Tuesday, February 15, 2005

My Bung Arm Pt.3: Driving to Poipet!

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.

No comments: