I’m Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, sleek, lithe and dangerous as I race through the magnificent ruin that is Ta Prohm. My quarry – an elusive Cambodian girl who flickers in and out of the sinister doorways that surround me. She appears for an instant to point me to this tree.
Here. I find the jasmine I’m seeking. I turn and the girl has disappeared, then the earth opens beneath me and I drop into a …
"Got it!" Q exclaims as the camera shutter snaps. I blink. My faithful sidekick stands beside me and Q is talking again. "It's a good shot," he says, returning the camera.
“What is this tree,” I ask, pointing to the writhing roots that surround me. It’s hard to avoid writerly excess when describing these trees. Suffice it to say, I’m imagining that if I am unwary, they will wrap, serpent-like, around my neck and body and I’ll remain here for all time.
“It’s called silk-cotton tree, or kapok in English. In Cambodian we call it ‘sprung’.”
Q nodded,” Yes, that’s the sound it makes when you whack the trunk. The sound carries very far. You can use it if you are lost in the jungle. Someone will hear and rescue you.”
We murmured politely that no apologies were necessary, although his accent was difficult to follow occasionally.
As if reading my mind, he continued, “When the Khmer Rouge were finally defeated and we were allowed to go back to school in 1980, it was forbidden to teach English. The only other languages that could be taught were Vietnamese and Russian. Teachers who taught English were punished. So, if we wanted to learn it we had to go secretly to a house. The location kept moving, because if we were caught–” He spread his hands expressively. “So we learned only in patches and never from a native English speaker, only Cambodians. So I know my accent is all wrong. But I am trying to improve. Please correct me if I mispronounce things.”
“And tomorrow, I will tell you more of my story,” he promised.
Coming up next: Rubber and Rats.
Photos: R. Marion (except for the one of the two of us, taken by Q)