It was on the dusty backroads in Cambodia’s Takeo Province that a well-travelled toy fish found its way to a new home. To get there, the little fish literally had to bridge a divide.
One morning, we packed our borrowed bikes’ baskets with bottles of water and a purple plush toy. The toy fish, with its big eyes and soft fur, had travelled with us for two months in our limited and cramped luggage space – from Germany, to Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and finally, Cambodia. For weeks, we had been waiting to find the perfect young recipient. This morning, we were sure we would find him or her on the provincial back roads. Eighty percent of Cambodians live in the rural provinces; ninety percent of Cambodia’s poor live in the rural provinces.
As we wove through the dusty back roads, we saw primary school children pedaling bicycles fitted for their parents or teenage siblings. They were not unlike the mammoth-sized bikes we’d seen other pint-sized children pedaling elsewhere throughout Cambodia. The girls’ uniform navy blue and black skirts flitted in the wind. They flashed smiles of epic proportions to us.
Dogs guarded their territory but usually approached us with wagging tails. Some adults led cream-colored thin cows through the fields. Others trimmed rice fields with a scythe, or gathered sticks. As the locals greeted us, they removed the kromas – a traditional Cambodian checked scarf – from their heads as a sign of respect.
We chanted Sua s’dei – one of two Khmer phrases we knew – to them. In response to this hello they smiled and stared. Each party was curious about the other but didn’t have the words to express themselves.
With the sun beating down upon us, we decided to make the broken bridge we had just happened upon our turn-around point. We were not certain what had happened to the bridge, which had collapsed over a now mostly-dry stream. Perhaps heavy water during the rainy season had caused it to buckle over.
Locals of all ages on the other side of the bank stared at us in a curious fashion. We exchanged smiles. A teenage boy walked down into the empty streambed, past the broken bridge and up the bank’s edge to approach us. He spoke limited English, but motioned to another intact bridge not far away from our current spot, encouraging us to come across. We thanked him, but tried to explain that we would be returning to our guesthouse.
As the boy started to cross back to the family’s side of the stream, we motioned for him to take the purple fish, which had been riding in my husband’s bike basket. The boy smiled and returned to the other side of the stream’s bank. When he’d reached his family members, he handed the well-travelled fish to one of the young girls. She and the other little ones smiled happily, the fish now the object of their attention, and scurried off towards home. Their elders continued to look at us intently and smile. They sent us off on our journey to our home away from home with kind waves.
The little fish had finally found its perfect home. It seems fitting that it had to bridge a divide in order to get there.