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Rose Moss - Trip

“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

While 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.

Part 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.

We saw 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.

But a 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 share.

When 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.

My attention 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 beasts.

"They 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.

A sign outside quoted Khmer Rouge rules. One read: "While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all."

Agnes 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 near me.

"You 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.

Tim, who has reported about civil wars in Africa, passed and stopped. He too wanted a copy.

From 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.

The founder, 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.

I glimpsed 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.

The site 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.