Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Wayback Vacation Machine, Day 3: Along For The Ride

A comfortable bus ride, S attracts us a border helper tout monkey, we meet an Italian and a Austrian who live together in Switzerland with whom we share a bumpy four-hour Camry ride, and we discover that Siem Reap really isn't a town but a playground for package tourists and the shopkeepers, orphans, and landmine victims who love them.

So this introduction may give you the impression that I hated Siem Reap, but that's neither here nor there. I'll try and address this later, but first, all the fun of recounting hours and hours of sitting!

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to read, and I read anything I can get my hands on. I'm currently working my way through the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century (I think my current count is about 40 down), and I figured a big, thick book off the list ought to hold me through the entire vacation. Which was partially true, because I was so unable to get into Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point that I didn't get through the 500-odd pages until the flight from Bangkok back to Delhi, and even then, I was really only skimming.

My plan was to absorb myself in the "Vanity Fair for the 1920s" to pass the four-hour jaunt from Bangers to Aranyaprathet, but I quickly discovered that the VCD of a Thai variety hour was far more entertaining. The time passed quickly, and when we reached the border, people just kept pointing, and S and I just kept walking, until we found ourselves in a line for holders of non-Thai passports that moved rather quickly (as opposed to that for Thai nationals, which was populated by at least 200 mildly disgusted folks waiting to gamble away some hard-earned baht at the casino about 500 meters from the official crossing).

Then we're all set to just walk up and apply for our Cambodian visas, and some sleazy guy in a stank baseball cap somehow manages to endear himself to S (the S is for softie!). Thus began an hour and a half of counsel and advice contradictory to every the tenets memorized by every Lonely-Planet-toting wanderer -- "I know the sign says that the visa is $20, but you have to pay 1,000 baht [closer to $30], or else they have to walk the paper to a man in Aranyaprathet, then get the stamp, then walk back, and this will take at least three hours; you pay the 1,000 baht and it takes 10 minutes." "This is a free bus that takes you to the Poi Pet bus station. I'll ride along with you so you don't get taken advantage of by bad people." "No, there are no buses that run to Siem Reap for at least another five hours. But if you pay $50, taxi leaves now!"

S is being cordial, smiling and nodding, and I'm rolling my eyes, sighing loudly, and trying to stop myself from screaming at our new "friend" to back his ass up. Around this time, at the ostensible bus station (which is really a dirt lot filled with Toyota Camrys, a small information desk thronged by men who get paid for "assisting" travelers," and a few rows of empty chairs), we decide to try and leverage an economy of scale (why oh why have I incorporated corporate-ese into my everyday vocabulary?) by hooking up with some other lost, Angkor-bound souls.

At first the couple seemed wary and wanted to check out the size of the taxi, for which they would pay $50; as they dithered about, S and I managed to bargain through our helper to go for $30. Just as we were about to seal that deal, the fellow foreign duo returned and told us to hop in -- halving the price for them, and saving S and I the hassle of potentially being crammed into a shoddy vehicle with numerous passersby interested in seeing how much money they could extort from us. Introductions all around, then we hopped in, leaving a pack of infuriated helpers behind us as we bumped down the road.

Highlights of the ride included a Khmer version of "My Humps" (confidential to Fergie: your insidious invasion of pop culture haunts me always!); a guilty sense of triumph upon our fellow travelers confessing they paid 1,200 baht for their visas; my womanly time of the month starting around hour two of navigating the potholed Cambodian road; and a large, poorly Photoshopped banner advertisement featuring Jackie Chan holding a can of some local brew, miraculously without using his fingers (a note from my paper journal: The sign we saw at a refreshment shack where our taxi driver stopped for the dust to be rinsed off our ride was awesome, because it had a picture of Jackie Chan -- which I believe was ripped from a Western ad for Coke. The can of the local beer (energy drink?) was just juxtaposed over his fingers and thumbs, because JC is damn near superhuman and his compelling personality attracts Cambodia beverages to him like so many kitschy magnets to a fridge).

Eventually, we all ended up at the Popular Guesthouse in Siem Reap, which was clean -- and cheap -- enough. We unloaded, then went to explore the town; after having a beer, I started writing more, as is my wont. My reflections, as I sat on a posh terrace on "Bar Street" sipping Beerlao and watching droves of tourists flock to Italian, continental, and Thai restaurants, became a bit philosophical (I may unfortunately be casting myself as an itinerant hippy with this travelogue...). On the car ride, we jostled a lot on the dirt road, and it was bumpy, but at least the monsoon is more or less over; it could have been much, much worse. Couldn't everything? For some reason I got to thinking about what would happen if I clumsily happened upon a landmine and had to have my arm amputated, and even that I think I could make the best of -- a bionic hand, or a chopstick I could hold in my mouth to select keys on my computer at the office. Does this qualify as a "can-do" spirit or a delusion?

That question still remains unanswered, but it struck me as the sort of view one has to adopt when one is constantly surrounded by poverty, suffering, people debasing themselves to make a living. When I first arrived in India, I would cry when my autorickshaw driver stopped at a light where women would approach me, touch my feet, ask for just one roti. It just wasn't conceivable to me then, the way that there is always a way down, no matter where you stand. Some of this ranting may make me sound annoyed, frustrated, even infuriated with the ... unpleasantries? that Western tourists encounter the first time they venture outside a place that has a veneer of palpable respectability, but looking back -- both on this vacation, and on my time in India -- I've developed a perspective that's less reactionary, a bit more generous. The tourist trade is lucrative at the border crossing, and every person passing through is an opportunity to put food on the table. Something likely beyond an individual's control has consigned them to a life that is so incredibly foreign to someone who grew up not wondering whether there would be water today, someone who could afford to scrape leftovers into a garbagecan that (likely) wouldn't be picked through by someone that didn't have enough to eat. I have momentary flashes of intolerance, but ultimately, I think I understand at least some of the forces at work. I suppose what I am (quite inadequately) attempting to say is that, although I quickly reach my breaking point when it comes to being petitioned for money, I don't blame the people for trying. I want a larger structural answer to this, to this endless mire, which will probably never come, and so to my fellow humans I try and be cordially dismissive, firm but not insulting.

Oh, this ramble has gotten out of control! I have taken some Valium and cold pills because I was having a panic attack and the dry heaves and couldn't work with my thoughts, and now they're all seeping onto the screen. Thus I bid day three adieu, in just as much a fog as I did walking back slightly tipsy from a happy hour in Siem Reap, with just as many unanswered questions and ill-informed musings as I bounced off S with his hand gently guiding me "home"...

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