Part 1: Princess of Cambodia
Cambodia. A half-century ago, the name invoked awe and mystery. It was an exotic kingdom; it meant magnificent wonders hidden in a tropical jungle. Decades later, it came to mean something else: Bombing. War. Genocide. The Khmer Rouge. Killing fields.
"Cambodia" became synonymous with horror. It meant piles of skulls and fields of bones. It was a metaphor for death and ruin.
But over time, memories fade. Wars come and go, as Carl Sandburg observed in Grass:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work -
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
Grass reclaims the battlefields. Rice reclaims the killing fields. Time reclaims our understanding of what happened, why it happened, and how the bodies came to be beneath our feet.
For nearly a decade, my screen name on America Online has been "Cambodia." It was not until 1999 that I began to understand how much -- or how little -- that name meant to different people. In that year, the band Limp Bizkit released a song called "Cambodia." I began to get messages from strangers who assumed, because of my name, that I was a Limp Bizkit fan. Some were genuinely curious about Cambodia; one or two others had no idea that Cambodia was actually a country, and not simply a made-up word that sounded good in the song. If real countries are mistaken for made-up words, perhaps the inverse is true. Maybe there are a handful of Phil Collins fans who believe that "Sussudio" is a small nation somewhere in Africa.
No matter: the flurry of messages made me realize that a growing number of people had never heard of the killing fields, and "Cambodia" meant nothing. The metaphor had begun to fade. The country was finally shedding its horrific past. The definitive evidence? Barbie, Princess of Cambodia.
Mattel, that quintessentially American company, had for years released special editions of the Barbie doll, attired as a princess of one country or another. Barbie, Princess of Ireland. Barbie, Princess of Japan. Barbie, Princess of Thailand.
And then, in 2004, there it was: Barbie, Princess of Cambodia.
This, to me, was proof: in mainstream America, "Cambodia" was no longer automatically associated with genocide and death. Cambodia was, once again, an exotic kingdom, a mysterious place of jungles and temples and lithe dancers in shimmering silk gowns.
How many years does it take to heal? How many years for the grass to do its work? Two years, ten years, twenty-five years. Perhaps someday there will be Barbie, Princess of Kosovo, or Barbie, Princess of Rwanda. Someday.
For now, there are still scars. Ninety years later, in the forest that was once the battlefield of Verdun, there are still spent bullets. In Cambodia, the effects of decades of war remain. A culture of violence lingers beneath the peaceful facade.
This point if driven home to me on June 16, 2005. My wife and I were preparing to take our children to renew their passports. That morning, Cambodia was in the news. From CNN.com:
"A hostage standoff at an international school in Cambodia has ended with the deaths of a Canadian boy and two gunmen, police said.
Cambodian police said they captured four other gunmen who had been holding more than 50 elementary school students and teachers hostage for nearly six hours Thursday in the northwestern Cambodian town of Siem Reap.
Authorities said the Canadian boy was killed after being shot in the head by a hostage taker. His age was unclear. All the children were elementary school students, ages 2 through 6.
It is sad beyond words. Senseless violence and shattered hopes. One step forward, one step back.
Sometimes I wonder what Srey, my wife, thinks of Cambodia. Does she think of it as home? She was born and raised in Phnom Penh, and lived in Cambodia until 1992. Yet I can't recall ever hearing her refer to Cambodia as home.
This will be the second time our children have been to Cambodia. Their first trip, however, was five years ago, and I believe that "children years" are something akin to "dog years." For our daughter, the trip was half a lifetime ago; for our son, about two-thirds of a lifetime.
How will it compare to the last trip? In at least one respect, it will be almost identical: It's a Shampoo Extravaganza. As in the year 2000, we're transporting a massive quantity of shampoo. In our luggage, we will carry forty-two pounds of shampoo.
Why do four people need nearly 50 bottles of shampoo for a three-week trip? A similar question gnawed at Gilligan's Island fans week after week: If it was supposed to be a three-hour tour, why did the Howells have all that luggage?
The shampoo isn't for us. Srey insists that people in Cambodia love American shampoo... so, like it or not, we will bestow upon our friends the precious gift of Shiny Hair.
On the day we begin packing, my wife brings out the shampoo and begins wrapping duct tape around the top of the bottles so that they'll be less likely to leak. I take one look at the bottle of heavy liquid with duct tape wound around the top, and my first thought is: Security will not like the looks of that. I imagine these bottles winding up in the same suitcase with an alarm clock and a few bits of stray wire, and me frantically trying to explain to gun-wielding security guards that IT'S JUST SHAMPOO!
I mention this to a friend, who ignores the question of what it will look like. He zeroes in on a more critical issue: "Do you know how lucky you are?" he asks. "Think about it. You're married to a woman whose first solution to a problem is duct tape!"
Aside from the shampoo, we also have a few old laptops; two were donated by the Most Excellent Mike Disbrow, and one was donated by a fine anonymous woman on the marvelous Craigslist Chicago. Hopefully we'll find good homes for them.
To ensure our safety, a monk at the local Buddhist temple blesses us. He ties bright strings around our wrists, and we'll wear them for the duration of the trip... unless, of course, we lose them, which my daughter manages to do a week before we leave. No worries: another trip to the temple, a new string, and we're all set.
This time, we'll be flying from Chicago to Seoul, via Korean Airlines. From Seoul, we'll travel to Bangkok, where we'll spend the night at the airport. Then, the following morning, we'll fly to Phnom Penh. We've stocked up on the essential accessories for air travel: Dramamine, junk food, and lots of books. My wife prefers to listen to music. Anna, nine years old, has chosen Cornelia Funke's Inkspell. Sean, seven, has picked some "Magic Treehouse" books by Mary Pope Osborne, Will Osborne and Ozzy Osbourne. (OK, I made up the bit about Ozzy.) I'm bringing Edith Mirante's Down the Rat Hole, Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and Ray Bradbury's One More for the Road and The Martian Chronicles.
I've been reading Martian Chronicles to my children over the past couple weeks, and we'll continue on the trip. Twenty years from now, will they remember? Will they someday see a faded paperback in a bookstore, and remember that their father read it to them in the waiting room at the dentist's office, in the parking lot at the produce store, or in the transit lounge of the airport in Bangkok?
Time, place, and memory: the first one vanishes, and all that remains of the second is the third. It's a convoluted expression of a simple thought: Stop blinking, dammit, you're missing your life.
This article contains nine parts:
Part One: Princess of Cambodia
Part Two: Banishing Shadows
Part Three: The Saint of the Deported
Part Four: Trips Taken and Not Taken
Part Five: Spare Days
Part Six: North to the Temples
Part Seven: Ghosts and Wrong Turns
Part Eight: Changed City
Part Nine: The Eight Hundred and Nine Stairs