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.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Cambodia: Come for the Temples Stay for the Adoption Procedings

To be a good liberal leftie it sometimes seems that you have to love all countries and that you have to especially love all countries that are poor and you have to super especially love all countries where the people had some terrible shit go down (extra super double especially if the US brought that shit down themselves). By this scale Cambodia should be the number one leftie travel destination. The problem is that even bleeding hearts love 500 thread count sheets and electricity and clean sidewalks. Cambodia is pretty rough around the edges. The streets are mostly doubling as garbage dumps, the traffic is chaos, the bugs are huge. When you're traveling, especially when you're traveling for long enough to be called a traveler, you start to feel like you should go see the REAL shit. You know, the stuff mere vacationers never have the time to find, the places that other white people fear to tread. But if you're like me (bourgeois, impatient, really super white) you don't really want to be in the shit. It's always either too depressing or too boring and so you end up on a beach somewhere, looking at the beautiful ocean and wondering if you should have just gone to Florida (You know, if Florida was about 500 times cheaper).

The poverty and the history of the Khmer Rouge make Cambodia a troubling vacation spot. The people are in your face constantly trying to sell you something you don't need for more then it's worth and the history is in your face constantly reminding you that maybe you should buy a plastic change purse for $5. Hell, maybe you should buy 7. The Tuktuk driver who I'm trying to talk down from $3 to $2 for a ride across town is thinking, "Look bitch, your country bombed this place as part of a war with my enemies for 5 years, THEN some asshole from my own country who couldn't even pass college IN FRANCE comes back and just starts killing people because he thinks farming rice should be my greatest joy in life and now I've got drunk white girls all over the place who wanna argue with me over an amount of money that any other day they'd gladly use to buy 1/4 of a cup of coffee." And I can't blame the dude. If I lived through life in Cambodia 25 years ago my ass would STILL be drunk and anytime someone so much as brought up the idea of me and my friends maybe getting jobs and establishing a sanitation department I'd roll my eyes and start with the "When I was your age..." stories. I don't blame him, but I don't have to enjoy paying 3 times the going rate for a ride to the bar.

In Cambodia we have sat on beautiful beaches, seen a tree full to brimming with gigantic fruit bats and eaten a brilliant concoction called bonsong which consists of cold rice noodles, chunks of cucumber, grilled pork, peanuts, a chopped up spring roll and a savory broth. But Cambodia is known for only a few things: Horrible genocide, amazing temple ruins, orphanages and the making of the Tomb Raider movies.

After only 8 days in Cambodia, I can tell you exactly what happened to Angelina Jolie. She shows up decked out in her Lara Croft finery, having just discovered that with enough humidity and enough latex, yes, you can sweat from your boobs. Her hotel doesn't have a full wall between the bedroom and the bathroom, this entire town seems to be sculpted out of wet stinky mud and ain't nobody serving a PB&J, not even if you're making a blockbuster film, not even if you pay $20. She rocks into a local establishment and orders a Cointreau, lime juice and soda because, for some reason, she doesn't know that drowning misery requires much stronger medicine then orange liqueur. (The place names this drink after her and thus dooms all future tourists into paying top dollar for a glass of booze whose alcohol content can't possible be over 3%.) Anyway, she's in a bad mood. But then, out of the 900 degree heat pops a smiling little face, he makes a few jokes, they laugh, he maybe tries to sell her a lanyard, she buys 8. Then, next thing you know, she's back in LA shaving a faux-hawk onto the head of a 3 year old Cambodian boy and talking about raising her own international soccer team.

The kids in Cambodia are adorable. Sure they're always trying to selling you chotskis for inflated prices but they're also smiling and waving and dancing all over the country. The shrieks of "HELLLLOOOOOOO!!!!!" followed by waving so vigorous it could spawn a new aerobics trend, peel from school house windows. The local custom seems to be to dress all boys under the age of 4 in only a tshirt and so I have seen more peen in this country then in 5 years on the NYC dating scene. In one restaurant, the owner's son got his naked butt up on a table and dropped it like it was scorching hot all over the flatware. The next day, on a second visit (how could we say no to a free dinner show?), he emerged from his bath holding a gigantic toy ray gun and stalked his way across the dining room like the naked Cambodia James Bond before being scooped up for fatherly butt swatting.

Our greatest Cambodian child cuteness show took place in Angelina's own stomping grounds just outside of the temples at Angkor Wat. A few nights into our stay (visiting the sights of all of Lara Croft's greatest ass kickings, naturally) we had dinner at the local night market. The owner/waitress had brought us a bunson burner, a makeshift grill, a plate of raw shrimp and squid and her 5 year old child to keep us company. He started off his comedy stylings with a costume composed of toothpicks stuck anywhere they'd stick -- his nose, his hair, his mouth, all were festooned with wooden barbs -- perfect for scaring the white people. I met his growl with a "Grrrr!" of my own and a friendship was born. Next he showed us his muscles, and examined ours, feigning awe. Then he ran out into the street and flagged down a tuktuk driver, he climbed into his carriage and waved and waved as his chauffeur drove him slowly around the block. Then he was back to show us his belly, and demanding to see our bellies, then his chest -- my refusal to respond by flashing by bra received much frowning and pointing but I held my ground and managed to avoid a Cambodian indecent exposure arrest. Next, he demanded to use my Carmex but he obviously wasn't expecting lipgloss with such a kick because as soon as it hit his lips he was spitting on the ground and wailing to his mom about how disgusting this American woman was. By now we were done with dinner and forced to be on our way bidding our new friend adieu with vigorous waves of our own and a 2000 Reil ($.50) tip for his troubles.

So let's say you don't want to adopt a Cambodia kid -- should you still plan a visit? Well, the nice hotel rooms are $25 and so far the beaches are free of full moon parties. The temples put the ruins in Rome to shame and occasionally you can find street vendors selling doughy steamed buns stuffed with everything from minced chicken to cabbage and boiled egg. So, of course, like any Obama-loving secret socialist I'm going to do the good thing and say, "Yes, Come to Cambodia." Be shocked and sad and a little grossed out. Be amused and giggly and awed. And when you're sitting on a street corner in the dustiest town ever next to a river of mud unable to find a cafe clean enough that your lily white butt won't cringe while drinking her coke breath in, apologize to your boyfriend for being a huge baby and figure that this too is part of the experience. And then get yourself on the next bus to the beach.

And really, you can't be sure that you don't want a Cambodian child of your very own until you see them in action. Our little friend from the market wasn't even in an orphanage, in fact his mother was standing 5 feet away so I had to consider more drastic action like telling him I had some candy in a van just down the road. Unfortunately he was more of a Jolly Ranchers fan and I went with Snickers, foiled again.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Cambodia: If You Don't Buy From Me, I Cry

I love kids. I love them so much that if you're under 10 years old and I meet you on the subway in NYC or waiting for the bus in Bangkok I will smile and make funny faces and wave and blow kisses. So kids, if you're wondering who that crazy lady was -- it was me.

I am also not above buying your love. This is why I do not even consider visiting my niece and nephew without presents in hands. I find that children under the age of 5 are very easily bought off so for the price of a latte I can purchase at least 3 kisses and an I love you. Deal. Similarly, I have a long standing rule that I'm buying whatever the kids are selling -- from lemonade to Girl Scout cookies to raffles tickets for a cord of wood -- here's my dollar. In fact, in the case of Girl Scout cookies, here's my wallet.

Cambodia has shot my approach to children straight to hell. The kids are everywhere, waving back at me, saying crazy precocious things in better English than I speak, selling me postcards. And there's the rub. A girl can only buy so many postcards before her $70/day budget is completely blown.

I make the perfect target but despite my nature I've been breaking little hearts all over the country. In Phnom Phen the kids are all selling books. Copies of The Killing Fields pour from laundry baskets carried by 8 year olds at the Khmer restaurants and outside of the national palace and I was personally offered every single copy. Ultimately though, Geoff was the real target. Sitting at dinner on our last night in Phenon Phen he was hit up first by a 14 year old Obama fan (how awesome is it to be proud of our president while abroad? SUPER awesome) who he managed to fend off. Then came an 8 year old dressed in a smart button down shirt, red jams and a pair of pink crocs. He had all of the tactics down. "You, buy a book." "Buy this book, everyone loves it." "I have not read it but all of the tourists think it is great." "Why not? You don't like to read?" "Ok, you eating dinner, I let you eat and then I come back." And to me, "If he does not buy a book you buy a book." Impressive move sir.

And as soon as the last of our Angkor beer, amok and loc lac was deposited in our tummies he was back. "Hello, ok, you done. You buy book now." This finally devolved into a Rock, Paper, Scissors challenge and Geoff cannot resist any opportunity to gamble. So we now own a copy of The Killing Fields ($6) with a very nice cover and inside pages that appear to be photocopied on a machine from 1988. I also bought a set of 12 postcards for $2 because I am a sucker and also because one has a picture of kids and a buffalo and the back says "Children with Buffles" -- No one can resist Buffles, not even a cold hearted snake like myself.

The kid salesman mob at the front of the Angkor Wat temples means business. They swarm you as soon as you exit your tuktuk with cries of "Laaaaadeeeee! You want cold drink?" "You want bracelet?" "Five for 1 dollar!!" The first English phrase learned by all Cambodia children is "No, Thank You." The salesmanship is also bordering on stalking. "I remember you, you come back you buy from me." "You come back you want cold drink, you only buy from me, or else." "You not buy from me I cry." No pressure. Thankfully, these are all idle threats, but as soon as some kid comes through with the tears I will probably lose my resolve, give her all of my money, and catch the next flight back to the job that pays for my food/ragamuffin support fund.

Billy Mays is alive and well in the hearts of Cambodia. "You want wooden flute?" "It has carving!" "But wait there's more! Carving of bird!" "And an all bamboo woven case!" "BUT WAIT!" "All this for ONLY $1!!!!" "You buy flute now!"

Sadly (or for my budget, luckily) the children selling things outside of the temples here have failed miserably in understanding the needs of their customers.

Things Being Sold By Children Outside of Angkor Wat
  • A million "silk" scarfs
  • Gold painted Buddha figurines
  • Pieces of bamboo folded into the shape of a grasshopper
  • Photocopies of the Lonely Planet
  • Water

Things I Wanted to Buy Outside of Angkor Wat
  • A shower
  • A battery powered fan
  • A huge chunk of ice
  • Gatoraid
  • A parasol
  • Moister wicking underwear
  • Water

Those water salesman made a killing.

If I weren't committed to 2 more months of carrying all of my belongs on my back this would be a shoppers paradise. Tshirts for $5, scarves for $1, piles of silk pillow cases for $2. (Aside: Thailand is just as good and in our last few days there in May the spending spree is ON. Place your orders for knock off Calvin Klein panties and generic Viagra ($9/15 pills!!!)). Besides the pack of postcards and a tuktuk full of bottled water I'm purchase free. Good for the budget, but obviously I'll be back in Brooklyn come June lying in Prospect park wishing some toddler would waddle by with bottles of water and a $5 t-shirt covered in engrish.