Saturday, March 20, 2010

Adventures in Boarder Crossing

A terrible thing happened about a week ago in Siem Reap, Cambodia to an anonymous Cambodian motorbike driver who had the incredible misfortune to put head to pavement at an intersection just out of town. A much much less terrible thing happened to me on the same day when I had the misfortune to be in a tuktuk driving by the scene of the accident to see his lifeless body -- his neck squashed down as if his shoulders had tried to cram themselves inside of his head, a stream of urine trickling into the gutter. His girlfriend sobbing at the side of the road, the ambulance finally speeding by us a good 20 minutes later. So it is with this incident in mind that I assure all concerned parties (my mom, Geoff's mom, etc) that my healthy fear of motorbikes has only grown healthier and that truly we are trying to avoid them at all costs but it would be impossible for me to overstate how difficult this is. We always look for taxis, buses and buffalo rides, we always consider walking but all too often we find our behinds precariously perched on the back of a speeding bike. This is exactly how I traveled across the border into Vietnam, my backpack held between the drivers' legs, my head stuffed into a Winnie the Pooh helmet meant for a 7 year old girl, my mind trying to stave off images of the ghost of the dead moto driver with Geoff's face as I watch the sweaty back of his tshirt speed off ahead of me.

Motorbikes were not part of our tenuous plan.

We knew that from Sihanoukville, Cambodia we wanted to move on to Vietnam but we didn't want to go straight to Ho Chi Minh City which posed a problem when it came to bus schedules -- everything goes straight to Ho Chi Minh skipping the entire Mekong Delta. Our only other option seemed to be a $40 taxi to the border. We figured that once across the border there must be services -- taxis, buses, Vietnamese coffee falling like rain -- so off we went.

Cambodia doesn't seem to have traffic laws. Or if they do, they are as follows:

  1. Pedestrians yield to bikes, which yield to motorbikes, which yield to tuktuks. which yield to cars, which yield to trucks and buses. Buffalos yield to no man.
  2. When in doubt honk your horn A LOT. This applies to passing, driving on the wrong side of the road, saying hi to your buddy and letting everyone know that you are driving somewhere in a very very big hurry.

So I spend the 3 hour taxi ride clinging to the door handle and trying not to scream out that we're about to die. We live. And there it is, the border, I guess. Proceeded by about 50kms of dirt road and seemingly the only building within another 50kms is a cinder block affair locked between two railroad gates, in the distance beyond gate number two is a small guard post and... that's it, not exactly official looking. We are immediately accosted by a couple of motorcycle guys offering to drive us across the border and into the town 15kms away. There may have also been a few cows milling about in the dust but there were no taxis. I don't think Vietnam allows livestock powered border crossing, no matter how backwoods this whole process seemed.

I had dressed that morning prepared for a day of sitting and, anticipating a need for a cool breeze in the nether regions, slipped on a short green cargo skirt. Straddling the back of a moto my first greeting for Vietnam was all class, "Hello! Thank you for having me in your beautiful country, please check out my crotch! How about those under-roos, huh? Just one of the many ways that I plan to honor you during the coming weeks, don't thank me now (thank me next week when I've run out of clean panties and you get a real show)."

The town we end up in is only slightly more impressive than the border. We're deposited outside of an open market with no taxi's, buses or tuktuks in sight. We are not alone. Appearing almost out of the ether is a tall thin man with teeth edged in black rot. He wants to help us. Because this town? It has no buses. It has no taxis. It hardly has guesthouses. And he has family in the USA and he would very much like to take us to the next town to catch the bus to... somewhere else. This is a predicament because we have no real idea where we are and almost no desire to stay but on the other hand this whole schpeel feel like a scam. Because -- if you don't take the bus in 30 minutes? There are no more buses for 3 days. No, he has no idea how much the bus costs, yes he'd love to drive us to an ATM, no he would never lie, yes he runs a travel agency. So after much hemming and hawing and pointing out to a certain boyfriend that in the future we really need to do more than just show up at the border with a smile we decide to take the bus because the other options seem limited and because the Lonely Planet makes the town the bus is going to, Can Tho, sound like a paradise on the Mehkong. There is only one way to get to the bus stop -- can you guess?

My driver is texting while we merge onto the highway. My new helmet (sans the protective visage of Winnie) is way too big and with ever bump it bounces up and back down smacking me on the head as punishment for not just going to Ho Chi Min City with all of the other whiteies. When we get to the bus stop and the bus finally arrives we're quoted a price of $30 each -- sounds OK right? Well it's actually insane. The absolute most we have paid for any bus to anywhere in South East Asia is $12. But.... what are you gonna do, camp out at this road side stand posing as a bus stop? Take a third moto ride back into nowheresville? Accept that you're getting scammed, pay the money and chalk it up to adventure? Here we go.

So, on to the bus -- the very, very expensive bus. Other, cheaper, buses in South East Asia have had A/C, free bottles of water, karaoke, one even gave us each a tiny box of pastries! This bus... has seats with metal rods sticking out of the sides, it has a door that does not close, it has a rickety shelf that threatens to dislodge and topple on my head somewhere about 700 miles from the nearest ER. Can Tho, is 6 hours away. I had a small fruit salad at 8am, it is now 2pm and as if to taunt me fate drives us pass row after row of road side stands screaming "Bahn Mi!" "Bao!" "Other obviously delicious thing that I've never heard of because Bahn Mi and Bau are the only Vietnamese words that I know!" My tummy growls.

The bus is slow and seems to lack any sort of suspension system and it stops every 15 feet for just long enough to be annoying but nowhere near long enough to jump out and grab a sandwich. But it gets us there... or it gets us somewhere. Suddenly, 3 hours into the trip, a woman in the front of the bus hustles Geoff and I out onto the street and into a pedi-bike built for 2, well, 2 Vietnamese with asses much smaller than ours. We managed to squeeze onto the contraption with Geoff perched up on the back edge of the seat for a quick bike ride through traffic. Where were we going? How long would it take? Do they have Bahn Mi there? Because I am starving. We arrive at a seemingly random stretch of road next to a red minibus which is next to a road stand sign where they clearly have sandwiches and might even have Cokes, praise Buddah.

With my first Bahn Mi swimming around in my tummy, at least another 45 minutes of waiting by the side of the road and another bus ride of indeterminate length in my future it was time to answer the painful call of nature. I asked our minibus host to point to the closest lady's room and was directed to a shack just off the road. This was clearly the home of the woman lounging in a hammock in the front room so out of respect I slipped my shoes off before entering and followed her outstretched finger down the one hallway which ended in what, I guess, had to be the bathroom. The light in the room was dim but in one corner I could make out a huge trough full of water with a small bucket floating inside which I recognized as the water for toilet flushing, next to that was a medium bucket half full of water and clothing... there was clearly no toilet. I peeked out around the corner to confirm that the two room shack did not have a white linoleum room with a Glade plug in and a roll of double quilted Charmin hidden just around the corner. Nope. OK, so, no toilet, time to man up and look for the hole that must be somewhere on the floor. I stooped over a bit in the half light scanning the concrete for a darker than average patch with no luck. But... the floor did seem a bit slanted and the walls didn't extend all of the way down, about 8 feet below me I could just glimpse wet leaf litter on the ground. It occurred to me that maybe I was just supposed to pee on the floor. But what if I was wrong? What if I started peeing on the floor and the lady came running in justifiably angry? Also: how do I avoid peeing on my bare feet (which, it now occurs to me, are almost for sure standing in someone else's pee.)? I couldn't muster the courage to go back into the living room and try to pantomime asking the question "Hey? Should I pee on your floor or....?" They say you'll know when you've hit bottom... I pulled back the lingerie-sheer curtain and squatted. I have never peed so quickly. As I walked out of the living room a few minutes later the home owner demanded 5000 dong ($.25) which seemed like a good deal, I'd have charged A LOT more if someone wanted to pee on my floor. And yes, that's me outside of the shack just after doing the deed. Geoff thought we should capture the moment.

Eventually the new bus leaves and we roll through another great swath of lush greenery punctuated by food stands and flying kites as the sun goes down and I think, ok, if we ever get there I think I'll like it here. Rough arrival notwithstanding Vietnam is a huge contrast to Cambodia. The bigger roads have landscaping in the median and all of the cows that we've seen have been on a leash. It seems like a nice place. So when we arrive at the Can Tho bus station I'm not even that troubled when the only transportation option is the third moto ride of the day this time performed with my 14 kilo backpack on my back and my much lighter day pack on my front. If you come to Vietnam forget packing what you can carry, pack only what you can balance on the back of a speeding motorcycle.


Bill Purdy said...

Best. Yet.

Sky said...

Are you all keeping count on how many of Bri's blog posts about SEA involve bathrooms? She is begging for bags of Charmin as "welcome home" presents :)

kfinnefrock said...

Wow- I applaud your braveness and ability to not pee on your foot!