The Wild Heart of Cambodia - My Family Travels
Little girls
Little girls

It was the size of my palm, and it could have eaten me.

Well, that’s an exaggeration. But the spider was enormous, marked with war stripes, its black legs poking at the metal roof above me. I’d never had company like this in the shower before, but it wasn’t the first surprise I’d received in Cambodia. Even months after I’d won the fully-funded Global Explorers travel scholarship with the American Youth Leadership Program, I had never imagined what would become of me in the wet and wildly beating heart of Southeast Asia.


The spider stalked closer; I wondered how many of the village-people would laugh if they saw an American teenager flailing her arms in terror as she ran naked from the bathroom. The bathroom consisted of two drafty, tile-floored rooms with cement containers of well water for showering and flushing. One room contained a squatter toilet and the other, the shower. For Cambodians, it wouldn’t justify a screaming sprint, but the devil-bug in my presence was a persuasive character.

I had no choice. The spider crept above me, eyeballing my drumsticks. I grabbed my towel and pushed open the door.

A piglet squealed underfoot, and a child, the 11-year-old daughter of our host-family, peeked at me with dark eyes, tickled by my soppy existence. She was shy and sweet and possessed a toothy grin and infectious laugh. She and her mother were seated around an age-worn table, shaded from the sun by their towering house, wooden and box-like, its rough exterior brown and paneled and dotted with open windows, like rectangular holes poked into a matchbox. Thick stilts grew out of concrete bases like branchless trees, holding the house nine feet in the air, safe from seasonal rains.  

The space underneath served as a comfortable living area for the five-person family. It was simple but vibrant, sparsely decorated with a hammock, table, a few bicycles and pots, but filled always with the family’s wandering hens and piglets, giggling children, unfamiliar words and familiar laughter. It was new, but somehow, when I closed my eyes, it sounded like home.

She giggled again as I made a silly face and snatched my underwear from the clothesline, where it had been drying since my bumbling attempts to hand-wash my laundry. I’d used the hand pump, splashing around in soapy water and metal bowls clumsily until the mother gave me a wordless lesson, laughing all the while.

I hopped to the stairs past the pile of shoes, left outside according to custom. The house was one large room divided into sleeping chambers by flowery curtains. They were small but cozy, each with a mattress and mosquito net. Our host-family slept in the back behind a thin wall and curtain, smiling at us from the opening, cleaning our sheets when we left for the day, leaving only traces of their selfless hospitality.

I heard toe-steps behind me and turned to see Sophorn, the 3-year-old of the house, standing like a squat soldier below me. He tugged at his shirt, his fingers hooked in his mouth.

I was here, nine thousand miles from home in a place without beds, without glass windows or insulated walls, and without running water. I was in a house above the ground where pigs roamed underfoot and synchronized their voices with your alarm clock, and the heat clung to your sheets and skin at night. Nine thousand miles from home where the nights were silent and the rain was loud and lovely, and little boys were little boys, just like back home. I poked his belly. He giggled.


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