A Fruitful Connection

posted by Kristy Densmore

I was an American in a foreign land. As I walked into the market, native eyes were attracted to me like magnets on steel.

I began exploring the outer parameters, filled with exotic fruits in a rainbow of colors. I felt eased with the massive amounts of green and yellow bananas. Bushels hung from string from the tops of stands. Mounds piled higher than my midsection covered the ground right in front of endless rows of motorbikes, parallel to the market.

Sellers mounded yellow, thorn-covered durians at the front of their stalls. I heard about Cambodia’s foul smelling “king” fruit back in the States, so I made a mental note to pick one up on the way out.

As I continued into the market, I felt out of my element.

I was excited to see the food before arriving, halfway expecting something comparable to a farmers market I attend each week in the United States. With a common western mindset, I thought I knew it all.

I was wrong.

For one of the first times in my life, I was at a disadvantage. Food, a basic necessity of life, no longer seemed like a uniting factor between the Khmer people and me. I could not speak their language through words or substance. I had to rely on abstract visual communication to inquire something as simple as a price.

Feeling timid, yet amazed, I continued weaving in and out of foot and motorbike traffic going down the unpaved pathway between food stands. I gazed at leafy greens galore, unable to match names to appearances. My eyes crept the stands; they relayed visual images back to my mind in puzzle pieces. I became mentally exhausted trying to identify foods, and in turn, identify myself with a group of people so foreign to myself.

A woman to my left stirred huge vats of mystery substances. The liquids swirled around her wooden spoon, with chunks and spices floating in the unknown. The dirt spattered across the white buckets resembled the color within them. Flies hovered above like bees on flowers, but the smell was far from sweet.

The smell of raw fish, far more rancid than the renowned durian, became stronger as I continued inside the market. I took deep breaths from the mouth. In and out, conscious not to invite smells into the nose. A slip. A gag. Pick up the pace.

Foreign foods were in fast-forward as I guided through narrow aisles, Khmer people scurrying past with food bundled in their arms and plastic bags hanging from their small wrists. I felt disoriented. The hustle and bustle of the local market swept away every sense of relaxation that I related to the American farmers market. This market wasn’t the place to see a local acoustic artist serenading shoppers.

Fresh cuts of meat hung from hooks and sprawled across tables. Khmer people eat every part of an animal, leaving nothing for waste. A bucket of cow stomachs sat next to a native woman chopping meat with a cleaver. Dead chickens and ducks lined counters, some with feathers, some skinned. Some of them seemed to stare up at me as I walked past. Their death stares sparked a sense of discomfort in me- even the animals made me feel foreign.

Spying the outside light, I felt desperate for fresh air. The cramped building filled with the rank scent of raw meats and garbage drove me forward.

Gasp. Fresh air. Liberation.

I felt more at ease in the open-air market. With more space, I felt less in the way, less of an invader. The Khmer people easily slipped around me as they lived their lives without interruption.

Storms clouds brewed above, and a low rumble of thunder lightly shook my bones. I needed to get home.

The durian. I had to have that before I left.

I quickly maneuvered to the entrance of the market and picked a fruit stall near the banana mounds. Pointing to the “king,” the seller pulled out a large knife with a black handle. He tapped the fruits, looking for the ripest one and pulled out a large, three kilogram durian. Showing him “small” with my hands, he put it back, and tapped for another.

He cut open a durian that weighed about 1.3 kilograms, coming out to $3 (roughly 17,500 riel). I tried not thinking about the cleanliness of his knife- I’d planned on cutting it myself.

The inside was divided into pockets full of a smooth, light yellow fruit that contrasted its thorny husk. The seller scooped out the fruit, put it in a to-go box, and tied it up in a plastic bag. Talk about fresh fastfood.

The smell seeped through the bag and lingered despite the fresh open air flowing through the tuk-tuk as it zoomed through town back to my bed and breakfast.

The staff wouldn’t allow the fruit inside due to its foul smell. I opened the bag, took one of the yellow, kidney-shaped peaces, and nibbled…


I took bigger bites, having overcome my fear. Some of my classmates didn’t seem to enjoy it as much.

I was apart from the market, but I felt a connection within myself. As the “king” fruit coursed though my body, I felt a part of Cambodia embedding itself within my soul.

If food is a language, I learned a basic sense of communication when I ate the durian.

As I handed out extra fruit to the staff, smiles filled their faces, and I felt more connected to them as well. I found a commonality with a culture that had once been so foreign to me. I’m developing a part of Cambodian life, and I’m proud of it.


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