Thursday, December 3, 2009

Like chickens in a coop - From Siem Reap to the border, Cambodia

(Spring 2002) 
Come on, come o-on! I don't have time. It's gonna be a never ending trip, a double day, I get a herniated disc just to think of it. I must hurry up, without messing around. Follow your schedule, you prepared it yesterday, when the heat and the mosquitoes didn't let you sleep. Glob that pancake, gulp down your coffee, pay this rat-hole bill and roll down the stairs. The mototaxis, the motorbikes, where are those kids? There were so many when I didn't need them. Here is one who's spotted his fool, he's coming along to pick me up.

"Need a motorbike? Angkor temples, Sir?" What temples...what Angkor...I've arrived to Siem Reap a week ago, I've consumed those temples more than the centuries and the jungle. "To the main intersection, where the pick-up trucks are." He stares at me blankly, like a sleepwalker or a koala. Koala bears only have two expressions: the eucalyptus-chewing and the eucalyptus-swallowing, in both cases it seems that they're dying with sleep. How do they say main intersection here? The owner of the hotel, she will be able to help me. "Madam, hey! Madam, here! Can you please tell him where I'm going in Cambodian?" The woman lets out some cracks from her throat, it seems that she's breaking wood with her mouth. The koala-driver switches expression, his second way to look a bit dull. He nods his head, lowers his chin, does he understand? Or maybe he's just swallowing some eucalyptus? There's no time, I hop on the bike. He starts, speeds up, yeah, he understood! When we get to the junction I know it's the right one: there seem to be at least a hundred trucks. Which one is it? Who can speak English? This is definitely not a place for tourists, they travel on pseudo-comfortable vans, but I was late, the seats were sold out.

Dozens of vehicles and hundreds of khmers. I'm the only foreigner who moves about the Isuzus. There's who look at me as if I were Pizarro, others smile and say hello, but most of them don't even see me. They have a hard life, among buckets and sacks, trailing tons from dawn to dusk. I finally find it, negotiate the price, hop on the rig that is still empty. After a while an uproar breaks loose, now the truck is like a black hole: it's attracting passengers as if they were planets. In a couple of minutes we're ready to leave. On the trailing rig there are twenty five people, an equal number of sacks of rice, chickens in cages, boxes and suitcases. If somebody wanted to load an egg there wouldn't be space unless someone held it. The posture you assume before the departure is of vital importance and could cost you dearly: it cannot be changed before the journey is over. I didn't know it but I was lucky, my ankle is jammed but the rest is fine.

From Siem Reap to Thailand it's not a long distance, but with the monsoons it could take a day. The weather is good and there are no holes on the road, the truck speeds along it as if it was an autobahn. Halfway through the trip my ankle goes numb: I try to move it but it's perfectly jammed between a sack of grains and the butt of an old woman. I am afraid that the lady might feel offended, but I notice that I cannot have moved more than a nerve. I look at her and study her reaction, she notices my glare and gives me a smile. The parted lips show a canyon of gum and three or four white totems smeared with red stuff. It reminds me of an old and toothless lion that has bitten an already dead gazelle. Then something happens, a surprising thing: somebody ate a chicken or lifted a child. There's an empty space moving in the truck, everybody gets a bit of it but not too much and I use my share to raise my foot. I look at it and I am amazed: it seems to be normal but that's not what I feel. I'll try to explain it with a reverse example: imagine somebody who looks at his leg and instead of a foot there is a brick! It's almost done, I think with relief, but I haven't considered the rest of my body. When you've managed to get over a very big pain, you start to feel the smaller ones.

When the driver finally stops the car all sorts of things fly out of the rig. People are throwing out the stuff that they are carrying, it could be a sack or a baby in a bundle. I can't move and I count on the people's aim. I'm just hit by some junk and only slightly. When the truck is empty I try to move a limb: it feels like every joint is fixed with nails. For a moment I imagine that keeping this posture I reach the doorway with little jumps, I let myself slowly slide over the edge, I softly land and then keep my balance like those dolls with a round weight in the bottom. Then I would jump until the border check-point, without ever leaving the lotus position: the police officers might even like that.

While I'm daydreaming my body relaxes, muscles and tendons are back in control. I first move an arm and then all the rest, put my bag on my shoulder and walk to the counter. Show your passport and the standard smile. Another stamp, a brand new adventure.

Photo of Angkor Wat by Tylerdurden1 (CC), from flickr

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