Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Meeting a Monk

Once I got the peddles spinning, driving the cyclo was a breeze. I peddled lightly along the riverside at first, slowly making my way through the quiet, colorful backstreets. Other cyclos laughed, giving a me enthusiastic thumbs up and shouting "Good! Oh, very good! Strong!" Motos wizzed by, looking back over their shoulders giggling. I smiled and waved back to people walking or working on the streets, who laughed in disbelief at the sight of me. "Madame, moto? Moto, sir?" I asked as we passed, laughing. My passenger was greeted by almost everyone we saw, and waved and laughed with the rest of us.

After about a half hour, I figured it was time to get some yum-yum (as they say in Khmer). "You, me, yum yum?" I called over his shoulder. "Me?" he asked. I nodded my head enthusiastically, and he motioned for me to make a few turns before we ended up at a small noodle shop packed with Cambodians, spilling out onto the sidewalk, seated at their tiny tables. I amazed everyone by successfully stopping the cyclo, pulling the break and hopping off like a an old pro. Some people even broke into applause.

We quickly seated ourselves on shakey stools, before big bowls of steaming noodles were slid in front of us, garnished with beansprouts, chili sauce and lime. Delicious as they were, I spent very little time eating. A Doctor from the Soviet- Khmer Friendship hospital who worked with HIV patients in a special ward had graciously welcomed me to Cambodia, and we were soon engaged in a thoughtful discussion about his life surviving Pol Pot, the current Cambodian government, and his ambition to someday visit America, "the land of the free, and of opportunity." He invited me to visit his hospital if I had a chance, and gave me his address and phone number before rushing off to work. I quickly slurpped down my noodles, sorry to keep my company waiting. Athough he had finished much sooner, he sat smiling, enjoying his time in the shade. When I hopped back up on the high seat and set off again, I asked him to direct me towards the gracefully curved spires and imacculately layered roof of the terra cotta colored National Museum.

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When we arrived near the entrance, I hopped of anf handed the cycling steed back to its rightful owner. After spending only .75 cents on breakfast, I felt compelled to give him something for letting me pimp his ride around town while he could have been finding other buisness. He, of course, had no idea what I was on about, and hopped up on the bike, ready to leave. In a panic I turned to the first person I saw and asked for help... That person just happened to be a monk.

Vutha`s first mistake was smiling kindly at an obviously distressed foreigner. "I`m sorry!" I bowed (its a Japanese thing), "Can you help me? I know you must be busy...Oh my gosh your a monk? Am I even allowed to be talking to you..." My cyclo driver was getting away. "Wait!" I desperately called out after him.

"Its OK!" the young monk laughed, "I speak English!" With a word, he had called the cyclo back. "Now what`s wrong?" he asked. I explained the situation to him and he calmly unttered a few soft words to the cylco driver, who humbley replied. "He said, f you can, give him 2000 Riel so he can get something to eat at lunch."

So little. 2000 Riel is about .50 cents. I handed it to him saying "Awkoon" (thank you in Khmer) and turned back to the monk. "Thank you so much! I`m really sorry to bother you!" I apologized, bowing my head and touching my palms together, as if in prayer.

"Don`t worry!" He smiled. "I`m not busy. So, where are you from?" "I`m from America, but I live in Japan. His face lit up. "Oh"! America! And you live in Japan!" The whole situation seemed a bit too surreal as I stood nervously conversing with this young monk, his bright orange robes complimented by the rich, rusted red of the museum behind him. "Are you busy right now?" he asked. "Me? No! Not busy!" I answered anxiously.

"Well, Would you like to come back to my place?"

"What?!" I laughed, amazed. I realized he had meant it sans-the sleezy connotations so common in American culture, but it still suprised me to hear it from the mouth of a monk. "Um, OK! Wait...Really? Is that OK?"

"Sure!" he said in that soft, reassuring way Cambodians do. He smiled as he stepped past me into the street, looking back over his shoulder. "Come on."

I stood on the corner, convinced I was dreaming, and slowly stepped into the street. Timidly tracing his footsteps, I struggled to leave a respectable amount of distance between us as I followed him towards his wat.


Michaela said...

I used to get a lot of attention when I went running along the riverside, national museum, and royal palace at night. I'd run straight through the traffic and the kids would join me sometimes. A lot of men thought it was hysterical and would pretend to race me :o). There were always several monks right by the museum and I'm not sure they knew what to do with me. Vutha sounds extremely friendly and I can't wait to hear what happens next!

(I so miss Vietnamese pho soup...if only they had something like that in Kenya that wasn't $6+ :(.

Inge said...

Melissa, I really admire the way you travel and how you open yourself up to whatever experience comes your way. It's such an enriching way to see the world, meet local people and bridge cultural gaps. Kudos to you!