“Oh no, chili…” all three of the guides were looking at my hands. They had just asked me to put some red chili’s into the bamboo we were using to cook lunch in, I had chili all over my hands. It was a little alarming seeing the worry in their eyes, they immediately washed my hands with a long tube of bamboo they had just cut to carry water from the river. I didn’t know there was any problem with getting chili juice or seeds on my hands and I wondered what the problem was. It stung a little bit when it touched the little cuts on my hands from the first day and night in the jungle but it wasn’t a big deal.
I’ve spent a lot of time while traveling just being confused and wondering what people were saying or why they were reacting in the ways they were. I’ve spent most of my time with people in groups that English was not the dominant language so I would be lucky to have the courtesy of having the group use a language that didn’t come as naturally just so I would understand. Many times I just try to listen intently to pick up little things I understand, a word that had a parallel in English or body language that explained the kind of interaction taking place. It doesn’t always help much. This time however I began to understand what the alarm with the chili was all about rather easily, it took about half an hour to start seeing my skin go red anywhere that I had touched after touching the chili’s, an hour after It was burning to the point where I was worried I was having an allergic reaction that would close my airway. It was hard to think the feeling of heat and pain was very consuming of my attention. I ate lunch but I couldn’t tell if I was full or if the food was spicy, it was hard to be aware of things so subtle compared to the weird burning on my stomach, hands, and side.
It subsided everywhere except my hands by the time we crossed the river and headed for the home stay. The pain grew until I lost feeling in my fingers even though there was no visible sign of injury, even the redness was gone. It wasn’t horrible, it hurt but it didn’t seem like it was causing any lasting damage so I could try to ignore it without letting myself be scared.
When we arrived at the home stay the guide who had taken a liking to me put his arm around me and led me over to one of the little huts on stilts ” Me, you sleep here tonight” he said with apparent relish of the idea. I was confused why he would want to sleep just him and I in the bungalow. He had been handsy with me the whole trek but not in an uncomfortable way, it was just an uninhibited way. The way I’d imagine guys would touch each other back home if there wasn’t so much fear of appearing gay or un-masculine. Even when he introduced himself he just held onto my hand gently and looked at me in such a genuine way, he didn’t seem to feel any awkwardness about it. I really hoped it was just in a buddy sort of way, I think its a shame that touch between guys back home has to only be in “manly” ways like patting someone on the back or giving a firm handshake. This little native we called Mowgli seemed more a man than most of the people back home while still touching gently and staring unabashed. Its hard not to enjoy seeing someone so free.
The families compound had one big building with a raised eating and sleeping area and a ground level area for a couple motorbikes and the tools a family living on the edge of the jungle would need. They gave us a few hours to relax, swim in the river and get settled before dinner was served. We were ushered onto the raised platform to join the family there, there were people of all ages sitting around bowls of rice or tucked away behind the eating area so they could watch and listen to the evenings events. I sat closest to the father of the family and his wife, if there were a table they would be sitting at the head of it. I took several bites before eating something very spicy and not being able to eat for 10 minutes, no one else seemed to run into any spice at all in the meal. It was a simple meal of rice and a sort of pork stew. I finished my first bowl after bearing through the spice only to have Mowgli and the women around me peer pressure me into more. “More rice, enjoy” they kept repeating. We had joined with another tour group for the evening and one of the guys spoke Khmer. He was gracious enough to translate some of the conversation and give some background.
He told me that when the Khmer family that he lived with had someone over for dinner they would comment not on the quality of the conversation but on how much rice they ate, he said it was like a sign of the amount that they enjoyed their stay. It had a greater meaning than simply enjoying the food. I decided since I did not have the words to say I enjoyed their company or the experience I would eat a lot of rice. Some of the group had bought beer from the shop a couple kilometers away and most of us had a beer with the food. I took a beer but noticed the father of the family didn’t have one so I gave him mine, he naturally tried to give it back but I insisted he should have it. I really didn’t know if it was polite or pushy to give him something that he may or may not enjoy but in those situations I usually figure its safer to try and offer a gift even if its unclear whether or not its the right kind of gift.
Pretty soon the famous rice wine was brought out in a large ceramic jug with a long wooden straw in it. Mowgli put his arm around me and explained that we would drink together, we would each have one cup of rice wine. It sounded like a lot to me, the only kind of rice wine I had before that evening was said to be 60 percent alcohol and was sold like moonshine in old plastic water bottles. He took the straw and drank as long as he could before handing it to me. I drank and found it to be less intense than the rice wine I had tried before, it had a vinegar sort of taste. It was not an unpleasant flavor. We drank a long time, each time we stopped someone would say “One more cup” and we would try to drink what seemed like a cup. We finally passed it on to the next pair for them to enjoy.
I learned some very interesting things while we all sat around chatting, drinking and laughing. I learned that the frog I had eaten the night before was poisonous and one of the guides was nearly blind in one eye after catching a frog that squirted its poison into that eye, I really need to be more careful with what I touch. I also learned that the buddy culture is very intense in Cambodia, guys can be very close and they aren’t afraid to show it physically. They hug and walk with their arms around each other, they sleep in the same bed and its all very normal. I was relieved to hear this since Mowgli had been reassuring me throughout the whole evening that he would come to sleep with me that evening in my bamboo hut.
Finally the festivities started to slow down as a few people drifted off to bed, it was still early but Cambodians seem to get up early and go to bed shortly after dark so it was getting late by their standards. I was getting a little worried that I would not feel very good in the morning if I continued to drink, I didn’t realize then but the longer you drink out of the jug the weaker the solution gets. They pour water in and that mixes with the alcohol already in the jug so after a while its mostly water.
Mowgli brought another bowl of rice and one more bowl of stew for the few still left chatting. We ate more rice together, and I was told that Mowgli was explaining how much he enjoyed drinking and being with everyone. He seemed so content, it didn’t look like he required many things to feel happy. I enjoyed watching the men talk and eat chunks of rice as we sat in a close circle together. I was very hesitant to go to bed after such a lovely evening but I finally stood up and said goodnight and thanked everyone for the evening. I was expecting Mowgli to come with me but he stayed and in a few minutes I was laying in bed wondering how I could possible consume so much rice in one day.