It’s Monday at 1:48pm and my flight leaves at 5:40pm on Monday and I arrive in New York at 5:40pm on Monday. I will have flown all my hours back, and it reminds me that none of this is real.
It’s all just the same globe spinning, sometimes hitting sun, sometimes hitting emptiness, and we sleep for seven hours or are awake for those seven hours. I’ll see you tonight, or I’ll see you in the morning.
Janelle asked me to paint her in a flattering light, but it’s really not a matter of flattering or unflattering. To begin: The streets here are just bananas. Scooters (motos) zoom to and fro, with no actual lanes, stop lights, etc. Also the sidewalks are parking lots for the motos, and there’s no way you can walk down them. You kind of have to walk along the edge of the street. You also have to cross at intersections. This is mostly done by wading into the stream of cars and trying to time it so that you slip between vehicles, which are generally four or five across at different speeds.
Today Janelle and I were crossing a small street when a man with a bicycle taxi stopped us in the middle of the road and asked if we need a ride. No, no, we’re walking, we said, and continued onward. Except that the distraction was too much – a moto riding against traffic knocked Ms. Janelle over. She tumbled gracefully to the road. Other motos swerved around her. I took her by the arm and we staggered to the side of the road. She was unhurt, just bruised and scraped.
This was bad. It could have been much worse.
But after a few drinks, some chocolate cake, and a bit of shoe-shopping, things are much better. She is icing her ankle and hip, alternately. And it is now so, so funny that she got hit by a moto. I am trying to figure out why we find this so funny. Maybe it’s because it is amazing that neither of us got hit by a moto earlier. Maybe it’s because we’re very, very white and very, very inept and of course the local transportation would strike us down. Maybe it’s because it’s been a long night, and moto is a funny word, and she’s ok.
I have always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. Except I don’t really want to be in a war zone. Bombs, etc, very stressful. So tonight Janelle and I did the next best thing and grabbed a drink on the rooftop of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Phnom Penh. Most drinks cost a dollar or two so our $13 pitcher of sangria was a little steep, but it was worth it, to watch the lights sparkle on the wine-dark Tonle Sap river, from a pretty sweet perch.
Siem Reap is a town built for tourists. The logic goes: You’ve come to see Angkor Wat, the famed temples, and now you will also get a massage, a 75-cent beer, and a ride in a tuk-tuk. Also you will get your feet eaten up by fish.
Janelle and I saw many temples on the first day, became severely templed out on the second day, and by the third day were ready for more adventuring. We thought we’d hire a driver to take us to sunrise at Angkor Wat and to a few other spots.
I’ve been trying to describe this driver but keep failing. Here’s some facts: 44 years old, maybe 5’6″, slicked-back greasy black hair, wiry frame, smokes cigarettes with a James Dean squint, talks to everyone who will converse with him, speaks just a few English words, mostly: same, big, small, hello, like, love, thank you.
As Janelle said, it was kind of like having a dad around. He went to all the temples with us, whereas most drivers would just park and wait. He pointed out great angles to shoot our photos. He taught us as much Khmer as we could handle. Which was not very much. I now know how to count to three and say “thank you very much.”
He drove a red Toyota Corolla. He got lost a lot. Most of the time he mumbled the few English words he knew, in rapid succession: I like you, hello, small small, same. At one point he got stuck on the phrase: I love you for about five minutes.
I realized this is probably how I sounded practicing Chinese.
He tried to set us up with all of his nephews. We politely declined.
We took one of many wrong turns when he turned into the parking lot of Wat Thmey. We were looking for a fashion designer who makes his chique little silk clothing outpost in a dusty corner of Siem Reap. Instead we came upon a memorial to the survivors of the Khmer Rouge and – hell, why not take a rest and read the display. Our driver had been in work camp during that time, at age 14, and he missed a lot of school, and it was very bad.
Ok, we couldn’t understand much of what he said. But we stood there at the memorial, next to a glass box the size of a washing machine full of skulls and bones, and learned just a little more about humanity.
Janelle wanted to go to Cambodia for a week at the end of March, for her spring break from teaching, and since I was staying with her in Taipei it seemed like a good idea for me to come along. It’s a place I never thought of going, and honestly didn’t know my history. So before we left, I did a whirlwind crash course and read First They Killed My Father, a memoir by Khmer Rouge survivor Loung Ung. The writer gave a talk at Janelle’s school the week before we left – a bit of amazing timing. And so now we’re here. And it’s utterly bizarre to reconcile the Cambodia we’re seeing with the Cambodia of Loung Ung’s book about the time of the Khmer Rouge. Ok, I’ve been here two days. But I sense a relaxed vibe here that’s missing from Taipei. The kind that makes me smile more easily – good food, kids with shy waves and big smiles, bright silk and flowers and noise spilling out everywhere. A monk in a bright orange robe walks barefoot on the sidewalk next to a street jammed with zooming, honking scooters.
-Janelle offers me warm, melty M&Ms.
-I am wrapped in a white towel, water from my pigtails drips down my back.
-We swim in the hazy green hotel pool, in the dark, under the gaze of the huge, dusty half-constructed hotel next door.
-The Tasmanian owner of the hotel holds up two packets of M&Ms and waves at us from patio.
-Janelle and I race-swim. She wins every time.
-Janelle asks the owner where we can find a convenience store. He said “Oh you’re funny. I’ll go out and find you a little something. Maybe a Mars bar.”
-We dismount from scooter, hand $2 to our kind driver. I am giggling from the ride.
-We weave through scooter traffic in the dark, passing monks in brilliant orange robes.
-I look over my shoulder and am smiling uncontrollably. Janelle laughs next to my cheek.
-Janelle and I shoot each other looks of “WTF” but both slide onto the seat, me behind the driver and her behind me.
-We leave the Riverside bar, and because it is in sketchtown nowheresville, we ask for a tuk-tuk home. We are told the bar has its own moto driver downstairs.
-We order dinner at the Riverside bar, on the second floor. We sit on the cool balcony overlooking a not-terribly-pretty section of the Mekong river. The place is empty except for two French men, smoking in the corner.
-We find the Riverside bar. Which supposedly has food. My first thought: It looks like a haunted house.
-Janelle with a guidebook under one arm, we take long strides around town and try to pretend no one’s looking at us. We try two restaurants from the Lonely Planet, both are closed.
-We grow despondent in our hunger.
-We are hungry.
-We arrive at our hotel in Battambang, a collection of freestanding rooms around a central swimming pool. It is blazing hot. We can’t even look at the pool let alone contemplate swimming in what must be 90-degree water.