The Adventure of the Veel Sry
by Hannah Warstler
My Khmer consists of three phrases.
Hello, how are you?
What’s your name?
Thank you very much!
Yep, that’s it. The girls at the Green Mango know much more English than I do Khmer, but our limited vocabularies make lengthy conversations difficult. So when Theangly asked me, “Do you wan go to Veel Sry?” I responded with a huge smile and an emphatic “Sure!” What is a Veel Sry you ask? I didn’t have a clue.
The girls had to finish their shift first, so I determined to find out what I’d committed myself to. “So, where are we going?” I asked. One of the girls ran to get LyPhalla, the assistant program administrator who is fluent in English, and she translated Veel Sry as “rice field.”
Yay, a rice field! Uh, what do you do at a rice field? I imagined a grassy knoll where we’d sit overlooking flooded, geometrical paddies as we picnicked and snapped photos of majestic white cranes. Or maybe “rice field” meant a fair-type market just outside of the urban center where teens go to socialize – the rural version of an American shopping mall.
I strapped on my bike helmet, teetered out onto the street, and joined the throng of girls (plus Brad) heading out of the city.
After a 30-minute bike ride along the highway, through a schoolyard filled with shrieking children, down a dirt road and through a flock of scrawny chickens, the road became completely impassable via bicycle. We left our trusty, rusty steeds at an aunt’s house (apparently) and walked back onto the path.
Houses on stilts and banana trees were all around us. I felt like I’d just stepped into The Jungle Book – the Cambodian version, without the hypnotic snakes or man-eating tigers, of course. We followed the path as it twisted and turned, hopping over (or, in my case, slipping into) the mud puddles on the road. Finally, we turned a corner, and ta-da! The scenic picnic hill! The colorful village fair! Nope – turns out “rice field” means… a rice field.
Miles of flat, swampy land stretched as far as I could see – rice paddies. No rice yet, for the rainy season has just started, but the girls knew what they were looking for. Theangly kicked off her shoes and hopped into the shin-deep water. She eyed the surface intently, like a grizzly hunting salmon. Splish! Theangly plucked something out of the muddy puddle and placed it carefully in my hand. Aha!! “Rice field” is code for escargot.
Our search resulted in a handful of snails, the clippings of some edible plants, and a few furtively harvested bamboo shoots. On the walk back the girls offered us some dried mango and spicy rice paper to eat along the way. Theangly, a budding videographer, captured all our smiles and laughs as we enjoyed the sweet-and-spicy snack together.
A picnic or fair would’ve been fun, but I have a suspicion that neither could’ve been as delightfully charming as our time spent with the girls that afternoon. As I learned that day, the most memorable – and rewarding – adventures involve the unexpected.
When we got back to the Green Mango later that day, the evening shift invited Brad and I to go to the “zoo park.” Did I know what a “zoo park” was? Absolutely not. Did I say “yes” to going? You better believe it!