Friday, June 10, 2005

MBA Pt.9: Riding into the light!

My Bung Arm Pt. 9

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 right 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 undergoing for five day’s outpatient treatment at Aranyaprathet Hospital (with Sister Supachai) on the Thai-Cambodian border.

Aranyaprathet on the Thai-Cambodian border:

Three days of antibiotics, Japanese girls and the magnificent Sister Supachai and my right arm is on the way to full democracy.

The swelling is down, the 5 cm slice (I measured it) that the doctor in Cambodia made along the elbow has magically disappeared (along with the puss), and I’m having clearly defined moments of not feeling sorry for myself.

I’m a Third World success story. Sterling stuff!

But as the late George Harrison (Peace be upon Him) tells us, ‘all things must pass’, and when I return to Aranyaprathet General Sister Supachai is not there. Johnny’s also gone, and the room is hollow.

Where’s my world gone?

“Where is Sister Supachai?” I ask the new nurse behind the desk.
“She not here!” she says, and smiles.
“Yes, but where she go?” I’m a hungry dog.
“She not here!” she says, and smiles.
“Yeah, but is she coming back…?” I’m stepping on my voice to keep the alarm out (which is of paramount importance when dealing with the Thais) but I guess the hungry look in my eyes is giving me away, because the new nurse has got that ‘I’m looking at a crazy farang’ look and is sinking backwards into her cranium, where it’s a lot safer.
“She not here!” More smiles, but now she’s definitely inside the mystery of the brain, and the question on both our minds is ‘am I coming in after the bunny?’

“Yeah, but…”

I used to go rabbit hunting with my grandfather, and when you’re twelve and male, or a dog, death is very exciting.

My grandfather was a farmer, and we’d make our way into the forest that bordered the back paddocks, him holding the gun and me trotting happily behind with the rabbit bag, and the dogs, Dave and Wooty, doing their thing; sniffing, widdling, growling and running about.

Dave was a kelpie, an Australian cattle dog, and smart, but Wooty – I didn’t choose the name – was a black haired miniature poodle, the ‘house dog’, and didn’t have a clue.

The strange thing was that we’d sometimes bale a rabbit up in a hole, and the dogs would be beside themselves, yelping, lathering, dancing in circles, ripping at the dirt around the hole, and we’d pull them off, and dig the rabbit out, and it’d be stiff with fear, like a furry toy.

Crack! there goes it’s neck, and grandpa is stuffing the dead thing into the sack, and we’re taking it home for grandma to skin (she was Austrian) and we’re going to eat it.

And Wooty would hang back, and whimper and crawl on the ground and make squeegie bottle sounds. And when we’d get home he’d cower under the table, and wouldn't come out, and make more squeegie sounds.

Yeah, bunny death, it's freaky, and it hangs around.

I let the interrogation go and submit, and I must be improving.

Two days later I’m back in the saddle cycling west out of Aran on the way to Bangkok.

Status report:
Short term goal: Cycle to Bangkok.
Long term goal: Cycle to the south of France.
Personal goal: Find my Inner Ape.
Arm: Bandaged, prognosis good.
Personal future: Uncertain, prognosis unknown.
Personal past: Forget it.
Faith and hope: Holding on.
Charity: Forget it.
Favourite colour: Blue.

It’s not a fun ride from the Cambodian border; the roads are flat, the scenery boring and the traffic heavy, and it gets heavier the closer you get to Bangkok.

I set off early, put my head down and count the klicks.

Push the pedals, one, two, look up at the road, look down at me feet, check the back panniers, push the pedals, one, two, listen to the tyres go russsh-russsh-russsh! on the asphalt, sweat, breath, push down, move over, let a truck through, push the pedals, one, two.

Jesus it’s hot!

It’s 2 PM and I need lunch, but I can’t find a food stall. The paddies stretch out green on both sides of the road, low and flat, and the sky is big and blue; an open, empty space, with no limits.


I’m back at the university in Melbourne where I was teaching, twelve months ago, just before I quit.

I have to go and see the new director’s personal assistant. She’s part of the lesbian brigade at the university, and I know she doesn’t like me, but I need a piece of paper.

When I walk in she’s leaning back in the chair stuffing a potato wedge into her mouth; knees up, head back, feet splayed out at ear level on the top of the desk (lurching towards me) and a large dob of mayo that’s slipped off a wedge and fallen in her lap.

I stop short three steps from the door, and no man should have to confront this.

It’s Niagra Falls, and I don’t have a barrel. It’s the Dualagiri Gorge, and I don’t have a rope. It’s the Khumbu Glacier, and if you fall down a hole, boyo, you’ll be deader than road-kill and twice as ugly.

(And 236 years later they’ll dig you up, call you the Ice Cyclist, stuff you, put you back on your bike and posit you in the Melbourne Museum next to Phar Lap.*)

“Wadayawant?” she says, and thank god she’s wearing blue pants.

I get my bit of paper and leave immediately. I walk up the stairs to the cafĂ© on level 3 and order a scalding hot coffee. I’m hoping it’ll burn my insides out.

Cycling, yeah, it’s something. Newbies take note.

A little further along I spot a dusty food stall and pull off the road without thinking. Anything will do at this point.

There’s a middle aged Thai woman in a yellow sarong waving me in, and her young daughter, who must be about eight, is beaming and wiggling and showing me to my chair, and they don’t sell potato wedges.

I order noodles, and grab a Coke out of the icebox and a small packet of Oreos off the shelf on the way through and the little girl is so intrigued with the hairy half-baked monkey that when I sit down she comes across and rests her chin on the table directly opposite me, eyes ablaze.

Her name’s Noi and she’s a little pixie, and how I love these kids; no fear, no fear. I pop the straw into the Coke and slide it across the table and smile and tell her to ‘drink up!’ and mum smiles so we open up the Oreos and have a little picnic.

And Noi keeps hitting my brain with her eyes; I can feel the light opening doors and I’m coming awake in stops and starts.

I get out on the road an hour later, and set off into a big sky, and ride fast, and every time I slow down I see those eyes, and pick it up.

I’m riding into the light, Lord, out of the darkness and into the light!

* Phar Lap is a Thai phrase meaning 'wink of the skies' or 'lightning', and is also the name of Australia's wonder horse from the Great Depression, considered by Australians as the greatest race horse ever. He conquered the local racing scene—36 wins from his last 41 starts—and then they took him to the USA, where he won North America's richest race, the Agua Caliente Handicap, in 1932. Two weeks later he was found dead in his stall, and for a while there we thought about launching a pre-emptive strike on America. (We would have beaten the Japs to it by 10 years, and just think about the possibilities!) They brought the great beast home, sadly, and stuffed him and put him in the Melbourne Museum, where he stands today; proud, red (his nickname was 'Big Red') and huggable.