“When a Trip Turns Serious”
New York Times, Travel, New York, NY, 2002.
Traveling to Southeast Asia was a casual
decision, but some of the sights were somber
the others in our party– journalists, spouses and academic
administrators– wandered inside a Buddhist temple, I
wandered outside, looked at a few food vendors, a shrine under
a shady banyan tree and some unusual palms with silvery leaves.
Our Thai host found me watching a woman withal pile of small
cages, each holding a single small bird – finches or
sparrows, I guessed. It is a custom to release a bird at the
temple he said, and seeing me touched by this symbol of the
soul longing to be free, paid the woman and gave me a cage
to open. I slid the bars opened and bird flew out, perhaps
to freedom, more likely to be caught another day.
of my hope in coming on this trip had been to develop friendships
with people like our Thai host, a journalist who has seen
much and reported with courage. As for his country, my preparatory
reading left me wondering, What's Thailand to me or I to Thailand
that I should there? but then, why not? I liked the people
who were going on the trip. I might learn something. So I
packed and boarded the plane and looked at Bangkok, listening
to the impressions of others like the technology writer who
admired the jostling of skyscrapers, dense residential buildings
and flimsy shelters. He saw Bangkok's street vendors and micro-businesses
in crowded malls and its abundant consumer electronics as
examples of how populous Asia is adopting and transforming
technology. I ate Thai food and relished fresh tropical fruits
that reminded me of my childhood in South Africa, and others
– rambutan, jackfruit, dragonfruit, and mangosteens
– I'd never tasted and could come to hanker for.
temples covered in gold, Buddhas draped with saffron cloths,
and floating markets. Most thrilling to some in our party,
we found silk and tailors who would sew it into garments in
a day or two.
few held back from the shopping obsession. One was Agnes,
an undemonstrative reporter from Burundi who came to the United
States last year speaking French and still learning English.
In a writing class her first semester, Agnes had written about
the genocide in her childhood. Most telling, she reported
apparently casual and mundane conversations between neighbors,
one a killer, on a survivor. That first semester, her English
was not fluent enough to carry the burden of her story, but
even with fluency, what can one say? I imagined Agnes isolated
in trauma too harsh for most Americans to imagine, shackled
to a obsessions that made ours with shopping too strange to
we flew to Cambodia with a promise of Angkor Wat and drove
from the airport to our hotel, passing men with hoes who were
digging ditches alongside the road in the heat of the day
— another evocation of my childhood in South Africa — I wondered
whether Agnes also recalled Africa's poverty. But soon motorcycles
caught my eye, first a few then hundreds crowding the streets
of Phnom Penh. Many drivers carried passengers and talked
on cellphones as they navigated the dense streams of vehicles
with no signs of temper or incipient collisions — a miracle
of subtle communication and adjustment. I wondered whether
Africa could offer a scene of such energy and surprising hope.
turned to Agnes again the next day when we drove along rutted
streets to four buildings, once a school with white walls,
now labeled the Museum of Crime. Between 1975 and 1979 the
Khmer Rouge killed more than one million of eight million
people. In this school they held, interrogated and tortured
prisoners, often children and adolescents like their terrorized
guards. Conditions were so harsh that two prison guards died
for every seven prisoners. Almost every adult Cambodian lost
family. Many saw parents, brothers and sisters killed in front
of their eyes and remember fearing neighbors more than wild
killed each other." our Thai guide said, pointing to
a set of graves near the first building. We entered the classrooms,
bare except for a metal bed, shackles, a box the prisoner
had to use for excrement and a large photograph on the wall
showing this room with a corpse on the bed.
outside quoted Khmer Rouge rules. One read: "While getting
lashes or electrification you must not cry at all."
did not tour the classrooms, and one of our party, a psychologist,
offered to stay with her, but she wanted to be alone. I kept
on eye on her tall figure as she paced the lawns between the
buildings and found shade at a group of palm trees and I scanned
more rooms with photographs of victims, skulls and other evidence
of torture. I left South Africa a lifetime ago knowing that
cruelty also surrounded me.
Returning to our bus, I saw a shelter near the gate, and under
it a table and cashier's till. I paused to look at pamphlets
on the table and saw a book. A woman came forward to sell
it to me. White words on black: "Victims and Perpetrators?"
Black-and-white photographs and a black page with small white
words, "For memory and justice," Agnes had stopped
must have this book," I said as I gave it to her. "It's
a gift." She looked at me, questioning. "Next time
I hope I'll give you something silly, Mickey Mouse."
She kissed me, taking me aback.
who has reported about civil wars in Africa, passed and stopped.
He too wanted a copy.
the museum we went to the Documentation Center that had published
the book. There a group of Cambodians preserves records of
the massacre. They use the thousands of photographs and documents
the Khmer Rouge themselves kept, and train people to gather
oral histories. They teach skills like neutral questioning
to keep the stories as clear as possible.
who lived i the United States for 10 years, hopes they are
laying the groundwork for legal processes and the rule of
law. Some notorious Khmer Rouge are living with impunity in
Cambodia, and there seems little support for a process like
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that, in spite of
many failings, has remade South African history.
what the Museum and Documentation Center meant to Agnes during
the rest of our trip. She was reading books about Cambodia.
I Felt I'd seen a soul set free.
justified the trip for me. I relaxed in our lavish hotel that
exploited nostalgia for the great days of colonial rule and
recalled that Proust wrote about places that can speak to
us, revealing their significance only if we pay attention.
If we do not visit that place or recognize it's connection
with ourselves, we will never know what it could tell. I felt
that I had heard. Outside a Buddhist temple in Thailand and
at the Toul Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh, I had seen more than
I foresaw. I had seen what Agnes needed. I could shop for
silk with an easy heart.