Ya carries her basket of beef along the road between Ban Lung and Ou Chum in Cambodia’s Ratanakkiri province.
As some of you know, I’m at work finishing a collection of travel essays to be published next year. In the past few months, I’ve wandered aimlessly (and pointedly) for hours through old notebooks and files I’d long forgotten. This is something I love about reporting: it allows me to live at least twice. I have an experience. I write it down. And ever after, I retain access to the details of that event. Years later, I’m sometimes shocked at how much of my life slips from the forefront of memory until prodded with photos and notes.
Ya, pictured above, is a Kreung tribal woman in the far northeastern corner of Cambodia’s Ratanakkiri province. She was 40 years old when Jerry and I met her nine years ago. I’d almost forgotten the encounter until I stumbled across her photo hidden in a pile of neglected files on my laptop. Yet as soon as I read the photo slug—Woman with Meat—I knew exactly who she was. And I vividly remembered the day we met on a slick muddy road to Ou Chum. Jerry and I had left the capital, Ban Lung, on foot—an unusual thing for a couple of foreigners to do, especially in a steady rain. But we donned our ponchos and walked the long route in search of an old woman who made copious batches of rice wine. We never found her—but here’s a bit of what I noted that day:
We walk and walk. The son of our hotel manager has told us Ou Chum has a woman, 104 years old, who makes rice wine every day. We walk to find her, and the chunchiet (tribal villagers) along the way think we are very strange. We pass a parade of women with baskets as we all huff up a red-dirt hill. The woman in the lead says her name is Ya, she’s 40, she has seven kids. “I don’t speak much Khmer,” she says. She tells us she has no rice, but her basket is filled with beef and a young boy beside her carries a small water bottle with fish inside—dinner. The girls walking behind Ya say they’re all going to Ou Chum, as they often do. We pass them, they pass us—again and again along the road.
All the chunchiet carry their daily needs in tightly woven baskets with little straps around their shoulders. Oranges, beef, rice, clothing—it all goes into the basket. The older folks, men and women, have drooping earlobes, sliced in two or shaped from giant plugs stuck through skin. Each man stashes over his shoulder a machete with a long wooden handle, a shoulder rest, and a sharp curved blade. The machete is his companion for any long walk.
The road twists and turns into gullies and gorges. The rain plows through earth, creating an orange landscape resembling the American Southwest in miniature. If 1,000 feet equaled an inch, this path could be the Grand Canyon.
We walk past huts, bucolic fields, a man with a pig strapped to a board behind his moto. (He has a moto, but most people walk.) We pass cows, ducks, chickens, dogs and boys on bikes. We pass through rubber trees, tapped and collected, shading the way. Past a turquoise butterfly wing, glued in mud. Past screaming babies, men toting corn. Past families draped over the railings of their thatch huts. Past little foot paths leading to thick jungle. Past indigo and ginger and hibiscous and frangipani. Past the stench of manure.
Two little girls run up beside us. One says she went to the Ban Lung market at 5 a.m., and now she returns with pomelo. She doesn’t go every day—but often. For food, for the family.
We pass another clump of girls, and one asks us where we’re going. We tell her Ou Chum, and she asks where we’ve hidden our motorbike. Do we have a moto? No moto? She can’t believe it, as though she expects us to pull one from our pocket.
Later, after Jerry and I give up on finding the old woman and her wine, we see that girl again near her house. She calls us over. She tells us she’s 12 years old, and she introduces us to her sisters — 15, 10 and 4. Their mother died four years earlier, and their father has gone to market to sell something. They have two thatch rooms—one on stilts for sleeping, another next door for cooking. The girls say they don’t go to school, they work in the fields instead. Young green rice grows around the home. A banana tree, a gourd vine, a pile of corn. No pigs, no cows, no chickens, no other fruits or vegetables. What we see is what they have. We leave them a bag of peanuts and a small wad of riel….
I read my own notes, and I’m back in Ratanakkiri. That’s the magic in keeping track of life’s intricate details (I consider it a job perk). I’ve come across so many little tidbits, many of them dealing with food. And many of which will never see print—in book or article form. Yet I’d like to do something with them.
Starting this week, I’ll be posting little food-related blurbs on the Rambling Spoon Facebook page. Most accounts will be much shorter than this—great dinners, interesting kitchens, market excursions, mealtime conversations. I’ll call them “More Better Food,” taken from the title of my forthcoming book, This Way More Better. These postings are in addition to the nibbles and bites I’m already putting on Facebook. So, if you haven’t already, check it out—and stay tuned for more. You can also follow along on Twitter—just look for @RamblingSpoon, where I’ll tweet these under #morebetterfood.