I had traveled to Cambodia a number of years ago with a small group of friends to test water wells for arsenic.
I was also going to learn about a new culture and was excited about getting to live and work and eat with the locals instead of just doing the tourist thing. Even though I had traveled all over Europe, this was the first time I had done something of this sort. My first time in Asia. My first time to do “mission work”.
I was foolish and naive.
My group did not go to proselytize. We were part of a church but conversion was not our mission at all. We happened to be there at the same time as another church group, who had very different ideas, however.
Let’s just say they were the most unpleasant group of people I have ever had to deal with, which is saying a lot because I have dealt with some really awful people in my line of work.
I was embarrassed for my faith. They complained about the dirt, the heat, the work, the lack of hot water, the sleeping arrangements, the smells, the inability to use their curling irons. They were rude and ugly to the locals even as they went through the motions of laying hands on them or praying over them in loud circles in a language none of the people they were laying hands on could understand.
I hated them.
None of the rest of us wanted anything to do with them and worked hard to avoid them entirely.
Towards the end of our stay, we ended up taking a brief trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat a huge, ancient temple complex. The organization we were with had rented two fifteen passenger vans to drive us and the other church group. Because we were small and they were big, some of their group had to ride in our van. The other group got the driver who spoke English and the van with air conditioning.
Along the way, I had to pee. Very badly. Our driver did not speak English. None of us spoke Khmer. Drawing a picture of a traditional Western toilet was not helpful. Either I was a bad artist (a distinct possibility), or he had never seen one (possible, perhaps), or he did not want to stop since he was being paid for the trip and not for the time and he pretended he didn’t understand (more probable).
Time passed. I started praying. Hard.
I really, really, really had to find a toilet or I was going to pee my pants. Heck, I would even pee on the side of the busy road if I had to, just stop the van for crying out loud! There were no cups or plastic bags or I would have done it right there.
I guess someone else from the other church group finally decided that they needed to go to the bathroom, too, and they passed up a small book of common phrases in Khmer, open to the bathroom section. I was not sure if our driver could read but I was sure I did not want him to try while he was weaving in and out of the loosely defined three or four lanes of traffic that technically were only marked as two. So I butchered various attempts at the translation for toilet until finally I could see the light of understanding dawn on the face reflected in the rear view mirror.
Probably he realized I was not going to give up.
Praise the heavens! He stopped at a bathroom.
The other van went on ahead as I and others stopped to relieve ourselves in our respective holes in the ground.
After a few minutes we all piled back into the van and headed off. A few miles later we saw the other white van, a huge crowd of people, and lots of police with machine guns. My heart stopped. I wanted to tell our driver to keep on going, but I couldn’t.
Then our van stopped and our driver hopped out.
Heated exchanges. There was some yelling. A policeman yelled something at our driver, waving a machine gun at him, and he headed slowly back to our van.
In a few minutes, the other van was driving off. Relieved, I figured we were getting back on the road. Our driver started the engine but then an angry looking policeman hopped into the passenger seat of our van, (with his machine gun), and told the driver something in Khmer.
We ended up at a police station. By this time, someone had called the director of the organization and he had a lengthy phone conversation with our driver. We found out the other van hit a girl and she was taken to the hospital. If she died, the driver would be charged with murder. The van itself was impounded as evidence. It was not clear if or when the passengers of the van would be released.
As we were counting our money in case we had to help pay a bribe for them, resentment and fear and welled up within me.
Why were we doing this for people that were so horrible? Perhaps this was God’s vengeance on them. Who was I to stand in the way of that? And more importantly, why should I get caught up in it?
So I started advocating for us to go on to Siem Reap.
As we were all debating what to do, a sudden commotion rose up from inside the police station. Then, as if in slow motion, the driver of the other van came flying out of the building, dashing across the yard yelling at our driver in Khmer. Our driver started the engine and put it into gear as his friend reached the passenger’s side door and started climbing in. Unfortunately for him, he was pursued by several policemen with their machine guns, yelling at him to stop. One reached him and dragged him out of the van by his pants which ended up around his knees.
Things were getting out of hand quickly.
I wanted to leave those other people at a police station in another country and I wanted to do it before our own driver got us into trouble. I wanted to save myself, everyone else be damned.
Later, when we did eventually get to leave (no one got shot or was left behind) and I had time to analyze my own feelings and actions, I was ashamed. When push came to shove, I was a coward and not any better than those awful people.
Who knows if any of us was ever in any real danger? Looking back on it now, I am not so sure. At the time, however, I was a stupid, naive American who was wholly unprepared for that many large automatic weapons carried so casually by a police force, spooked by the potential of a loss of liberty in a country with a brutal history that I could not even understand.
Truth often has to burned out of you. It takes something over the top to show you who you are. So here I am. I am that coward. Don’t go anywhere dangerous with me because YOU might not come out of it alive. You have been warned.