Friday, June 11, 2010

The Wheels On The Bus Go Round and Round

Thursday started for us at dawn when we said good bye to our hosts in Siem Reap and started the The Big Bus Aventure. We clamored on board and noted our fellow travelers weren't old women with chickens for market but bleary-eyed college students. I guess the good news was we weren’t on “the chicken bus” and the bad news is I was spending the day with teenagers. Fortunately, it was early so they were quiet and my guess was they hadn’t been to bed yet or had scant sleep the night before. We wound our way through early morning traffic; I was surprised there was so much traffic before seven in the morning. The bus station was a large parking lot, littered with people waiting for busses to run and vendors selling baguettes and drinks. The bread here is the best bread I’ve ever had. Probably because Siem Reap’s weather reminds me of living in a proofer: Hot and damp but not hot enough to actually bake. We found our bus, loaded our extremely heavy backpacks and The Girl went in search of baguettes and cheese for our journey. I wasn’t really sure what to expect: had the rainy season started to the south and the road under a few inches of water? What would we see? Would the villages be horrible or picturesque? Would I die of boredom on a ten hour bus trip? Most importantly, the bus was leaving late…would we make our connection in Phenon Phen?

The ditches were full in places but the road was dry
Lots of cows.
Absolutely not
Yes and we even waited for a bus later than our own.

We had covered a few miles on National Highway 6 a few days before when we were making our way through the temples. I knew what to expect: small houses on stilts, cows and people working at various tasks along the road. Our bus was comfortable, cool enough without being over air conditioned. The scenary flashed outside my window like a dream at times and a green blur at others. The Khmer pop music playing in the background was the perfect accompaniment for the countryside to unfold and tell a story of a day in Cambodia. A few of the songs were very catchy and at times I felt like we should sway, sing along and perhaps wave lighters in the air as a tribute to the moving lyrics and power ballad cords. Stirring stuff. Too bad I hadn’t a clue what was being sung.

As the landscape rolled past me, I snapped picture after picture trying to capture exactly what it was I was seeing. Sometimes I captured the scene but most of the time I was so close but so far away. The voyeur in me loved watching the lives pass as we made our way through the country: children on their way to school, helping in the fields, men tinkering or planting, Women working in the small garden plots, babies tied to their sides. I watched groups of women sitting in circles, performing small detail oriented tasks, the younger women always turned towards the oldest who sat higher than the rest. Sometimes they looked deep in thought other times they had the easier continence of telling stories or gossiping with one another. The small shops in each village held a clutch of men who were working side by side fixing things or loading trucks. Each village had a small primary school (at the least) and by the time we were out of Siem Reap, morning school had started and the bicycles were neatly parked by the classroom doors. The schools were low slung one story buildings, built around a common area and almost always next door to the village temple which were always the most ornate and largest buildings in the village. The school windows were unfettered by glass with only simple shutters to protect the classrooms from wind and water. I imagined the afternoons in the classrooms were stifling. By ten, you could see kids playing in the common area: boys on one side of the playground and girls on the other. I’m not sure if this was the rule or just the universal way children are until they are teenagers. The games they appeared to play were just like the games our own children play. Some of the schools were in more prosperous villages than others and had real playgrounds with the old fashioned equipment my generation grew up with before it was considered too dangerous to have a merry-go-round and climbing bars.

Many of the villages seemed to specialize in one craft or task. One village had wood and wooden building materials; everything from firewood to furniture. Another specialized in cement and stone masonry. Masons were working on decorative images of Buddha and some of the characters featured in the bas reliefs we had just seen in Angkor: Garuda and Apsara dancers. A few days before we went though a village which specialized in sticky rice cooked in hollowed bamboo shoots. Stand after stand of this special rice was featured on the side of the road. It was amazing the women recouped their outlay on rice and bamboo. But then they probably gathered their own bamboo and grew their own rice. Every available spot of land appeared to have rice growing on it and as we moved further south it seemed like the rains were beginning and the rice fields had become paddies. Rice as it is growing is a surreal shade of green, too.

As the day progressed the microcosmic worlds I witnessed progressed, too. At lunch time, people were gathered sharing a meal; often it was simply a man and a women. One couple were seated close together, heads almost touching, laughing about something together; the intimacy evoked in those few seconds is remarkable to me. It also brought home the idea there is joy to be had even if you are a sustenance farmer in the middle of a developing country. Probably more joy than most of us in the cities know. These homes were without evidence of electricity and I know they don’t have running water. Their lives are uncluttered by the things I take for granted: just now I’m typing on a computer, television playing in the background and Air Con humming to keep the cloying night heat and bugs outside. This is not to say I’m romanticizing living conditions I witnessed. Some of the farms were unspeakably littered with trash and often surrounded by a moat of nasty looking water. By and large the filthiest places were adjacent to larger towns and perhaps the most desperate living conditions I witnessed were outside Phenom Phen. It was in these places the people looked dirty, unhealthy and poorly fed. It puzzles me why this would be the case: the larger towns had health clinics, large schools and a temple or monastery at the center of the activity. Why did those people appear hungry? And when I say dirty, I mean truly unkempt. On the most rudimentary farms, the children had cleanish hair and the women appeared recently bathed and their simple sarong skirts and tee shirts were well cared for. I’m actually very troubled by what I witnessed in PP’s outskirts. The city itself wasn't much better and it was a busy, mad and desultory place.

As we pulled into the bus station the Tuk-Tuk drivers and tax drivers rushed the side of the bus, screaming at us to purchase rides from them, pounding on the sides. It reminded me of pictures I've seen of riots in the Middle East as the mob descends on American military convoys or press convoys. These guys were like piranhas and made the kids at the temples look like Doctor fish. The city was a disorienting experience and I felt so very green and gullible. Like I had just come in from the provinces. I can't even wrap my head around what this city must feel like to someone who has spent their life on one of the farms in the country. It must seem like Hell. I haven’t been overwhelmed by a city since 1984 when I walked up the stairs from Penn Station and into Midtown Manhattan. I was 23 and it was one of the most intimidating moments of my life: I was completely alone in an alien place. This is how I felt in PP. I’m so glad we weren’t staying there or looking for a place to stay because I would have simply withered into a puddle of babbling frightened goo on the side of the street. Changing busses was nerve-wracking on it’s own.

The rest stops were like episodes of Bizarre Food. The Cambodian delicacies offered to us included crickets, worms, freshwater snails and crab (from the rice paddies), deep fried bat on a stick (no, really). I expected to see Andrew Kimmern around the corner snacking on the bat and crabs. The most exotic thing I tried Thursday was sticky rice, banana and a little coconut milk congealed and baked in a banana leaf. It was a little bland but filling and I would eat it again if I could douse it with Khmer ketchup (“Mild Hot Sauce). Just walking through these mini markets was a day’s worth of memories and images.

After leaving the mad crush of Phenom Phen we crept our way up into the mountains. I couldn’t take pictures because the bus we were on was like a school bus and the windows were small and had large bars across them. I’m hoping for a different bus on the way back to Siem Reap next week because the countryside was breathtaking, a cross between Switzerland and Maui. The farms were well tended and clean, the cows were fat and healthy looking. I’m not an outdoorsy person by any stretch of the imagination but this place made me want to strike out on my own, walking stick in hand and climbing the mountains just to witness the views from the top. I wanted to rest in the lush fields and climb the tall trees. Never mind the wild boar, snakes, insects and land mines. There was large monastery in these mountains and just imagining the quiet in such a sacred place gave me a great sense of peace and was a drought for the degradation and frenzy of the capital city.

As we moved closer to our destination, I could feel the anticipation mount in the Khmer people on the bus. They knew we were getting closer and started talking more to one another, excited to be either returning home from the capital or beginning a sea side holiday. Our first glimpses of the Gulf of Thailand were unforgettable: the mountains rising on side and a lovely light blue sea, off in the distance on the other. It was a little gift before we entered Sihanoukville, a miniature version of Phen Phen.

“Snookie” is a beach town and it is geared for “Broads, Booze and Boys”. This place feels ready for action as you enter into the downtown, each side of the main drag flanked with tall spindly guesthouses and open air restaurants. Twenty odd years ago I would have welcomed this scene and been the first off the bus looking for the all night Beach Rave (it’s on Serendipity Beach, in case you ever want to go) and a cold Angkor Beer ready to groove to the pounding music and let my freak flag fly! ‘Snookie is a gritty beach town. Really gritty. Like Atlantic City before the casinos gritty (I’ve seen pictures). Like Progresso Mexico gritty. Ok…maybe not thatgritty. Even after PP and Snookie, Progresso remains the grittiest scariest place I’ve ever spent a night. The third rate carnival that was in town that night just iced the cake which was decorated with disheveled cross dressing boy hustlers who were turning tricks in the “hotel” we were staying. When we told people where we were staying in Snookie if they were at all familiar with the town their unanimous response was: “Why there? It’s really far from everything. Don’t you want to be in the middle of town? Close to the beach bars?” Um…no…because when I look out my window in the morning I want to see this.

No comments: