It all started with a note clipped under Nacho’s windshield wiper.
Hello friends- I am a fellow Volkswagen T3 owner and have some questions for you about your set up. Please call and we will meet up. – Soenke
We found the note shortly after we had wandered out of our hotel and into Nacho’s living quarters. As we cooked our morning eggs and espresso three shoeless kids in tattered clothing wandered past our open sliding door. As they passed by they froze mid-step and stared at us like little does in a set of headlights. They had never seen a kitchen inside a car.
I invited them in. Whatever they were doing and wherever they were going didn’t seem to matter anymore. Two sat next to me on the couch and the last one stood facing us. They were enamored by all of the new objects around them and wanted to touch every last one of them. They pointed to every book on the shelf and I obliged, hypnotized by their gorgeous chocolate eyes and radiant smiles. I showed them photos of India and Laos, and plenty of other photos that looked just like their back yard. They peered inside our empty sticky rice container and I could see the confusion in their eyes. If we didn’t store our sticky rice here, where did we store it? They found everything and wanted everything. Mostly though, they wanted our food. They rubbed their bellies and stared at the eggs in the pan.
Suddenly, the hotel staff member who slept on a cot in the hotel lobby rushed over to the van, worried. He could only see that our door was open and that kids were inside. We told him everything was a-okay—we had invited these little rug rats in with us.
It was a weekday and I asked the staff member why these kids weren’t in school.
He seemed surprised by the question. “These kids don’t go to school. They are poor children. They find bottles on the street and collect them for their families to sell.” He moved to the side to display the evidence: the children’s plastic burlap bags. They were massive—big enough to hold a few hundred bottles. So far they only had a handful but it was only eight in the morning and they still had the whole day ahead of them.
The whole thing just sucked. It was all so wrong and unfair and I wondered how these kids would ever break the cycle of poverty. How could they though if they never even got the chance to go to school?
We packaged up a bag of fruit for the children and gave them a stupid little stuffed animal that I had promised my family I’d take pictures of. I was quite certain they’d cherish it more than I would.
Well, that’s Cambodia for you. It’s sad and beautiful all at the same time.
Soenke, the man who had left the note on our windshield turned out to be a blue eyed German man. He had married a sweet Cambodian lady and now split his time between Cambodia and Germany. He had just bought a boat and kindly invited us to join his family on a sunset tour around the nearby island. We instantly accepted. He said we could even invite our friends—the more the merrier. And it just so happened that we had some friends to invite. We had met a few new faces just that day on a bike ride on the same island that we’d be circumnavigating on our sunset boat ride.
Soenke met us in front of the hotel and led us down a road that paralleled the Mekong. In the center of a maze of streets he led us to his home—a true mansion in comparison to the stilted homes that surrounded his. His home had glass windows and the walls were painted and made of brick and mortar. The driveway was a clean sheet of cement and the bottom floor was a combined garage and commercial space. We cut through his backyard and in between the neighboring yards until we reached a steep embankment that dropped down to the shore.
“Now I have to tell you, I have a medical kit but I don’t have any life jackets. You enter my boat at your own risk!” It made no difference to Brad and me. I felt pretty sure I could maintain a butterfly stroke across the Mekong if push came to shove.
Soenke passed by us and waved us on. “Ah yes, here is my new boat!”
It was a tiny boat, and easily the smallest boat I had been on in recent memory. We slipped off our sandals and piled onto a wooden platform overlaid with a decorated bamboo mat. Beside Brad and me sat our new friends Karen and Heath, Soenke and his wife, her father, and another family member. Soenke climbed in last and worked his way to the far end, viciously rocking the boat from side to side. I thought we would likely sink, but I made it unknown. Karen and I locked eyes and it looked like hers were going to pop from their sockets. We made for a comical site. I wasn’t sure what we had gotten ourselves into, but something about it was fun. I felt like we were going on a danger picnic.
Brad assured me us that since we were on a boat, which by design is wider at the top, it would be nearly impossible to sink the boat at its current capacity.
“The lower the boat rides in the water, the more pressure it takes to sink it. Seriously, we’d need twice as many people in here before we’d have a problem.”
I felt better. [editor’s note: making up sciency-sounding reassurances is a great way to make your spouse feel good in times of despair]
As we motored against the current I attempted to talk to Soenke’s father-in-law. He was positioned last on the boat and I was his only company. Our conversation involved many blank stares and silent pauses and despite my constant answer of “no”, he proudly asked me over and over again, “Parlez-vous Frances?” Like many older Cambodians and Laotians, he could speak French. I nudged at Karen and begged for her to be my translator. She was from Quebec but she said Soenke’s father-in-law was incomprehensible. His accent was just too strong.
As we rounded a bend Soenke’s father-in-law pointed down the river toward a few dozen homes that rested above the water. “Vietnam, Vietnam!” This area was known locally as the Vietnamese floating village. We passed by and peered into a world of fishing nets, wooden boats, and homes patched together with wood, dried palm leaves and scraps of tin. Wardrobes hung from bamboo poles outside and despite the very evident lack of resources, every home had electricity for their bare hanging light bulbs and television sets: the ultimate luxury in these areas.
The sun was beginning to set and I was starting to feel hungry. Fortunately I had come prepared, having bought a snack of steamed sticky rice and coconut milk inside of a bamboo stick. I tried to open it myself, but Soenke’s father-in-law quickly confiscated it from me. He took the bamboo and rolled it against the deck like a rolling pin, loosening the sticky rice from the inner walls of the bamboo. He dug his nails into the giant wad of leaf roughage that served to plug the end, and discarded it in the Mekong. And then, like a banana, he peeled the bamboo siding down in layers. The rice held its shape: one gelatinous floppy tube of goo. Everyone broke off a chunk and enjoyed its subtle coconut sweetness.
As we rounded the far tip of the island a new setting appeared before us. The trees disappeared and only a grassy field and a sandy stretch of beach remained. I thought maybe we’d stop but we kept going. We cut the engine and finally began moving in the direction of the current. It was quiet and peaceful and as the sun set the guys practiced their gondolier skills. Brad was fond of his new role and brought us all the way back home.
I felt lucky—lucky to have had this chance encounter with Soenke and his family, and also to see new things and make new friends. Inevitably, these types of chance encounters always beg the question: who we will meet next?
Back on land we walked down Kratie’s boardwalk. In our hands, two servings of ice cream melted in their bowls, the remnants of us accidentally ordering durian-flavored ice cream. Near the end of the busy boardwalk a vehicle called out to us. It appeared to be lit up the way a vehicle is lit up when it is lived in. Just like the Cambodian kids, we walked past the open sliding door and stopped mid-step to stare inside. Chad and Chompa, the Indian-born couple from England eagerly invited us into their home—a converted Sprinter van—where we spent the next couple of hours sharing stories of home and the road, drinking tea, and reminiscing of our old lives.