Travelogue: Bong Roy, the tuk tuk driver in Kampot, Cambodia
We munched on our shared sandwich, missing the delicious pork dumplings we had from a Chinese stall we ate at yesterday. "Why don't I scoot over real quick and get us some dumplings for our bus ride later," I suggested to Clare. We were in Kampot, Cambodia, a laidback riverside town, and we were about to head back to Sihanoukville by bus. I had a 40 minute window to get the dumplings before our bus came.
I don't know why, but it was harder finding a tuk tuk alone than when Clare and I were walking down the streets together. I guess when I walked alone I just blended more as a local. I trotted down by the river in the scorching heat for a good 10 minutes, half thinking I won't quite make it back in time, when a tuk tuk quickly drove toward me. I flagged it down. "You've got change? Cos' I only have a twenty-dollar bill with me." The driver quickly checked his wads of cash in his wallet: "Yeah, I do, get on." And that was how I got to know Bong Roy, the tuk tuk driver.
Roy drove me to Ecran Noodles, where Clare and I got our dumplings the previous day. But the store was closed, and I asked if we could head quickly to another restaurant for me to take away some pancakes before he drove me back to my hotel. While waiting for my pancakes, I started talking to Roy. I forgot what topic I started the conversation with, but we quickly went into the political landscape in Cambodia and his views on the current leadership and the upcoming elections. Roy shared with me that he felt the current government was 'incompetent', only caring to serve themselves and not the masses. He vented his frustrations, talking about how Cambodia had the resources to do well but its government was seeing its potential go to waste.
"Singapore has good government, Lee Kuan Yew good. Singapore had nothing, no water, nothing, yet now you are dragon in Asia. Cambodia has everything, but we are not as good as Singapore." Roy's anger, frustration and helplessness were palpable, and I was mesmerised by how personally invested he was in his country's affairs. In my everyday conversations with Singaporeans around my age, it normally takes a while before we get to see how much politics affects each of our lives. Even then, we are generally not politically active or politically conscious in our daily acts of conversing, being more caught up with issues that arise within our immediate spheres of concern, such as school work, office chores or household errands to run. (Of course these are just generalisations.)
With Roy however, I saw how Cambodian and regional politics weren't merely politics that the very elite were enmeshed in. Instead, the policies and laws that trickle down from such 'elite play' were very much affecting the lives of ordinary citizens like Roy. The gravity of the situation weighed on his shoulders, accentuating his daily struggles to earn a livelihood for himself and his family. Roy started to tear as he spoke, and I along with him.
There was Helplessness there, yes, but what struck me next was how Roy chose to focus on "What's Next", refusing to let Helplessness be the end of the situation. His tears added to the steel glint in his gaze as he shared with conviction his hopes and dreams for Cambodia. He said he strongly believed in Khem Veasna, President of the League of Democratic Party (LDP). He shared with pride his advocacy for Veasna and his membership within the party: "We need a leader like Khem Veasna, someone who cares for the people and has the heart to improve constitutional and legislative processes within the government", before sharing with me Veasna's proposed "Eight Point Mechanism" that Veasna declared would make the government more accountable to its people.
"Khem Veasna said if he doesn't win the election, he will buy an island for all Cambodians to live on," Roy continued. "People say he's crazy, but it really shows he cares for us."
At that point my pancakes came, and I got on the tuk tuk deep in thought as Roy drove me back to my hotel. I wanted to tell Roy that everything will be okay and his life will get better, but those sounded like words without substance if there was little or no concrete progress to show for it, or if he himself felt that things were stagnant. Also who was I, as a temporary tourist passing through, to judge his country's current state of affairs or declare where his life will head towards?
After getting off, I turned to Roy: "Roy, could I ask you one question? If you could do anything you wanted, what will it be?" I was as convicted as Roy in wanting to shift our focus on what we could do in our personal capacities and not be bogged down by narratives/stories of scarcity or resignation.
Without hesitation, Roy replied: "I want to go to New Zealand, work, and build a house for my mum and me." He paused. "Do you see this?" He showed me the head of his motorcycle. On it are the words "I miss u brother". "My brother passed away 6 months ago. Now I need to be at home to take care of my mother." I felt a lump in my throat. I could imagine how hard it had to be in needing and wanting to spend more time working to earn more money and hopefully achieve a better life for his family, yet at the same time making sure his mother was well taken care of.
At this point when Roy opened up to me and allowed me to enter his space of vulnerability, I was so humbled and touched by the trust he placed in me to share something so personal about himself with me. "I believe I can [fulfil my dream in New Zealand]. We only have 50, 60 years to live, we cannot live forever. We have to make what we do when we are alive count. We won't live forever, but our work can live forever."
In a short span of 20 minutes, I learned so much from this individual. It began as an unsuspecting/innocent functional exchange between tuk tuk driver and passenger, but it developed into something much deeper, uncovering its little nuggets of wisdom that I still cherish today and will carry with me on my personal journey of challenge and growth.
A deep connection was established in that 20 minutes, and as I hugged Roy and bade him farewell, I silently wished him well and thanked him for inspiring me with his strong conviction, clear vision and resilient belief that we all deserve better, that we all should do our part in creating that 'something better' for ourselves.
No matter what roles we identify ourselves with or what we label others as, we all have complex and intricate stories to share. We can learn so much from each other, regardless of who we are. Diversity or difference can be used an excuse to avoid, exclude and divide, resulting in wasted potential for mutual learning and improvement. Cambodia and Singapore are so different in terms of landscape, culture, language, food etc., but the common threads we share among us, that which we cannot deny, are our shared humanity and universal spirit of love and resilience.
If I had entered my interaction with Roy being stuck to my role as passenger (and if he had done the same and just regarded himself as a driver who was tasked to fetch me to a specific destination), the exchange we had would not have happened. Trust is the willingness to create common space. Particularly, my trust in him was a conscious choice on my part. I was aware that I was alone and feeling slightly vulnerable without my travel companion Clare beside me, that I was slightly uncomfortable talking to a stranger and susceptible to anything bad that could happen to me. Yet I chose to let that go, and with that, created space for more positive things to come in. I chose to trust Roy and opened myself up to whatever he had to share with me without judging him, while he trusted me and shared his thoughts and feelings without reservation.
The choice to trust and connect presents itself in every moment of our lives, in every nook and cranny of the spaces we inhabit or we wish to inhabit and share with others. It is not a passive entity, it is not a given. It requires conscious work on our part, of our ability to look into what our mind, heart and gut are telling us before we make an informed choice to act or respond.
What are your personal stories on trust? Are you choosing 'in' or 'out'? Is your choice a wise one i.e. does it benefit you and the other? What are your true thoughts/feelings behind your choice to trust or not trust someone?
I'm in the works of crafting more posts on the other interactions I had with other Cambodians during this trip, and would really love to hear your thoughts. :)