Poipet, West Cambodia
Klaus parks the truck beside the new Immigration Office, and switches off the motor, which goes clunk-de-clunk! Shudder. Oops!
I can't wait to get out of the truck. Driving is fun - after cycling it's almost wicked! - but give me the wind rushiing down my neck, and my legs occupied in the simple, sweaty activity of cycling.
Ah, cycling! I might be having a crisis of identity, but I can't blame it on the bike.
It's just after 8 PM and we've driven in from Sisophon.
We're going to get some free coffee at the casino, and kick back for a little while. Klaus wants some duty fee chocolate, and I'm heading across the border in to Thailand in the morning to go to the hospital, but right now, let's enjoy the sights.
We hoof it across the street, and walk in to the casino, past the guards, who barely look up, and take a couple of quick turns through the gaming areas.
I'm lost already, but Klaus's been here before and knows the way. "I found out about the free coffee a couple of years back," says Klaus, "and I've been to coming here ever since."
We get to the stall marked: Free Coffee and Tea, and I can see it's only Nescafe and powdered milk, but I'm still impressed.
Free is good.
Free is the promise of a beautiful, slim Eurasian woman with flowing, shiney black hair, wearing a white leotard and lying easily, and yet knowingly, on a cream couch next to a rubber plant. (Which is why they put that picture on the cover of healthy lifestyle magazines, by the way.)
At the coffee stall there's two very cute Khmer girls in tight red dresses. Bonus! They smile when we approach, and start giggling.
We order, and I don't know why, but the coffee seems to be taking an inordinately long time to put together. We stand there, waiting, and I must admit, I feel kinda cheap. Time to reflect can be a dampener sometimes.
The girls get distracted by a shout from across the hall, a disconcerting sound: the sound of pain? Loss? What? Who knows, but I'm losing patience. Come on, for chrissake girls, get it together! I want my coffee.
Eventually they hand 'em over. More giggling as I load two sugar satchels in to mine, and give it a stir. What's the joke?
I look at Klaus for a lead, but he's off dumping his spoon, and peering intently in to the green plastic bin. What's in the bin? Who cares, just give me my coffee.
We clutch our free drinks in the equally free plastic cups, say thanks, and walk off.
We do a loop around the gaming tables, looking at all the money, and go back for a refill. Same routine, same giggles, same laughs at the two sugar satchels. No, no idea.
But this whole thing is mind-bending: outside there are folks wandering about in rags, and here, inside the casino, there are folks, mainly Chinese-Thais it seems, rolling through the dollar bills, spending it like there's no tomorrow.
Klaus and I settle ourselves in an alcove by one of the fish tanks near the roulette table, and sip our coffees and watch. It's fascinating, kind of.
There's about twenty people at the table, all of them sitting hunched over, in groups of two or three, eyes fixed on the little ball darting around the wheel, making pleasant little clicking noises as it jumps daintily from lucky number to lucky number.
They nervously stack and restack the coloured chips, rolling them sensuously around their fingers, caressing them, fondling them, making more pleasant clicking noises.
Click-click-clickity-click! You can hear it throughout the hall. It's the sound of utter, bone-crushing boredom, and oh, how I wish I was rich, and maybe a bit cleaner.
I take a sip of my coffee and notice my fingernails are dirty. My right arm, which is swollen and bandaged, and has blood stains running from the elbow half way down to the wrist, and looks like leprosy. Or maybe the plague.
Still, that's one of the great things about being a Westerner in Asia. You can go anywhere and do pretty much anything, no matter what you look like. Every whitey in Asia is a somebody, even if you're a nobody.
Which is fine, as long as you don't start believing it, like Sid did. (Well, OK, he wasn't in Asia, but the world of pop music must have similarities.)
On the way out Klaus stops at the Ye Old Duty Free Shoppe and buys a dozen blocks of German chocolate.
There's an extremely beautiful Cambodian girl at the cash register, in a super-tight back skirt and breast-hugging white cotton top. She makes the coffee girls look like "5"s.
She's so clean, and utterly gorgeous, I actually miss a breath. I feel goofy all of a sudden, and lose control of my limbs, akimbo. I stand behind Klaus while he makes his purchase, peering over his shoulder to get a better look.
I know I shouldn't; it only hurts more, but such is the nature of desire.
She's friendly, and smiles while Klaus is fumbling with his money and I wonder whether she knows the effect she's having on us. At least I assume Klaus is affected, but being Klaus, he's not showing many ripples.
We walk out of the casino, and I'm glad to be gone.
Out on the street Klaus is clutching his bright yellow Ye Olde Duty Free Shoppe plastic bag, and is looking pleased with his purchase.
Chocolate, it's a wicked thing. And twelve blocks of it! At 4,000 Riel a pop, a dollar each, this represents about a fortnight's wages for the girl at the cash register.
No, the Americans have got it wrong, again: we aint all born equal.
Across from the casino is a small outside eatery, and we dart across and park ourselves at one of the tables. We order a couple of beers and some spicy beef on rice, and hoe in. It's a warm night, and the beer is cold and wet, and a welcome relief.
Around us are a few families, kids and all, middle class, well off, Chinese, but from where? Hard to tell, but they're coming alright, the Chinese. It's the big racial buzz in Asia, along with mobile phones.
Beside the fish tank is a table of very rich Thai men, elderly, and their rather young and exclusive female companions. The men are knocking back the Johhny Walker and laughing loudly, patting each other on the back every now and then, while the girls sit demurely, legs together, filling up the mens' glasses and looking attentive.
Oh, how I wish I was rich and had never read a book.
There's an Indonesian band on the small stage beside the bar playing the usual Santana standards (Wouldn't you know?) but nobody's listening, despite the rather snappy rendition of Black Magic Woman.
Klaus and I agree that they're a good band and turn to face them, smiling, nodding, letting them know we're listening. They nod back and start to play to us. It's nice, cool even.
A couple of minutes later there's a scream of feedback out of one of the speakers, and the song limps to a stop while the band members hustle about the equipment, pulling out a couple of plugs and looking perturbed.
The singer says something unintelligable in to the microphone - what langauge is he speaking? - and they down instruments and move across to the bar in a tight cluster and sit down. So much for that.
Silence reigns, and it's even better.
And then it's time to leave. Klaus's gotta get back to Sisophon and the family, and I've gotta check in to a guest house and get some sleep. I cross over in to Thailand tomorrow to get my arm seen to, so I need to be my chirpy best. You never know what trials lay ahead.
We pay our bill and head back to the truck. I pull the bike out of the back, get my panniers in order, and after a brief handshake, and a quick goodbye, Klaus climbs in to the front seat and hurtles off down the road. I stand there and wave.
Boy, what a gentleman. "Best of luck, mate!" I call out.
Poipet. I stand on the side of the road, alone, and for the first time really breathe it in. It's going on 10 o'clock, and the place is still nervy, frantic.
Across the street is a guest house, non-descript, but as good as any. I wheel the bike across, dodging a couple of motorbikes, and go in. Five bucks a night, with fan, TV and inside bathroom.
Sounds good, looks OK, let's do it.
I lock the bike up to the fish tank in the foyer, drag my panniers up the stairs and walk along the thin corridor.
The hotel's all concrete, and nothing esle, and smells of new white paint. It's part of the boom-town thing that's going on here, despite the bad road.
Outside one of the rooms, by the door, I see a massive bundle of shoes and sandals. I stop and count eighteen pairs. Eighteen! I re-count, amazed. How many Cambodians can you fit in a hotel room, for chrissake? And how do they work out who watches what on the teev? Amazing!
My pad is across the hallway and when I slip the key in to the lock and open the door, I stop. I don't wanna go in.
The room is white and cavenous, and empty. A man could get lost in there. Thoughts will bounce off walls and come back at you. Danger, Will Robinson!
Just then I hear a couple of kids laughing and squealing, obviously enjoying themselves, the voices coming from the Cambodian encampment across the way.
Maybe I could borrow a couple of Cambo kids for the evening? Ease the over-population, spread some good will. Win-win!
We could all get in to our jim-jams, snuggle up on the couch, pop open the very large tub of Strawberry and Honeynut Twirl ice-cream, and watch Finding Nemo on the vid.
Sounds like fun!
But no, I'd get arrested. Man found in Cambodian hotel room with children! Claims they were watching videos! Wouldn't sound too good. You've only gotta slip the word Cambodia in to the headline, and you're a dead-man.
Even my friends wouldn't believe me.
I unpack my panniers, take a quick shower, turn on the teev and lay down on the bed. I flick through the channels, and find HBO, but I can tell immediately it's a bad movie, so I roll my bandaged arm over my eyes, sink back in to the pillow and breathe out. Christ!
Antibiotics. An-tee-biotics. An-tee-bye-ot-iks. I roll the word over in my mind a few times, and it seems comforting, almost magical. An-tee-bye-ot-iks. The power of the Word. I might be losing it.
I wish I had a woman. One I could talk to. How about a game of Diplomacy? I wonder what Mick Jagger's doing right now? I bet he's not short on scintillating company.
I go back to the film. The lead actor has one of those really bad boofed-up 70s style hair-dos that never moves, and an insincere laugh, or is just bad acting?
"I cannot watch this crap!" I say out-loud, and spring up off the bed. I stand there for an instant and shake my head.
I gotta do something.
How about a ride around town? Maybe I can wear myself out, and anyway, I don't know if I'm coming back to dear old Cambo for a while (but I'm having trouble letting go, I admit, which may be part of the problem), so a goodbye tour around Poipet may be a good move.
Anything's a good move when you're at rock bottom, but I have a sneaking feeling I'm a rat in a maze, and every turn will lead to a sharp, electric shock. Who's doing this to me? Who's pulling the strings? Who's the arsehole?
I go downstairs, unlock the bike and let myself out past the sleeping night-guard.
Despite the fact that I accidently run in to the plate glass window on the side wall and it makes a god-awful ba-ung-ung noise that reverberates around the foyer, he doesn't move.
I cycle off down the main drag back towards Sisophon and take a left towards the market.
I figure there'll be a few night cafes open and the ubiquitous massage parlours are dotted around the area, buried amongst the shacks and stalls, and they're always good for some action.
I need something distracting, I need to lose myself so that sleep can sneak up on me, shy and furtive thing she is.
Last time I was here there was a dozen or so massage parlours; small affairs, wedged in together in ones and twos, unobtrusive. But as I cycle along the street I see that's it's now all lit up, gone festive, and there are parlours and girls all the way down on each side of the road for fifty metres, and more down the side lanes. Business must be good.
I cycle further along, actually looking for the nice cafe with the nice, kind lady that I stopped in once before, a couple of years ago. Some kindness would be good.
I spot it, but wouldn't you know, it's now a parlour and as I slow down I get accosted by a couple of girls who spill out on to the street, calling "You! You!" and grabbing at the bike.
For a moment I'm pedalling hard, legs going around, but the bike is standing still, with the back wheel spinning in the dirt. It must look ridiculous, and the girls and punters standing around on both sides of the street break in to an uproar.
It looks like I'm the entertainment for the night. The tourist becomes the attraction.
I dismount, and the girls are quick to surround me; full embraces, arms around my waist and chest, rouged mouths oozing over my shoulders, breath flowing warmly, freely in to my ear. And this has a lightening effect on me. I feel my body respond, go red. Jesus, I must really be lonely.
The working girls in Cambodia are usually very sweet, under the seductive swagger and shitty job description, but these two have got the Devil in them, and won't let go. They can smell the shift.
I stand stiffly, upright, and explain as politely as I can that I am looking for a particular cafe that I know, blah, blah, and it sounds lame, and stupid.
"Seriously, girls!" I switch to English, and take a deep breath, hoping that the drop in octave will save me. "It's not what I want!" I say, and I as I say it I feel the corners of my mouth go down, and for an instant I want to cry.
Boy, this really is getting a little much.
I prise myself loose, firmer now, but I can feel the emotion stirring around inside of me, about to come up. Oh, dear. "I come back later, I come back later!" I say, (Yeah, right...), lower my head, clench my jaw, and forcefully push the bike off down the road.
The crowd's still laughing and shouting. And who can blame them? They're monkeys, I'm a monkey, we're all monkeys. I hoist myself up on the seat and turn the peddles over, and make some distance.
You gotta know when to call uncle sometimes, but of course, I don't.
I find a cafe a bit further along the road that doesn't have blinking lights, so I stop, lean the bike against the wall, lock it and go in.
I figure a coffee might still help, and despite the fact that even the most positive of thinkers couldn't pretend that this is fun, I hang on. I'm more terrified of the hotel room than anything else.
I sit down on a plastic chair, sodden, and sad. I shouldn't have got off the bike, I know, but here I am. It's too hard to move. I make my order.
I drink milky coffee and eat a sickly sweet bun of some description, but I'm tasting nothing.
It's hot and stuffy in here, and I'm overly conscious of myself, the lone barung with the hang-dog face sitting under the too bright flourescent light on the white plastic chair with his elbows resting on the grubby laminated table.
My jaw is going up and down in slow motion, my teeth are grinding the pastry, and small lumps of whatever it is, mixed with saliva, are getting stuck in my throat. I think it's is the sadness coming up in the other direction that's causing the bottle-neck.
I really gotta go.
And when all else fails, there's pure Will.
I sometimes think that this is the missing line out of the Sermon on the Mount.
Blessed are the cheesemakers and all that, but sometimes, against all odds, you just gotta Will yourself through. I do wish Jesus had of said that. I'd feel better about myself.
I take a breath, stand up, pay the bill, say thank you, walk out, unlock the bike, and wheel it out in to the centre of the road.
My bike. My beloved bike. It still moves me whenever I look at it.
I climb on and feel the weight of the seat pressing up in to my body, and as I push forward on the pedal with the right foot, the pedal pushes back.
I roll forward, and for that most fleeting of moments, I'm not in control.
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
The order of the BLOG story so far:
* Cycling Days 1 through 10: See archives August & September.
(Cycling from Phnom Penh north up along the Thai border through Anlong Veng & Preah Vihar and down to Sisophon.)
* My Bung Arm Pt.1
The Butcher of Sisophon & the Great Mother Goddess Kangaroo!
* My Bung Arm Pt.2
Sisophon, West, Cambodia: Our Man in Sisophon!
My Bung Arm Pt.3: Driving to Poipet!
West Cambodia: Sisophon to Poipet by car
Two more days down the line and my right arm is no better.
Swollen, tender and rosy red. And the bandages are starting to smell. It's time to get out of Cambodia, and do the Thai hospital experience, before gange-green sets in and amputation becomes a viable option.
I'd been to a Thai hospital once before for minor mending, and although it's not the West, it's clean, cheap and relatively efficient. I know most Western folks don't skimp on money when it comes to health, but if your as poor as me, you do.
I figure all I need is a good dose of anti-biotics, administered by a fairly good Thai doctor, preferably with a diploma. No need to reach deep in to the back of the wallet and visit a Western clinic. When it comes to spending money, I'm a positive thinker.
And time is still on my side, so I tell myself.
T-i-i-i-me, is on my side,
Yes it is!
Now, you're always sayin',
that you wanna be free....
I can't do any serious riding on this arm, so Klaus kindly offers to give me a lift to the Thai border on Sunday night.
(Klaus is a German friend who works in Cambodia, and lives in Sisophon with his Khmer wife and her mother in a big old colonial mansion, not far from the town centre. He's a sometime cyclist.)
The plan is to drive to Poipet, spend the night, and cross in to Thailand at Aranyaprathet the next day. I can then check in at the out-patient clinic at Aranyaprathet General, and hear the worst.
"Also, Felix," says Klaus, "It makes a good excuse for me to go. I need to be getting some little bit of chocolate at the duty free shop in Poipet."
OK, no worries, some little bit of chocolate and a lift to the border it is. Win-win.
On Sunday I ride over to Klaus's place a little before 5:30, all set for the 6 PM departure.
"We are having a little bit of a problem, Felix," says Klaus, calling out from the upstairs balcony as I ride up the drive and dismount. "But nothing to worry about!" Oh, dear, what now?
I scamper up the steps, pat Klaus on the shoulder and say: "How ya goin', mate, what gives?", as you do.
It seems his Cambodian mother-in-law isn't too keen on Klaus taking me out in the truck and is making a fuss. She blames me.
"Me? Whadiyamean, she blames me?" I ask, alarmed. Last time I was here, mum and I got on like houses-on-fire. I thought she liked me.
Klaus starts patting the air in front of my chest with his open palms. "No, no, nothing to worry about, Felix, do not be angry!" he says.
"I'm not ANGRY, Klaus," I say - why do Germans always use the term angry? It's so unsubtle, even if I am angry - "I'm just a little nervous, on edge!" I say, flapping my hands about in response to Klaus's hands.
My brain throws up a quick image of a duck taking off from a pond, and I calm down. I guess I must look like a duck. And why is it so hard for ducks to get airborn? And then a horrible thought: Is it Duck Season?
"Well," Klaus continues, "she went to the monk yesterday and he apparently told her that I shouldn't be to help people! Big misfortune or something. So she's down inside in the car-port making a good luck puja over the truck and we have to wait a little bit until she's finished."
"The monk told her that YOU shouldn't help people? What is he, some kinda fortune teller or something?" I say.
Klaus ignores my question and says: "Should not be too long! Like a coffee while we waiting?"
"A good luck poo-jar?" I spit the words out. "Isn't she a devout Buddhist, Klaus? Aren't Buddhists meant to HELP people...?", but Klaus has already walked off in to the kitchen and is getting the coffees.
I sit down heavily in one of the wicker chairs and blow out some air. Why am I so on edge? Why do I instinctively fear the worst?
Asia, it's so unstable.
I have an arm in need of a doctor. It's swollen, oozing puss and I've already been to the local butcher, who nearly pushed me through to Level 6 Consciousness, and believe me, you shouldn't go there unless you believe in the Resurrection and have been celibate for the last 18 years, neither of which I qualify for, and thanks to Klaus, there's a little bit of kindness coming in to my sorry life (he's driving me to the hospital - I can't ride!), and now Klaus's mother-in-law is throwing a spanner in the works at the last moment.
I hear voices coming from the carport and realise Klaus must have gone down to see how the Mass is proceding and whether we have achieved transubstantiation yet, and can all leave and go home and get on with our daily lives, in peace.
I can hear his faultering Khmer, slow and deliberate, and then a torrent of higher pitched ethnic babble, which I conclude must be mother. A Dhamma discussion? Debating some of the finer points in the Abbhuta discourses?*
(*Descriptions of supernatural powers and their uses. An extremely handy little paperback this one!)
A little after 6:30 we pack the bike in the back of the truck, jam the panniers under the seats, slam the door shut and climb in. Klaus's mother-in-law is hovering around the front of the truck, with her head bowed, and her lips curled inward. She's looking up at me every now and then, and you can see she wants to let a couple go.
Maybe she wants to tell me a Jataka tale? It's sure to have a nice, neat moral ending like the one where the two proud fools in the ox-cart ignore the Buddha's warning and get trampled to death by a rogue elephant.
I lean my arm lazily out of the passenger window and give her a big smile. Fuck it.
Klaus guns up the truck, crunches the gears and we roll forward. Mumsy's standing by the gate, but she's only opened it a few feet and we can't get out. And she's looking at me real hard now: evil-eye stuff. Christ!
Klaus stops the truck, and waits, as though this is perfectly normal, and we're just waiting for dear old mum to get her shit together and open the gate fully; dear, old, lovable thing she is.
In mum's colourful world, this must be Klaus's last chance to not go forth down the road and have a 30 ton gold plated Buddha rupa drop out of the sky right on top of him (and me), or maybe a satellite, whichever is more statistically probable. And it's all my fault!
But I know, and Klaus knows, and God help us, even mumsy knows at some deep, semi-conscious, reptilian level - and don't you worry, under all that Cambodian vulnerability, she's got her reptile-mojo working well and good this afternoon - that this whole damn bullshit thing has more to do with investment portfolios than the Tripitika, or whatever cosmic operating system the monk's on.
And besides, the monk probably said something like: "Be careful when you help people, deary, lest they throw dog poo at you and trample you underfoot!", or some equally compassionate and well thought out piece of advice (maybe a little more erudite but), but I'll bet you London-to-a-brick that mum's come away from the temple and done a bit of creative re-interpretation.
By the time she's run the equation through her very limited processor it's come out as:
Me (good) + Felix (bad) = delete Arm
But perhaps I'm being a little unkind.
Believe it or not, I can be big about these things. The Lord knows I've turned myself in to a pretzel often enough to accommodate some facile and ridiculously convoluted ethnic go-to loop all in the name of cultural sensitivity, but not this time.
It all depends on what's at stake, and how badly you want it. And I want my arm - real bad, portfolio risk or no portfolio risk.
Klaus gives a little toot! of the horn, smiles, and inches the car forward a couple of feet. I'm so jacked off I'd probably run the bitch down, so it's a good thing I aint driving.
She opens the gate just wide enough for us to get past and backs out of the way. As the truck moves through the gate we pass within a couple of inches of each other, and boy, if looks could kill.
There's nothing on the road, so luckily we skip straight out on to the highway, without a wave, and in no time we're in to third gear and picking up speed, heading west, leaving the East behind.
What a relief. I'm sweating, I gotta break the spell.
"How about some music, Klaus?" I say, and he nods, and gives me a wry smile. Christ, this guy's got patience.
I plug the Ipod in to the sound system, crank Moby up to 11, and breathe out. I realise then that I've been holding my breath throughout this whole domestic ordeal.
Here we are now, going to the west-side,
I pick up my friends, and we go for a ride!
Lookin' out for a sunny day....
Highway 5 takes a sharp left, and we go past some bamboo drink stands and cross over a big metal bridge and suddenly we're in the country, free.
We're moving to the beat. We've left Sisophon and mumsy behind, and it feels good. We're a little bubble. A little motorised tin can, a mobile island, a continent unto ourselves. We're in here, and they're out there. Different. Not same-same. No way.
I think of Noddy, and feel almost bouyant, and a little light headed, like I want to laugh but I don't know what I'm laughing at.
Up ahead the sun is a dirty, orange ball about to go down, and we're heading straight for it.
Above it there's a bank of big, puffy clouds, cumulo nimbus, pink and white, and rays of light are shooting out of from behind their billowy bodies, spiraling up in to the centre of the sky. It's quite a show.
The sky is a purple and pink dome, a huge canopy, arching right up in to the heavens: on fire, alive, awesome. It's mighty God and puny man stuff. Excellent perspective. There should be more of it.
It's the wet season in Cambodia, and the paddies, stretching out in all directions are a gorgeous yellow-green, tinged with pink. The wind is skipping across the rice stalks, making waves, shades of changing colour that dip and scoop from one paddy to the next. Quick, sudden eruptions of energy, shimmering, an invisible hand stroking the beloved grain.
Even when it's the dry-season, and the whole country turns brown and grey, with dust clouds blowing across the landscape, it's still beautiful. And it's exhilerating on a bike, as you carve your way down the highway, right through the middle of this grand opera, one pedal after the next, the wheels spinning and your mind singing.
I first rode down highway 5 between Poipet and Sisophon in 1998, and over the years have been back and forth a few times, but the road is still in bad shape, which is surprising.
Most of the main arteries in Cambodia have been tarred and sealed by now.
Nice, big, flat, modern highways, with neat white lines and shiney arrows that make driving easy, but if you biked the highways in the old days, you can't help but feel nostalgic. There was fun to be had when the roads were abominable, and you could pat yourself on the back for simply making it to Phnom Penh.
But now the buses are running, and the transports are crossing in from the Thai and Viet borders, laden with processed food and cheap consumer goods. Cambodia is almost on the move, almost, but highway 5 to Poipet is still a mess.
As we move along I'm turning this way and that, spotting landmarks, trees, shacks, odd places where I'd stopped on the bike for drinks and photo ops at different times.
There's the big Bhodi tree with the Buddha statues that I lent my bike against and took a well earned water-break. There's the irrigation ditch with the rushing, muddy water I dipped my feet in to to cool off. There's the bamboo drink stand with the lop sided roof and the drop-dead-gorgeous waitress who smiled and fussed over me, and stood in the middle of the road waving me off. I wonder what happenned to her?
Back then I was fit and happy, and Cambodia was an alluring mystery, the forbidden fruit of South East Asia. But time brings change.
Now I'm riding in a truck, bandaged, and a bit beaten around in body and spirit, and pondering my next move. And I'm supressing a thought, an heretical idea that I can't quite admit to myself, much less put on the Pumpy site.
"You know, Klaus," I say, "I can't wait to leave this place. It's driving me nuts!"
Klaus smiles and says: "Yeah, it can do that to you...", and goes on driving.
I'd prefer it if he said something a little more meaty, like: "Yeah, this place is the shit-box of the universe!"
Or maybe something big-headed and Teutonic, like: "Ya, zat ist beekos yoo ist eina grosse nin-kom-poop, Feeliks!" and then I could flare up, and we could argue, and swear, and after a few verbal low blows, where we slight each other's cultural inheritance, say how much we love and respect each other, and then proceed towards a more sober debate on the problems of the Westerner in Asia, and then we'd descend in to personal stories, and bad experiences, and we'd get more acid, and more black, and then what?
We'd feel miserable. There's no end to this conversation.
I have a wild and wicked idea: "Let's drive to Kazakstan! In the truck!", but I catch it in time and don't voice it. I'm being ridiculous.
No, Klaus has to live here, and he's committed, and let's face it, I'm blowin' in the wind.
There's an unspoken agreement not too get too heavy about the contradictions, the sheer mind-fuck of the place. We all know it's a bag of shit if you look real hard, and I've probably said too much already. (I think that's a safe bet.)
We slip in to silence.
Moby's up to Why does my heart feel so bad?, and there's some black guy singing the line over and over.
It's sad, strong and melancholic, and I'm at Bell's Beach in southern Victoria (my home state in Australia) on a cold winter's day, watching the waves driving in from the Antarctic, crashing on to the shore; relentless, blue, powerful, one after the other, never ending, and I'm sitting alone, high up on the headland with my arms wrapped around my knees and the wind gusting in to my face; alone, jobless, useless.
He-e-e's lost his Hope! He-e-e's lost his Hope! comes the reply in the song. Some black woman's got it nailed in one. Poor bloke!
Now, I'm starting to worry. I don't mind riding off in to the back-woods of Cambodia alone, and I can even handle someone pointing a gun at me and threatening to blow me in to tomorrow, but Hope, Jesus! You don't wanna lose that.
I look out the window, and wonder.
It's dark now, and the lights from the shacks are slipping by, one by one, and the Cambodians are bustling about, walking in and out of doors, carrying things, drinking beer, watching the tube, laughing.
They're doing all those domestic activities that people do everywhere to keep mind and body together.
All those things that keep us occupied, and stop us screaming out in pain and anger at the utter futility of it all, the sheer gob-smacking insanity of being alive and having to get up each day, to do what? Stay alive so you can do it all again tomorrow.
Cambodia, there it is, passing by my window and out of my life, and I gotta admit, I still love it, and it hurts.
The folks, the Cambos; I instinctively reach out to them.
So much sorrow, so much soul cracking tragedy in every rock and blade of grass. How do they do it? What keeps 'em going?
And they're still taking it up the cosmic arse. Their government's doing them over, and when that's not happenning, they're doing each other over. What a mess.
I'm meant to be cycling, but I really don't know what I'm doing anymore.
How can you love something so much, put so much time and effort in to it, and one day you get up and it's all gone?
It's like you were wearing a pair of pants on Monday, all spivvy, walking down the high street lookin' like a blade, and on Tuesday morning you get up, none-the-wiser, whistling a tune, and you pull 'em on and they don't fit. They're a size too small. What gives?
Have I just grown out of it? Is it that simple? Mr Pumpy, where are you? I need you now.
There's not much traffic at this time of night, so the road mostly belongs to us.
All over Cambodia the parents and the kids are at home, tucking in to the evening meal and watching Muay Thai (Thai boxing) on the tube. The traffic will pick up in an hour or so when the karaoke bars click in to action, and the motor bikes, ridden by whiskey fueled Cambodian blades, start their crazy dance up and down the country.
Klaus looks across and gently pulls me out of my fug. "You know why this road is not made good yet, Felix?" he asks.
"Ah, no," I say, "but I was wondering about it." Well, I had been before I started feeling sorry for myself about 25 kilometres back.
"The story is that the Thai Airways has paid off to the Cambodian government to keep the surface like a bucket-of-shit all the way to the Angkor Wat so that all the tourists will be flying to the Siem Reap, and they will not be riding in the bus!"
Klaus chuckles, and I smile and shake my head.
No point saying anything. No point making cheap comments like: "Yeah, that's another reason why I gotta leave, man, I hate the corruption!"
Corruption. Christ! Not worth thinking about.
The suspension on the truck is making strange squeaking noises, so we slow down. It doesn't seem to be worrying Klaus all that much, but we take care to dodge the pot-holes and drive around any big rifts in the road.
We're down to about 30 km an hour, which is fine by me: I get scared in fast motorised vehicles in Asia.
We continue on.
When the wooden shacks and rest-stops peter out, there's big gaps of nothing, just pitch black holes, punctuated by the occasional scraggy tree. I can here dogs barking in the distance, and the sound of cow bells.
At one point a fruit bat swings low and crosses our path, blinded by the truck lights, flapping its wings, and obviously scared out of it wits. I'd be scared too: "Big tin monster with blazing eyes driven by two barungs nearly catch me. Me fly away. Is there any beer left?"
I get drowsy and start to nod off.
My head lolls back over the seat and my mouth falls open. Normally I'd make an effort to close it, but Klaus is an easy going guy, and male, so why bother? Sleeping in a car is a lot more comfortable when you can leave your mouth open and drool.
Just then I hear someone groaning, and I slowly realise the noise is coming from deep in my own throat, and I come awake, embarrassed. I've just had a dream, a B-grade horror flick. I sit up. How long have I been out? Was I audible?
"You OK, Felix?" asks Klaus, looking across, obviously concerned.
"Yeah, I think so..," I say, still a bit groggy, "but do you know those dumb movies where a ghost appears suddenly in the middle of the road, with the flowing white hair and intense eyes, waving her arms about and mouthing silent words that you can't make out, and you turn the wheel of the car trying to avoid her and run in to a tree?"
"Yeah, kind of..." he says, slowly.
"Well, I just had one!" I say. "And the woman on the road reminded me of your mother-in-law."
Klaus raises an eye-brow, and I realise I need a Coke, badly. We stop at a roadside shack and I buy a couple of cans, and we push on.
I change the music. We need something up. Something old and gold. A no-brainer. Let's try the Stones.
When I'm drivin' in my car
And a man comes on the radio...
I can't get no-o-o, Sat-is-fac-tion!
We roll in to Poipet just before 8 o'clock, and it's bright lights, big city.
There's new concrete buildings sprawling along the main road and more white and pink flourescent lights than Christmas in Bethlehem.
Poipet sure grown in the last few years. But despite the concrete, there's still lots of wooden shacks with slanting tin roofs, and it still seems to have that frantic, shanty town quality which I love.
Poipet served up my first taste of Cambodia, and I fell for it. And you gotta eat what you love, otherwise you'll die a slow, grey death.
I sigh and say something like: "Good old Poipet! What a blast!", and I'm suddenly awake to it, agitated, needing to get out of the confines of the truck.
I'm a monkey in a tin box.
Posted by Felix and Mr Pumpy at 11:44 pm