The wizened woman seated next to me on the bamboo mat erupted in laughter over the zipper on my fanny pack. Sah-at, she cooed, tugging at it. Sah-at, or "beautiful" in Khmer. Zipping, unzipping, re-zipping, she couldn't get enough.
I was in Poutang, a small village of the Pnong hill tribe on Cambodia's eastern frontier, wondering what on earth had brought me to trek two hours alone in the rain to get here.
The town was deserted, save for a handful of women and children left behind when the men farmed. The kids milled about with the grubby idleness familiar to a lot of poor, rural villages, while their mothers tended to bland-looking rice and vegetable brews. Even the dogs couldn't be bothered to bark.
This seemed more like a dead end than a destination. Then I realized, it's the zipper. I came for the zipper.
Like the Coke bottle delivered by crazy African gods, the object my new Pnong friend fawned over wasn't a paragon of modern engineering, say a mobile phone or a car (things she must have at least seen). It was your standard metal YKK-emblazoned zipper.
Whitcomb Judson invented the zipper in the nineteenth century. But in the mountains of Mondulkiri Province, only about 100 miles from the hedonistic excess of Phnom Penh, we were centuries back on the timeline of human invention.
The Pnong lifestyle is a decidedly simple one: There is no written language. No literature. No religion. No arts. No school. No electricity or running water. With only limited agriculture and yet a sustainable existence, this is survival at its barest.
Never straying from their perches in these sparsely populated hills, the Pnong dropped out of what often seems like a universal stream of human history long before any Copernican Revolution took place. What's left is a curious time warp at a moment when globalization elsewhere seems so irrepressible.
In the end, the reason I was questioning my choice to visit was precisely what had led me here. Villagers were just doing their thing, hanging out unfettered by the gimmicks and show of the tourist microscope. But, my god, it looked mind-wrenchingly dull.
It's mind-boggling when you casually sit down with someone who has such a fundamentally different frame of existence, one that stretches far beyond the urban-rural divide or the gap between developed and developing countries.
I couldn't help but check out my host - from her gummy, betel-stained smile to her well-groomed toenails - as she, too, gave me a physical inspection that stopped just short of an invasive strip search: pulling my bleached hair, grabbing the meat of my arms and providing a running commentary of her findings to the restless grandchildren hanging around. After the check-up, she just smiled and rubbed my right palm with her leathered hands.
In my mind questions begot more questions, though the answers never came. When your frame of reference is isolated to a 10-km radius of bare countryside, what do you talk about every day? How do you grapple with questions about the meaning of life? How do you do long division? Or don't you?
And of course the perennial: Given the hallmarks of "developed" society - things like X-Box, fine pastries, Van Gogh, work-related stress, serial killers and nukes - who is better off or "happier," the Pnong or us?
I couldn't imagine the effect it must have on a people secluded for generations to be thrust into contact with foreigners. While mine was hopefully the innocuous wandering of a thoughtful traveler, in the dry season tour groups regularly pass through the village on their way to elephant treks organized by guesthouses in the nearby provincial capital.
I bet most never stop and give the place a second look. It helps to have a zipper handy.
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Published on 9/1/04