Vothy

Vothy photo

From Children of the Monsoon by David Jiménez
Translated from the Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg

Not four seasons but two. Dry. Wet.

The house where I stayed on my last trip sat on a vast expanse of thirsty soil; now it is hemmed in by water in the middle of a wide pool. The rains have painted the dying landscape of withered palms and parched rice paddies with the impossible greens of a watercolor. The river carrying me south—wasn’t it a stony dirt road just a few months ago? You travel to a country during the dry season, and when you return during the monsoon, you no longer recognize it. It is transformed. The magic of the seasons is repeated every year east of the Suez, where the days break first and the Sky God decides which dreams will come true this season. And which will have to wait until the next.

The monsoon is everything in Asia. People wait for it with impatience, with longing—and with dread. It gives life and takes it away. It can arrive early enough to halt a military offensive in the jungles of Burma, or bring famine to millions of Indian peasants if it’s late. A Dhaka rickshaw driver explained to me once that on the day the lands of the earth were distributed, the representative from Bangladesh had overslept. “They gave us the scraps,” the man told me, disappointed with a land where nearly every year punishing rains flood a third of the country, erasing borders that haven’t always existed. This complicates things for the soldiers charged with defending the nation, since they can’t tell where their territory begins or ends. The line that separates them from the others lies underwater, and they sometimes confuse a boat full of soldiers from a neighboring country struggling to stay afloat with an enemy incursion. Are they on their side of the line or on ours? Do we help them, or shoot them?

The magic of the seasons pulls off its most amazing trick in the Mekong. The “river of evil memory” is born in Tibet, where the shepherds believe a mighty dragon guards its source to make sure it will never stop flowing, as its waters are considered the blood that runs through the veins of the people who live on its banks. Without it, life would not be possible. After leaving China, the river grows murky as it passes through the heart of Southeast Asia, becoming for much of its length an endless fount the color of milky coffee, perhaps to hide old betrayals, the colonial atrocities and devastating wars that have done so much harm to its peoples. Winding through jungles and valleys, the Mekong traces the border between Burma and Thailand, passes through Laos and Cambodia, and finally dies, full of life, in Vietnam.

The Tonlé Sap, one of the river’s tributaries, flows southwest through Cambodia when there are no rains, but during the monsoon its waters abruptly rise and reverse course, flowing northward into Lake Tonlé. Only when the rains come to an end does it take up once more its usual course toward the South China Sea. The miracle of the Mekong’s reversal is celebrated throughout the country with a large festival and fireworks. It is also the beginning of the wedding season.

With people’s hearts in tumult, matchmakers go from town to town acting as go-betweens and arranging marriages for a small commission, based on the terms negotiated between the families and the number of sacks of rice a suitor can offer. The elder members of the community say that it’s always been this way and that traditions should be respected. But the only tradition that never dies in the villages of the Cambodian countryside is poverty, which makes love a prized asset, the only asset. Only a fool would just give it away.

Kong Thai and Touh Sokgan broke the rules and gave theirs away. He was a scrawny man, teeth rotting and tobacco-stained, hair grimy, with a wife and four children from an earlier, unsuccessful life. His best years had been left behind in the rice paddies, and they weren’t coming back. She’d been the most sought-after young woman in the village, her skin browned by the tropical sun, with high cheekbones, soft lips, and ebony hair. She was supposed to marry someone who owned at least one plot of land and half a dozen animals, but ignored her family’s objections to a man they said would bring nothing but trouble. Sokgan and Thai decided to abandon the life of the monsoon, tired of waiting for the rains in the years it arrived late, and tired of wishing it had never come in those years when it unleashed its fury upon the village. They came together, in defiance of everything and everybody, in their tiny village in Svay Rieng province near the Vietnamese border, and left to live out their improbable dream in the capital city.

In Phnom Penh they found the same lodging that all newcomers do: a room, a rickety bed, a fan, a window, and plenty of rats, all for a dollar a day. Sokgan took care of the house during the day, while Thai took a job as a rickshaw driver. At the time, you could accurately assess how the country was doing by the number of rickshaws in the city. The more rickshaws there were, the more destitute trying to make ends meet. When Kong Thai started his new job at the beginning of the ‘90s, there were thousands of trishaws in Phnom Penh, driven to and fro by peasants newly arrived from the countryside, war veterans who still had both their legs, lunatics, and unfortunates of all stripes. Cambodia had been shattered by decades of invasions, bombings, civil war, and Pol Pot’s genocide. Its people didn’t know it yet, but just as they were starting to recover from those old wounds, a new, silent tragedy had begun to strike at the heart of Cambodian society. AIDS had slipped silently into the lives of those charged with the task of pulling the nation out of its deep well of misery.

Sokgan has never understood how that scrawny, feeble man who promised her a new life in the city could have the strength after an arduous workday to pedal another eleven kilometers to the brothels of Svay Pak, on the outskirts of the city, to spend his day’s earnings there. But it’s too late now for regrets. She is lying naked, too weak to feign modesty about the body she no longer recognizes as her own, in a room on the third floor of the Russian hospital in Phnom Penh. The young woman has watched her own beauty gradually decay, washed away like a watercolor in the rain. Her breasts have shrunk and disappeared, her face has flattened, her thighs have grown thin and her voice weak; she spends the nights howling. She can’t remember the last time she looked in a mirror. When I see her huddled there on the rickety bed, motionless, I hesitate in the doorway. Is she alive? Is she dead? Only her bones remain and, folded over them, piles of extra skin, languid, unfixed, looking at any moment as if they might slide off her body and leave her skeleton bare.

Thai must have brought AIDS into the house almost immediately, because Vothy, their daughter, was also born with HIV. There’s an old suitcase under the bed that mother and daughter share in the Russian hospital, the kind an old perfume salesmen would carry, rectangular, made of brown artificial leather with metal corners, battered and slightly pompous. Everything they own is in that suitcase. Vothy’s pink dress, her mother’s blue dress; Vothy’s pair of patent-leather shoes, her mother’s sandals; Vothy’s earrings, her mother’s earrings; a small brush for Vothy, a big one for her mother.

Sokgan had repeatedly refused to go to the hospital, figuring that if she was going to die, it made no difference where she did it. In any case, every day she had less strength for the trip and so always put it off till tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow . . . . Only when she found the first lesions on her daughter’s skin, lesions like the ones that for her had signaled the beginning of the end, did she muster what was left of strength, stare her husband down with the full force of her pent-up rage, and demand that he take the two of them to the hospital at once. You and I might die tomorrow, and it might even have been better if we’d died already, but how is it Vothy’s fault that you spent your rickshaw money in the Svay Pak brothels? And don’t bother lying to me anymore. The doctor said AIDS can’t be transmitted through food or water, only through weakness, which you’ve always had in spades.

So Kong Thai pedaled the fifteen kilometers between the family’s room—the rickety old bed with its fan, window, and rats, all for a dollar—and the hospital, his daughter and wife clutching their suitcase in the rear of the rickshaw, sobbing. The sick were lined up at the hospital entrance, lying on the ground, too weak to stand, waiting for today’s dead to make room for the dead of tomorrow. They waited there for hours until, as night fell, a nurse called them and began the admissions process. At the top of the form she wrote the date: AUGUST 22, 2000.

Name: TOUH SOKGAN. Age: 27 YEARS. Symptoms: SKIN LESIONS, NAUSEA, VOMITING, WEIGHT LOSS, COUGH, ULCERS. Weight: 28 KG. Condition: TERMINAL AIDS.

Name: KONG VOTHY. Age: 5 YEARS. Symptoms: SKIN LESIONS, NAUSEA, HAIR LOSS. Weight: 17 KG. Condition: (Probably) AIDS.

Sokgan was embarrassed by the questions about her sexual history, offended that she’d been taken for a prostitute. She said her only sexual partner had been a rickshaw driver. Even though at the time many housewives were contracting the disease from their husbands, doctors identified any woman they diagnosed with AIDS as a prostitute on medical forms. AIDS was a whores’ disease, not a disease of the johns who visited them.

Finally, the nurse asked the two new patients if they had any family. This was important, she said, because if the parents died before their daughter and left her an orphan—a likely scenario—in those cases, and only in those cases, the hospital would take her to the village of her extended family, as the staff had found that a grandparent, uncle, or cousin was always willing to take in a child.

Family: NONE.

Family: NONE.

The Cambodians call Preah Sihanouk “the Russian hospital” because it was built during the Soviet era with money from Moscow. The AIDS ward occupies a building set apart from the rest of the hospital. It is the only one that has a budget for feeding its patients. In the other wards, family members of the patients are responsible for providing food, but here most of the patients have nobody and so the hospital must give them something to eat. After setting aside some funds to compensate himself for the inconveniences of his job, the accountant distributes the rest with scrupulous impartiality. This month: twelve cents per patient per day. According to the accountant, it’s more than enough. AIDS patients don’t have much of an appetite, so there’s no reason to spend a lot feeding them. Nor is it necessary to treat them—since none of them can be saved. Even the doctors are afraid of catching the disease and hardly ever come by; the nurses, who earn a pittance—even less than the accountant and the doctors—only cover their shifts if they have nothing better to do that day. The place is simply the antechamber to the cemetery, where ailing patients are expected to die as quickly as possible and without bothering anybody else.

I wait for Sokgan to make some movement to confirm that she’s still alive before I enter the room. My first question—how is she doing?—is a dumb one, and she answers with a keen wail, almost a shout. Tears mean a lot more in a place where people rarely cry. From the cradle, children are taught that crying won’t do much good. It did not help adults either during the genocide. Sokgan gestures for me to come closer.

“The girl,” she mutters, clinging to my neck, “nobody will want her. She has AIDS. Do you understand? She doesn’t have anybody.”

Vothy enters the room a few seconds later, dries her mother’s tears, hands her a glass of water, and hops to her feet again. She presses her palms together in front of her chest and bows in the traditional Cambodian greeting.

“Are you a foreigner from America?” she asks.

Unlike her mother, there’s light in her eyes. During the long, tedious afternoons, when everything is desolation, on those days when the patients seem to have realized that they are all alone and will leave the hospital the same way they arrived—with nothing—Vothy puts on her pink dress and goes from room to room, dancing, bringing food to the patients, and telling them all that yes, she also has that thing called AIDS, and there’s nothing to worry about, because they’re safe now in the hospital. And if somebody’s room is suddenly left empty, Vothy recounts how that patient has gotten better and gone back home. Perhaps it is in part because of the way she repeats this lie her mother has told her so many times that the other patients feel such tenderness toward her. No one could say for sure, but everyone suspects that Vothy knows there’s no hope for any of them. She has to have seen the nurses carrying out the corpses, smelled the whiff of death that drifts down the corridors from time to time, heard the mothers weeping over the loss of their daughters. And yet everybody pretends to believe her tales of survival—if only to make sure she visits them again. The bond with the girl grows stronger as the patients get weaker. At first the certainty of death causes them to resist getting close to others, but when the final journey has begun, they cling to any affection, however small. They call Vothy’s name from the corridor, asking her to come talk to them; they bicker over having her stay a little longer. It’s hard to believe that the last breath of life in the Russian hospital is a five-year-old girl.

Vothy has been taking care of her mother ever since they arrived at the hospital. Every day she cooks rice for her, washes her clothes, and helps her dress her skeletal frame. Her father, Kong Thai, comes by occasionally with a bag of mangos for dinner, waits for Vothy to fall asleep, and then makes love to what’s left of his wife. Tun, a young Cambodian woman with a soft voice and long, straight hair who runs a nursery on the ground floor of the hospital, curses in Khmer whenever she sees Thai in the corridor.

“He looks so ill now, they won’t let him into the brothels anymore,” says Tun, her sweetness shot through with anger for a moment. “So he comes here to sleep with his wife, even though she can barely stand. She lets him do it and doesn’t object, because that’s how women are brought up in Cambodia.”

The walls of Tun’s nursery are covered with the artwork of children who have passed away. When she accepted the position offered by the NGO Friends International, Tun believed it would be just another job. And yet here she is, constantly picking up the pieces of her shattered heart. She has decided to fight to keep Vothy alive to the very end in the hope that the latest medicines to treat AIDS will arrive in Cambodia in time to save her. Every week she takes her to the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital in Phnom Penh to see Dr. Beat Richner. The Swiss doctor is the only one who can give her the vitamins to boost her immune system and prevent an infection from finishing her off within days. Twice a week Tun and Vothy climb into a rickshaw and cross the city to Dr. Richner’s hospital. Vothy enjoys the trips, waving to people on the street and buying a sweet before returning to the Russian hospital.

“There are people like you there,” she tells me.“People like me?”

“Yes, foreigners. Doctors with big noses.”

When it comes time for me to leave, Vothy asks when I’ll be back. I hadn’t planned on it, but I promise to come for another visit after a trip to the north of the country before flying back to Hong Kong. Five days later I’m in the room on the third floor once more. Sokgan is still in her bed—dead? alive?—but Vothy isn’t with her. She appears soon after, running down the hall with other children in hot pursuit and laughing as they shout, “Don’t run, Baldy, don’t run, we’re going to catch you!” Tun gave her the nickname. One day, seeing the little girl eyeing herself sadly in the mirror, Tun decided to take her to a hairdresser so she could get her head shaved and hide the hair loss the illness had caused. It was that day, perhaps, that Tun and Vothy had become inseparable.

I lift my camera to take a photo of Vothy as she runs toward me, but when she’s a couple of meters away she stops short and covers her eyes with her hands.

“Just a minute,” she says. “Let me put on my pink dress.”   

She enters the room where her mother lies, wriggles under the bed, and pulls out the old traveling-salesman suitcase. She grabs the ruffled pink dress, the special-occasion dress, lifts it over her head, and lets it fall slowly around her, twisting her shoulders and hips to adjust it. Finally she ties the bow at the back and says, “Ready!”

Several years would pass before I’d return to this place with that photograph in my hand and ask after the little girl in the pink dress, hoping those medicines that were saving so many people’s lives in the West had arrived in time to rescue Vothy and the rest of this country’s people, who have been betrayed so many times.


Too often the fates of countries that don’t matter are decided halfway around the world by countries that do. The people’s lives are determined even before they are born, through a chain of circumstances and events that gradually shape their future, so that any attempt they later make to change it is of little use. Their futures have been defined by politicians who have never been to the places whose fates they’re deciding. These leaders could never understand these faraway people’s situation or put themselves in their place; they have never stopped to think about the consequences of their actions in the lives of actual human beings thousands of kilometers from their comfortable offices. Cambodia is one such place, a country inhabited by a people whose destiny has been stolen from them.

The deciding of Cambodia’s future beyond its borders first began when the United States stuck its oar in, supporting the coup that brought down Prince Norodom Sihanouk and bombing the countryside in an effort to destroy alleged guerrilla encampments during the Vietnam War. The American attacks meant thousands of new recruits for the Communist guerrilla forces led by the as yet unknown Soloth Sar, who would later enter the history books as one of the great mass murderers of the twentieth century, Pol Pot. Brother Number One marched triumphant into Phnom Penh in 1975, accompanied by the cheers of the war-weary populace. He declared it Year Zero, the beginning of everything, and began to transform the country into a proletarian paradise. The urban population was sent to the countryside, the country’s economy was dismantled after the model Mao had used to bring China to ruin, and the ideological purification of Kampuchea began. Money, postal mail, and newspapers were abolished. Having a university education, speaking a foreign language, wearing glasses, or dressing immodestly became reason enough to be sent to a forced labor camp. According to Pol Pot, only pure peasants would be able to carry out his revolutionary vision. Angkar, the party organization that was established to control the country, denounced everybody else with a simple slogan: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”

Thousands of children were taken to communist reeducation camps, trained in hatred, and recruited to serve a regime that tested their loyalty by forcing them to execute their own families. About 1.7 million people died throughout the country, a record for genocidal speed and efficiency. At the time, Cambodia had only seven million inhabitants, and the Khmer Rouge was only in power three years, eight months, and twenty days. Even today when I visit Cambodia, I do a little test that never fails—and that never fails to surprise me. I choose a person at random—the porter at the hotel, the waiter at the restaurant, the saleswoman at the photo shop—and I ask for their story of the genocide. And everyone has a personal story of the genocide to tell: one or more family members who died in prison, a son who disappeared, the memory of an execution, long years of hunger and torture in forced labor camps. The Cambodian genocide, unlike the ones that came before and after it, unlike the Holocaust or Rwanda, was not directed against a religion, an ethnicity, or any specific group. The Cambodians exterminated themselves; they autogenocided. Brother against brother, friend against friend, killing each other over ideas that many of them never really understood. That they still don’t understand.

With the invasion of Vietnam’s army in 1978, the madness of Pol Pot came to an end and a painful occupation began. China and the United States both—but for opposing reasons—supported Pol Pot’s retreating guerrilla army; they dragged out the civil war and for a number of years left open the possibility of Angkar’s return. In one of history’s greatest instances of political cynicism, the flag of Khmer Rouge Cambodia, the banner of the killing fields, still waved over the entrance of the United Nations in New York. For the Western powers, there was nothing odd about making a pact with the devil: the enemy of their enemy (Vietnam) was their friend, even if he’d been responsible for Asia’s Holocaust. A fragile peace was finally established only in 1991. Soon after, twenty-two thousand soldiers and civil officials from the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) began patrolling the streets of the capital. The Cambodians couldn’t believe their luck. Could it be real? All those people from so far away come just to help them?

 

One of the first things foreign troops did upon arriving in Cambodia was to create brothels to service the barracks. They filled them with young women from the poor neighborhoods of the capital city, women for whom the proffered dollars were an opportunity to rescue their families from poverty. The UNTAC soldiers gradually expanded the network of brothels. Each unit wanted one of its own—there were participants from more than thirty countries, from Cameroon to New Zealand, from Bulgaria to the United States—and soldiers demonstrated their camaraderie by inviting soldiers from allied countries to try out their brothel. The soldiers, police officers, and UN officials got drunk, brawled in the bars, urinated in the temples, and assaulted the Cambodians, enjoying the impunity they’d been granted. Some had come with the best of intentions, but their mission inevitably turned into a circus. Everyone wanted to have a good time, and if what you wanted was to have a good time without having to explain yourself to anybody or worry about the consequences, there was no better place for it than broken Cambodia.

News of the arrival of foreign dollars traveled quickly among the desperately poor, and families began knocking on the doors of the military bases and offering their daughters. Once a person has nothing else of value left—when only dignity remains—then dignity, too, has its price. On my first trip to Cambodia, walking through the streets of Phnom Penh, I crossed paths with a woman leading her daughter by the hand. The girl can’t have been older than thirteen.

“Ten dollars,” she told me, while the girl hung her head.

I thought she was asking for charity. Then the mother uncovered her daughter’s still undeveloped breasts right there in the street and repeated, “Ten dollars, mister, and she’s yours.”

The UN troops that came to Cambodia were only continuing the age-old tradition that has brought together mass prostitution in Southeast Asia and military testosterone ever since American soldiers made the Thai village of Pattaya their destination of choice when they went on leave during the Vietnam War. Prostitution, of course, had always existed in those places, but the soldiers laid the foundations for a whole industry built on exploitation, dramatically increasing the number of young women willing to enter the business and leaving a legacy that has persisted long after they packed their duffle bags and returned to base. The industry has grown so much that today it requires a constant supply of new young women, since once they hit twenty-two they are considered “antiques” and are retired from the marketplace and replaced with others. On my trips through the years, I have seen how the merchandise on offer in the doorways of some Asian discotheques is constantly updated. Little girls I first saw begging outside a shop end up offering themselves a few years later. I especially remember a mute girl who used to sell flowers outside the Apocalypse Now, one of the trendy nightclubs in Saigon. The first time I met her, she was just ten years old. Every year she grew a little taller. And then one day she was not at the entrance to the club. I found her inside on the dance floor, dressed in a denim miniskirt and a yellow top. She had a tattoo on her back. She was holding a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. A tourist had slipped his arm around her narrow waist and was pressing her against his beer belly. The little flower girl now silently sold nights of feigned passion to men with whom she couldn’t speak—and to whom, in any case, she had nothing to say.

What made the UN soldiers who came to Cambodia different was that a large part of the multinational force now carousing in the tropics was made up of soldiers from African nations that were being ravaged by AIDS. The virus was soon passed on to the Cambodian girls who showed up at the barracks, and then to their boyfriends, their friends, their villages. Thousands of young women who came to the big city to earn money for their families returned to their villages, harboring not only the secret of having worked as something besides a hotel maid but also an illness they’d never even heard of. For those women, the greatest shame was not in renting themselves by the hour but in returning empty-handed, in not being able to pay for their young siblings’ education or an ailing grandmother’s medicines. In their villages, people could tell which families had daughters who’d been able to save enough, because they lived in cement houses with wells and even electricity, symbols of success that inspired younger generations to try their luck, too.

Unlimited supply.

 

In the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital in Phnom Penh, Dr. Beat Richner was one of the first to detect, in 1993, that the AIDS virus was spreading through the Cambodian population. The Swiss doctor had arrived in the country for the first time in 1974, when he was still in his twenties, and started volunteering at Bopha Hospital. He was forced to flee a year later when the Khmer Rouge seized power. He returned in 1991 to find the hospital in ruins, and decided to stay and rebuild it. These days the doctor plays the cello beside the river of evil memory, gives fundraising concerts around the world, and takes care of sick children at any of the three hospitals he runs in Cambodia. The world, Dr. Richner likes to say, has become another Titanic, where the doors of the third-class passengers’ cabins are locked so that the first-class passengers can be saved.

It didn’t take long for Richner to link the country’s AIDS epidemic with the soldiers, and he decided to contact UN administrators in an effort to make them aware of the situation. On numerous occasions he requested that they compel soldiers to use condoms and recommended they all be tested to find out which ones were carrying the virus. The chief of mission, Yasushi Akashi, responded that the soldiers’ behavior was perfectly understandable: they were far from home and had the right to have a good time every once in a while. His answer, in short: “Boys will be boys.” In 1991, before the arrival of international troops for what was to that point the largest and most costly operation in United Nations history, Cambodian health authorities had detected only a single case of AIDS in the whole country. Before the decade’s end, four percent of the population was infected, two hundred people were infected each day, the country had the most serious AIDS epidemic in all of Asia, and thousands of kids were working as prostitutes in the capital city. By then, the soldiers were long gone. Tourists and especially locals, who, despite a widespread misconception, are consumers of much of the sex industry in Southeast Asia, had taken up the baton and become the latest customers.

Unlimited demand, too.

 

The events that had brought Vothy to the Russian hospital in Phnom Penh had begun in the offices of negligent politicians. Her future had been shaped by a series of betrayals. One of the two most recent betrayals was that of the foreigners who had won the Cambodian people’s trust and arrived with the mission of helping the country, only to bequeath the ravaged nation a new legacy of death. The other was that of the man who at the end of his workdays kept pedaling his rickshaw until he reached the brothels of Svay Pak.

 

I first heard about Svay Pak from Vichea , who’d been my inseparable guide in Cambodia ever since I first met him outside the Hotel Princess in Phnom Penh in 1998. Today, with the passing of the years, I can no longer picture the Phnom Penh airport without seeing him smiling as he clears a path through the people who crowd around the main entrance to the airport even though they have no one to wait for, massing near the door out of curiosity or because they’ve got nothing better to do, and hearing him say in English, as if it were the first time we met, “Welcome, Mr. David.”

The story of Vichea’s courage and force of will is the sort of story you usually find in those countries where nobody gives anything for free. As a boy he pedaled a rickshaw like Kong Thai’s for seven years, gradually saving enough to buy a motorcycle, which he used to carry passengers around the city until he managed to get a loan to buy a car and become a taxi driver. Despite his fifteen-hour workdays, he invested part of his money in English classes and now speaks the language better than most of the foreigners he drives around. After his English classes, he took up studying Mandarin, because the future, he’d always say, is in the Chinese tourists who are all over the place now.

The day Vichea mentioned Svay Pak, he had called the hotel to tell me he was going to be late. A customer had taken longer than expected at the “chicken farm.”

“Does he raise chickens?” I asked.

“No, man,” said Vichea, laughing. “Chicks, girls, you know what I mean.”

The next day we traveled the eleven kilometers to Svay Pak. At the entrance was an enormous sign welcoming customers in eight different languages: “We love safe sex. Please use condoms.” Every single house in the village had been turned into a brothel. As we walked down the street, the sliding doors of what must have once been private residences and shops opened on either side of us, revealing young girls disguised as women. None of them were through puberty yet, but they were smeared with rouge, dressed in provocative patent-leather and vinyl clothing, all of them swaying suggestively and calling out to visitors the only English sentences they’d learned: “Hey, mister, mister, short time? Have fun.”

Back then, Svay Pak was the only place in Cambodia where the country’s brutal social differences went unnoticed. Rich men and poor, foreign and local, handsome and ugly, tall and short, shared the same dim rooms, dealt with the same pimps, and watched the girls parade before them with the same anxious expression on their faces until finally choosing the one they liked best. The owners adjusted their prices depending on the client. They were as happy to accept the three dollars that a man like Kong Thai could afford for one of their twenty-two-year-old “antiques” as they were to demand five hundred dollars from the Westerners and Asians who’d show up with special requests, a “real virgin” and not one of those girls who’d just had her hymen reconstructed.

Cambodia was now the country in which immoral behavior had become acceptable simply because it was possible. Phnom Penh had become a haven for fugitive criminals, assassins, pimps, mercenaries, and family men in the throes of a midlife crisis. They had all come because of an urgent need to hide themselves away somewhere where nobody could reproach them for their deeds. Broken nations can be the perfect therapy. In the restaurants, they treat you like a prime minister just for being white, and gorgeous girls who wouldn’t even look at you in your country smile at you on the street. It may be hell for the locals, but for you it’s paradise. The ne’er-do-wells of the world had found their playground. They called Svay Pak Sexyland because anything went in its brothels, no matter how perverse, and nothing was really illegal, either: the police officers, public officials, and political leaders supposedly responsible for upholding the law were out there as well, waiting their turn. Then there was Disney War, a firing range set up by Cambodian soldiers near the airport, where you could hurl a grenade or fire an AK-47 at a cow in exchange for a few dollars. And Potland, a place where getting high was so easy that Sophol and Vi, a delightful Cambodian couple, had opened a restaurant beside the river called Happy Herbs Pizza whose pizzas even today are served “happy” or “very happy,” depending how much marijuana is in the crust.

“The customer always comes back,” Sophol told me, laughing, the day her happy pizza sent me back to my hotel room for a nap.

 

Vichea is waiting for me in the airport as usual. It’s been a couple of years since my last visit and four since I met Vothy in the Russian hospital. On the way to the hotel, Vichea tells me all the latest news. His mother has returned home after spending five years in religious seclusion in a Buddhist monastery, where she’d gone after she found her husband with another woman significantly younger than herself. Now that she was back, she had asked Vichea to marry a friend’s daughter, who had a fairly modest dowry: $650.

“After the trouble she had with my father, I couldn’t refuse to let her choose a wife for me. So I said yes. Now I have a family.”

Every two or three months, Vichea, his wife, and his newborn son get into a taxi and go through the city in search of a place to live. When they find one, they rent it and move in, and then resignedly await the arrival of the rats. They block all the holes and put out rat poison, but Vichea suspects the poison must be made of some sort of rodent delicacy, because there are more and more of them all the time, he buys more and more poison, and the man who sells it to him makes more and more money. When the rats get to be too much for them, Vichea, his wife, and their son get back into the car, go through the city, and look for another room: a rickety old bed, a fan, a window, and plenty of rats, all of it, for a dollar a day.

It saddens me to see how Vichea’s efforts to get himself and his family out of poverty have been fruitless. It is only possible to feel the humiliation of failure if we have first allowed the expectation of success to grow within us. Only when we invest our pride and our energy into a goal we never reach do we feel the frustration of not achieving it. For a peasant who’s known nothing but rural life, who hopes for nothing more than a good harvest and a daughter who marries well before she turns sixteen, life in a country like Cambodia will always be hard. But it’s even harder for men like Vichea. He is part of that minority of people who possess a strong work ethic, intelligence, an entrepreneurial spirit, and all those things that in a land of opportunities would have made him successful. But this is the land of no opportunities, a place where personal worth does not matter. In Cambodia, when you apply for a job as a government official, you know they’re going to give it to another official’s cousin. Corruption is so entrenched in the system, and so accepted, that you can tell which villages the ministers’ mothers live in because the roads leading to them are the only ones that are paved.

The next-to-last day of the month is envelope day in Cambodia. Vichea has to give one to his son’s teacher at school so his son doesn’t get beaten, another to the utilities man so they don’t cut his electricity on Saturday nights, and another to the security guards at the airport so they’ll allow him to pick up passengers with his taxi. Driving along Chairman Mao Road near the Hotel Intercontinental, we encounter a police checkpoint. They want to search the car.

“They’re looking for illegal weapons,” Vichea explains. “If the policemen find a gun, they go sell it on the black market. The gun’s former owner needs a new one, so he goes to the black market, looks in a few different stalls, spots a gun he likes. It looks a lot like the one he had before. ‘Wow,’ he says, ‘that’s my gun. What’s it doing here?’ He buys it again, until the police stop his car at another checkpoint . . .”

Vichea is able to describe the chaos in his country with a peculiar sort of black humor shared by many other Cambodians, which over time I’ve come to understand as an antidote to despair. But the Vichea who has come to meet me this time is not the same one I’ve seen on other occasions: his strength to swim against the current is flagging. His humor has turned bitter. He takes me to the Friendship Bridge, a gift from the Japanese, and stops the car. “See that police boat?” he says. “It’s there twenty-four hours a day to pick up desperate young women who are tired of selling themselves in the brothels, or taxi drivers like me who aren’t going to make it to the end of the month. People decide to throw themselves into the river. But it looks bad for the government, so the boat rushes out and picks you up before you can drown. They bring you back to life. We don’t even own our own lives.”

That night we go to Phnom Penh’s Foreign Correspondents Club, a colonial building where you can still run into the photographer Al Rockoff, who was played by John Malkovich in The Killing Fields, the best film portrayal of the Cambodian genocide. Through the windows we can see lights on the river, fishing boats headed downstream now that the rains have stopped and the current has turned back toward the South China Sea. We reminisce about old adventures and the stories Vichea has helped me write, about that time in the Russian hospital. I show him the photograph of Vothy I’ve brought with me.

“Yes, I remember her,” Vichea says. “She was a special little girl. I didn’t want to go into the hospital that day, I was really scared, I didn’t know if AIDS could be transmitted through the air. Now everybody knows you have to put on a condom before you boom-boom. We Cambodians use two, because the ones they make here are really cheap and they break easily.”

“What happened to her?”   

“I never went back to that place. She probably died. This country is a shithole, you know. The other day, my son caught dengue. He almost died on me because none of the hospitals wanted to give him medicine unless I paid them in advance. I had to put on the only jacket I own and pretend to be rich so they’d let me into the emergency ward. And we’re talking about a public hospital. Either you go to the Swiss doctor’s place, or your child dies without anybody caring.”

“We’ll go see her tomorrow.”   

“Who?”   

“The little girl in the pink dress.”

 

I have come and gone so many times, to so many places, in such a hurry, that sometimes it feels like I’ve been in most of them without really being. My first years as a correspondent in Asia passed quickly, tinged with a persistent impatience to see a new place, cover another conflict, file another report, get another stamp in my passport. I might begin the week in Japan and end it in Pakistan, describe five-year-old children breaking rocks in Bangladesh on Monday and on Friday discuss the latest rise of the Hong Kong stock exchange. With the years, that rushed journalism—go to a place, borrow the people’s story, and head off again—is no longer enough. I’ve started rummaging through old notebooks, rereading yesterday’s stories and discovering the pleasure of returning, of staying, of living each place calmly, thinking only about where I am, finding out what happened to the people I once wrote about and trying to tell the end of their story. What has happened to Vothy? If I really do care—and I’ve thought of her dozens of times while in other places—I haven’t done anything to show it. The years have passed, I’ve returned to Cambodia, and I haven’t visited the Russian hospital. Next time I’m here, I’ve told myself, next year, tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow. . . .

It’s raining when we arrive at the Russian hospital. A few patients are lying in the doorway, dying. One dead person leaves, another arrives. We go up to the third floor and meet a nurse in the hallway. She says that she doesn’t remember the little girl from the photograph, that she’s only been working there a few months. We walk down the hall all the way to the other end and then go back downstairs. The nursery for orphaned children is in a forgotten corner. Tun is sitting cross-legged against the wall reading a story to two little children with AIDS. We sit down beside her; she acknowledges us with a glance and keeps reading. When the story is over, I pull out the photo I took the day I saw Vothy for the last time and show it to her.

“Little Baldy . . .” says Tun, staring at the image.

She’s silent a few seconds and leans her head back. Her eyes grow wet, and when she squeezes them shut, a tear slides down her cheek.

“She died,” she says, breaking out into disconsolate sobs.

The antiretroviral medicines that were saving AIDS patients on the upper decks of this new Titanic, as Dr. Richner had described it, had not reached Cambodia’s third-class passengers. No one had done anything to save the patients in the Russian hospital: not the large multinational pharmaceutical companies, not the foreign governments who had done so much to devastate this country, and of course not the local government, whose prime minister lives in the largest mansion in Southeast Asia, protected by tanks. Vothy’s medicines could wait.

Tun kept taking little Baldy to Dr. Richner’s hospital for several months, standing in line at six in the morning to get the vitamins that kept her immune system alert. Everything was fine until Tun had to go to the countryside for a few weeks to visit her family. Nobody at the hospital bothered to take Vothy to see the Swiss doctor while Tun was gone. The little girl stopped taking her medicines and began to grow weaker, still caring for her mother as she ignored her own illness. By the time Tun returned, it was too late. Vothy was dying of tuberculosis by Sokgan’s side. Her tiny body was covered in sores and had deteriorated so much that she had begun to look like her mother. Tun ran down the corridors, shouting at the nurses and berating the only doctor she found on duty.

“You just couldn’t take her, could you? You had to let her die like this. You don’t care what happens to these people. . . .”

It is difficult to believe that Vothy died before her mother did. I had seen the two of them myself, one of them full of life and joy, the other wasting away, trapped between conflicting desires: a yearning to put an end to her own agony and an understandable wish to survive for her daughter’s sake. The father, Kong Thai, had stopped bringing mangos to eat and slipping into bed to make love to what was left of his wife. Everyone assumed he was dead and didn’t ask about him again. Sokgan no longer harbored any warm feelings for her rickshaw driver, but when he stopped showing up at the hospital, she realized that his disappearance left Vothy a little more alone in the world and made it all the more difficult for her to let herself depart. It was perhaps for that reason that she made a final effort and hung on a few weeks longer.

The light in Vothy’s eyes gradually grew dim, and in her last moments she knew more surely than ever that the patients who leave the Russian hospital aren’t going anywhere. Her chest became a single black sore; she looked around in terror and found only her mother. Vothy and Sokgan died clutching each other on the rickety bed that had been their home for the last few months, slowly fading away. Like Cambodia, they had never been the masters of their destiny, not until those final moments when Sokgan managed to cling to life a little longer than her daughter and invert the timing of their departure, just as the monsoon reverses the course of the river of evil memory.

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