Encounter in Angkor Wat
Every morning when I sit down to write, Microsoft surprises me with a different screensaver: a glacial lake in Southern Chile, a mountain village in Northeast China, a crowded pedestrian crossing in Tokyo or the rolling green landscape of Wales.
This morning, I immediately recognized the building on my screen. Gracefully arched stone rectangles, a curved sloping roof and tiered stupas, all reflected in a pond with lotus flowers and water lilies. It was the same photo I took at Angkor Wat during my first visit in the mid-nineties.
At the time there were few visitors, and I was practically by myself. I had walked for hours admiring the temple complex, until I came upon a courtyard where the roots of the trees had grown so rampantly they held the stone walls in their grip. Vines hung low and blocked out most of the sunlight.
In the half dark of the vines, I suddenly saw a man with a dishevelled beige shirt sitting on a tree root, smoking a cigarette. His right arm was cut off below the elbow; he must have been one of the thousands of Cambodians who lost a limb because of the many landmines in the region.
He looked up and stared at me, then a glimmer appeared in his eyes. He gestured towards my right arm, which also misses a hand because of a birth defect, and then pointed at his own amputated arm. He smiled broadly while he tapped on the tree root, beckoning me to sit next to him.
He handed me his cigarette. I took a drag even though I don’t smoke. The sweet and pungent tobacco stung my throat, but I relished the burning sensation, a memento of our encounter imprinted within me.
Did my newfound friend lose his hand a long time ago or was it a recent accident? Did having only one hand keep him from finding work? And if so, how did he survive? Or was his beige shirt the uniform of amputee workers here at Angkor Wat?
He didn’t know more about me than that I was a foreign tourist, someone with enough money to travel to faraway places.
Still, it felt completely natural that we would sit together sharing a smoke on the root of a tree in a 12th-century Buddhist temple.
When the cigarette had become a tiny stub, he put it out with his foot and covered it with earth. Then he stood up, patted my shoulder and slowly walked away, his empty right sleeve fluttering with each step.
Not a word was spoken between us, and even if we could have communicated in a common language, there was no need for that.