Wednesday, May 04, 2005

MBA Pt.5: Zones & forcefields!

The story so far: Riding out of Phnom Penh and Kampong Thom, Mr Felix then cycled north through the forest to the Thai border at Preah Vihar. Further west near Anlong Veng he visited Pol Pot’s grave and that night was bitten on the elbow by a spider, or something - Mr Pot’s revenge. A few days later his badly swollen arm was cut open to by the Butcher of Sisophon (aka the local Cambodian doctor) which renewed his faith in the beyond (seeing is believing.) He is now leaving Poipet, and Cambodia, on his way to Aranyaprathet to visit the local Thai hospital. His arm is not looking good, and neither is his mind.

Poipet, Cambodia, on the Thai border:

Blessed sleep has eaten the mental terrors of the night, and I wake early for a sunny Cambodian breakfast of dust and eggs in the little wooden stall opposite the guest house.

Everything is bright; the sun, the sky, the road, the table, and I sit upright on a plastic chair, the only guest, and the Cambodian waitress weaves around me in a thin cotton dress and healthy brown legs, and the old woman on the bench in the yellow sarong is peeling vegetables, and the young boy sitting by the door in the shorts and bare chest swings his legs back and forth and I could sit here amongst these bodies until my bike rusts over. Ah, Cambodia, how could I ever doubt you?

Maybe if I get my arm fixed in Thailand I can come back into Cambo and go cycling along the border south out of Poipet? The road runs all the way to the Cardamom Mountains near Koh Kong and Klaus tells me it’s ‘wunderbar’: hard dirt road, forests, Cambodian farmers, not too many land-mines, no tourists and no guest houses. Sounds like heaven!

I sip on my coffee and visualise: the bike, and me, pushing hard on the pedals, and the pedals pushing back, left, right, left, right, and we move in a straight line down the orange road, through the green…

“One step at a time, Feely!” says Mr Pumpy. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”

Yeah, he’s right, take it one step at a time. Everything is sunny this morning because I’m leaving, and my flat batteries are giving me one last happy surge of Cambodian delight before they conk out completely and I have to lie down and look at the ceiling fan and wonder what it’s all about again.

I hold up my right arm and turn it around, and it really is a mess. Dirty blood-stained bandages, swollen forearm, swollen fingers and a squirt of fear in the belly. It’s bad news, and I wish it would go away.

Ok, stick to the plan: cross the border into Thailand, go to the hospital, spend a few days in Aran (world’s most boring border town), take some time to ‘heal’ (as the Americans say), maybe have a group hug at the hospital for ‘closure’ (another brilliant concept from the world’s most advanced nation) and hold a press conference on the steps of Aranyaprathet General for Fox Asia News.
Fox News Alert:
Thai doctors save arm of world famous cyclist!

“How did you fe-e-el, Mr Felix, when they were scraping the puss out of your arm?” asks the Fox reporter with the blonde hair and the worried expression of a barking dog. (Imagine being married to that, Christ!)
“Why don’t you go fuck yourself!’ I say, and in the space of two coffees I’ve gone from ‘Oh, Happy Day!’ to anger management issues but that’s flat batteries for you.

I cross the border and leave Poipet, sadly, and enter Thailand, and ride straight past the duty-free market and turn onto the highway. I’m not looking forward to this at all. Aranyaprathet, and the hospital, and another lonely hotel, but I can’t go home until I’ve found what I’m looking for, and I won’t know what I’m looking for until I’ve found it, and anyway ‘home’; it’s not even on the radar screen anymore. I’m in Hansel and Gretel territory.

I cycle a few kilometres up the highway away from the border and cut left along one of the laneways that leads into the back end of town and stop outside a small grocery store. I’m preparing for a heavy dose of invalidism and figure I’ll stock up on junk food.

I lean the bike against a tree and mount the steps and stop short in front of a young Thai girl standing on the veranda with her hands tied to one of the posts. What’s this all about? She looks about sixteen, and is awfully embarrassed at my approach and blinks at me like a rabbit. I’m so surprised I automatically say ‘Sawatdee krap!’ (Hello!) in a bright and cheery tone and it comes out as ‘Howdee doodee!’ and she goes red and tears well up in her eyes. Christ! What to do? Keep walking into the store.

I buy some chips and a couple of Cokes and on my way out the door the mother (I guess it’s the mother) is outside on the veranda giving the girl a savage tongue-lashing. Boy, that girl must have crossed a few lines, and I suppose there’s nothing like a dose of public humiliation to curb the wayward teenage heart, but it’s unnerving, and I sure would like to take a picture, maybe shoot some vid.

I stop by the opposite post and pretend to fumble with my plastic bag of fun things and listen in (to the sound of angry Thai.) Mum’s leaning nose to nose, almost spitting in the girls face, and the poor girl is choking back tears – Chuk! Chuk! - and I’d really love to shoot some vid, but I eventually slip past (you can only pretend to fumble for so long) and get on my bike and ride away. On the way up the street I have a nagging half-memory of a similar incident in my own dim distant past, and my mother beside herself with anger.

At the corner of the soi (lane) that runs onto the main street I spot a sign in English saying ‘Rooms for Rent’ and stop to take a look. The Aran Garden Hotel, about a block away, is the main cheapo tourist hotel, but I don’t want to stay there if I can help it. The management’s unfriendly and the building is unhappy, so I’m willing to look at alternatives, especially as I’ll be staying for a few days.

I go in and get shown into a spotless room by a friendly Thai woman in a white blouse. It’s quiet and clean, and maybe a little too clean, but there’s a TV and fridge and it’s cheap, so I decide to risk it. You never know with small intimate guest houses, but the woman looks relaxed enough, and honest, and I don’t want to be completely alone, so ok, let’s roll!

I plonk my dusty panniers on the floor and take a shower, and lie on the bed and turn on Fox Asia News. I need to psych myself up for the hospital, and a bag of Ley’s potato chips and the dog-faced woman with the blonde hair should do it.

An hour later at Aranyaprathet Hospital I fill out a bunch of forms and get given a piece of green paper and am directed to an adjacent room and told to sit and wait. There’s a long row of numbered plastic seats along the wall and one young Thai guy sitting alone on the first chair by the door. I sit down a couple of seats along but the orderly points sternly at seat No. 2 beside the Thai guy, so I shift up a couple. The boy and I rub legs and smile nervously at each other, and sit patiently together in the bare room like two gay guys about to get a test.

Ten minutes later I’m ushered into the doctor’s surgery. He’s a squat, middle aged Thai, with glasses, and barely looks up as I sit down opposite him – which is standard MD behaviour throughout the known universe - and I hold up my arm up and smile.

“What is problem?” he asks.
“I think I got bitten by a spider or something in Cambodia and it’s gotten swollen and infected,” I say.
“How long ago?” he asks. (This is an excellent question, and my faith in the Thai medical system is rocketing upwards by the second.)
“About a week or so,” I say. “Then I went to a Cambodian doctor in Sisophon and he cut it open and squeezed out the puss and gave me some anti-inflammatory pills but they don’t seem to be working…”

I trail off because at the mention of ‘Cambodian doctor’ the Thai doctor looks up with such a look of utter disdain on his face that I realise I’ve said the wrong thing and so I start to laugh. “Hey, Cambodian doctors!” I say, and lift my hands in the air and wave them around as if to say ‘what to do, what to do?’

The Thai doctor says nothing but it’s obvious he thinks I’m an idiot, and so what do you do? Why, you do what every spineless, spiritually flaccid middle-class idiot caught in self-serving fear does: you betray those you love and curry favour with those in power.

“Yeah, Cambodia, it’s a mess!” I say, and shake my head sadly. “But it’s so good to be in Thailand!” I continue, which might be laying it on a bit thick, but feeding the ego of those who rule is a timeless and trusted method of getting ahead.

(‘Bearing gifts’ is another, and I wonder whether handing across Angkor Wat would be a fair price to pay for saving my arm. “Hey! No need to transport anything, doc, just move the Thai border 150 kilometres east to Siem Reap and be done with it. Angkor’s wasted on the Cambos anyway! Heh! Heh!”)

He looks up and says: “Show me arm!” so I unwrap it and he has a poke a round, and I wince and moan (just to show I’m a genuine case and worthy of his expert attention), but he takes no notice and writes me an antibiotic script, and tells me to take the paper to room 12 to get the pills, and then go to room 21 to get the arm cleaned.

“You stay five days!” he says. “Come everyday!” and goes back to his paper work. I say thanks and back out of the room and it’s a hollow walk down the long dark corridor to room 12 while I think about Cambodia.

At the metal grill of room 12 there’s a gaggle of Thai women in white uniforms alert at the approach of the wounded farang, and I hand my paper over, and get handed another, and some laughs, and am told to go to room 13 (right next door), and so I do.

There’s another woman behind that grill and I pay a few hundred Baht and get another bit of paper and am directed back to number 12, where I pick up my pills and a few more laughs, and then get directed on to room 21.

I plod down the corridor and walk into room 21 and hand the paper over to the lady at the desk by the door and she directs me to a vacant bed in a corner at the other end of the room.

In the other corner there’s a young Thai boy sitting up in bed with bandages wrapped around his head, and as I turn he sits up straight, alarmed, and his face turns into an empty bowl, and we lock eyes. What’s his problem?

Then it hits me, of course. He thinks I’ve come to look him over. I’m his worst nightmare: a farang doctor!

And I don’t know what it is about fear in other people, but it sometimes brings out the devil in you, and I start walking towards him in an unblinking bee-line and the blood drains from his face and his mouth falls open, and then luckily – because this is meant to be funny (or something), but it’s rolling over into terror - the Thai woman at the desk calls out something in Thai, which means: “Hey, Mr Farang, the other bed you idiot!” so I retreat and climb up on my own defenceless bed opposite, and sit there.

I wish I knew the Thai for: “Hey, Johnny, had you goin’ for a while there, sport!” but of course I don’t, so I just smile at him and nod and point at my arm, and fuck it, what can you do? Johnny relaxes a notch, but he’s still wary and won’t relax completely until I’m out of the building and standing on the steps talking to the other white idiots from Fox News.

Sister Supachai is probably about forty, maybe forty-five but there’s something timeless about her. If she told me she was three hundred I’d believe her, and in fact, I’d believe anything Sr. Supachai told me. Her uniform is starched white and crisp and smells like lemons, and her shoulder length black hair is drawn back in a pony tale, and she’s elegant and good looking, but it’s what she’s giving off that’s mesmerising.

She stands by the bed inspecting the wound, and I’m immediately disarmed. There’s an air of quiet, professional capability about her, and a deep current of, what is it? Compassion? No, no need to grovel and denounce your loved ones around good Sr. Supachai; she rules with love, and demands trust and honour, and I give it willingly. I’m at my best, and a piece of putty.

She says a few things in Thai, which I only half catch, and then pulls out a thin stainless steel rod with a tiny spoon at the end. It’s similar to the colourful plastic spoons that they put in fancy drinks when you’re hanging out with Mick Jagger on Montserrat but this one’s for scraping out the puss. And so she proceeds.

Oh, Jesus, the pain, the pain! I’ve got tears rolling down my cheeks but I keep glancing at her face, and those dark, steady eyes, and remain quiet and composed. And I have to hand it her; whatever she’s throwing out from deep in that soul of hers is cutting straight through me, and out of respect, and my own sense of pride, I will not flinch.

When it’s done she carefully wraps the arm in clean white bandages, gives it a little pat, and says: “You came back tomorrow, same time!” I assure her I’ll be here (I’d stop off on the moon if that’s what she wanted), and make my way out.

It’s bright and sunny outside, and I cycle down the main street looking for a juice. I don’t know whether it’s my arm, or good Sr. Supachai, but I’m feeling heady, like a weaving, spinning top, and I need to rebalance.

I spot a juice stand and dismount and walk up and make my order and there’s a couple of farang girls at a table on my left so I smile and say ‘Hi! How ya’ doin’?’ and they look up and glare and I get hit with a sudden wave of electric fuck-off! Hoo-wee! It’s like a blast of cold air to the chest, and I’m momentarily breathless. Christ, where to run? But there’s only two tables, and I’m not doing takeaways, so we’re going to be sitting next to each other, like it or not.

I point to the table and tell the Thai lady I’ll be back in a jiff, and dart across the street and buy a Bangkok Post, and come back and sit down as far away from the farangettes as the table and chair will allow, and do what every man does when he needs solace; I read the paper. And it’s amazing how interesting the latest bombing in Fallujah can be.

It’s going on 4 PM and I walk in the door of the guest house and there’s two Japanese girls in the lounge area playing cards, and I say ‘Hi!’ and smile and they say ‘Hi!’ and smile – and thank God for that. They’re a couple of Thai language students from Osaka doing a three month placement in Aran, and they’ve been here for two months and I’m the interloper, and male, so I nod and bow, tread softly on the floorboards.

On my way through the daughter of the Thai owner, who’s about ten, comes out from the hallway and stands against the wall and stares at me like I’m a movie about to start. She’s as cute as a button and shiny as a star, so I turn towards her, pull myself up to full height and make an extremely formal ‘Wai’ and bow and say in Thai: ‘Hello, my name’s Felix, what’s yours?’ She does a half laugh-giggle and says ‘Lek!’ so I bow even lower and say even more formally: ‘Lek! That is a very beautiful name and you are a very beautiful girl!’ and that breaks her up, and she does a little dance on the spot, and the Japanese girls laugh, and the big hairy male farang with the bandaged arm has passed the first test it seems.

Christ, what a day! The water in the shower is poring over my head and down my back, and it’s cold and wet and cutting through my skin, and I take a few short breaths. My limbs feel like lead, and I need sleep. I lie on the soft pillow and clean white sheets and I can hear the Japanese girls talking in the next room, and Lek laughing every now and then, and I rest for the first time in weeks.

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