Sometimes cameras just get in the way. I think many long-time travelers have a willing acceptance of this, but for someone whose world vision streams from her brain through her lens and back again, this is begrudgingly acknowledged. Yet it’s simple enough to pack the camera away and soak in the moment, composing and taking shots in my mind, because whether the camera is in front of my face or inside my head, I will always see life in frames.
Each shot develops and comes to being within my cerebral darkroom and I hold it there for a moment, treasuring the scene even after it races past me on the street.
But the disappointing thing about the pictures I take with my mind’s eye (and why I begrudge putting the real thing away) is that all too often, they fade, leaving me with blurry colors and vague feelings. In Cambodia, these fading images became instantly and desperately more valuable, when a partially backed up camera card with over 900 pictures I had actually taken, went missing. Though I anxiously cling to the internal film inside my head, I can already feel its quality waning, the edges crumbling, the sharpness becoming more and more unfocused.
So rather than let it diminish, I wanted to try and share with you a picture that I never took through imagery instead. My 1000 words for the absent shot.
My friend Asia and I were in the small, riverside town of Kratie in Cambodia and had unlocked the secret Lonely Planet code which is that whenever the guidebook says a town is “lethargic” or that “life moves slowly…like a boat being paddled against the flow on the Mekong” what it means is that it’s so fucking hot here that no one can do anything but lay in a sticky puddle of their own misery. So the exploration portion of our trip grinded to a ‘lethargic’ halt and we had reverted to slinking back and forth between our room and the common room of our guesthouse, amusing ourselves by guessing which fan was less effective and watching buttons spontaneously pop off my fake-brand shorts I had bought in a Phnom Penh market.
But thankfully around sunset, the heat began to mercifully wane, and so we ventured out and rented two bicycles for $1 each to bike along the Mekong as the red-orange sun melted into the hazy sky. We pedaled along the main asphalt road until it turned away from the river. A dirt path took its place next to the Mekong and despite seeing no other vehicles or people on it, we followed it as it disappeared into the trees.
The exhaust of the city faded away as we entered into another world of red dirt and green trees, of slated brown houses with thatched roofs and doorways that disappeared into darkness with curious faces that peeked out. But those faces didn’t stay in the darkness. As we pedaled by, almost every house had someone lean out and yell, “Hello!”
Men, standing in groups, would turn and give us a warm hello. Women would yell out hello and then blush and giggle as we turned to respond. Old people would watch, amused, as their grandchildren shrieked in delight with our arrival. And the children…oh the children….they wiggled in excitement and cried out their hellos again and again, from doorways and from porches, from the laps of their parents and from the middle of games with their friends. We were the parade come to town.
Asia and I knew for sure this was a little village road less travelled as several men laughed upon seeing us and yelled out to us incredulously, ‘Where are you going?!” We would smile and shrug our shoulders and Asia would yell back, “This way!” to which the men would laugh some more. We biked past colourful strutting roosters and curious stray dogs, past big cows tied to feeders full of hay, ambivalent to us weaving around them. We (carefully) pedaled through crowds of tiny chicks and their mothers and past elevated pig stys, full of their grunting occupants. At one point, we came across a giant volleyball net strung across the path with about 15 men playing. We sheepishly smiled at them and said our hellos and apologies as they parted for us and we pedaled under the net.
When we weren’t being greeted by bemused locals, the air hung thick and still around us, echoing the sounds of leaves in the breeze and the slow whir of our bike pedals. All was peace and calm.
A little further down our route, a thick group of small children blocked the path, so we dismounted and approached them slowly. As they noticed us, they started shrieking with excitement and as soon as we got close enough, every single one of them grabbed for some part of us. They clutched at our clothes, ran their fingers along our skin, held on to our bicycles. One older girl grabbed me and held my hand with hers, while her other hand ran up and down the length of my arm, absorbing my texture with her fingertips.
They looked up at me with large eyes. Not the brimming, desperate eyes of the too many Cambodian children who beg for your generosity, but the shining, curious eyes of a child who has discovered something new and exhilarating in the world. They laughed and squealed and grasped; my hands and arms tingled with the blessings of tiny fingers.
But we couldn’t stay long. It was almost nightfall and we had to find our way back by the main road. We delicately disentangled ourselves from the group as the orange sky turned into a milky purple.
“Good bye! Good bye!” we cried out, slowly pedaling away.
And the children ran along, yelling with delight and waving, following us, two Pied Pipers on bicycles down the dusty path.