Only twenty kilometers from the Vietnam border, red dirt roads lined with rubber trees and stunningly blue skies decorated with pillowy clouds surround us. Saturated with love and rainwater, our mud clad clan, we march into the Tree Top guesthouse of Ratanakiri for our final night in the jungle oasis we called home for the weekend. And yet the events of the past two days seem to be enough to fill an entire lifetime, bonds fortified, respect strengthened, struggles shared.
We spent the first day of our wilderness exploration traipsing through lush greenery leading to hidden waterfalls, climbing over rocks, stopping long enough to sit beneath the cascade of water spilling down into a river, believing that we were looking into a true utopia. This is what I will remember when I close my eyes in New York, wishing I was back in Kampuchea. The rush of the water, the reflections of an infinite rainbow, the smell of the fresh clean air, the mist of the water on my face, perfect pure bliss. And magnificent wildlife; spiders, monkeys, elephants! These images will be revisited in my dreams for years to come. Our water filled day ended with a dip in the bath-water depths of Crater Lake, intermittently jumping off of the dock, and lazily floating around on our backs.
We continued our adventure the next day, visiting numerous tribal villages, once again filled with harsh contradictions, us as “foreigners bearing gifts”, toothbrushes and medicine, do we know best? Young girls shyly peer out from behind the doors of their houses, as our tour guide leads our flashing cameras through the paths of their lives. Children abound with skimpy legs and round bellies, mothers cradling their babies swinging in hanging hammocks, hidden landmines, their realities. And we are spectators, out of place. All I can think about is the privilege we possess, I possess; it is an unbelievable amount, and to think that we don’t even realize it until juxtaposed against a different reality. This is a new reality and I will emerge with a new understanding. Maybe visibility can be the first step to change, for me. On to a boat ride leading us to a tribal cemetery located in the center of the dense forest of life. Single filed, we sit on top of colorfully weaved mats lining the long, slender body of the boat, drinking in the scenery, storing these memories with the aid of all of our senses. Music attained in the beginning of this journey, for the Global Dance Party, an event that seems light-years in the past, blares from my headphones as the clouds release the mighty rain. Water, everywhere. And this music will forever remind me of this rainy day in Cambodia.
Back on the road towards home, the rain and mud has combined to form deep ruts and tiny rivers flowing down hill, becoming an ever-present obstacle in the drive back. A procession of vans soon forms and many times, we are forced to stop and push each van out of the newly formed ditches before proceeding on our way. The Cambodians laugh at us as we struggle to balance as we trek up the slippery hills, and again as we attempt to help them release the vehicles from the muddy embraces of the road. Soon, though, the sun begins to set and the hills are far too high to climb in the muddy conditions, so an alternative route, a path through the jungle, is sought out and we begin the next leg of the journey. Before long, the gaggle of vans become stuck in our substitute path, and once again we are standing in the pouring rain, the whole lot of us, Cambodians and Americans alike, pushing with all of our might. Although consumed with maniacal laughter, and after many falls, we manage to release the vans from the muck and drive out unscathed into the darkness of the night. Things like this cannot be planned. These impromptu occurrences do so much to complete the experience, forming bonds with locals and reinforcing the ones between our group, creating memories both hilarious and frustrating, we got through it together and emerge with fresh ideas about what it means to be civically engaged.