Editor’s Note: Haley and Sothy personify the spirit of Cambodia.
In their presence, you catch a sense of joy, astonishment, and curiosity. Each in their own way is a storyteller and story is the juice that energizes all our comings and goings. Sothy carries an innate connection to nature’s total consciousness and intuitively lives in the wrinkles of time past, present, and future. Haley is a master at creating community, digging deeply into the culture, and understanding that no lives or locations are small. Each act of their caring and love ripples like the pebbles thrown from the river’s banks. They create bridges of beauty and connection with the elegant simplicity of living their lives and imaginatively meeting their challenges. Following their column will gift you with a deep appreciation for life in the Land of Wonder.
Life in Lockdown
I don’t know how many days we’ve been in lockdown, because every day the timer resets. One day a cousin shows up for lunch, bringing a tuk-tuk driver friend with him. A giant hotel in the city closes, and the next day four or five old friends who were laid off show up with two cases of beer. No one in the village has any work, so days are spent with neighbors leaning over the fence talking together, and I quickly learn the Khmer words for Coronavirus, virus, sick, wash your hands, wear a mask, everything is closed.
The first week is for fishing. Sothy heard of a place with big fish and all the neighbors load up their motos with nets and baskets. Women and children come along too — no one has anything to do. Fishing is a good social distancing activity. Everyone has to stand at least 2 meters apart to throw the net. The moto caravan rolls out, through the city to the countryside. Everything is closed. 5-star hotel: closed. One of the oldest hotels in the city: closed. Huge Korean restaurant with a parking lot normally filled with parked Korean tour buses– closed. Everyone points at the storefronts we pass. I point out a closed restaurant, look back along the line of bikes and see everyone pointing, talking, shaking heads– closed, closed, closed.
The second week is filled with evening volleyball games. Everyone grabs a shovel to level the ruts in the playing field, a field that will become a lake in the rainy season. Someone splurges for a net, and a new ball. The ball goes flat every day, but one neighbor has a technique to fill it using gas from the stove gas canister. The games are frequently interrupted by kids and dogs. The neighborhood wives sit and watch, combing lice from their daughters’ hair or scrolling Facebook. This week, everyone is still fresh. We can hear wedding playing music until after midnight. The wedding announcer takes the mic to talk, and we laugh as every third word is “Covid dob bramm-boun.” Sothy walks a donation over to the wedding and returns with a bowl of fish wrapped to go, the best food from the wedding because we gave 60,000 instead of the usual 40,000. He tells of all the people waiting at the wedding gate, scared to attend so giving their donations and taking food away to eat with their families. Many families will go broke if people don’t show up with donations at their weddings — they can cost upwards of $10,000 and rely on money from attendees to pay back all the catering fees, with the hope to have some left to start a new life as a married couple. After this week, the weddings will be canceled, along with the 100-day celebrations. But this week, there is still food to catch at the pond, and construction workers are still going to do projects sometimes, and the weather is perpetual spring-break.
The third week is for drinking. Cases and cases of Gansberg and Cambodia beer, the only companies who must be making money during this time. When the money runs out for a beer, or the volleyball game winds down but the heat of the day still hasn’t, 50 cents buys a liter of moonshine “white whiskey,” or the red “medicinal whiskey” whose bitter wood bits stick to the bottom of the shared shot glass as if to foretell a future of hangovers and hot sweats.
The fourth week, the crickets come out, and nights are spent drinking quietly with the neighbors and checking cricket lamps for the bugs that make good drinking food, and taste just as good with cold rice for breakfast. The days are still spent doing projects, sometimes: we move our veggie garden, repair the water jar, pull up the paving tiles at the shower spot and re-lay them, install a new fuse so the washing machine works. We eat instant noodle for many meals this week, but not because we have to, not just yet. Our baby loofah is all grown up and we eat three of the giant fruits.
Now it’s week uncertain, and we’ve settled into a sort of routine. I teach in the mornings and Sothy does projects around the house, cooks food, tells Coca to stop playing on the phone. We go out for noodle soup breakfast sometimes, in between my morning classes, or just drink coffee until it’s time to set up the tables for teaching kids in the village. They come almost an hour early for class– everyone has been out of school for months, no one has Wi-Fi or phones to continue online learning, and playing outside all day every day can get boring. I teach the littlest ones first, then their older brothers and sisters come for a lesson. Now there are more than 40, altogether. I didn’t even know the village had 40 kids before, but now my walks to the small store are very friendly, as adorable shouts of “hello teacher!” meet me from almost every house I pass.
I’m teaching Sothy and his cousin most days, too — practicing so their English doesn’t get too rusty in this time without tourists in the city whose lifeblood is tourism. Afternoons are for napping, cold bucket showers, relaxed coffee-talk. And in the evenings, as Coca settles into the bed with a movie and the temperature finally drops below 38 degrees, the blue cricket light goes on and we sit in its eerie light, wondering how time has been passing so quickly, trying not to worry about the future, and watching dumb videos on Facebook in between scrolling to check the news.
The wind blows from the west to the east, and though the sky is clear blue with fluffy clouds now, Sothy knows rain will come tonight. And before the storm, crickets. The set-up is easy now: one meter of shiny clear plastic, suspended from a makeshift wooden frame. Another meter of plastic tarp, with four stakes pinning down the corners and turning it into a mini swimming pool. A blue fluorescent light. Fill the pool halfway with water. The pool sides need to be high enough that the crickets cannot jump out once they are in the water, so ours come up to about mid-shin. Place the hanging plastic sheet over this pool, and dangle the fluorescent light to illuminate the sheet. Crickets are drawn towards the light, and as they hop close, they hit the clear plastic and fall into the water, unable to jump back out. The crickets start to be active just before dusk, and you can leave the light on all night, collecting the crickets at intervals until the morning. We have two cricket lights now, and can catch more than 3 kg of crickets and other bugs in an evening. The other bugs are usually good to eat, too– small round beetles that live in trees and eat only leaves, especially nano leaves. Sometimes bigger beetles with shiny blue hard wings. Fry them but pick the wings off before you eat them.
When the sun goes down, and we turn off the front light, the blue glow of the cricket light takes adjusting to before your eyes can see the small dark hops making their way towards it. Sothy never likes to rest on his laurels though, because where’s the fun in that? So rather than waiting for the crickets to make their way to the light, we take a headlamp and walk quietly around the perimeter, shining the light and pouncing, tossing hapless crickets into the waiting water.
When Sothy was a kid, he didn’t have a cricket light. Or a flashlight. So he would look for someone’s discarded flip flop, and light it on fire, dangling from a stick in front of him as he walked the jungle near his house. One flip flop could burn for fifteen minutes or so. Small shovel in hand and plastic water bottle tucked in a pocket, he would listen for the chirp of the crickets. Big crickets, the size of your thumb, they would stand with their wings out, chirping in front of their holes. Shove the spade to block the hole, and the cricket would be stuck with nowhere to run. Plop, into the water bottle. Three or four of these big crickets with some cold leftover rice in the morning, and Sothy would be off on the 7 km trek to school.
Catching crickets is a family-friendly activity, though our 7 year old is still scared to grab the crickets. I understand — their squiggly squirming under your palm can be off-putting. My other problem is terrible eyesight, but Cambodians seem to have amazing eyes, so Sothy holds the headlamp and pins the cricket under the beam while I bend down and snatch them up. Smaller bugs get strained out of the water and kept for the chickens. And the first batch of freshly fried crickets, seasoned with chicken powder, are a snack for the neighbors to share. Even the dogs sit around hopefully, waiting for a dropped bug to munch on.
We are like the swifts
I sit by the smelly water while he fishes and I watch them appearing out of the white mist of dusk settling in the sky. Twirling through the overhead arena in a whim or invisible patterns, sometimes coming into orbit with each other,
But from a safe distance.
The first one, a leader perhaps, sounds the call and the rest swoop towards offstage right
But more keep appearing from the sky behind the mango trees
Sometimes low, almost touching the fishermen’s poles
Sometimes farther than the floaters in my vision
What bird is this? I ask
He looks back from the riverbank.
The nest bird.
The one where people eat the nest? Swifts?
What do you call them?
Our house doesn’t have a fridge. Instead, we shop for food at the local outdoor market daily and buy a block of ice to keep things chilled from morning to mid-afternoon in our cooler. Though this means we have to brave the market often, it also means everything is super fresh. We also grow food in our home garden, and there are a lot of wild green spaces where we can find vegetables and fruits to incorporate in recipes. Here are some of our typical dishes, Khmer and otherwise, and how we are making do in a pandemic.
Somlor M’chu Kreung
Pound lemongrass, turmeric, garlic, chicken powder, sugar, and salt until you have a mushy paste. Chop galangal into 4-5 slices, and roll 4-5 kefir lime leaves and slice into thin slivers. Heat oil and fry all ingredients together, until the aroma is strong, then add whatever slices of meat or fish you like. Keep cooking until the meat isn’t smelly, then add water and tamarind fruit (peeled), and cook until the water boils. You can add morning glory (we cut from a field close to our house– garlic shoots or spinach can also work) and mix in hot basil leaves just before taking it from the stove.
“Mama” spicy noodle packs cost 25c per pack, and are perfect when we haven’t made it to the market, don’t feel like pushing through hot crowds of sticky bodies to do food shopping, or just need a snack when it’s rainy out. Add in some freshly squeezed lime (from our yard!) and sliced chilis from our home garden to give the flavor packet a more sophisticated twist. Add a cracked egg to the bowl for some longer-lasting protein, or mix in day-old rice to the broth to fill you up.
Another version skips the boiling water and instead adds the noodles to the frying pan with whatever veggies are left, and an egg or two. Fish sauce, oyster sauce, and chicken powder complete the essential Khmer spice trifecta.
This is a pan-fried tiny fish. These fish are easily caught with a small net in one of the local ponds, though this time of year the fish are fewer and far between.
First, marinate the fish with pepper, salt, sugar, and msg. Dry in the sun. When you’re ready, heat up some oil and fry the dried fish. You can eat the whole fish, they are so small that the bones are just crunchy and easy to eat. This kind of fish can last for a long time after it has been sun-dried. Serve with rice, and fish-sauce with chili.
Sothy lives for spicy food that has every taste bud you’ve got sweating. This recipe calls for a handful of fresh, red chilis sliced with the seeds in. After all, Khmer food is normally eaten in large families, and the spicier and saltier foods can be eaten with more rice to make the food go farther, the Khmer version of Hamburger Helper. Normally we use pork or chicken, chopped in the local way which ignores the bones and hacks the meat into bite-sized chunks. First, smash maybe 5 garlic cloves. Add oil to a pan a heat then add the smashed garlic. Wait until it cooks a bit then add sugar to turn it brown and has a good aroma. When the garlic is browned, add chopped galangal, lemongrass, and kefir lime leaf. After it’s aromatic, add the meat, one dinner-spoon of oyster sauce, and half a spoon of chicken powder. Stir it until the meat looks a little red and the smell is good. If meat and garlic start to be too brown, add fish sauce or salt. Taste, and add chicken powder if it’s not too salty. Turn off the flame, add hot basil leaves, and quickly put it on the serving plate. Eat with rice!
And, though we’ve just passed the peak of ripe mango season, the trees in the yard still have plenty for the picking. The perfect sweet snack after a spicy meal.