This first appeared in the Denver post January 1, 2011. You can find it here.
Last summer, I was fortunate enough to rock and lurch my way through the Cambodian countryside between Sihanoukville and Siem Reap.
For 10 hours, along a highway no wider than a city street, I witnessed life in short snapshots as we passed through villages and towns, and alongside farms and rice paddies.
Land was tilled, crickets were gathered, children were seen off to school. Meals were made, babies were bathed, oxen were tended and friends gathered together, in a blur, as mundane and trivial moments played out a few feet away from my bus window.
At times we would stop and let people off or gather people at unmarked or mysteriously marked stops, so my peek into other people’s lives became minutes long instead of seconds. Everything seemed so foreign and so novel, I kept my camera on my lap or up to my eye. I wanted to capture every moment.
At one of the mysterious stops in the middle of nowhere, I noticed a doleful-looking water buffalo swimming or grazing (or whatever it is water buffalo do in ponds) and snapped a picture of it. I checked the image and noticed it was underexposed, so I adjusted and raised the camera again.
As I did so, I noticed a large group of people coming down the road toward the bus: three older adults and a few young women, two holding small children. One young woman was dressed to the nines: cute, flippy printed cotton skirt, a tiny T-shirt and strappy sandals — not the usual outfit for any farm. She was juggling a large rice sack and a toddler. The rice sack undoubtedly contained her belongings.
The woman hugged everyone who had gathered and ran to the bus after collecting her things. She skipped down the aisle and sat in the seat behind us, joining a young man we had picked up a few miles before. The two of them were talking in an excited fashion. I could tell she was asking the child to wave at the children outside with their mothers on the roadside.
I was about to try again for the water-buffalo shot when I noticed something in my viewfinder that made me lower the camera: Each member of the girl’s family was wiping away tears.
This was not a routinely taken trip to Phnom Penh. This woman was leaving home. Her sisters wrapped their arms around one another, waving and wiping tears from their cheeks. Her father swallowed hard, bowed and then beamed up at the bus. The children looked baffled but waved, and her mother wept. The young woman was standing by her seat, unabashedly calling to them, waving as we pulled away.
For several miles the young woman and man laughed and talked with each other. Their conversation sounded enthusiastic and hopeful.
I couldn’t help but wonder about them and invent stories for them. Perhaps this was a wedding trip. They were off to see the big city for a few days. Or perhaps they had been visiting their respective villages and were on their way home and had missed each other and were now eagerly sharing their respective family anecdotes.
I was happy for the young woman but couldn’t help feeling wistful and sad for her sisters, waving slowly and deliberately as we pulled back onto the highway. They were dressed simply with calico smocks over their clothing. They were older with the look of young matrons — soft around the middle but with still-young eyes.
Perhaps they weren’t waving goodbye to their sister but were watching her carry their dreams to the big city — two hours and a world away from home.