The bottle had been quite a hit earlier, when Jesus had produced it while murmuring the words, "This is my blood," as the Khmer kids reenacted the famous Last Supper scene. The audience roared. The guards, leaning on their broomstick spears and dressed less like Romans, and more like the soldiers you see in the movie The Killing Fields, weren't about to let the remaining soda go to waste. The audience laughed through nearly the entire production, and the actors themselves had a hard time keeping straight faces. It may have been their first Easter celebration, and it seemed they were more accustomed to comedy.
It was, perhaps, the Most Hilarious Crucifixion Bit Ever.
The day before, Victoria had called to persuade me to visit her church.
"Even heathens go to church on Easter Sunday and Christmas," she said. I was sweating in my shorts under a fan in a cheap guesthouse room in Phnom Penh, frustrated at my lack of progress on a story I was chasing.
"Yeah, but I'm a more consistent heathen than most," I said.
But I couldn't not go. None of my contacts worked on Sunday, and I had hit dead end after dead end on my project. Also, Victoria and Chris are just too nice, and I did want to see what they'd been working on for the past few years. Another persuading factor is that the Khmer New Year falls close to the Christian Easter, and, after the services, the young people planned to play traditional Khmer games that are probably a thousand years old or more.
Christianity spreads in Cambodia the same way it spreads in many countries in Asia, especially India -- it seems the poorest segments of society find it most attractive. Changing religions offers a number of perks, depending on the country, but most center on empowerment of the disenfranchised: becoming a Catholic nun in India gives impoverished women a rare chance for an education and a career, for example. Many are learning English at Chris and Victoria's church as well. Members of their congregation also seemed to really enjoy having their own community.
Inside the church, before and after the Passion Play, it felt like a rock concert. A live band with drums, electric guitars, a keyboard and a dancing music minister belted out praise and worship songs in Khmer. The whole audience danced, clapped and sang along under a disco ball. The music guy didn't quite gyrate -- about the only thing he didn't move was his hips -- but he was all over the stage, jumping, pointing, spinning. He only almost fell once or twice, but recovered quickly.
Then we learned that Jesus could not have possibly been from the West.
"A lot of you think that Jesus is American," the minister, who is Cambodian, said in Khmer. "This is not true. Here is how we know."
We turned to the book of John, chapter 21, and read verses 10-13:
As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread. Jesus saith unto them, Bring of the fish which ye have now caught. Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken.
Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine. And none of the disciples durst ask him, Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus then cometh, and taketh bread, and giveth them, and fish likewise.
"We know that Jesus could not possibly be either American or European, because, as we see here, Jesus ate fish. Of course, Americans and Europeans do not eat fish," the minister said.
"What?" I asked Sothia, the young Khmer guy who was translating. "I eat fish. What is he talking about?"
Sothia looked a little startled, and I let it drop. After the service, Victoria explained many people there believed that we cannot eat fish, because Westerners seem to avoid it in Cambodia. Cambodian cooks tend to grill fish whole, or nearly whole, complete with the tail, bones and head. We are accustomed to eating fish filleted, and there are so many other foods that look easier to eat, such as beef or chicken skewers or stir fries that many Cambodians just assume we have some sort of allergy to it. I only tried fish once in Cambodia, although I did sample fried crickets, cockroaches, baby frogs and even what looked like baby sparrows. Of these, I would only recommend the crickets.
Then the Khmer kids began playing their New Year's games, and begged until Victoria and I joined them. All the games involved single guys and girls pairing off. According to Victoria, this is about the only time during the year that singles mingle. Inside the church, most of the guys sit together and the girls sit separately. Even when couples do date, and everyone knows it, they still do it sort of on the sly, and almost never are seen together in public.
We played a game called Cat and Mouse, where everyone joins hands in a circle, except for the 'cats,' who are boys, and the 'mice,' who are girls. The cats chase the mice, trying to tag them, and the mice evade them by ducking under the arms of those in the circle. We who were neither mice nor cats tried to keep the cats from reaching the mice by allowing the mice through and stopping the cats. Once the cats tag the mice, they join the circle and do their part to keep the two species/genders apart.
I saw a lot of symbolism and parallels between the games and the way Cambodian society functions. Apparently, a lot of weddings follow the New Year games. But one girl survived a whole round of Cat and Mouse by hiding behind me. Cambodian guys are so small, I'm about twice as big as most, so the cats just kept bouncing off me. Since that was what we were trying to do in the game, it felt pretty satisfying until I realized that because of me, she ended up without a partner. But she just joined us in the circle in the next round.
It had been a long day, but I was happy to have seen the church and the Khmer games. And, I ended up getting my story over the next few days with the assistance of Sothia, the translator I met at the church.