the ‘hello’ toilet

on thursdays i try to do a little travel throwback, emphasis on the story from one photo

2004 – small village, cambodia, 35mm film

the first couple weeks living in cambodia, we met our next door neighbors. this seemed to be meant to be as they had only moved in weeks before we arrived and the mom, sinat, knew english. she had worked for an american family before and knew enough english to help us get around. she was an invaluable asset for us as she quickly showed us the ropes of getting a deal and not getting swindled. we learned fast that we had been overcharged for many things due to our somewhat…pale…nature 🙂 we became fast friends and she endearingly referred to herself as our ‘adopt mom’.

she had family in the outskirts of a town called koh kong and during one of the many weeks off we had that year (cambodians love their holidays), she invited us to visit her family. so haley, myself, our friend tak, sinat and her four children piled onto an overcrowded bus and headed to koh kong. the trip itself was an adventure with a few too many cambodians staring at us and talking about ‘barang’ (literally means french but generally means white person…they didn’t realize we could understand them), a few too many strong smells, and a few too few bridges. our vehicle had to drive onto overcrowded boats to cross small lakes, and got stuck in mud a few times along the way. but this story isn’t about the journey there, it’s about being there.

sinat happened to mention that we were the only white people that this little village would have ever seen in person…um…what?? coming from a san diego melting pot, that just sounded a little unreal. we didn’t actually believe it, especially when we got there and everyone said ‘hello’ to us. this little village is slightly floating and the houses are on stilts. the tide goes in and out underneath the wooden homes. everyone who lives here is a fisherman and living here provides easier access to the boats. we soon realized that the only reason people said ‘hello’ to us was because we were white, and white people on television say ‘hello’. in fact, no one there knew any english, and truly hadn’t seen white people in person before. we realized this when we started saying hi back to the kids and they ran away from us, the little ones even cried. if you know me at all you know this is a shock to the system! i am a kid magnet and to have them run away and cry, we must have looked like ghosts!

staying here for a week was a challenge in many ways. besides frightening children, we slept on wood floors, showered with a bucket and a barrel and peed in the hello toilet. the village toilet was literally a hole at the end of a small pier after a precarious walk on uneven wooden planks. think slum dog millionaire except not as nice because there was no door, only a piece of cloth, and the walls only came up about 3 feet. this presented a problem for a long-legged white girl trying to disrobe while squatting and trying not to flash the entire village watching a long-legged white girl try to pee at the end of a pier. the kids warmed up to us from afar and even ventured to say ‘hello’ but at first only when we were popping a squat. needless to say, number twos happened at night while saying a prayer that we wouldn’t twist an ankle on the rickety boards or worse, fall into the shallow mix of sea and waste below.

eventually we got the kids to realize we weren’t spirits from the tv or whatever it was they thought we were. they were really interested in our cameras and we took some photos with them. i’ll always wonder what they really thought. now that it’s been almost 10 years since this has happened, have they seen other white people? do they remember us at all? have they traveled to a big city in their life and seen how most people pee in much more private situations? i may never know…

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