I always have a moment, while visiting our work in rural Cambodian villages, when I think, "I would love to live here."
Then I realize there's no indoor plumbing, little electricity, and no refrigerators, and I amend that to something along the lines of, "I'm so glad to be visiting today."
Yesterday, I wandered around a picturesque village in Kampong Cham province with several of our staff, field testing survey questions. The sky was a clear blue, the trees have turned green after the recent rains, and the dirt road was a rusty red. Small houses stood amidst palm trees, in clearings where the forest had been cut back for people to make their homes.
As we walked, I marveled at life in this small community, the hushed feel of the streets beneath the canopy of green, the stares of children as they passed on their bicycles, even the hum and swish of the cows as they walked past. It seemed to be an ideal place to live, and for a few moments made me wish I could capture something of that peace in my own neighborhood.
Until we spoke with some of the villagers.
The first woman we met answered survey questions about the social networks in the village. "People here don't really trust each other," she told us.
Then we went to survey some children, and tried to speak with a six-year-old in her home. The smell of brewing rice wine drifted up from the distillery underneath the house. It was clear that several of the men working on the wine had sampled their own brew. It was 10 a.m.
When the little girl couldn't answer our questions—which was the point of our field test—we moved on. We found a house with a little boy who was willing to participate and the staff interviewed him while I hung back with the translator and another visitor. We quickly realized that too many white faces were doing more harm than good. This also gave us a good view of the drama that was about to play out when a man stumbled into the yard, obviously drunk, and began to wash his feet with water from the well. He bumbled his way around, lighting a cigarette and eventually shouting "AIDS! AIDS! AIDS!" as well as some other nonsensical words. Finally, an older woman dressed only in her shower sarong came to ask us to please leave; the man wasn't happy that we were doing a survey in his house, and as he was the head of the family, we needed to go. If we stayed longer, she told us, he would grow belligerent and possibly destructive.
It was a startling trip, with so much imperfection juxtaposed with what is a seemingly quiet place. Rural poverty is like that. It's easy to look at these villages and see a pastoral setting that is only in need of modernization. But there's so much more going on beneath the surface. In contrast to the gritty reality of urban poverty and struggle, rural need looks easy, simple, even quaint. It can seem much like a visit to a "historical village" where one can marvel at antique technology and the progress we've made to get to where we are now. As I was reminded today, it's not a sightseeing tour or a trip into the past. People in these villages have real struggles and real temptations, the same as in any major city. The settings may look different, but people and their needs are remarkably consistent.