Wednesday, September 10, 2008

the fear you're glad you've had (part two of many parts)

i remember sitting in the little room, alone, in respiration of the doom and gloom of what i knew was to come. people don't often make you wait in little rooms, alone, for good news. i counted months backwards on my hand. i counted back several times, and weighed in the err of testing with the time it takes to spread. and i knew. within a year, this would become the second most frightening moment of my life. but in that moment, right then and there, it was pretty on top. looking down, over the precipice of such great heights. just waiting for the inevitable push. when the door knob finally turned i looked up to find the eyes. in any silence, eyes will spell out the basics of what you need to know. and in her eyes were a deluge of words it would take me weeks to repeat. and in my eyes was the deluge she could never understand. no one ever asks how; simply what and when. the how, to me, was what i couldn't bypass. it was the murdering blow.

i was deaf to all her words. i sat, lost in the haze of all the things i could have done differently, to avoid what happened. to avoid what ultimately led me to that moment. i shouldn't have answered the phone. i shouldn't have opened the door. i shouldn't have opened that bottle of wine. i sat, deaf to her words, lost in a haze. nothing she said mattered. nothing mattered. this was the penultimate pain and devastation.


by my first morning in siem reap, i had been traveling for close to a week, during which time i'd been in over 4 time zones. morning was irrelevant. thank god for sunrise, which was the only gauge my body had for both time and duration. when i woke, i found myself face down in the shit-stained sheets. robert had taken up the entire (single) pillow in the twin bed we were sharing, which i'd covered with a t-shirt of mine. monique had been waking up for a few minutes as well, as now robert began to. we decided we would not shower at the guesthouse, and that we'd check out immediately. i brushed my teeth with bottled water over the sink. i washed my muddy shoes and pants in the tub, no doubt from the streets of poipet. and then we were off.

we had no plan. we'd simply walk along the river, until we found a suitable guesthouse or hotel. it was early and still fairly quiet. in comparison the poipet, siem reap was a beautiful city. despite the prior evening, i felt an immediate affinity for it. i remembered how as a teen i hated how my mother thought all of mexico was disgusting, based solely on her time in ensenada, of all places. i decided i would not let poipet have the same effect on all of cambodia. the river that runs through old town siem reap is beautiful. it's only about thirty feet wide, and lined with continuous park on both sides. bridges cross it at every other block, and trees run down its perimeter.

we walked along past several guesthouses until we came upon the ta prohm hotel. it looked nice. it looked very nice; especially after the slew of guesthouses we'd stayed in thailand and korea (all of which were very nice. but this, this was borderline fancy). since robert had been covering hotels, i didn't feel comfortable having an opinion, either way, on any lodging. whatever he wanted to do was fine by me (save for in the prior night's grim exhaustion). he looked at monique and i, looked back up at the hotel, then asked what we thought, with a smile on his face.

the hotel was gorgeous, and only $50 american per night, for a suite. the suite had 3 full beds, a sitting area, and was probably about 550 sq. ft. i was so happy to have a nice place to rest my head for the next five days, that i immediately flopped onto my bed, grinning ear to ear. we decided that it would be a good to relax. we'd hold off a day on angkor, save for a sunset visit to angkor wat. we ate breakfast at the hotel and then set of for our first venture through siem reap.

siem reap maintains a strange juxtaposition: beautiful, french colonial architecture, with lush landscapes, that happens to be lined with dirt, and full of the most impoverished people i've ever seen. we were immediately struck by the hordes of homeless. it was hot and sticky and dirty, and so we sought refuge in the indoor markets and shops and eventually tequila. we'd found a taqueria in a small alley, with the typically cheap eats and drinks.

we'd been enjoying a pitcher of margaritas for no more than five minutes, before a man approached our table from the street. he had stumps for arms, in which he carried a box of books. taped to his box of books was a sign, that read: "i lost my arms in a landmine explosion. i am not a beggar. i am a proud man providing for my family the best i can." the sign was enough to break my heart a little. we'd been aware of the landmines the united states buried through cambodia during the vietnam war. buried, then left behind. we'd read the warnings in our guidebooks, telling us to stay on marked paths when in the jungle. we knew of their presence, but were shocked to encounter their effects so quickly in. you can't help but feel guilty for the actions of our nation, our country, our home. you can't help but feel shame.

his books were all on cambodia's dark history. they told of the polpot regime and the khmer rouge, of the killing fields, of the landmines, of the genocide. they outlined the pain suffered by an entire nation, partly at our hands. and yet, somehow, he was so welcoming and friendly. it was a moving compassion i'd never experienced. you think of all the pain stupid americans brought onto middle eastern people (anyone who looked "like a terrorist") after 9/11; and here he is, welcoming us americans in with grace and dignity.

we spoke for several minutes and each bought a book from him. as he departed, a small boy wearing nothing but a filthy, long t-shirt approached us. he couldn't have been more than eight or nine, and yet alone. "hey mister," he said to robert. "where are you from?" we all replied that we were from america. he smiled.

"the united states of america has fifty states. washington, d.c. is the capital. hawaii and alaska are the newest states. the president is george w. bush." he was the cutest god damned kid on the planet. his slight grin and huge eyes. he carried a stack of postcards, which he offered to us for a dollar. as he talked to us, i watched as at least ten more children passed by. we bought his stack of postcards, for which he thanked us, and then tried to sell us another stack. we apologized profusely. and my heart just sank into my fucking stomach, as he wandered off, barefeet and alone. i thought about how rough the night before was. how us three, grown adults, barely made it one night on our own. and here was this adorable little kid, who does this, in far worse conditions, every day. every night. this existence is all he knows.

as we walked around and back to our hotel, we realized just how dire the situation was. there were homeless, starving kids everywhere. running naked, barely clothed, hungry, starving, begging. forgotten and unknown. completely forgotten and unknown. everywhere you look. everywhere. it was the penultimate pain and devastation. everything else seemed so small and insignificant. how does this exist? how had i been so ignorant? so selfish? so ungrateful? how could we just deny, deny, deny?

No comments: