After finishing First they Killed My Father, I knew it was both my responsibility and my interest to visit the s21 Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields. I got a bus up to Phnom Penh, found a cafe to charge my phone up, checked in with some friends over wireless, and got a tuk tuk to the museum. It was surreal. Sitting in a quaint high school courtyard, where children would have played during every lunchtime, staring at rows of classrooms not dissimilar to the indoor-outdoor style I grew up with I’m Australia.
But it wasn’t a school. It became a torture chamber in the 70s.
After walking out of a gallery that displayed Khmer cadre uniforms, I walked past a little old man and a lot of books. Stopping to read the sign, I learnd that he was a Survivor. Pointing from photo to man, I asked if it was him and he nodded. His translator explained to me that he survived S-21 (only 7 people survived, and only 2 still live) but his wife was killed. He wrote a book to tell his story. Assured that he would get all the money, I dug around in my purse to find $10 and buy a copy to support him but my wallet was gone.
Now anyone who knows me knows how often I “lose something” only to find it buried under something else the whole time, so I kept my calm and told them I needed to go look for my wallet. Not in my bag, not in the restroom, not in any of the museum buildings, and not turned into the front gate security guards… It was definitely gone this time.
A young Khmer boy offered to help me look. At first, I wasn’t sure if he had just taken it from me himself and wanted a reward when he “found it”… but after an hour of his company I actually realized he was the reason that losing my wallet was the best thing to happen to me that week. I told him he could have a reward if we found it, but even after he even searched the grass (“if it’s a green wallet and the grass is green, it may be hidden Miss.”), it didn’t turn up. We sat side by side on a bench and I told him how I was brought up to believe you would have a lucky month if you say “rabbit rabbit rabbit” first thing on the first day. Because it was Nov 1 and I had forgotten, I thought I had bad luck. He then said:
“In my culture, we have a belief that it is good luck to lose your wallet or money. This is just stuff. If you lose stuff, you do not lose your life. It is better to lose stuff and remember you do not lose your life.”
Sitting outside of a torture chamber as a fifteen year old boy imparted wisdom onto what I thought was bad luck, the air seemed to still. I got the chills and everything around me both stopped and spun at the same time.
He soon got up and beckoned for me to follow (with a downturned Cambodiam wave), and continued to look around even though it was not necessary to find the wallet. Instead, we seemed to be looking in every trash can and under every bench for the reason behind our newfound friendship and not the lost item itself. He stopped to pray for a shrine, he encouraged me to check every building even though ” normally Building C scares me but I will go in if you go with me”, and he told me about starting school on Momday and selling souvenirs from a basket before then.
He was right, the wallet is “just stuff.”
I never made it to the Killing Fields, but I did spend two hours at S-21 with a boy I will never forget.