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The Last Postcard

In the twilight glow of my final days in Cambodia, a rush of sights, smells, and sounds tumble through my memory. In my imagination the camera shutter clicks, capturing pictures I did not take. Click— two old yays with shaved heads, dressed in white blouses with long sampots, walk home from a funeral hand-in-hand. Click— a tiny frog leaps out of the grass, a long black snake in pursuit. Click—four naked boys up to their necks in muddy water, splash in their flooded front yard.

Other pungent sensory memories: The smell of prahoc fermenting in a vat by the clothesline. Fish cheese is a close as I can get to describe the odor. (You really don’t want to get any closer.) Strange smells that became familiar—rice fields in still water—still, not stagnant. Rice fields smell of mud, a thick smell, heavy with roots reaching into dark places. The road to the fields is red rock, which smells different from the yellow clay that supports the rice. A slow moving stream runs alongside the road, milky in parts like café au lait, with a slippery smell of something green in its belly.

A waft of incense migrates from every corner of the wat to converge in a haloed smoke ring above the pagoda. A smell that reminds me to slow down. At a shop where I bought a package of biscuits, a sticky child ran to get her mother. Zaftig, in a sparkly blouse, the heat of her hair lifted the strong lemony scent of her shampoo around her ears like a yoke. Her medley of perfumes cushioned her movements with a comforting maternal smell.

My own sweat, sometimes maple syrupy sweet, sometimes briny, smells the way chives taste. I smell myself and ask girl, how’d you get so funky? The smell of cool water in the tiled cistern and Bee Flower soap that sluices away the funk. A hedge of jasmine sends tendrils of scent up to my window once the sun has set. Lemony, but sweet, almost viscous, yet veiled. Jasmine ignited by moonlight.

Cambodia has a soundtrack, too. Funerals and weddings accompanied by banging gongs, flutey bells, and drums before dawn. The incessant buzz of motorcycles, all day long, long into the night. A burble of tractors with elongated crankshafts that sound like they are powered by bubbles. A sugarcane cart crier calls in a sweet high voice, om-bpou! om-bpou! The rise and fall of monks chanting. Khmer pop music, a loud lament with a disco beat. The roaming bread vendor with his recorded voice crackling. Children calling out Hello! Helloooooo! Laughing hysterically when I hello back. The morning bell ringer who takes a hammer to a rusted wheel to announce the start of the school day at 7 a.m. Tenth grade students repeat the English vocabulary lesson in unison, exchange Vs for Ws. After the rain, an unseen bird cries out surreal, surreal.

This kaleidoscope of postcard-sized memories represents Cambodia to me—a great swirl of sights, smells, and sounds in the Kingdom of Wonder, a place like nowhere else.

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