The Human Minimart: Cambodia Part 1
“Sooooo OJ just jumped on a motorbike to buy some green. Will I ever see him again? #lockedupabroad #cambodia” @Scarlettsmithin
Ever wonder what type of sound metal and steel makes? Or would make if it could? I thought it would be like a low hum, a persistent “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH.” Something quiet yet enough to annoy a puppy with sensitive ears. This is what I was listening to now, in the middle of Hanoi international, hung over like a towel left to dry on a rusty metal shower rack. My forehead drenched, mixed with the tropical city humidity and droplets of common sense (or lack of) slipping from my eyebrows. Somehow we managed to pack, order a car, and find our gate with about 1 hour to spare. My throbbing head and stomach ache shuffling in between being prepared and being frantic. There was no way I was taking Kara’s yellow mellow in good faith. Even after finding a smoking lounge inside the aipport and sucking down a sake shake I still couldn’t relax. I catch myself asking a cardboard cutout of an Asian stewardess if I’m at the correct gate.
The flight was a 3 hour tray after tray of eastern delicacies shrink wrapped and in courses. By the time we land in Cambodia the remaining alcohol in my system is drowned by my love of hospital food. My food baby was a full 5 months and perfect for my walk off the airplane on to the tarmac. This is what movie stars must have felt like in the 50’s. Kara didn’t disappoint with her long breezy black dress and her Jackie O sized sunglasses. I, as expected, acted as excited (entitled) and immature as ever. The arrival gate at Cambodia was an amazing mix of iron, bamboo, and a million Buddha statutes. It was also clogged with old Chinese and German tourist waiting on one pen to fill out their visas. I don’t do the waiting. I skate through the Cambodian Zen on the back of a luggage cart – always the American idiot.
The outside of the airport was nothing like cash and grab atmosphere of Hanoi. Sure there was a few people trying to hustle up carfares but everything seemed more still and organized – surprising considering the security personnel’s average height is about 5 ft nothing. I don’t even remember having to remove my shoes when I passed through security in Vietnam. For a country in constant border disputes with Thailand this airport had the security of the Regal Union Square movie theatre back home
Phanna introduced himself with a smile that could have convinced me buy a tube of Colgate toothpaste filled with shit and even more shit. His offering to be our driver to our hostel in Siem Reap sounded like our respective mothers had called ahead and had him handpicked for just for us. His Altima was a pristine late model edition that came with tissues and a scrap book filled with all the compliments he’s gotten for his service over the years. He sells us his personal driver and tour guide services for a mere 30 dollars a day – the entire day. We were only staying for 3 days and Trip Advisor website had told us to be wary of the drivers that vulture on tourist and not to take unlicensed ones. This – along with the glowing reviews in his composition Yelp notebook –we ate up like a couple in a pie eating contest.
And then he turned into our tour guide.
He begins to tell us of the immense level of poverty, how the average family of 4 in Cambodia can, and most do, live off less than1 American dollar a day. As if Sally Struthers was invisible sitting in the passenger seat, he told us things a breath short of a Unicef commercial treatment:
The land mines left over from all of the wars fought, many still active and unaccounted for.
The deviant levels of sexual tourism.
The orphan population.
My Cambodian cab driver was like a sumo wrestler’s dominatrix, satisfying every one of my brutal curiosities with a spanking of facts and numbers and plenty of hand motioning to scenes of historical horrors. OJ couldn’t just enjoy the scenic route of the electric jungle he was being driven through, OJ wanted to hear about every ball shriveling detail and the demons that orchestrated them along with the demons bio and an address in case he wanted to stop by and chat. OJ wanted to be scared. OJ wanted the adrenaline. Kara just looked out the window and did the sarcastic agreeing hum people do when they don’t want to talk about it anymore. Kara just wanted to lie down, and maybe for OJ to calm down and shut up.
Our hostel was in the middle of a dark alley in the middle of a rain forest. A friendly staff dressed in what I jokingly called “traditional” Buddhist monk attire greats us at the door. They take us to a tiki hut themed dining hall on the side of the hostel and gifted us with the “traditional” greeting treats of Thai lemonade and roasted peanuts. The TV was on BBC World News. It was nothing but “Osama bin laden is dead” 24 hours a day by this point. One of the news reels was about the porn he had in his fortress. It reminded me of the time a good friend was describing how much porn he had and I asked to borrow one. He told me I was “bugging the fuck out” – that a man’s porn collection should be as private as his personal thoughts. His denying me a peek of his stash didn’t make sense to me then, but it sure as hell did now.
Our room was smaller than the one we had in Vietnam but creatively designed in a minimalist Asian fashion. The bathroom was small and was pretty much a stand up shower with a toilet and a sink inside of it. It also had one of those water hose bidet things for when you did number 2. This fueled my theory that the third world was bit more efficient and advanced than us – or at least a bit more hygienic. The bed wasn’t a stiff board as the one in Vietnam and it came adorned with a romantic canopy. The air conditioning was backed up by an overhead desk top fan glued to the wall. The room looked like someplace a Bollywood couple would escape for an epic nooner. Kara was more impressed by the 3 dollar massages our hostel offered. If Harlem had 3 dollar 1 hour massages the crack epidemic would have never have happened. This hostel was doing everything short of dropping rose petals at our shoes – which we probably weren’t supposed to wear inside the hostel out of respect.
After the pre requisite jumping on the bed and the opening of all the drawers most childish travelers (or just me) do, we decide to hit the market place our driver recommended earlier due to its safety. He also recommended not looking the “street urchins” in the eye and not to buy drugs or bang the underage hookers – which is always great advice to give a visiting couple from the New York Cities. 7pm in Cambodia was like a midnight in a dark Bowery Street alleyway. As beautiful as the walk was the pep in our step was now a paranoid skip followed by an anxious sprint. Everyone started offering us “mardyjuana” and “coka”. All the little kids kept calling me “Yoyoyo”. The weed I understood, because the guy that kind of looks like Bob Marley has to smoke, but some of the stuff I was being offered was pure junkie shit. My repeated no’s were followed by trinkets being offered to buy and street soups and meats to try, everything we were told to avoid. Our sprint turned into an offensive run for a touchdown.
The market place looked like anything you would see in a city where there’s an Italian street festival. “Traditional” crap for westerners looking for “culture”. On one end there were stands loaded with weird looking Super Mario video game fruits and on the other it was friendship bracelets and garments worn by the Gods. One table had wooden dildos with a finish so smooth I don’t know why I’m even talking about it. Ew. I try the flesh eating fish pedicure in one of the booths and scream like a little girl – prompting the locals and a few random tourist to bust my balls. Ha ha it was flesh eating fish! Kara got some parachute pants with elephants on it while I got some liquor with a scorpion inside of the bottle for my son. It’s supposed to be magical or something. I like to give him weird gifts. After perusing aisle after aisle of fancy scarves and bamboo puppets it happens: From a distance I spot an all too familiar hand to hand movement and start salivating. Fuck all this cautious bullshit. I wanted to buy weed.
The walk back to the hostel consisted me of “G Checking” every random alien dealer on the street. In New York there’s this saying; “real detects real.” – this meant me looking at every stranger in the eye for something close to the looks I would get in front of the bodegas of my urban upbringing. Soon enough I found one I felt I could trust. I don’t know if I could really, it was just something in his eyes. Very aware of the police check point across the road he motions me on to his motor bike to commence the transaction. Kara gives me the “are you sure?” glance but I was too focused on pot to be concerned with her motherly worries. I motion her back to the hostel with all of our valuables just to be on the “safe” side. In hindsight I owe her an apology. She saw me hop on a bike with a drug dealer in a country where they jail drug abusers for life.
The bike dipped down one dark alley, then another while I negotiated on the quality and quantity of the product from the back of his bike. His English was fair but my nerves were turning out to be the definitive language barrier. Plus: I felt I was on the back of this guys bike way too long. Once he put the contraband in my possession my cool demeanor almost turned into a last quarter/ last minute fumble. On his last turn we ride right into a check point. My Spidey Senses are tingling on a 1000 different sensations. Fuck it it’s about to be day old Pho and being chained to a bear trap for the rest of my life in a Cambodian prison. I’m compelled to just jump off and run but I don’t. I tuck the bag of fuckery into the cuff of my jeans. My dealer speeds up and does a sharp Dukes of Hazards cut right pass the policemen and into the shadows – almost like we slid under an umpire to tag home plate. My lungs breathe out an electrified “HOLY SHIT” as I jump off the back of his bike and into the safety of the dark. I fumble through my pockets for the required currency. My shaking hands short him about 3 American dollars. It doesn’t take me much to convince him that I’ll pay him once I find my girlfriend as he’s also visibly nervous and quickly speeds off. I run back to the Hostel triumphant and temporarily traumatized.
Kara bear hugs me at the door, her arms turning into the desperate comforter my frazzled heart calmly snuggles in.
The smoke was brown and chunky with highlights of green sativa sprinkled around it. It reminded me of the premature weed a grower friend of mine would give me for free. I didn’t give a fuck. I locked myself in the bathroom with the water running and with a towel aligning the bottom of the door like I was back in college. I used the lighter I borrowed from security to fill my lungs with the foreign fog I just risked my freedom for. The tiles surrounding me began to bead with steam from the running water. My eyes lowered like the night at sundown. I put my hands over my heart to make sure the sensations I was feeling were familiar.
I was stoned in Cambodia.
I was thirsty; I needed to do something, anything. Kara, tired of waiting for me to smoke, definitely wanted to do something. I dusted the weed cloud off my face and we head off to the local 24 hour mini mart I remembered being around the corner from my ride with the dealer earlier. Everything about it reminded me of a 7’11, complete with the uniforms and bright colors that didn’t make sense. The outside had tables filled with young Tuk Tuk (moped driven carriages) hustlers waiting for their next fare over Cokes and European men entertaining the local Cambodian currency with their stories of international bravado. The women looked on, smiling when required with their eyes drifting to a time where the night is already complete and they have the amount of money they needed to survive. Some of these girl looked no older than 15. The older women watched on like pimps, waiting for a piece of the action, shouting directions and providing “protection”. And then you had the children beggars. It must have been around 11pm at night by this time and there where the streets, filled with children – children carrying babies. I put my camera away out of the shear horror of what I was witnessing and the burning desire NOT to document it. My eyes started to swell up while my nauseated and defeated stomach sunk into a shameful empathy. Damn. That was some really good Cambodian weed.
The Photo I Couldn’t Take.
One of the little girls comes up to Kara carrying an infant and begs for a dollar to feed the baby. Was this her baby?! I look away in utter heart break. Kara tells the girl – due to our driver telling us how some people use children to collect money or rob for them – that she won’t give her money but she’ll buy her baby food instead. My paranoia quickly takes a backseat to embarrassment and charity. She takes the girl by the hand and walks into the minimart. While I’m waiting for her outside my midget dealer from earlier pops up out of nowhere which surprises me like a 3-D movie. I pay him the money I owe him with a little extra and he smiles, bows down, and disappears. Bowing would soon become my only form of communication.
Kara comes out with a 17 dollar can of baby formula and a smiling, and very tiny, family. This overwhelms me with emotion. Then Kara takes out her camera and takes a picture of the girl. To her credit, the little girl was beautiful – but I get defensive of the girl and reprimand Kara for taking the picture. I ranted how I didn’t want us to be those “people” exploiting the local for the poverty tourism companies sell to us as “culture”. In reality the weed had turned me into a housewife sitting in front of a soap opera filled with the saddest things on the planet.
We buy 2 large bottles of some Cambodian beer/wine combination and find a Tuk Tuk driver with a (sort of) trust worthy face and what we would later find out to be his government issued Tuk Tuk license number. The idea behind this was is if something happened to us then we had a number to give the police. I wondered what good that number would do if he killed the us both. Whatever, we negotiate a price and he takes us on a small ride around Siem Reap. In my mind I was thinking this stoned carriage ride would be a relaxing psychedelic trip through the neon jungle similar to what i saw on the ride there. I was determined to explore all of this though my glazed over eyes.
The further we got away from the market the darker the streets became. Our nice ride turned into a subtle panic. The streets where eerily quiet with only the dimmest of lights silhouetting the palm trees that surround them. Soon the flash from my camera was the furthest I could see without the little flash light the motorcycle had as head lights. Kara and I peppered each other with assurances that we are both in control, ok, and this ride wasn’t as scary as we felt it was. Our driver tries to be friendly and explain some of the sights we couldn’t see at all with small historic anecdotes but his English sounded like a baby seal squealing. Soon an Israeli couple pulls up next to us with the same problem. We sarcastically suggest they should trade drivers with us. Our plea for help was lost in translation and they ride away. I snap a photo of our apprehensive faces and drag Kara off the Tuk Tuk the minute I recognized a familiar land mark and walk away from our over eager to please driver. He follows along and apologizes in broken English about for 5 minutes until I raise my voice with a solid “NO THANK YOU GOOD NIGHT PLEASE GO.” Maybe he had the best intentions; we were not waiting to find out.
It’s around 2am when we make it back to the mini mart. Next to it there’s a bar with a pool table adorned by a group of scantily clad Cambodian women. Kara and I decide a shot (or 5) was in order after our Tuk Tuk ordeal. We bee line to the first open couple of bar stools. The one thing I noticed was the scent. Every sex worker smells the same no matter what country you’re in – like cheap Victoria Secret perfume. The European men and lonely expats hovered around them like UFO’s, convinced they were entertaining them with their drinks and inaudible conversation, but they were only listening to the rustle of the money they were liberally unfolding. The little beggar children were still in the street, approaching every drunken foreign passerby with the fervor of a NYC flyer distributor. My Jack on the rocks cost me 2 dollars… these kids were begging for just one. Between that and the teenage prostitutes my stomach gives way to the expected food poisoning white people with weak constitutions get when traveling abroad for the first time. The even younger bartender sheepishly collects my guilty over tipping and we make our way back to the hostel.
The foreign weed and cheap alcohol mixed with the tropical humidity induced a euphoria twisted in nostalgia and sadness. I hold my lovers moist palm while walking to our hostel and wax poetics on what little I remember from the couple of trips I took to the Dominican Republic back in my formative years. All I could think about was if my mother had never had the balls to leave her country – with me in her belly to go to a country she didn’t know – my life would have been just like one of those beggar children. My smiling eyes watered with gratitude as I wrote the mother’s day email I was planning to send her the next day in my thoughts. My thumb presses deeply into Kara’s palm one more time and caresses it with the realization as to how perfect my life was. My son – thank God and the fate that guides us – did not have to live like these kids. My stomach then starts to upstage my serenity, but I could care less. I yell at Kara about the perfect wedding proposal I have planned for her – while painfully shitting out whatever I ate on the plane – from our weed ash filled bathroom.