The Soul of a People


The most fascinating person I ever met was a village.
I was photographing deep in the Cambodian jungle at a ruined temple called Beng Melea, a jumbled mass of granite blocks in a strangle hold of creeping vines, crawling with venomous snakes. It is watched over by a praetorian guard of chattering monkeys and surrounded by aging mine fields.
Beng Melea predates its showier cousin, Angkor Wat, by a century, and is believed to be the model on which Angkor was designed. It was the seat of Kmer culture for hundreds of years.
It's granite carved granite blocks are peppered with bullet holes from various wars, and because it is saturated with land mines it receives the fewest visitors of any temple in the nation.
My guide, Soukhouen, told me he had been there only two weeks prior with his wife and young son, having a picnic in what was considered to be a cleared zone. He said something was poking him in the rear, and when he stood up he realized he had been sitting on an anti tank mine, but simply did not weigh enough to trigger its detonation. He said this matter of fact with the calm acceptance of one who lives in a country full of buried death.
I spent the morning carefully wandering through this photographers dream, avoiding the skull and cross bone signs that designated mines, and in early afternoon I was standing on a jagged pile of carved granite, changing my camera's memory card when it slipped from my fingers, slid along the granite surface, and disappeared into the black depths of the ruins.
I stood frozen in disbelief at my own stupidity and clumsiness as two weeks of hard work went down the rabbit hole, but without hesitation Soukhouen went into action, yelling for me not to move while he ran off into the bush.
Within minutes people began to arrive, stepping out of the undergrowth, surrounding me, like apparitions in a horror movie. They were jungle people, both young and old, men and women, the color of ebony and tough as the land they occupied.
I was obviously an American, a country that tried to blow them off the map during our lifetime, but there was no animosity. They did not care who or what I was.
Soukhouen had put out the word on the jungle telegraph that a visitor needed help, so they came.
The men brought long thick tree branches and ropes handmade from jungle vines, commencing to tie and lift enormous granite blocks that weighed hundreds of pounds. The women brought burning incense and began to chant in a circle all around me. These people were Buddhist and this was the finest example of their belief, good works in action, instant karma, man helping fellow man in the most basic instinctual way.
The men labored for two hours under a brutal sun at a job that would have broken my back, and eventually moved enough blocks for a tiny man to slither into the depths where he said he could see my card but could not reach it, and at that moment I went from despair to elation.
I realized I was not meant to get my card back, and that now it was a time capsule, destined to be found long in the future when the temple might one day be restored and give up its secrets, including all my photos.
I asked Soukhouen how to thank these people and he told me to give each one a single U.S. dollar. When I protested this tiny amount for what they had done he told me it was the right thing to do as they had not labored for money and to give more would insult them.
The people lined up as I gave each one a dollar bill. All of them bowed to me, all clasped my hands, and a couple even cried, saying how sorry they were for failing to retrieve my card, even though I am sure not one of them knew what a photo card was.
But I had received a gift far more valuable than the card. I had seen people at their very best, and the kindness of strangers had given me a day I often prayed for on such a trip.
Soukhouen and I walked silently back to our vehicle, my mind intent on what I had just experienced. He put his arm around me, smiling, and softly said, "Cambodia."

J Dorsey

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