Thursday, March 29, 2012

Six Hours in Phnom Penh

7:30: You wake in the nicest hotel in Phnom Penh, The Plantation: a place so luxurious you could only afford it because it is in Cambodia. Due to the fact you have to be on a bus by 2:40 to yet another place, you have less than six hours here and in the city itself, a fact the gleaming infinity pool next to the outdoor bar immediately makes you realize was a mistake. The day narrows, expands to a worrying set of choices: what to see, what to do? Worrying the bead of your eternal indecisiveness, you start the day the way you've learned to: with light yoga, which you detest, but is now necessary for your degrading ass muscles. (See: academic ass issues, May 2011, "Packing for the Rapture"). Ass muscles plumped, you go down to the breakfast buffet and eat three small pain au chocolat, each the size of a newborn sea turtle.




8:00: What to do. Trundle down a few blocks over to the Royal Palace, of course. You are immediately bemused by the lack of traffic here, the wide and breezy city streets. So much nicer than Hanoi! A cool breeze wafts up from the river. Tuk tuk drivers putter past, offering their services. You wave them off. What were your friends in Vietnam complaining about the heat for? It's only 70 degrees here! Perfect for walking.

8:20: You want to die. Someone seems to have turned up the volume on the sun, and now sweat streams down the entire length of your body. You stagger into the palace grounds: one big blur of gold and red and white to you in the heat. You think it’s beautiful, but your eyes and face are so filmy with sweat, your brain even now coddling in the heat of your skull, that you have no idea what you are really seeing.




9:30 Tuk Tuk drivers, like vultures, sense your slackening resolve. "Laaaaaady," they croon as you emerge from the palace, woozy and blinking. "You ride with me? You want tuk tuk?" You wave them off, hobble, blearily, towards the river, but once there you realize you are getting nowhere. The sun pounds now, the city blocks seeming to stretch on like your lost infinity pool into the scorched horizon. You check your map. How to get to all these sites into less than 6 hours on foot? And in this heat? Suddenly, a tuk tuk driver wheels his motorbike in front of you. "Hello!" he cries over the sputtering engine. "It is me, Mr. Meth!"


10:00: Mr. Meth drops you off at the Central Market for your first stop: to buy the famous Cambodian scarves a friend at home requested. Once at the market, however, you forget what colors your friend specifically wanted, so you panic, run to the first stall, buy one, two, then ("Fuck it, knock the price down two dollars again and I’ll take this, too.") two more. You know you are supposed to wait, take a look around, but waiting is a problem because you’ve always had poor impulse control, especially with aggressive salespeople. For this reason you won’t ever do heroin or go to an orphanage in Vietnam for fear of suddenly finding yourself the legal guardian of twin babies with cleft palates and Downs syndrome. You know you need to buy something for all those friends at home, SOMETHING as your expression of eternal love for family, friends, God and country, so now you are freaking out and buying three fake Rolex watches. You have no idea who will want these watches, they won’t even work by the time you get home but, hell with it, they’re here, you need to choose something, they’re shiny in the sunlight and maybe for doing this someone will come to love you very very much.



10:50 You drop one of the watches on the cement.

11:00: The pretty girl at the counter now trying to fix the watch is glaring into its delicate, whirring face. The watch is a fake Omega: a stunning gold concoction of spinning gears, whirling little second hands and half-moon size disk cranks. Something about its transparently relentless inner workings speaks to you. The pretty shopgirl beats on a tiny pin in the watch’s metal bracelet, and you glance fondly as the watch gears shudder and spin.

"My sister is supposed to be doing this," she says, smacking at the pin. "But she just have another baby so I run her stall. I work this shop after my sister has her first baby. I studied business. I don’t want this, but my sister needs help with the baby so she asks me. Afterward, she buys a stall just for me." She indicates her stall with a flick of her tiny hammer. You look over towards it past a pile of candy-colored digital watches piled high beside you on the counter.

"You married? You have children?" she asks. You tell her yes and no respectively, and she nods. "You want children?" she asks and you make the noncommittal shrugging you've mastered since coming to southeast Asia. It's easier than explaining how you'd rather not have kids, but are always open to the possibility, and how are you supposed to explain that in your terrible Vietnamese (or nonexistent Cambodian) to someone whose English is also fairly rudimentary?

"I don't want babies,” the shopgirl says. “Babies already change my life, and they are not even my own." She thwacks viciously at the pin and the bracelet snaps in place. She looks up, narrows her eyes.

"Doctors say old women have hard times having babies," she says, vaguely, as if just passing on information she's heard, rather than giving you a very pointed warning.

"I hear it too," you say, smiling obtusely. And the pile of candy-colored digital watches all begin beeping.

11:45: Mr. Meth whips out a series of tour brochures under the fake leather seat of his tuk tuk. There is time, Mr. Meth says, for art and a nice temple, some shopping, but no genocide museum. Or do you want genocide and nice temple, lunch, but no art? Art or genocide, art or genocide. "Genocide interesting," Mr. Meth assures me. "Many people see it."

You shrug, sighing. "Screw it," you say. "Take me to the genocide museum," and realize, as you finish, this is not the first time this sentence has come out of your mouth.

11:50: As you zip through the city, you take pictures: it’s the only time you’ll have to photograph the city. Somewhere after Turkey, however, you snapped the tiny pin that holds the battery in place, and now to take a photo you have to hold the battery in with one finger, while trying both to focus the lens and snap the picture with the rest of your hand. All this means you can't take any photos quickly. So here are some of the sights of Phnom Penh you might reasonably get with a broken Nikon in a tuk tuk going 20 miles an hour:



A nice gate!



The back of Mr. Meth's head!


Perhaps it's time for a new camera, you think. But you can't quite convince yourself yet.

12:00: At the outside of the Genocide Museum, a man appears. His face and arms are horribly burned: a thin film of flesh has woven over the corners of his lips and one of his eyes. You can see the misshapen blue-white orb that used to be his left eye rolling under the skin, like milk sloshing in a jelly casing. He is begging for money but no one gives him any. That is because it is exactly the wrong thing to do. If you want to help him, donate to an organization. It is the wrong thing to do to encourage this begging. His shirt sags open at his chest and you can see the horrible, chemical-looking burns flaming down his chest.

You give him money.

12:45: Chastened, numbed, the Genocide Museum is exactly what you thought it would be: at once both very dull and very affecting, important to see and yet—in its organization--utterly devoid of context. Over the course of a year, you have seen many war and genocide museums, and it is interesting how each different country treats what, on its most basic level, boils down to a horrifically similar narrative. It makes you wonder anew about your ambivalence about visiting these places, especially as it isn’t always clear—from the museum’s standpoint at least—what the museum is there to achieve. In Berlin, the purpose was part expatiation, part pedagogy. But in Cambodia or in the war museums in Vietnam, they switch between peace advocacy and nationalist propaganda. In dark moments, you almost feel certain museums exist solely to make money off tourists eager to “understand things,” so offhandedly have the displays been constructed. Of course, it is also a question of money. Richer country, better museum. Still, if they want us to be horrified by the dehumanizing impulses behind genocide, why devote a portion of a museum to kitschy display cases of victims’ bones? Why the posters and life-size statues of the tortured? And why the hell did you just take a picture of these things? Is this a museum or a freak show? In the end, you feel a little like you did pressing your money into the beggar’s hand without looking him in the face: willing to acknowledge someone’s pain, but only so far.



1:00 Mr. Meth drives you in silence to a restaurant you read about a year ago in Travel and Leisure, a magazine which, due to its often misguided suggestions in Asia, you are slowly learning to hate. Yumi is famous for its pumpkin dumplings which you find that you can’t eat because it is a thousand degrees and you are stupidly wearing skinny jeans. So you sit stifling over your artfully arranged plate of overstuffed fried foods and order glass after glass of freezing cold sake.

1:15 You get drunk.

1:30 And then back into the tuk tuk. You still need gifts. Drunk and shopping! This will go reallyreally well. Mr. Meth speeds you to Street 240, where the hip shops are, taps at his watch to let you know the time. You speed through the shops, gathering up jewelry and scarf after scarf after scarf. In one children’s store, you find a variety of colorful children’s anti-pollution face masks. Sadly, you realize, this would also be appropriate for your friends’ kids back in Salt Lake. You buy three.

At the home store, you experience an intense wave of sadness. You miss your bed, your closets, your books, your cooking utensils. You miss your bathroom and all the towels that don’t flake bits of thread all over your face. But most of all, you miss knowing where your home is or will be. In one of your latest phone conversations with your husband, the possibility of moving to one of his apartments in Salt Lake that would allow you to both live rent-free came up, the two of you batted it back and forth, couldn’t decide, could, talked endlessly about renovating this new place to make enough room for you both, gave up. In the heat of all this endless questioning, you even started a Pinterest account so you could show him your renovation ideas for this possible new home—Pinterest, the Cultural Nadir of Endless Waffling--and now, to your horror, people are FOLLOWING IT. And what have you decided exactly? Traveling place to place and still no permanent place at the end of it all? Will you ALWAYS be moving?

Still drunk, you get teary over the pearlescent bar of soap shaped like a lotus. You want it, but you have no idea where you’ll be putting it and it will just break anyway in your suitcase over the next few months. You hold it in your hand, breathing in its perfume.

“You like it,” the salesgirl behind you says, “we also have a scarf with this pattern.” She holds it up. Blurry pearls of petals.

A scarf won’t break. A scarf can be rolled up. It goes anywhere, no problems.

You buy it.

2:50 LATE! Mr. Meth shrieks to a stop by the bus stop, unloads your burgeoning luggage, speeds off after you’ve been safely escorted onto a mini-van with a Japanese student who, immediately upon meeting you, gives you his business card. It looks like this:



Sweaty, still drunk, the card clutched in your palm, and the Japanese student chattering at you politely in the bus, you fall immediately asleep.

8:00 PM You wake in the bus tilted at an odd angle. The bus has a flat and now everyone is outside, squinting in the pitch black. You get out to join them and are struck by a wave of sticky heat in which slow moths drift like pollen buds. Men rush around, talking quietly but earnestly with the driver about what seems to be the uselessness of the jack.

It is quiet. There are no lights in the countryside and the dark seems to stretch on and on, punctuated at points by the sound of a dog bark, the flicker of a fire going on, smoking out. You stand and feel the world cooling around you, imagining the few people nearby settling into their evening routines—dinner, talk, bed—in as comfortable and uneventful a manner as they can manage. Less than a quarter of a mile away, a whole world of people in the thick of their lives. You are tired and filled, for one moment, with jealousy. And somewhere, you are just the faintest bit disappointed in yourself.

A sudden clatter, like the explosive patter of tap dancers, erupts as two enormous water buffalo trot out of the dark. You and the Japanese student simultaneously let loose a high-pitched shriek. The water buffalo scoot past, astonishingly light-footed. You and the student are both still standing there, gaping into the dark when a female passenger comes to tell you the driver has changed out the flat and installed the new tire. Applauding, you follow her to the tiny circle of passengers watching the driver check over his work. He shines a flashlight over the ground to make sure he hasn’t missed something. On his second pass, he finds one small silver screw pin. He looks down at it, looks up at all of you, grins and shrugs as he scoops it off the ground. It’s a small thing. Chances are, you’ll be fine enough without it. He straightens and waves everyone onto the bus.

“Time,” he tells you. “And now we go on.”



1 comment:

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