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Trickling stories

I woke up this morning in a wooden hut with mammoth legs that stood firm as the giant bulls that cart straw and people around the dirt road that snuggles up to the Mekong. The horses here are small, like the houses. The stilts and the cows are epic. The house in which I wake up this morning, pairing through the green gauze of my treated mosquito net, is bigger than it appears on the outside.

We heard about this road from two other cyclists, Gael and Elena, a French man and Russian woman biking for three years to photograph and document the world’s monuments. We camped with them the night we met them. Traveling this way strips a person of their modesty. Meeting people, especially other cyclists, is like tapping a lifeline, and we hasten to milk then for information.

That night, around a garish campfire reignited by some concerned villagers, they gushed about their travels through Pakistan where they met tribal people who practiced animism in the mountains. We listened like eager children because they told stories like grandmothers, tall tales with colorful characters and narrow escapes – a woman disguised as a man to get into Afghanistan, Americans pretending to be Mexicans biking into northern Pakistan– tales that for all their fantastical flare, we took in gullibly as if they were life lessons. Elena showed us pictures of a heavily wrinkled woman with black liner smoldering her intense gaze into the camera lens. She said that her pictures are to remember the interpersonal exchange of the people she meets, not just the view.

Their journalist friends, whom “it’s great to know because they know everything,” informed them of the Red Mosque riots that occurred on the street paralleled to the one on which they stayed in Islamabad. This is the same street that news networks like CNN and BBC would broadcast worldwide to the cozy living rooms of families gathered around the TV after their evening meal. I saw the same street whose dust shrouded the fistclenching outstretched arms and the caramel skin and the shalwar kamiz, traditional Pakistani long shirt draped over long pants, from the living room of Peter’s Beijing apartment while performing my daily routine of watching the morning news over oatmeal before catching the 7:10am subway to my elementary school in Beijing. Our new friends, who were two streets away, had to be told by journalists as well.

Anxiety, as must be the point of action packed news briefs that repeat themselves around the clock, set in back then. But now, after being invited into that world by people who have experienced it, the anxiety is being replaced by curiosity. Cycling daily next to dumb trucks that darken the air with their black exhaust and unpredictable motorbikes zipping so close to our limbs that we can feel the breeze on our arm hairs, the danger of the road seems much more imminent than the danger of people.

So now we are here on our dirt road that rides along the Mekong because of Gael and Elena and two more Dutch cyclists we met later. They give us more detailed instructions on how to find the road that slides between the long legs of the houses on stilts, trickling from backyard to backyard where cows sleep and munch on grass, up and around banana trees and bamboo cloisters down paths to the river where young men take the cows to bathe, and young husbands drive their motorcycles to wash.

We follow their examples and wash the dry red earth from our sunburned skin that is slowly taking the identity of the dust. Our impression of Cambodia has matured extensively from being on this road. Slowly the perceiving self is merging with the perceived.

Highway 7, the shiny new road that at various points shows signs of being sponsored by the Chinese and at other points the Japanese, kept us at a distance from the villages the way it runs through newly deforested land cut back from the international road. The old trees look white with age as they seethed above their own carbonized flakes and beneath the quivering rays of the sun. We hear that there is a rush on property here by citizens and the government. Sometimes accidental fires happen, and the land is claimed.

Glimpses of orchards among the decapitated barks and branches hint at the possibility of slash and burn clearings for rice fields. But so much of the land is arid, we wonder how sustainable it is to cut old forest for crops planted in non-arable soil. The flavorless apples we ate in Stung Treng city, insipid like the highway we ride on, make us wonder even more.

But this red rock-strewn road for which we have traded the smooth and speedy highway 7, is lush with growing things: lime-green rice paddies that stand up straight like electrified hair, banana groves that hide houses behind their ample leaves like elephants hiding behind their ears, cabbages and tomatoes and pumpkins harvested and sold on the side of the roads. Little children with dirt-smeared cheeks and blond hair perhaps sun-bleached perhaps malnourished, kick up dust clouds behind us as they chase our bikes down the road. Women and men coo “hello” from the hammocks strung between the stilts that loft their houses above water during the monsoon. In this dry season, the heat forces them beneath where they recline against the breeze.

It seems that suddenly we have been sucked into the life of Cambodia. When we stop and wait for our friends to catch up or to ask for directions, people gather. We have a chance to practice our Khmer or our non- verbal gestures. Some days before when we were asking where we could camp, a feisty middle aged woman pointed us to a monastery. We took her advice and biked in nervously, incredulous that we would be able to sleep in such a respected place that, like most Buddhist monasteries in SE Asia, seemed so extravagantly designed with golden Buddha’s and intricately tiled roofs. But it was much easier than we expected. The young monks who were sitting beneath a straw roof hut with a small bamboo bed, ushered us towards the outdoor temple where they do their morning prayer. They told us to put out bikes next to our tents on the platform where we were even afraid to put our shoes.

That night, we played music for them and spoke to their English teacher, a young recent college graduate who had been stationed by the government to teach in this small town. We grill him about life at the monastery, and he in turns grills us about life on a bike. Camping at monasteries has since become another camping option to consider when the sun is close to setting and the smoldering forest discourages us from rummaging through for leveled ground.

The next day, we wake to synopses of Buddha and his monks gathered at the houses of village people to collect their morning meal painted on the ceiling of the monastery. The monks, the real ones who listened to us play the night before, are preparing the platform for their morning meditation. We hurry to pack up our tents and bikes, and play music on our way out at the school that shares a yard with the temple.

By the end of the day, we have found another temple to camp at, but fate does not allow us to exploit this resource. The crowd that watches us play Frisbee close in on a fair skin girl on a motorcycle. We stop our game and she begins speaking English to us. She invites us, rather pressingly, to her house because it is much safer than sleeping outside. Used to this oddity of concern that villagers and policemen we’ve encountered in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia seem to have for foriegners above their own citizens, we shrug, consider it futile fight to pick, and pack up our tents to follow the outspoken teenager to safety, a mere 200m from the temple. We park our bikes in the basement against the log shanks that hide discreetly behind the concrete walls. This feature, the closed in ground floor that covers the stilts is rare in the villages along this road, and it hints of this family’s reasonable well-off status.

A modest living room leads in through heavy wooden doors to the vast belly of the house where there is a bed, a table with stools, a glassware cabinet, and hammocks strung between the logs that climb up from beneath the rectangular house and beyond the ample crossbeams past the wooden rafters to the apex of the roof. The stilts are high and raise the living area high off the ground, protecting the people inside of it from the inevitable rainy season floods and animals, while putting i the path of a lazy breeze that coaxes my head to a sleepy dance.

We are prepared to cook, but they do not let us, taking the meager vegetables we have left, and multiplying them with a quick trip to the market, turning them into a feast of four dishes and a huge pot of rice. They have already eaten so they simply sit in the modestly lit room and watch us chew on the floor.

When we are full, we play music for the other villagers that have slowly crept in from outside to shine flashlights into our faces. We are tired and are excused after we’ve exhausted our favorite tunes. Our visitors seep smoothly out of the room like seasons fade slowly into each other. The perceiver becomes the perceived. We watch them leave and set up our nets, the boys on the living room floor where a carpet has been rolled out, and me on a wooden bed in the big belly of the house. I feel like a princess with the net draped around me on this carefully carved sandalwood bed.

The morning air is fresh and balloons around me like a quilt of feathers, smothering me sweetly, tugging me like a child pulling her parents out of sleep, like a Cambodian village woman, her sleeveless skirt pulled up to her bosom, milking the earth with a bucket dipped into the stygian well, like a village woman pulling out my dreadlocks to examine the kinks, letting them spring back to my roots where they inspect for evidence of natural growth. They are miffed by my hair and how it does not grow like theirs. They coo and make a fuss about it. I used to find this intrusive, like a non-person regarded only for my body, not for my feelings. But now, I find the hands that tug and finger and touch all of my nerve endings cathartic, invigorating. I’ve learned to read through it. Right now as I write, our host sits next to me completely engrossed. I let her have her fun, and let the effects of her curiosity work their magic on my memory, on my creative juices. I let go of the need to be comfortable. Of the need to control destiny.

I am convinced that life changes at little moments of insight. Little moments of touch. A moment is a vision is a possibility. Imagery takes over. It is what I am building on. A reservoir of experience begotten from the experiences of other people like Gael and Elena who have shared. I am greatful for their memories as they are a break in the monotony of my own perspective, my own prejudices. And upon these shameless revelations i build. A curriculum vitae of stories to lead other people along their fateful rocky roads.

3 Responses to “Trickling stories”

  1. Netzy Says:

    Hi Nakia, loved your opening sentence - great visual images. Thanks for sharing. N

  2. Michael Durfey Says:


    I felt like I was there. Well done.

    Mike, the older

  3. Michele Weddel Says:

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