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Published: December 21st 2014
Pon insists that I am more beautiful than she is. She says my teeth are beautiful, and my skin is pretty. It is white, you see, and to me, my face looks pale and ghostly compared to her lovely face, the color of rich creamed coffee.
I met her when I stopped at a small restaurant on my return from swimming in the rapids of the river that runs by Chi Phat. I fancied a coconut water, and thought surely this tiny and cheerful looking place with red flowers on its borders would have one. Alas, they did not, but the smiling young woman behind the glass case filled with dried sting rays fried me some tasty noodles and shrimp. She was pleased that I tried to speak Khmer. So somehow we exchanged information about families and life.
Then her mother Pon appeared. She radiated warmth and energy. I tried out my new word for the day on her, "divorced", and our friendship thus began. She grabbed me with both of her hands and said in
Pon and Family
Pon on left, her two daughters on the right, granddaughter in front. Family friend is the tall one.
Khmer, "me too!" I cried out "my friend!" And we hugged.
There was that frustrating time when I wanted to tell her so much, and listen to her story, but alas, my lack of Khmer and hers of English prevented that outpouring of words that women share when they first meet a long lost sister. But not being able to communicate well in words forced us to communicate in other ways.
Sometimes you can just feel the connection with someone, and this was one of those times. We held one another's hands, and somehow made ourselves understood. No, I don't want another husband, I say, I'm free now, free to do what I like. She doesn't want one either, she's perfectly fine without one.
After several visits with lots of laughs and getting to know her two older daughters and granddaughter better, I finally rounded up one of the guides to interpret for me. He is their neighbor and is happy to gossip with us, just like a woman.
So now we exchange our stories in detail. Hers of course is far more poignant. Pon had three husbands, each successively more abusive and irresponsible than the
last. After the last one gambled their sizable fortune away, she stayed single. Divorce gave her no financial benefits other than ridding her of the irresponsible partner. She was forced to raise her three children on her own while the fathers did not contribute. She says she is poor, and marvels at the "huge" government retirement pension that I get. Of course they don't pay taxes, health insurance, as I do, but still I'm the one who's traveling and she's the one working everyday to keep her rice wine still going and her pigs alive.
Her still looks like a big operation. Stacks of firewood sit outside the wooden building. The smokey shed has vats of brew and smells of sweet, fermenting rice. Big 30 liter jugs of brew sit inside. She can sell each for $20. Her pigs eat the leftover rice swill. Her sow births two litters a year of about a dozen piglets. When they get big enough, she can sell each for about $150.
I ask her if the sow has a name. No, she says, it's just "pig."
The work is physically demanding and requires her presence daily.
Again Pon tells
Happy to be divorced and single.
me she's poor as she shows me her pigs and still. She looks at my white skin and smiles with her clear beautiful eyes, and says she is happy without a husband. She has her daughters, she's supporting her son in school, and she's able to make it, for now.
I tell her I will come and visit again, and I want to help her with the rice wine. She just laughs and gives me a hug, then points to my teeth straightened by braces. She thinks I have the most wonderful smile. But I feel Pon's warmth, and really, she's just seeing her vibrant spirit smiling back at her.
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