The lives of those you pass in northwestern Cambodia

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Arrive at the river at 6:45 am. Buy a huge bottle of water for the seven-hour trip. Decline to give to the woman who approaches you, pleading with her eyes.

Learn the boat had to dock seven kilometers north. Pile onto a tuk tuk, backpacks and duffel bags, legs and shoulders all pressed together. Observe pigs and cows wandering freely amongst homes, like pet cats. Wave at children calling “hello!” as you pass.

Turn down a dirt road and arrive at the boat. Hop on and feel relief at seeing cushioned seats, despite what TripAdvisor told you to expect. Share crackers and dried bananas.

Set sail in brown water. Pass ornate pagodas dedicated to Buddha and run-down shacks dedicated to subsistence. Wave at children calling “buh-bye!” as you pass.

Float by rice paddies, where slender green shoots reach for air. Meander past clotheslines straining with the weight of shirts, pants, and skirts. Watch as thin nets are cast with hope and expectation. Pass houseboats painted blue and homes on wooden stilts, balancing precariously above water.

Think: this is not a weekend experience for them. It is not a snapshot of a moment taken now, to be framed and displayed as a memento later. This is each moment, it is morning, noon, and night, with the wind and the rain and the sun.

Think of the Cambodians you know, the ones that started in these homes cobbled together with wood and tin and sheer will, and then left them to move into middle-class existences where they have the money and the English to tease you over coffee.

Start to feel uneasy about taking photos. Your shutter does not go off every two minutes to document the minutiae of the lives of the Cambodians you know by name. Why are these lives different, the lives of those you pass on this boat?

Is it because these people are strangers, or because they are poor? Is it because you pass too quickly for them to communicate they don’t want to have their picture taken? Or is it because you file people that invest all their time in survival under “exotic,” with “familiar” a label you reserve for those who have leisure time to spend on macchiatos?

Check the time: 9:00 am. Only five hours left on your river cruise, through these brown waters to your destination. It may take longer to arrive at answers to your questions, and even longer to accept that those were the answers you found.

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