I have a thing about boats. I love them and water to an unreasonable degree and if you ever want me to do something I wouldn’t do normally (for instance, secluding myself on a tiny Cambodian beach with a Khmer boy I met thirty minutes ago), offer me a boat ride. I admit I had more than a second’s worth of doubt when we went down to the beach and he said, “Boat is gone. Wait here” and disappeared into the surrounding bushes. It was enough doubt that I began thinking about protecting my borrowed camera using my bike chain and padlock for self-defense.
As usual with my fantastical contingency imaginings, none of that was necessary. Seyha appeared around the half-submerged coconut bushes (the Cambodian vegetation equivalent of cattails) singing in Khmer and paddling a blue fishing skiff. I jumped in—and by jumped I mean gingerly perched on a seat he dusted off and conscientiously avoided the dead fish and green standing water on the boat’s floor. He pushed off and paddled us around pointing out landmarks and asking questions until, unable to bear how much I was imposing, I said I should probably go soon.
“Want to see my house?”
“Sure. Real quick on the way back.”
“Okay. Do you like singing?”
“I know three songs in English.”
He sang every one of them for me. And every one of them was a love ballad. He was embarrassed, I was embarrassed, and I firmly believe as I ever did that serenading is a painful experience. Especially when the serenadee suspects that the serenader is making up lyrics like “I miss you forever. I happy only singing to you.”
We went back to his place and I met his crotchety dog. He took me up to his room—the one he shares with his mom, two sisters and triples as their kitchen and living room. He urged me to walk slowly on the bamboo slats for the floor, since it was very breakable. I felt them creak under my American bulk.
Behind the stilts holding up the room was his schoolhouse—a small dry-erase board stained with blue marker and some wooden boards in the dirt for the kids to sit on. His teaching book is mashed almost into a newspaper roll it’s so well-used. I thanked him again for the boat ride and made sure I knew which way to take out of his driveway. He pointed but said he would go too.
Then he asked me for money.
“Maybe to pay one month of English school?”
I gave him five dollars, a quarter of what I had in my wallet, a quarter of what he needed, a fortune in Thai traveling expenses, a hamburger back in America, half of a hamburger in Korea. He biked me back to the red dusty road I’d come from. A minute after we parted ways I was closed back into the hub of tourists and temples.