Today I went to the border. Not on purpose. Lost in translation, the tuktuk driver mistakenly took us to the wrong Immigration Police office. So we traveled over the bridge that spans the Gulf of Thailand, from Koh Kong city, bumping along the open road until we were at the Cambodia/Thailand border.
Once there we were bombarded with drivers willing to help us through Customs, and then on into Thailand. That is not what we were there for, and that was not the right police station.
I did not expect such a crowd at the border. People willing to drive us, feed us, in exchange for a few Riel. Or USA dollar, even Thai Baht was acceptable. That type of crowd I can understand. People have to work, to feed their families. There were also people just asking for money, not in exchange of services, but because they needed money. That I can also understand. Life isn’t always easy, and this showed in the many faces pleading with tourists for some help. One of the hardest parts of travelling in regions such as south-east Asia is saying no, or even ignoring people when no doesn’t work. It’s just not possible, or safe, to say yes all the time.
There was one face among the many that really affected me today. As the tuktuk turned, to travel back towards Koh Kong, a woman jumped out of the way. Jolted by the sudden veering of the tuktuk, I looked up and experienced an instant shock. It was her eyes that first grabbed my attention. Can eyes show anguish? There is no other word that could describe the look in this woman’s eyes. Then I saw her disheveled hair and top hanging off one shoulder. The baby in her arms I saw last. Finally I heard wailing. A raw sound that ripped through the miasma of sound around us. This sound matched her eyes. Anguish is the right word to describe both her eyes and cry. She paid us no attention, despite almost being run over. She wanted nothing from the Westerners.
Turning in my seat, I looked behind me. She was racing, barefoot and babe in arms, to the border gate. My heart jumped. What was she seeking? Would the border police hear her pleas, see the anguish that I had seen? What was her story? I will never know. Just as I will never know such a depth of anguish, desperation, that she was experiencing. No matter how many borders I cross.
Today was tough. No matter what I experienced today, I don’t think it was as hard as what she was going through. Still, I felt stressed by the time I finally got back to my hotel room, and treated myself to a quiet beer, while watching the sun set over the gulf. Being jostled from one place to another in a tuktuk was the easiest part. Straining to understand the many people in positions of authorities, whilst being mindful not to break unkown-to-me social norms and niceties, was harder. Without our tuktuk driver, who was put in the position of interpreter despite his own small knowledge of English, we would not have got as much done today. Tomorrow we go back again, to the same officials, dealing with the same communication barriers. And maybe even the day after that. However long it takes to do what we have travelled all this way to do. And then we will also choose a border to cross, to enable us to get home again, to Australia.
On this day I also turned 50. While I had my parents with me, who took me to dinner to celebrate my birthday, many many borders away are my children and friends. And from across the seas, thanks to modern technology, they all made sure I was not forgotten. Earlier I connected to WiFi and saw all the well wishes, sent by text and Facebook. Mindful of the sad business I have come to Cambodia to deal with, but also not wanting me to feel lonely on my birthday, the messages were thoughtful. And they lifted my spirits, despite the homesickness I was feeling.
My father jokingly said to me today, as we waited patiently to see another official, that I could write a book about this journey we were on. I replied that if I did, it would be a short story. Reflecting on that now, I do hope this is just a short story, and not a whole book. That would be enough.
That woman, I wonder about her still. Whatever it is to have caused her such grief, is it just a short story? Is their happiness and hope around the corner for her? I hope so. No one should live with that much anguish for too long. I truly hope that she found what she so desperately wanted at the border. And that she made a successful crossing, to find what she was seeking.
Soon I will make my own border crossing, back home. I wonder if what I was seeking, before I came here, will still be valid? Surely this short story will have effected me somehow, helped me to reassess my journey in life. That book is not yet written – anything is possible.
PS For those following my recent posts: today I looked out the window of my hotel room, and there were two small Frangipani trees – with new blooms. White, with yellow centres, just like my little tree at home. Signs are everywhere!