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Published: December 27th 2014
"Was it love at first sight?"
Lee Heng's eyes smile.
"What is that? What do you mean?"
He knows I am teasing him, but he still wants to know what I mean. So I explain, to the best of my ability, about this strange notion of love at first sight. And even though he knows I am teasing, he explains the circumstances of meeting his future wife.
"I spoke to her on the phone over a year before I met her."
"Well how did that happen?" I ask. I'm certain my forest guide did not engage in Internet dating, which might explain the long telephone contact before he finally met her.
"My aunt, I met her through my aunt who told her about me. And I met her at my aunt's house in Phnom Penh."
I'm not satisfied. I've got to know the details. These stories of how people connect interest me.
"So your aunt was the matchmaker then?" I'm teasing again, and now I have to explain the word "matchmaker." He gives me details, probably because I am relentless in digging for them. He says he was very shy for so long,
and could never really bring himself to look directly at a woman until well into his thirties.
So when he finally met his future partner at his aunt's house, he felt comfortable enough to continue the relationship after a year of telephone conversation. He married his 20 year old bride at age 32 and he says he's happy.
His young daughter is a year and a half. He is passionate about giving her a life with a good education, with the certainty of never having to be hungry. He knows what that was like, for himself and his four siblings and parents. He worked hard throughout his life, and even though he knew that capturing jungle animals and cutting trees was illegal, he felt he had no choice. He had to support his family.
Lee Heng is happy now to be a guide in Chi Phat. It may not always support his family, but for now it is alright. He works hard at learning English. He tells stories from his past, he tells jokes, he tells about medicinal uses of the plants and animals, he talks about how he captured the bear and the civet cats and
wild pigs and other animals. He is glad he is not doing that anymore. He wants to be a good guide, and he is.
Lee Heng wants his daughter to be a nurse. I ask, well what if she wants to be a doctor? That's ok, he says. But he knows that nurses get paid well and they care for others. He likes that idea.
Maybe he likes the idea because now he is satisfied with being a caretaker himself. He cares for his family, he cares for visitors from around the world, and he cares for his community. He cares for the forest, the place he exploited for years.
And he cares for me today. He answers my questions and tolerates my teasing with grace. He makes sure I'm alright as I plod the trail and sleep in the boat. He gives me a stick to scrape the leeches off my socks and shoes.
He shares his dreams, his plans, his life.
There's a place in my heart just for Lee Heng.
How big can my heart grow? There is room for dozens of Lee Heng's, but he's got a very special spot.
And yes, I believe in love at first sight.
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