It is natural for the human eye to be pleased by contrast in colors. The fact that the leaves sunbathing on top of the trees did not surprise me. Like me, they were probably wondering if laying on the single puffy cloud in the sky was as comfortable as it looked. What did surprise me is where it brought me,
It brought me to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Sihanoukville is a rapidly growing tourist destination. It attracts rich Chinese and Thai gamblers to the casino at the top of its main street. Down, about two miles from the casino it draws a variety of tourists. There are the trust fund backpackers alternating between “roughing it” in a youth hostel with all the amenities of home and sitting in a drunken or stoned stupor on the beach, Russian tourists wisely escaping the harsh winters and the occasional wanderer trying to figure out his place in the world.
The moment in time I was sent to was a week into the 2008 summer Olympics. I was talking with a Cambodian man who worked at a non-profit next to the hostel I was staying at. The particular moment I was drawn to was the point where he was describing his life when the Khmer Rouge brutalized the country. He was talking about how he would work in the fields and how he tried to be within earshot of the guard who watched over them because at some point the guard would ring a metal triangle and people were expected to be in the dining room within a certain amount or time, or they would be shot. It was, how the Khmer Rouge dealt with problems.
The Khmer Rouge were determined to create a utopian society and they tried to do it by killing 2.5 million, about one fourth of the population . Not only being late was a capital offense, but so was speaking english, wearing glasses, being a Muslim, Christian or Buddhist , or anything they felt stood in the way of the pure society. He even posed the question I was afraid he would and asked why America did nothing. Yet he did not have one ounce of anger and did not stop smiling.
Cambodians, like their brethren in Thailand, smile. I suppose he was smiling for friends who were no longer around to smile. The figures that were to remembered on tests and talked about in the pages of tour books were more than that to him. They were friends, and sometimes family, who were not around to smile anymore. I often wonder if he smiled for them so they did not totally disappear.
After a while the beach children that he protects because their parents are lost in bottles of cheap whiskey returned and I left. I had to walk on the beach and listen to the sound of laughter blending in with the water gently rolling on the beach. I had to feel the sun as it turned my skin a darker shade of tan. I had to feel the soothing wet sand between my toes because there were people no longer here, because they had been late to dinner and they could not do it.