driver stopped for a snack somewhere between the train station and Siem Reap. The little café was made of cardboard and dried leaves but it was right next to a thriving stall with corrugated metal walls selling little “mailbox altars” (that’s what they looked like to me). John, Lydi, and I stood by the taxi and looked out across an expanse of hundreds of waist-high Buddhist structures that were made of cement and decorated in golds and reds. We wondered what these strange, but seemingly essential religious artifacts were for. Every house had one and even as we’d passed by the Cambodian houses at 60+ miles per hour in the taxi that day, we’d seen people tending gently to the candles, coke bottles, or cakes that had been placed inside them.
Later I learned that the altars were there to appease the ghosts of all the people who died between 1975 and 1979 in the Cambodian genocide. Innocent Cambodians, as they were hanging spread eagle from ropes over open flames, choking from the smoke, their skin melting like wax wished for a friendly, but powerful country like America to intervene and save them. America: a country where people could live their lives in the spirit of acceptance. When the Cambodians were eating their own vomit because they were starving to death; when they were watching their children be executed or die of starvation, they hoped for the richest, most prosperous countries in the world to do something.
Four years can be a really long time depending on where a person lives in the world. Depending on the color of a person’s skin or other miscellaneous aspects of their humanity, some days and some nights can be longer than others. If the locks on your doors aren’t enough to keep the dark, hooded men outside…if you have to push a chair in front of the door and even then, stare up at the ceiling, vigilant, and concerned, the night is longer no matter what your religious beliefs…no matter what color your skin is. No matter who you are, the moment-to-moment experience of burning to death lasts for an eternity before you die…
But not all of us will burn in this lifetime. Some of us will burn others. Some of us will only watch others burning. But burn they will. Because this is humanity. All of us have to decide for ourselves whether we’ll burn or be burned. We have to choose whether we’ll watch or turn away. Each of us has to decide who we are when the fires are lit and our fellow men are strung up by their wrists. John and I have spent time in countries where the government was miserable and selfish but where our neighbors were still kind and loving to us and to each other. The government can be like an abusive parent, but the people of a country can be like children who watch closely but instead of emulating the awfulness, choose never to become like their role models. I have hope that American people, as individuals, will be good to each other and to other people–outsiders and those who are different in some way–but still, we’re human and the the story of humanity has been a gruesome affair since the beginning of time. Which is why we’re in Mexico, to watch the story unfold (mostly) from the outside.
I want with all my heart to be better than human. I want to be American…but this means something different now than it did a year ago. I guess I wanted to be American. And now I stare out into the secret village outside my window, wondering if I could ever be something else. Can anyone be anything other than what other people see them as?
Yes, these are uncertain times indeed…