Siem Reap, Cambodia
Monday, March 20, 2017
As my go-everywhere bag this trip, I brought a purse that belonged to my mom—a medium-sized, easy-to-clean, forest-green REI bag equipped with anything an intrepid traveler might need.
Aside from the painful fact that whenever I catch sight of myself and this bag and my thick shoulders in a window I think I see my mom, the problem is that the bag is just too tricked out.
For example, when I want to tip the skinny-legged girl who has been fanning me during our sweltering walk to the cave where the King of Cambodia hid from the Vietnamese invaders at the turn of the century, I have to dig in the bag like a pig rooting for truffles in a French forest. By the time I finish unzipping twelve zippers to find some change, the suspense has risen to such a degree that my .25 cent tip is anticlimactic.
I don’t doubt that my mom had a pocket in this purse specially designated for tip change. And a hotel key pocket. And a playing card pocket and a toilet paper pocket and also probably a pocket of thoughtful educational gifts.
My mom would not only have tipped the scrawny fanning girl generously, she would also have taught her the alphabet and fostered in her a lifelong love of learning and if you think I am exaggerating you are wrong.
I have never been able to organize my life into pockets. Bits of my life dribble into each other into messy piles made of heartbreak and joy. I can’t separate a hope from a memory.
Yesterday I paid $6 for a brown fabric shoulder bag embroidered with pink and orange flowers and sealed with a single flimsy zippered pocket. It was a huge relief not to pretend that I could fulfill the expectations of my mom’s bag anymore.
This morning I unzipped all the zippers in my mom’s bag and dumped everything from every pocket into the one mouth of my new bag, including a handful of dried lemongrass that made kind of a mess on in hotel room, even though I tried be careful because I didn’t want to lose a single dried leaf.
I got the lemongrass from a man working at the Siem Reap market. He was barefoot and sweating. A sheaf of lemongrass longer than his arm rested on his shoulder and he used a gigantic metal grater to shave it into fragrant piles in front of him.
The market was hot, bloodsplattered chaos and I couldn’t tell if I was glad or sorry that we’d hired a tour guide to take us through it.
In amongst the feedbags full of writhing water snakes, the trays of frogs recently skinned and gasping, vibrant stacks of peppers, eggplants and cabbage, hanging bouquets of yellow chicken legs, bowls of ants and bee larvae, and booths of men shaving the hair out of the ears of bodiless boar’s heads, the man and the perfume of his lemongrass was an oasis.
I stood next to him and watched him working. Our group moved on and I didn’t care.
Finally he turned to me and smiled.
“Do you speak French?” he asked in barely discernable English.
“Nope, sorry,” I said.
“Do you speak German?” he asked in English.
I was thinking about those frogs. They didn’t have any skin but their eyes were open. They were dead, but they were breathing. They were dying and we were all walking by like it didn’t matter.
“Nope,” I said.
“Do you speak English?” he asked.
“YES!” I said loudly and we both laughed.
“Your country has Trump,” he said and made a face.
“I’m sorry,” I said, because we all should be.
“He has bad ideas. I do not like his ideas,” he continued. He stopped his work. He wasn’t smiling.
“I know,” I said. We looked at each other, helplessly and I felt like it was my fault that he was barefoot and poor and that my country had elected that man as our leader.
“Here,” he said. I held out my hands out in a cup and he filled them with freshly chopped lemongrass. I brought it to my face and inhaled. I smelled earth and green and goodness and I wasn’t frightened any more.
“Thank you,” I said. He lifted his hand and went back to chopping and grating because he had work to do.
I caught up to my group and we walked further into the market, toward the stall where we could sample cups of tofu and ginger. Around a corner we passed a tiny dark haired girl in diapers eating noodles with her fingers. She saw us and waved.
“Bye Bye!” she shouted and grinned, with dimples. “Bye Bye!”
Her mother smiled because she knew her daughter meant to say hello. I smiled because I knew it, too. Then we locked eyes and smiled at each other because we understood what it is like to love someone so much that their every movement brings us joy.
If I had been thinking of the frogs, I wouldn’t have glanced at the girl and her mother. If it weren’t for the man and his lemongrass, I wouldn’t have noticed at all.