The short story…I have just experienced a most delightful and satisfying thirty-six hour adventure! So much happened that I want to capture details in writing so that I can relive this as a sweet memory in seasons to come. The short story is that I smashed my face while trekking in the Cambodian mountains…but if you have the time, I encourage you to read the long story.
The long story…Two characters figure in significantly. Eva (pronounced Aay-vah) is an intern here working with us at Beyond Interiors. She is an engineer taking some time to gain some field experience before she goes on to get her master’s degree. She comes from New York and has traveled extensively in her short twenty-three years both with family and as a student at Stanford. She is soft spoken, willowy, gentle and brilliant. Her main focus during her eight week commitment to us is to research recycled and repurposed materials available in Cambodia, exploring possible end-products that might be used in an interior designer’s world. Her work and working style are inspiring.
Brian grew up in Colorado Springs, later lived in Portland, Oregon but has worked and traveled abroad for several years now, and while traveling through Cambodia a few months ago, much like I did, serendipitously landed a job offer from Baskets of Cambodia, a thriving Fair Trade woven products company. His role at BOC is similar to mine, supporting the managing director with a goal of strengthening and staging the company for the next phase of growth. We celebrated his thirtieth birthday a few weeks back, a small circle of new friends banding together to make him feel duly honored on his milestone day because he just brings that kind of thing out in people. He towers over Cambodians at six plus feet, but his deferential, kind manner and exceptional language acquisition for one who has only recently arrived make him fit right in.
So while viewing a documentary showing wildlife and forest preservation efforts here, Brian and I picked up on a special eco-tourism project and determined at the end of that evening that we would take a weekend and go check it out. When we told Eva, she was eager to join us…thus we ended up on a bus at 7:30 in the morning a couple of days ago headed for the Cardamom mountain range on the west coast of Cambodia.
The trip started out well, with Eva and I wondering where the heck Brian was as he failed to meet us at the rendezvous point and it was time to board the bus. I gave him a call, hoping he was on his way, but discovered that he was still sleeping. The amazing thing is that he made it to the bus exactly fourteen minutes later, dressed, with back pack loaded and in his right mind! With still a minute until the bus’s scheduled departure, his apologies were unnecessary and we settled in to enjoy the scenery and one another’s companionship for the next four hours.
Our destination was a particular eco-tourism project touted as Cambodia’s most successful NGO initiated project, having survived for about five years now and being technically has been handed over to 100% Cambodian management. So it is not surprising that while things often felt confusing and disorganized, there were more than enough helpful and kind people links along the way to get us where we were going. [The trick is to trust that Cambodians have things figured out even when it doesn’t appear to be so, and then one can relax and know that when the need arises you will have what is required. This is so much like trusting God that just being here is a course in spiritual discipleship.]
The bus stopped at a bridge along the road and we were motioned off the bus, so we got off. Less than two hours later, after a delightful series of non-verbal games with children who were hanging out under bridge we boarded a long boat and headed up river to our destination. The scenery was breath taking and almost hypnotic with very little evidence of the many rural folk living along the water way. Because of routine flooding, almost no one lives right on the river bank. It gives the appearance of a completely natural, uninhabited region with flowering trees, unique species of birds and intriguing openings to the many smaller tributaries that feed the river. The volume and pitch of the boat motor was just enough to prevent conversation, so we all retreated into a blissful silence of uninterrupted visual pleasure.
When we arrived there was no welcoming committee and as we wandered up the unpaved village street it felt very much like we had been dropped onto a movie set where people had been directed to just carry on as they usually do. Only the occasional faded sign about a visitor’s center and a few nods indicating that we should keep going cued us that we were in the right place. Rather than producing anxiety though, we felt instantly charmed, adventurous and like we had discovered a well kept secret. When we reached the visitor center at the far end of the village, we were greeted by a precocious young Cambodian woman who simply stepped out of a bamboo building, looked at us and said “Sheila?” The reservation call had actually worked!
After an informative orientation to the eco-tourist project, we made our choice of a guided day-long trek to three waterfalls the following day. It turns out that our lodging was about 15 minutes by motorcycle outside the village along the river. So before we left the village we went along choosing some snacks to tide us over until dinner. We munched on battered and deep fried slices taro root, something that tasted like gelatinous pond water wrapped in pyramid shaped banana leaf packages and something that looked and tasted much like I remember the flattened Hostess Twinkies that I used to find in my lunch sack, only with green instead of white filling. Oh yes and a little bag of “ingredients: assorted dried fruits in assorted vegetables oil”.
So after a quick zip on the back of a motor taxi, and I do mean back since Eva and I were both on behind the driver (one can’t afford to have much of a behind here), we crossed a beautifully hand fashioned swinging foot bridge over a serene river tributary into a magical world of bamboo huts surrounded by mega Bird of Paradise, Impatience and Hibiscus, butterflies, singing cicadas, spiny iguanas and hidden hoo-hooing gibbons. It was such a contrast to the dirty crowded noisy streets of Phnom Penh that I found myself resistant to give into its nurturing, soothing allure. I have developed the tough outer shell required to live in a city…did I tell you that last week my handbag handle was slit with a knife by a guy on a motorcycle while I was sitting in a tuk-tuk and I successfully wrestled it out of his grip before he sped away? It was not easy to be present in the moment and let it have its way with me. My sensitive companions and I quietly walked the grounds, stood on large flat stones on the river bank and just breathed.
We shared a simple dinner with other guests from Belgium and Australia, laughing at our common western-world idiosyncratic sophistication that seemed so ludicrous in light of the practical simplicity of our surroundings. It was good medicine and as we carefully tucked our mosquito nets in and listened to the light rain on the thatched roof I couldn’t help but just lie there and smile. My only regret was the two beers I drank with dinner that were inevitably going to require a middle of the night trip to the bathroom and the flashlight that I got for a dollar at the market was already temperamental. Oh well.
As usual, I awoke just at dawn, dressed and crept out into a private world of beauty. It was the third of June, Hal and my wedding anniversary. It would have been our thirty-sixth. One of his favorite songs was You Belong To Me, with lyrics ‘Fly the ocean in a silver plane, Watch the jungle when its wet with rain…’ So I walked in the rain-wet jungle and had a lovely hour being grateful for our many years of shared experiences and how he taught me to enjoy such moments.
Brian and Eva were soon up and ready to take on the day. One of our greatest concerns was the warning from our trekking guide that almost everyone comes back from the trek with leeches on their feet and ankles. He reassured us that part of his duty was to pick off the leeches if we were not comfortable doing so ourselves. Are you kidding! I was far more interested in discussing how to avoid getting the leeches on me in the first place and that resulted in the recommendation of some local leech deterrent remedies. So after a quick breakfast, we set off a bit early to see if we could find the ingredients in the village market. We felt giddy with success when we arrived back at the visitor center with tall football (aka soccer) socks, a packet of tobacco, a lime, soap shavings and bag of salt. We mixed all this together with a little water in a plastic bag, rubbed it on our feet and calves, put our socks on over our pant legs and then saturated our new socks with the ugly brown concoction. We didn’t even care about the amused looks and outright laughter we got from villagers as we headed out. As it turns out, either the remedy worked or the leeches were on holiday, because not a single one did we encounter…and had we, it would have been the least of our problems.
This mountain range is one of three in Cambodia and the other two are nearly inaccessible unless you have well over a week to invest. The rest of the country is, as one foreigner described it, a redundant flat landscape of rice paddy, palm tree, rice paddy, palm tree, rice paddy… While that pattern has its subtle charms, the hilly, green vistas afforded by our trek were unbelievably beautiful. With overcast skies and light hearts we traversed grassy plains and water-buffaloed meadows, dipping down into valley streams with shaded tunnels formed by lush trees. The sounds and sights were intoxicating.
At the first two waterfalls we stood in the spray and even put our heads under its rushing waters, taking a little refreshing shower as the day heated up. Eva and Brian proved to be the perfect trekking companions. Long spells of quiet were interspersed with interesting and thoughtful conversation. I felt privileged to be privy to the well articulated and highly personal world views these two shared. They opened themselves to me and one another as they opened themselves to the experience we were having. They were also good listeners and I had conversationally relevant opportunity to share my own story of God’s faithfulness and transforming love – the recounting of which is my greatest joy. As we trekked along, some of the trail was muddy from the rain the night before and I had foolishly opted to wear my Toms, rather than lug my wide¬-soled tennis shoes along. I had a couple of slips and fell, but no harm done, we carried on. At our third waterfall and turnaround point we were provided a lovely lunch that was packed in a natural fiber woven container, lined with a banana leaf, filled with hot rice, layered with another banana leaf and topped with a delicious egg, onion and teriyaki pork slice.
While we ate we asked the guide about swimming in the pools below the falls, but he said we could not because crocodiles were in the area. Ok then, and as it turned out the skies changed from overcast to dark heavy clouds and it began to rain.
We had perched ourselves on some large flat rocks about twenty feet from the river bank at the top edge of a huge waterfall for lunch and as the rain began we packed up and began making our way back through the river bed to the bank. The rain drops hitting the surface of the river obscured the bottom of the shallow river bed and I was keeping a careful eye on the guide ahead of me, following his footsteps, but not careful enough.
As I took a step forward anticipating a solid rock beneath my foot, there was just nothing and I fell face forward onto a jagged rock protruding from the surface. Because of the water bottle in one hand and the other hand being used to control the swing of my little bag so I could see, I did not have time to use them to break my fall and my nose and upper lip took the full brunt of my weight against the rock. I collapsed from the blow and was immediately surrounded by Brian, Eva and our guide to help me up and assess the damage. It seemed perfectly logical to use the rushing clear river water to wash the gushing blood away and try to see what had happened. By the looks on their faces I could tell that it was worse than my traumatized mind and body wanted to admit. They escorted me out of the river and applied pressure to the area until the bleeding stopped and then dropped some iodine onto the wound, realizing that the river water rinse might not have been such a good idea after all.
Despite the accident and concern about the seriousness of my injury, our trek out through the pouring rain was glorious. We marveled at how the former trails had transformed into streams of rushing muddy water, and the tunnels of shade were now low hanging soaked branches needing to be parted so we could pass, we found ourselves laughing with the pure wonder of it all. It was impossible to keep my temporary bandage dry and consequently my wound started bleeding again, so as the rain let up, we were happy to encounter a lovely couple biking on the trail who had fresh first aid supplies.
As we circled around to redress my injury, sweet Eva took on the primary care giving role and lifting the soaked bandage, proceeded to faint at the sight of it and fall backward over the bikes and into a muddy water-filled rut. All attention turned her direction as we instantly thought of head injuries, spinal cord injuries, seizures, and of course…leeches! Once she was revived and determined fine, Brian took over the wound care and off we went again.
It was a collective decision that upon return to the village I needed to head straight back to Phnom Penh and have a doctor look at my face. The biker couple had planned to leave that afternoon and offered to take me back, so I had an emergency evacuation in the cushy comfort of a Lexus SUV leather backseat. I phoned ahead and arranged to be seen at the exclusive SOS clinic that caters to foreigners thinking that only they should be allowed to work on MY face. The irony is that the on call emergency physician was Cambodian with the most gentle thorough ‘bedside manner’ I have every encountered. And his skill appears to be just as exceptional as I examine the three tiny stitches he made just under my big Caucasian nose. As he checked my eyes, skull, ears, teeth, sinuses, jaw, swallowing, etc., I became aware of how very nasty this could have been and was filled with gratitude for the minimal damage. We even laughed at the way my decades of having to pluck upper lip hairs had prepared me for the pain of the injection of anesthesia he shot into the wound before cleaning and stitching.
As I lay in bed reflecting on the day, I remembered once again that it was Hal and my anniversary. I recalled a time early on in our relationship when he was looking long and lovingly into my face with all its blemishes, scars and wayward hairs and I self-consciously said something like ‘don’t look so closely!’ I remember his reply. He said with great love ‘I find your face…’ (I thought as he hesitated, don’t you dare say beautiful…I’ll know you are lying!) But he continued ‘…most interesting’. The way he said it was so full of love that I have cherished his words. So I ended the day saying to him in the dark…’Well dear, my face just got even more interesting. Happy anniversary.’