The serene city of Battambang, Cambodia was quickly fading in the rearview mirror of our $8 motorbike rental. Janna and I took turns randomly shouting “left, right, straight!”, reveling in our quest for the apex of authenticity and charm sure to be at the end of an “undiscovered” dirt road. I imagined simple shaded platforms, hammocks overlooking an idyllic lake, delicious food, and cold drinks.
After a brief stop to hold baby crocodiles and watch grown crocs fight over decaying snakes, we set out for the countryside. Narrow roads took us on a hot, dusty journey where busy markets and hotels gave way to homes selling items from their yards and rice paddies reflecting the cloudless sky. I glanced back at Janna and gave the international signal for “let’s get some beer”. She nodded earnestly, but the previously ubiquitous red Angkor signs were nowhere to be seen.
Sometime later, we spotted a small red sign in front of an unkempt shack. Not quite our hoped for hidden gem, but I parked and cheerfully called into the darkness. A mostly naked man emerged slowly tying on a dirty sarong. He eyed us incredulously as we pointed toward the sign and mimed drinking. “Two Angkor beer please,” I said in Khmer, one of the few phrases I knew along with “thank you”, “sorry” and, “hello, how are you.”
“No Angkor,” he huffed, but after rummaging in an old cooler came up with two lukewarm cans of a beer we had never seen before or since. He handed us these in exchange for $1 and stumbled back inside.
We stood in the brutal sun sipping already warming beers. Sweat streamed from every pore while our dream of paradise wilted. Then we heard a call from the home across the street where a few smiling women waved us over.
As we walked towards the small wooden house, an old woman creakily got up from her seat and waddled over to a chair just vacated by a younger woman. I watched the strange game of musical chairs until I realized they were making room for us on a bench. We protested meekly but allowed ourselves to be guided down. It was 20 degrees cooler in the shade and I felt a bit of life seep back into my body.
At first I was wary, conscious that we had just bought something from a neighbor, perhaps a competitor. Yet as the minutes passed I realized they had offered their home and shade to us for no reason other than kindness. This thoughtfulness toward strangers was unexpected and touching. Our languages were different but a camaraderie quickly developed through smiles and knowing nods.
I had found my diamond in the rough: not in a scenic photo-op to share online, but in a wordless connection in the cool shade of unconditional hospitality.