This was in Skuon. In Cambodia. Where the ladies wait for the vans to stop, the buses to stop, the tourists and workers to stop, so that when legs are stretched, and knees are popped, and ligaments are creaked and cracked after hours of immobility, they, the ladies, can offer their wares. Their sizzling, steaming plates of tarantulas for the hungry, noon-time lunch-time dinner-time horde. Clumps of black, crispy, multi-legged tarantulas. Come one, come all. Sample the local delicacies. Go on. Have a spider. The big one, there, in the middle. Open wide. Bet you can't eat just one!
While looking for a place to stay, we wandered around the dusty brown town, wondering where a good, cheap guesthouse might be found. I chatted with a local, in that aimless, amiable nontalk that strangers in a foreign land feel obligated to babble.
"You're from here?" I asked.
"Yes, yes," he said. Smiling. That Camobodian smile. Warm, gentle, reflexive.
"You've lived here your whole life?"
"Yes, yes," he said. Laughing now. Of course he'd been here his whole life. Where else would he go? Where else COULD he have gone? Madrid? Manchester?
Another village, another time. This one an hour from Phnom Penh. On the way back our car would break down in the heat of a Cambodian afternoon, but that was later. The next day.
This was the previous day. Things were steady in the heat. Full of Cambodian life. I would break the haze by swimming with village children in the brown and murky water, forgetting about potential, waterborn amoebas waiting to annhilate my immune system. After, blindfolded, I would try to smack a makeshift pinata with a long, wobbly wooden pole. Three times, I would swing. Three times, I would miss. Then, sheepishly, I would tug off my blindfold, and smile, and the dozens of villagers would howl with glee at the silly foreigner. And, later still, the old ladies of the village would would sit next to one other, waiting to be doused with ice cold water. Some kind of ritual. Alien to me.
A Cambodian afternoon.
The university student who invited us would introduce his cousin, sixteen, seventeen, pretty and shy in that gentle manner patented by the Khmers.
"Her English, very good," he said. "She study very hard. But university, far. Cost, very much. So." He shrugged. Smiled. Offered us a Coke.
An hour, tops, by car.
A few hundred bucks.
This young girl, like most of the villagers, young and old, weak and strong, had never been to Phnom Penh.
Probably never would, either.
And I thought of a visiting professor, American, lecturing at the university. Telling us that most of the world's inhabitants never ventured more than fifty miles from their birthplace in their entire lives.
Absurd! I thought. (My tendency being to scoff at practically anything that anybody standing at a front of a room tells me.)
Then I thought.
Me, more than middle-class, Canadian, from the country the UN had judged the best place in the world to live a few years back. Who, aside from yearly jaunts to the cottage a few hours north, and Myrtle Beach here and there, rarely travelled more than fifty klicks from St.Kitts in the nineteen years I lived there.
Almost never, really, aside from vacations.
I mean, shit, Toronto, whose skyline shimmered across the lake from my bedroom window, beckoning, was exotic. Distant.
An hour away.
If memory serves, I ventured there twice during high school: once with my friend Eric to watch Spike Lee speak at my brother's school, the University of Toronto, and once again as graduation loomed, to watch a triple bill of cinema in the big city. (Before heading back the next day to write my entrance exam for the film program at York.)
And Fort Erie, my parents' hometown, thirty, forty minutes from St.Catharines. Hundreds of times, I went there, but it was another world. A different culture. Small-town: intimitate, enclosed, insular and warm.
And in high school, meeting new classmates who actually lived by the Pen Centre. I mean, fuck, that was, what, a good fifteen minute bus-ride across town. No man's land, practically.
And now, thinking of my family, my classmates, my old friends. With the exception of my friend Eric, teaching high school Drama and English in Australia, everybody I grew up with lives, if not in my hometown, only an hour's drive away.
Back to the spiders.
("I'll pass, thanks. I had a black widow for breakfast, actually, so...")
Held aloft by poor and smiling ladies in that little town. Under that hot, blinding sun. Watching pasty-white 'barang', foreigners, come and go, day by day. By van and by bus. Big-bellied and cooked pink.
Did they wonder, these ladies, where we were from, or where we were going? Could they have guessed that we were a little more than fifty miles from home?
But maybe only physically. Maybe, inside, we were still wandering the streets of our hometowns, wondering how we got from here to there, and if we could get back again before day turned to dusk, and dusk fell to night.
Not that any numerical distance would have mattered much to them, I suppose. The ladies, that is. Or us, I suppose. Once you're away from home -- whether it's out by the Pen Centre, or all the way to Fort Erie, or living in freakin' Asia -- away is away. Miles are miles, and distance is distance. You are not home? You are here? Oh, you must miss your country. Your family. Your place.
They held up their plates. Fresh, sizzling. Their currency for the day. They smiled. Hoping for money for the baby. For their nighttime meals. Chicken and rice that will be eaten, enjoyed, forgotten. A day's work, a day's wages. Well spent. Today was today and tomorrow was tomorrow and never the twain shall meet. Best to enjoy this day, now. This night, here.
They were there, in Skuon. At home. The dark would come and the air would cool. The travellers would leave and they would stay. We were far and they were near. They knew that. They understood that.
This was their place.