Friday, March 18, 2011

In the land of beggars the limbless man is king.

"A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.”

-W.C. Fields

In the land of beggars the limbless man is king.

Cambodia is an emotional cauldron. While unsure as to the proportions of each adjective, I am certain that they are, appropriately, juxtaposed. Exotically chaotic, frustratingly beautiful, a country that can both charm and chill to the bone, a land where children will be smiling and waving at you from the left side of the street while the right is littered with signs reading, “Danger! Mines!”

Don’t come to Cambodia to relax, to vacate from reality, to vacation. Come for an education, for adventure. Come here to travel.

In Angkor Thom you may find yourself pedaling around an elephant-taxi only to have your bike’s front tire advancing head-on at several monkeys in the road. It’s one of those ‘moments’, only a split second or two, that may show up in the mind’s movie reel as you exhale for the final time. Same with Battambang’s Bamboo Train, where an ultra-light frame made of—you guessed it--bamboo is powered by a small gasoline engine along a click-clacking French-era single track line. When a ‘train’ comes from the opposite direction the less loaded one is disassembled to let the other pass. It’s akin to a roller coaster without all those silly safety precautions. Like seatbelts.

There’s the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau where, aside a reclining Buddha, sits a memorial of skulls from those bludgeoned to death and thrown into the cave by the Khmer Rouge. Clubs were the favored tool of execution to save bullets. Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Museum is even more stomach-churning, a high school before Pol Pot’s security forces converted it into a torture chamber in 1975. Known as S-21, thousands met their demise through starvation only after being electrocuted and having their toenails plied off. Thousands of faces stare at you as you tour through, the deceased photographed by the Khmer Rouge to document the revolution.

From Cambodia what you’re certain to take home with you is a sense of guilt, of shame. For ever thinking you’ve lived a hard-knock life. For ever carrying the thought, ‘woe is me’. No. Woe is Cambodia.

You walk into Angkor Wat or one of the surrounding temples and they can’t be avoided. Young kids in ragged clothing selling postcards and magnets and bracelets that nobody wants. From three year-olds to seven to twelve, all ages are of the working class in Cambodia. Even on a Tuesday at ten in the morning. They’re being schooled in how to shout, “Ten postcards for one dollar,” which quickly turns into ten postcards for fifty cents as they run along side you and then, as you finally escape into the temple, your back to them, they yell out that they’ll throw in a few bracelets for free.

They might as well be selling Dengue Fever or malaria or STDs. Nobody wants it. Nobody wants to be asked if they want it. Nobody wants to be solicited for five minutes by the same persistent five-year-old who’s been wearing the same pair of shorts for the last thirty-seven days. Nobody wants the pleas followed up by the phrase, “Please buy, mister. Really want to go to school.”

You hear this from ten different children in a half hour and it’s no longer effective. True or not, it’s just a fact of life. Fair or not, upon the hundredth hearing it no longer makes its way into the lobe.

But you see it. Dirt on his forehead, elbows sticking out, a collarbone jutting from the skin seemingly eager to look at the temples itself. Toenails cracked, split the entire length of the nail. You can feel his desperation.

You’re at a restaurant enjoying dinner in Siem Reap, Cambodia, your pineapple shake the perfect palate companion to your pineapple chicken. Winding down after a long, increasingly humid, sunrise to sunset temple biking tour, you put in over fifty kilometers and its time to kick back and gorge like an Italian mob Don. Life is good, but not for everyone.

A young boy walks right up to you. You’re sitting down at a restaurant enjoying dinner and this boy, not a shred of respect, approaches hawking books. Then bracelets. He’s using the school line. You want some peace, some alone time from the impoverished, an evening without the sign on your back that lets the locals know you excrete U.S. currency. You can’t crap without adding to your bank account.

“Fine,” the boy says, dejectedly adamant. “You buy me fried rice.”

Okay. Sit down.

He looks at you, shrugs, remains standing. Five minutes pass. The waiter comes by to shoo the kid off, but you say, “No. No, I told him I would buy him fried rice.”

The boy stands, silent, perplexed. Two plates are brought out.

“Can I sit down?” the boy asks.

You’re white, weigh over a hundred kilos and stoop down to eat. He’s small, dirty and can just reach his food. When you’re almost a third of the way done he’s licking his plate clean. He stays seated, watching as you finish dinner, salivating as you sip on your shake.

Other kids arrive. A half dozen. They want you to buy postcards and magnets.

These children, they catch on quickly, their requested demands soon metamorphose into, “Buy me fried rice like you did for him.” They all look just as hungry, they’d all lick their plates clean before you took your fifth swallow. They’re all sad to look at. Their smiles are all beautiful.

Poor and hungry, they still smile. They still have a glow to their eyes like you’ve never seen before in the overabundant First World from which you originate.

You came here for this as much as the temples. The people, the poverty, you wanted to find out how it would make you feel. You wanted to find out if you’d feel.

In Battambang, Cambodia you come out of a store and she pounces. Her cheekbones in your face, her gauntness making her eyes appear that much larger. A woman in rags holding two infants, one in each arm. Just waiting for someone with money in their pocket to walk out of the store and look into her pupils or, better yet, the eyes of one of her babies.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia you’re walking back to your guest house after visiting the Tuol Seng Museum, despondent after taking in the torture chamber. A hand grasps your arm. You turn to look at your assailant. He’s forty, maybe fifty, he’s thrusting his other hand in your face. It’s not there. There is no other hand. He’s intent on ensuring you take notice.

You keep walking. He keeps clutching. Simultaneously a tuk-tuk driver is pestering for a fare.

You maintain that you’re not interested in a ride. You say this seven times because the tuk-tuk driver keeps asking. They all do. They all require seven ‘no thank yous’ before moving on to harass someone else. The beggar releases his grasp on your arm only when you steer him into a motorcycle parked on the side of the road.

Come on, you're thinking. He still had a hand to work with. That's how numb you've become.

The next block, it brings a woman scooting herself and the child on her lap down the road. Inching along the pavement, the motorcycles lurch and totter around her. She has legs but they’re apparantly inoperable.

Just where the hell is she going? It’s going to take her the next three weeks to traverse the street.

Just where the hell are you?

Oh, right. Cambodia.

Keep drifting.

The ladies of Angkor Wat.

Inside Angkor Wat.

From Phnom Sampeau, outside Battambang, Cambodia.

I guess it's time to turn back.

Phnom Banan, outside Battambang, Cambodia.
Skulls from the Killing Caves outside Battambang, Cambodia.

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