birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Cambodia Redux

When I arrived in Pnom Penh, a young, skinny, dark-haired man met us at the airport and talked non-stop all the way across town to “our” house near the Mekong River and the King’s palace. His name was Lindsay, and he had an Aussie accent—so thick it seemed he was speaking a foreign language.

When we arrived he pulled the car behind tall steel gates that were opened, closed and locked by a uniformed armed guard. What had I gotten myself into?

We got there just in time for lunch. Lindsay ushered us directly to the dining room. I sat down with my traveling companions, three strange women, and Lindsay. They all seemed to be speaking his foreign language, though I could catch an occasional English word here and there.

On the table was an odd jumble of English and Asian foods. There was bread—fresh smelling, crusty, and soft centered. Along with the bread folks were passing and smearing a thick, dark brown goop. I took a smear onto my plate too.

They all stopped to watch as I spread the goop on my bread and took a bite. It was SO salty it burned. Behind the salt and burn was a sort of fishy, beefy taste that made me think of rotten liverwurst. My eyes were watering while I forced myself to swallow, instead of puking.

I looked up. The three women and Lindsay were laughing silently, exchanging knowing glances, and watching me. Pru, the youngest, said, “You just dab a bit, a tiny bit. It’s more like adding pepper or salt. What did you think it was?”

“Mmm, chocolate?” I winced and shrugged.

They all laughed again. Then, Lindsay explained Vegemite to me—hydrolyzed extract of brewer’s yeast with various flavorings. YUCK!

I didn’t want to eat Vegemite, and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know these people who tricked and laughed at me my first hour there.

There were Lindsay and Pru, and also Sandra and Margaret—and, I. And, there was one more nurse on the team—Isabel, who was in hospital with Dengue fever in Bangkok when I arrived.

We all shared a large house that had once been an embassy, during the French occupation. We each had our own room, but we also played “musical” rooms whenever we added a new team member, which seemed to happen every couple of weeks.

I was not a nurse; neither was Lindsay. He was the administrator for the whole medical team and worked in the office with the medical director, Pene, and the organization director, Carl.

I was a public health microbiologist, hired to set up laboratory support for the traveling medical teams and the newly opened hospital. We were part of massive UNICEF and USAID efforts to save children and families who'd been displaced by the undeclared civil war between government and Khmer Rouge armies.

The culture shock of living with Australians and Brits was much harder than the obvious otherness of the Cambodians. Learning their patois was overwhelming some days, because familiar words meant different things, and the idioms—“oy vey!”

But it wasn’t just the geographical culture shock. There was also a sort of religious culture shock among us—as we ranged from bush-Baptist to Anglo-Catholic, with this liberal evangelical Presbyterian in between. The ritual, and moral, culture shocks came often and always unexpected.

At one point—as the fighting was closing in on us, and rocket attacks were becoming near-daily experiences—we went to bed one night, after sorting newly arrived blankets and baby clothes while reading the Bible together. I fell asleep easily, and slept soundly through the night. When I arose early next morning and went down to breakfast I found ALL my housemates huddled under the staircase on their mattresses in the main house.

“What are you all doing here?”

Peter, who had joined us by then to do the chest X-rays for diagnosing TB, said, “Well, we’ve been wondering why you didn’t come down.

“The house two up from us was hit by one of the rockets in the night. We all came here to be further away if one hit us.”

I demanded, “If there were rockets, why didn’t you come get me--all alone on the upper floor?!

Lindsay shook his head, “But what if you were— I mean, we didn’t know— Well—”

I glared, as awareness dawned, “Oh no! You mean you were afraid of my state of dress?! Believe me! I’d rather we be embarrassed by my nightie, than dead because I slept through a bomb!”

Both men had become fiery red in the face. “But, what if it wasn’t your, um, nightgown? What would our wives say? What would GOD say? It wouldn’t be right. And the women were afraid. The bombs WERE close.”

“Listen,” I said again, “I’d rather be embarrassed than DEAD!”


Jem and Mark in Manchester