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How I Frame the Picture

The first story your wide-eyed guests to Cambodia will tell the folks back home is how from the airport the driver barreled into oncoming traffic, flipped a U-turn without a signal, passed on the left—on a bridge, while consistently running stoplights. It’s testimony to their good karma that they are still alive. I felt that too, first time in the capital city, but now a year later the thrill is gone. I simply surrender to fate. In fact, I’ve been in two tuk-tuk smash-ups and everyone just laughed it off and kept going. One of our many cultural differences. No one here is going to call their insurance company about a fender bender.

While on annual break from teaching this month, I had visitors. Cambodia is not your usual tourist destination (with the exception of Angkor Wat) but there is a fierce beauty here in my host country. There is also a lot of garbage along the road and in the water. Dead things that stink to high heaven. Dank and dreary broken buildings, crappy roads, and the usual Kamikaze tuk-tuk drivers.

One common complaint observed in developing countries is how they deal with garbage. Particularly garbage like plastic bags, and plastic bottles, Styrofoam, and cans. All the throwaway stuff that’s been imported along with manufacturing jobs. Once upon a time you were served rice on a banana leaf at the market and when you finished eating you tossed it on the ground. The jungle consumed the remnants. Now, you are served rice on a banana leaf that is placed in a plastic bag. The old toss away habit continues and so does the pileup. Meanwhile, there is no place to put garbage and no one to pick it up. So it gets burned, but not completely, adding another layer of pollution to the garbage problem.

I’ve gotten confrontational with litterbugs, lectured my high school classes on the merits of recycling, and vowed to not contribute to trash piles. Does that make any difference? Not much. We need a glamorous pop princess to tell everyone to Pick It Up Cambodia! Someone to lead a sexy Keep Cambodia Beautiful campaign. But, since Cambodia has no such princess, baby diapers and leftovers are chucked out the windows of passing cars and we are obliged to drive through the debris. Knowing there is a problem and fixing it are two different issues. Neither has been addressed, sadly.

Once during rainy season in Phnom Penh I was so absorbed in chasing a photograph, I did not look at my feet and stepped on a drowned rat. I was wearing sturdy Tevas, but nevertheless could feel the cold, rubbery corpse below my feet. I did my best to check a gag reflex, and kicked the sorry thing to the curb. I did not photograph it. I looked along the street for something shiny, something curious and colorful to clear that lingering picture. When I take photographs of My Khmer, I frame the picture above the piles of garbage. I go to my center of interest, highlight the color, and crop out the trash. One of my recent visitors called me out on this practice. You don’t show the real Cambodia, he said. You want everything to be beautiful. It’s true. One must. I am constantly aesthetically wounded by the poverty. Dwell in the gutter and die. Lift your gaze and have hope. The only thing I can really control is how I frame the picture.

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