Have you ever been an immigrant construction worker? The last two weeks of February, I was the supervisor of the dump trucks at a construction site for an NGO in Battambang, Cambodia. This is much less prestigious than it may sound. A supervisor’s job is to count dump trucks and make sure no dirt gets stolen.
In a country that is flooded for half of the year, soil is often stolen to build homes on low flat lands and old rice patties. Construction is a process that requires close supervision.
When you hire a company to move dirt in Cambodia, it is standard practice to have two pairs of supervisors at the site where the dirt is picked up and where it is dropped off. One pair is from the trucking company; one is from whatever organization hired them out. When a truck loads with dirt and prepares to drive to the dump-site, each pick-up site supervisor gives each truck a numbered ticket and keeps a matching ticket. When the driver drops off the load, he gives the ticket to the supervisor on that side. At lunch break and at day’s end, all the supervisors get together to compare records.
The other ticket-takers were Khmer. They spoke Khmer. I speaka the English. After the first day of gesturing, pointing, and shrugging, one of them said to me, “I know how speak English. This is Cambodia. You speak Cambodian.”
I understand that the few adults who survive in Cambodia have lived through hell. Why should they not hate a foreign caucasian? Still, I resolved to try to convey to them that I was at least not a terrible person.
I asked a friend how to say a few things in Khmer like, “How are you, Sir?” But, most importantly, I learned how to say, “I am only here in Cambodia for two weeks. Khmer, little bit.” That phrase was very disarming. I was willing to step out and botch a few tonal phrases, and it went a long way. By the end of the two weeks, we were talking, signing and writing to communicate.
Another thing that was helpful was language lessons from a whole gang of kids. They would quiz me daily on numbers from 1-300, which helped with the process of counting trucks. Their company made the hours seem like seconds.
This is Fin. It is an interesting thing to pass a 100-degree twelve-hour day that seems like an eternity with a kid whose name means “end” in Spanish. He is quite the fellow.
This is Bop. His name is the international sound effect that kids make when punching each other. You see here he is getting served according to his name.
I joined a gang. The land all around the construction site is inhabited by squatters. Their kids roam about and play in the mud and get in to trouble. This made for extremely good company.
Every day, like clockwork, the kids would roll in. We would sit in the dirt together and pass the time as big trucks rolled past hundreds of times, kicking up dust.
Sometimes, the kids would grab a slingshot and shoot down bananas or mangos from the trees near by. This helped to take the edge off the hunger. For me, it was a unique two weeks, for these people it is their life. The hunger that gnawed at me inside was a visitor. Maybe this hunger resides in these people.
It is an interesting thing to hang out with ten people that you can’t speak with. When the kids would gather daily moral was high, and verbal communication was low. I would bring a notebook, and between counting trucks, we’d scribble and scrawl pictures and make gestures, attempting to pronounce words in each other’s languages.
We played countless games, trying to explain them in pigeon sign language. The easiest games to gesture out were a thousand variations of throwing rocks. Dirt and trash are great ways to pass time.
One suggested caption for this photo that Bop snapped is, “Immense enjoyment of a meteor strike.”
The truck you see in the background is from Thailand. The driver’s side is opposite to the Cambodian trucks. It took a little while to remember which of the ten trucks were piloted from the right and which ones from the left. All the while, they were dumping and the bulldozers grading. The machines rumbled on, a soundtrack to our gang’s games.
One night, a big flatbed truck arrived from China, carrying a brand new ten million dollar grading machine. Bop took this picture, which is good enough to prompt the story.
For an entire afternoon the fancy people were arguing about road rights and passage fees, so the trucks were at a halt. The guy operating the grading machine waved me over. He gestured that I should drive. I am not the best at manual transmissions, but I was thrilled at the idea. When I had completed the first pass of the lot, I put in the clutch and tapped the brake near the pond and rolled to a stop. I shifted in to reverse–so i thought–and looked at the driver, who was perched to my left. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up. I released the break and the whole machine lurched forward. I stomped on the pedals and stopped the machine from plummeting in to the water. The driver exploded in laughter. He had known all along that I had selected the wrong gear. We laughed, I tried again. Once I had the hang of it, he jumped out and lounged in the shade of one of the three remaining trees while i graded the lot.
Each day, after the sun would complete its arc and slip down the sky at our backs, we would pedal our bikes back to town in various states of hunger and dehydration. Each day was an opportunity to easily waste twelve hours or sit shyly behind a language barrier; each day became a unique adventure.