This is the image I haven’t been able to get out of my head:
There’s an instrument called tro. It’s kind of like a violin. It’s a traditional Khmer instrument and you hold it low, down by its belly, and you work the strings with your other hand, across your chest or near your neck, like you’re sawing something.
There’s a whole history to it—it being destroyed during the Khmer Rouge time, famous musicians being killed, one surviving, unearthing the one he’d buried in the field before he’d been evacuated, it being one of the only tros to survive, the musician later founding a non-profit to teach the next generation, pass on what was nearly gone and almost died.
There’s a lot of stories like that in Cambodia; you hear so many you start to confuse them, get the facts mixed up and the characters wrong, until it becomes one big story that no one, it seems, can keep straight. But somehow blind men were involved in this one—were they blinded during the KR or later by landmines? Or were they born that way? I never figured that part out. But there were blind men that played the tro, that much I know, and you’d see them in the streets of Phnom Penh, and that’s the image I can’t get out of my head.
The tro players would always be older, battered-looking—the old generation, the 40+ers that had lived through the KR. They’d be walking as they played, being led around through the chaos of the motorbikes and tuk-tuks and vendors on the sidewalk and the busted-up places that were supposed to be sidewalks but were really just rubble—being led by a child, 10 or 11 or so, what was called “the new generation.” The kid would have their palm open, upturned, begging for the musician whose hands were occupied, seeing for eyes that were clouded by a perpetual mist.
But that wasn’t the weird part, the part that has lodged itself in my mind and keeps reappearing. The thing I keep thinking about is the string. There’d be a string tied around the tro player’s waist, and the kid would be holding the string, leading the blind old man like a pet through the streets—though you didn’t know who was whose pet, and how much of it was for show, for pity, for dollars.
The young leading the blind: it would have been a metaphor anywhere else. But this was Cambodia, Phnom Penh, so it was reality, just another scene on the street.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez hated the term “magical realism.” It was, to him, inaccurate, a term applied by outsiders, that dripped with misunderstanding and European paternalism. To him, what he wrote was realism, plain and simple—the so-called “magical” part was just a part of reality for Latin Americans, or Colombians at least.
Why do I think of this now? Why can’t I get the image of a lassoed blind man playing a near-extinct instrument out of my mind? Why did the image only begin recurring once I’d left, was in Laos, and why did I keep thinking of it and thinking of it, once I was back in the States?
Why didn’t it strike me as so bizarre in the moment?—not necessarily normal, in the sense of normal that I know, but as just another happening on the sidewalk, another sight to block out, filter out, shake my head to and keep my eyes straight and mutter “ot tey” to.
I’ve been trying to explain Cambodia and Phnom Penh to people. They ask me how my trip was, how my time there was, and my immediate answer—and the one that seems the truest—is, “Bizarre.” But I can’t really explain why it was bizarre, make any insightful statements or overarching cultural observations. All I can do is present a handful of images, anecdotes, the way they were presented to me—at random, shoved in my face so that all I could do was block them out, file them away to think about later and still not understand: children huffing from plastic bags, and monkeys running across the telephone wires, and the cross and uncross of the karaoke girls’ legs. The tro players and their milky eyes, the children and their upturned palms—but most of all the string.