Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

An old Khmer woman, and I looking in

January 16, 2012

Story By Aly Heare

I step into the welcoming gateway of a Cambodian Buddhist temple in An Gaing province and my breath is taken away. This is not the first temple we have visited yet the beauty of the architecture and the spirit of the place affects me every time. In other words, it never gets old. My path in unguided so I meander through the ornate rooms dedicated to worship and thanks, with wide eyes I try to absorb every detail of the people giving prayers to their god(s).

But my religious stupor is short lived due to the worst tourist trap we have experienced thus far, a bird trap. You can buy the freedom of a swallow from a plastic mesh bag, but the catch 22 is that the seller will just trap it again the next day. It is a revolving cycle of rip offs, Avery (of course) falls for it.

With the temple behind us and a few freed birds circling over our heads we start our ascent of Mt. Sam, the tallest geographical feature in the Mekong Delta. The stairway is steep and winding through locals casas and hammock shops. I peak into their doorways and see their lives inside, what we call back in the states window creeping. The air is being sucked into my lungs at a rapid rate and my heart has gained a stronger beat. It’s not a mountain by Montana standards but it is producing the symptoms. Every step up I take the view improves. I can soon see into both Vietnam and Cambodia, with the border consisting of a large canal. But the geography does not change; rice fields stretch out in either direction as far as the eye can see.

I make it to the top, with my heart pounding in my ears. Then the view hits me, my breath is taken from my alveoli. Its stunning. But my worship is again stained by a tourist trap shooting range coupled with the birds at the peak of this magical mountain. We descend down another way, the roadway that it. I wonder how this mountain survived while the rest of the Mekong was washed flat thousands of years ago? No matter its origins it stands strong and stable now making me miss the protective mountains that surround our valleys back home. I must remind myself of the here and now, soak it all in. I come back to my present surrounding and move on with the adventure that every day in Vietnam provides.

We load up into the dreaded van and drive a short ways down the degrading road into an ethnic Khmer village that lies near the border we just witnessed from the top of the mountain, the Vietnam and Cambodian border. We are welcomed into the home of an older women with hands that weave magic, magic being beautiful hand woven scarves from the finest of silks. Her magic incorporates fine silk thread into a masterpiece, dying the thread with a preconceived pattern in mind then weaving and layering the weaves into a breathtaking masterpiece. (As you may have noticed, my breath has been taken quite a few times today, but that is Vietnam for you.) The mechanics of the craft still jumble my mind but the one thing I grasp onto with an unbroken certainty is the end beauty. The beauty of not only the scarf but the beauty of the women who spend their lives in the quest to make something magical. Something that can bring a smile to others, and their quest was fulfilled when a smile broke through my lips.

The beauty of their craft stood in a rough contrast to their living conditions. The woman’s loom stood a half room away from the livestock’s pen. She weaved by the light of a single fluorescent light bulb, working on her quest for beauty for up to twelve hours a day. Flies encircled the children and water was collected by a pulley system of buckets from the community well. It was the poorest community we had visited throughout the whole trip.
I may be on the outside looking in, but at least I am looking. And through my sight I have seen the flesh and blood of the people on the other side of the planet, giving the word globalization a whole new meaning and I realized we are all in this together, including the old Khmer woman and I.

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