Tuesday, September 9, 2008

upon entering cambodia (part one of many parts)

i was once asked what the saddest song i know is. i had no idea how truly sad the song was until i woke up in it one night.

i don't know what exactly i expected. i don't think i ever knew. what i do know is that there was no way i ever could have prepared myself for what i was about to experience. we have made a business of burying awful truths. and like landmines, they wait hidden for us to fall upon them. they wait to blow up in our faces.

we crossed from sleepy aranyapratet, thailand into poipet, cambodia late in the night; just as the border was closing. it was like walking into another world; into some war-torn movie set. we're all aware that places like this exist, but we never really anticipate actually encountering them; and are thus content to deny, deny, deny. to go about our shallow lives. to choose our battles wisely, to choose our orders wisely, to choose our words wisely. until you are suddenly speechless.

poipet, cambodia

the stars outshone the city lights, which were few and far between. the stores that lined the run-down road looked more like bombed-out shacks than buildings. there were no trees, no homes, no windows with no bars. dogs and cats and cattle roamed as stray and free as the packs of children who fell upon our entry into the city. within forty seconds they'd robbed us blind; pick-pocketed in the chaos of trying to get our visas and into cambodia in the fives minutes before the border closed. they fell upon us like landmines; because we do imbue the disasters which fall upon us. like the landmines we'd laid down there years before. buried with the denial of the devastation.

no sooner than we could shake our tot thieves were we surrounded by taxi drivers trying to snag one last fare for the night from poipet to siem reap. and they all wanted twice what the guidebooks say the trip is worth. they wanted it all up front, all in american dollars. they claimed to need it for gas. their gas tanks were empty, they said. every exchange of our debate was followed by quiet rumblings in cambodian. when a price was finally agreed upon, we were ushered into an unmarked car. there was no room in the trunk for our luggage, so we piled it upon ourselves, as we prepared for the long ride ahead. just before our car drove off into the night, a man opened our door to tell us the driver spoke no english. and with that, the door was slammed, the engine ignited, and we were off into the pitch black, barely there streets of poipet.

the road from poipet to siem reap is hardly a road at all. it erratically changes from dirt to gravel, from two lanes to one. there are no streetlamps beside it, no highway lines or street signs. the road is more pothole than pavement. the 75 miles takes 3-5 hours. and at night, you can see nothing. rumor has it that a particular airline has paid an unnamed government official to keep it this way. the road is so bumpy, only the fear keeps the nausea at bay. within the first few minutes we could tell there was something peculiar about our cab. it was unmarked, the driver had refused to ope the trunk for us to put our luggage, which was now weighing heavy upon our tired legs. we were told they needed money up front for gas, but from the passenger seat i could see that the gas tank was full. most off-putting, though, were the packages that clearly filled the linings of the seats we sat upon. they also hid beneath the floor mats in the backseat, robert had whispered to me along the way. and then we pulled off the road.

we parked beside a shack, lit by lanterns and a bonfire. our driver pantomimed that he needed to fill up the gas tank. when he shut the door behind himself, i turned around to robert and monique in the backseat. i told them the tank was full, which came us no surprise to either. we sat in silence and apparent fear for a few minutes. the driver had been gone for a while now, and we all decided it would be best to lock our doors and come up with an emergency exit, should it be needed. occasionally men would peer out at us from within the shack, and then immediately disappear back within it. a million scenarios, all with bad endings, flooded my mind. we continued to sit in silence and apparent fear, until the driver finally returned.

it had been at least ten minutes and there was nothing to speak of for his time away, save for a large, duct-taped package, which he handed to robert to hold for the duration of the drive. we knew. we were no longer frightened tourists. we were drug mules. we were drug mules, in a third world nation, in the middle of the night, in the middle of no where. it was the scariest 3 hours of my entire life. i was unsure of the outcome, only sure i probably would not survive it. and that if i did, i would hate cambodia.

we arrived in siem reap around 1am. we were exhausted, both physically and emotionally; and we had no idea where to go. our driver clearly didn't want to wait around for us to figure it out and dropped us off in a parking lot where several tuk-tuk drivers waited to lay claim on us. 'fresh, white meat, ' i thought. the tuk-tuk driver who got us knew "a great guesthouse" for us. we assumed this meant a guesthouse that would pay him a commission for delivering none-the-wiser tourists. i had previously found a handful of guesthouses in our lonely planet guide, which robert asked the driver to take us to. the driver only assured us that they would be full and the guesthouse he had in mind would be to our liking. robert demanded he take us to the first guesthouse on our short list. he agreed, but not without first expressing his disapproval. when we arrived, the guesthouse was in fact full. robert and the driver then began to debate between his guesthouse and #2 on our list, which he said would also be full.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Monique and i exchanged grimaces and decided we'd rather be ripped off once again than to drive from one closed guesthouse to the next, all night long. robert finally agreed, but not without first expressing his disapproval.

when we arrived at the suggested guesthouse, i stayed in the tuk-tuk while the other three went in to check out the room, assess the price, and decide whether it was worth rest or warranted further exhaustion. at this point, i didn't care how bad it was- i'd had to piss since aranyaprathet and could barely keep my eyes open. plus, mosquitoes were eating me alive and i had been too poor to buy malaria pills before leaving the states. and right then and there, after the arduous night, malaria seemed pretty par for the course. luckily, after ten minutes, monique emerged and waved me in. we checked in, walked up the stairs and watched as the tuk-tuk driver stayed behind to collect his commission.

the room, at first sight, appeared very nice. it was only at close inspection that we realized what a slum it actually was. dirt, mold and rust lined all the bathroom plaster and porcelain. there was no soap, nor showerhead. a sign affixed to the door warned that the hotel took no responsibility for theft, it also asked guests to refrain from bringing prostitutes, weapons or drugs in. the linens had very clearly not been washed in quite some time. the sheets had hair and smears of god-knows-what on them. it's shit, i thought. there are shit stains on these sheets.

but it was 2:30am and sleep was sleep.

No comments: