Phnom Penh, 21 March 2017
‘WELCOME TO MY HOUSE.’
The street is located deep in an old quarter of Phnom Penh, far from the places where tourists make the neighborhood unsafe. Once I’m out of the car, it takes a few seconds before I can master the heat, the dust and the stink. When I’ve regained my equilibrium and my eyes are used to the bright sunlight, I see in front of me a dusty dirt road that stretches in a straight line to the horizon. It feels like the portal to an overheated, frugal, hard existence. On the two sides of the street are hundreds of wooden houses, little shops, junk shops and food stalls. For many Cambodians, this neighborhood is where they feel at home. Relaxed, at ease, the crowd moves along the street.
Ma goes ahead of us. Head slightly bent, with every step she leads us deeper into the heart of Cambodian society. We’re a striking group: a transgender in her best dress followed by two sweating white giants, along with an interpreter, attracting everyone’s attention. Puzzled looks and nasty smiles pierce our backs. Transgenders aren’t entirely accepted in Cambodia, and are easy targets for ridicule and amusement. After a minute or five we duck into a tiny alley roofed with corrugated iron and we are four again.
In the dim light I hold my breath. Air is a scarce commodity in this alley. Your lungs fill with smoke here. The alley is nameless. It is no more than a rickety wooden walkway that hangs a few meters above a stinking garbage dump. To our left, a meter or four from the walkway, is a noisy diner. On our right are five little enclosures one after another.
Ma lives in the fourth of the five.
She opens the little lock on the door, and in a soft voice invites us in. “Welcome to my house,” translates Tai.
The house consists of one room of about three by four meters. There are no windows, no doors leading to other rooms. When the four of us have all carefully crammed our things into the room, we have to take turns sitting to avoid bumping into the few items here.
Sitting on the floor, cross-legged, sweat pours from every pore of my body. My head is cooking and my heart is pounding heavily within my chest. Ma is the only one who knows how to keep her ‘cool’, and she goes to sit on the edge of the bed.
She laughs shyly. Tai and Ma and begin a whispered conversation in Khmer, which gives me the chance to look around. On the bed, I see now, lies a thin mattress with a Mickey Mouse cover. Here and there some clothes are piled. I see a big teddy bear, and gradually I discover some lost kitchenware: a little pan, a miniscule hot plate, two plates and a spoon.
This is Ma’s house…. And we are welcome.
“Thank you very much that we can meet you here,” I say. When Tai translates, for the first time I see her relax.
Photo Erik Smits
Translation Pete Kaiser