Thursday, February 7, 2008

The killing fields

His eyes lit up manically as we unfolded the map. Spread over his sparse wooden floor he pointed to the heart of southeast Asia to Cambodia and grinned wildly. “Kampuchea, shhfff, shhfff, shhfff, shhfff; Kampuchea, shhfff, shhfff, shhhfff,” he cried out in joy, miming a jeep held machine gun spraying all and sundry. He was delighted with his memory and also that we had at last been able to communicate between each other.
It was more than a decade ago. I was traveling with a lovely Scottish girl, slightly built, with braided hair, called Mary who was on her first big trip overseas and was determined to ‘find herself’. Thus far she’d managed to find me, some grotty backpacker dorms, mindblowing Cambodian weed and a sense of adventure that had led us to this backwater.
We’d hired a motorbike and trundled up to see some magnificent temples in the back and beyond of central Vietnam’s jungles. Coming back though along rural mud tracks flanked by padi fields we’d run out of petrol.
The gas pump had a padlock on it and somehow, via the power of point and mime, we’d worked out the gas attendant would be back in a couple of hours at a which point a friendly family invited us into their spartan hut on stilts for tea and rice.
Now I was kinda proud of my perfect dialect in being able to count from one to five in Vietnamese, but that was the absolute limit of my language repertoire so conversation with the male of the family, who had shooed away his wife and kid and pointed to the floor where we should sit, was going to be limited. And indeed it was, for a while. And then we unfurled our map by way of pointing where we had been in his country and the placid nature of our host changed, his eyes glowed and danced, his memories rekindled of mowing down countless soldiers of Pol Pot in the late ‘70s. “Kampuchea, shhfff, shhfff, shhfff, shhfff; Kampuchea, shhfff, shhfff, shhhfff,” he repeated endlessly and joyously. Happy times!

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