“I love the lotus because while growing from mud, it is unstained.”
In science class you learn that heat turns water into steam which makes some cloud then rain then this huge circle of life that occasionally involves lightning and thunder. Basically a process you can’t tell that’s happening creating something you can see, feel, and hear. Weird. As I sat slumped in my tile covered bathroom I wondered if that’s what was going on in my lungs – the fire hitting the blunt creating the smoke that bounces out the air from my insides replacing it with a lake full of ideas your brain can fish from. Add the vacationer’s hangover and those ideas become low brow philosophies born out of dehydration, regret, and what was I saying again? Kara is rushing me out of the bathroom – again. The weed I copped two days ago was stronger or was my tolerance to drinking breaking down? What the fuck is wrong with me? I was late to Kara’s “Make OJ Cry Cambodian Tour 2011”. I grab a pink Claw Money tank top with a cheeseburger as the logo – blaming that accidental arrogance on my last-minute five minutes ago. An American cheeseburger. This was my last full day in Cambodia and we were going to tour The Floating Village and The Killing Fields.
“The floating village of Chong Kneas is a living reminder of how significant water is to Cambodian life. Archaeological evidence suggests that even 3,000 years ago, people in the region lived in houses built on stilts and subsisted on a diet of fish and cultivated rice. Still, it is in the realm of mythology that perhaps the most powerful connection between Cambodians and water is made: Legend tells that the Cambodian people descended from the union between an Indian Brahman and the daughter of the king of the Naga, the snakelike water spirits. The Cambodians, it seems, once born of water, will never be far from it.”
The drive towards the village is quieter than a pot head 10 minutes after his last toke. Well, it was 10 minutes after my last toke and in between heavy breathing and my rinse cycle of a poisoned stomach I had nothing. I was psyching myself up for the hot air balloon ride we were going to take before we got to the village. We could only go at 9 am and I was turned all the way up. The Balloon would take us over the temples and I’M MOTHERFUCKING AFRAID OF HEIGHTS IT’S A BASKET IN THE SKY. When I was younger I saw my childhood dreams go from astronaut to air force pilot to artist the first time I remembered begging to sit near the window on a flight. Kara spent the entire ride making fun of my phobia in these cute little giggles that had me convinced she caught a contact high. To my – returning the air to my face – relief it was too windy and the hot air balloon couldn’t launch. Mind you, a windy day in Cambodia felt softer than the breath a whisper leaves on your ear.
The hustle outside of the dock where the tour for the Floating Village took off reminded me of the South Street Seaport minus the mobsters and modern technology. Our driver lets us off to what becomes a shouting auction of people trying to get us to join their tour in butchered English. Everyone sounds like Donald duck without the auto tune. We quickly pay 20 bucks to someone in the crowd giving us a moment to breathe. Our tour guide turns out to be a teenager with scars older than his physical existence. All of the other boats where full and that left us with another private – I guess I’m going to have to pay attention and cram to understand and answer this guys questions – expedition. I roll my eyes at Kara. A little Cambodian boy, fascinated by my dreadlocks, decides to join us. This little boy, barefooted and treated like some corner store alley cat, is as old as my son. Maybe younger.
The water is brown. Brown like the runoff water you would find in a pottery class. Children were playing in it and old fishing couples did their daily chores in it. For a minute I couldn’t tell if we were in a shallow river heading towards the lake or in a sewer heading towards the East River. The air was definitely thick and pungent with the odor of dead sea life. Our tour guide goes into some explanation of the water but the only thing I could gather was that we were less than a month away from the rainy season and the summer drought had all but dried the entire river. He then pointed out the blue and yellow polls with the crossed out arrows pointing up and told us that during the rainy season the water level increased up to the bottom of the sign. All of the houses that ran along the bank where temporary and every year at the end of the rainy season the river would drain the fisherman would build them back up again. From where I was on the boat the tip of that sign was at least 5 stories high. So yeah basically I was at the bottom of the East River.
After some minor digging ourselves out of a shallow part on the floor of the bank we enter the lake leading to the village. The lake looks like an ocean with nothing in sight for miles and miles. Several times I asked myself if the putt putt of a motor on our junk boat had enough power to get us back to land safely in time or if anyone would even find us out there. Sure enough we were found – one boat with an old lady and her child selling snacks and a boat with an older man and two children offering us a picture with their snake for a dollar. I opted out of touching the snake due to some weird rotting scab it had and grabbed us some snacks instead. Kara does not pass on this photo opportunity and tosses kisses at the diseased reptile. The little stowaway that accompanied motions me for a soda and I gladly oblige, earning the scorn of our eagle-eyed tour guide. I assured him that it was ok and of no consequence but that brush off did not satisfy him one bit – and he went into the saddest thing I’ve heard to date:
“These children, they are bastards. Some of the mothers are young whores who have sex for money or girls that get raped and have these kids and don’t know what to do with them, so they are children of the gutter, no family to take care of them. They feed off the land and the kindness of strangers; some raise each other from bay as they are babies. The older kids use them to labor and that’s how they live their lives. They know better than to not beg tourist though, we are proud people and we don’t want them annoying people so that they don’t come back and spend money. They are like animals; we try to be nice but, no respect.”
Once again, this child was as old as my son.
Shanty towns are amazing. The ingenuity used to build a shelter out of sheet metal and wood – everything tied together with rope and a determination born out of survival. Now imagine this on bamboo sticks and tire parts floating in a lake. It reminded me of the tent village that used to occupy Tompkins Square Park before Mayor Giuliani evicted everyone – but with a real blue-collar dignity. They had a school and a police force. There was a gift shop with an alligator farm and a system to get rid of garbage. These were poor people, some Thai and Vietnamese expats, who dedicated their life to fishing for a living. The raining season would destroy most of the houses along the river so a floating village was the obvious step in their evolution. The fish caught there would take care of all Cambodia but the money the fishermen made from it was nothing – victims of vendors that prey on the uneducated. That didn’t mean they weren’t savvy. They would save on gas by living and working from the middle of the lake the entire season and when the raining season would start they would tie together and buoy most of the village so it would float safely in the center of the lake while they sought refuge in the hills.
The deeper we went into the village the more my fascination turned into morbid curiosity. I would looked into the houses to see the families all tanned and bored – everything slow like the hour hand on a clock. Maybe I was in the suburban part of the village? No, these people were too poor to be bored. Soon children came from everywhere, one even using a pot as a boat with a huge wooden spoon as an oar, everyone asking for a dollar. My hands couldn’t go from my wallet to their tiny hands fast enough forcing Kara to smother my lucky man guilt with a pillow of financial honesty. This was our vacation, not our charity. By then it was too late, our guide – the grim reaper of all tour guide – started to tell us about the school as he docks into a general store:
“The school is for the poor people here, most of the children are orphans, a lot of their parents die when they are fishing and it rains. Most of the kids here are afraid of water and can’t swim because they are afraid that they will die like their parents. We take these kids in and teach them and they live at the school. We don’t have much money so we depend on tourists to help buy them supplies and food. Then they grow and they also become fisherman or help work for tour to make money for family. We are all family here. See the kids with the candy and on the boats? Everyone works.”
And with that I try not to drop a tear as I dropped around 70 American dollars for some notebooks and noodles to donate to the school. Of course the grim reaper then takes us to the school so we can personally deliver the supplies because I needed a shot in the face in case I was still alive. Kara can’t leave this exploited scam of a place soon enough.
The ride back to the main dock was quiet. All I could think about was how poor my mother was growing up in the Dominican Republic and if she never had the courage to run away to the states how I could have been one of those kids. Bathing in that same brown water with my bastard friends, hustling some tourist for a dollar while posing with my fingers making that stupid peace sign. My father denying me at birth went from being the worst of my history to the greatest of my blessings. The little stowaway was there in our boat playfully massaging Kara’s sun beaten back. That wasn’t my son. My son was safe in America. I guess that’s cool, right? How long was I stoned for?
We get back to the dock under gradually graying skies. Kara spies what we think is a sweet sixteen or a wedding on the other side of the parking lot. I spy some land beggar children shouting at us from the other end of the lot trying to get our attention – adding fuel to my emotional exhaustion and Kara’s annoyance. We run to the colorful Cambodian affair and hop around like we are some of the locals mingling in to whatever traditional south Asian pop that was coming out of the speakers. After a few awkward moments we decide leave before our driver sends out a search party and our antics cross the line into racism. What happened next will forever remain as one of the most wonderful moments in my very high life:
As we approached the parking lot where our driver was one of the beggar kids ran up to me with a bag. Kara, tapped out and tired of the constant begging – implored me not to pull out another dollar. The little girl became more persistent and kept shoving her bag in my face. Kara let out an exasperated “OH MY GOD” and walked away from me mumbling something about a vacation and how I couldn’t save everyone. I gently tell the girl I didn’t have any money but she insists that I look into the bag – and I did.
Right before I came to Vietnam I was working on an art project about food. I created a piece I called The Vietnam Diet. The Vietnam Diet was supposed to be at first a typewritten record of my day-to-day diet before my trip; self corrected in red ink and printed on a plate. For two weeks I couldn’t find anywhere in New York that would print my images on a plate without me sending it someplace and waiting a month for it. In the end I wound up using cups – a pretty good substitute – but none the less not my original idea. Now here I am in Cambodia calling Kara to come look into this bag this little girl who is probably an orphan is eagerly shaking at me. Kara takes one look in the bag – and we give the girl 10 dollars. What I couldn’t find back in the states I was holding in Cambodia. Somewhere when we were entering the tour someone took a picture of us and developed the photo and printed them on collector plates within the 3 hours we were on tour.
Two American burgers, each with their own plate.
In retrospect you get the same thing when you get off the Cyclone in Coney Island, but you knew that souvenir was there waiting at the end for sale. We didn’t even know this was on the table – so to us it was a pretty cool hustle, magical in fact. And then we got to the Killing Fields, where the magic quickly wore off:
“The Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970-1975). Analysis of 20,000 mass grave sites by the DC-Cam Mapping Program and Yale University indicate at least 1,386,734 victims. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a population of around 8 million.”
Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“I searched for a bed, but that was wishful thinking;
I felt so helpless. Two midwives materialized –
one squatted over her abdomen and pushed,
the other reached up my wife’s womb and ripped the babies out.
The midwives choked the babies — children were often regarded by the Khmer Rouge as a burden who interfered with adults’ ability to work.
Cringing as if I’d entered Hell,
I took the babies in my arms
and carried them to the bank of the Mekong River.
Staring at the moon, I howled.”
U Sam Oeur, he was a captain in the army of the American-backed Government of Gen. Lon Nol in Cambodia who wrote poetry writing about the death of his twins in one of the labor/ death camps in the Killing Fields. October 1975
Someone asked to take a picture of me and my girlfriend standing next to the monument built in the victims honor – I politely declined. You don’t smile at Ground Zero in NYC and you don’t cheese for touristy pictures at a God forsaken place like this. I have nothing to write about it.
We sit down for some street pho along Pub Street back in Siem Reap around 2 in the morning. Monday night was quiet with bars only doing brisk business. We were well lubricated, hoping the alcohol we drank would kill whatever food poisoning we were eating. Our last day in Cambodia was long and see saw emotional. We saw the real life water world and the field of not anyone’s dreams. We got to visit a real Buddhist temple and picked real lotus flowers, danced in a mini rain storm – marking the end of the summer drought – and swam in a 5 star hotel pool favored by Jackie Onassis. I (sort of) learned how to ride a bike and we got to eat at a traditional Cambodian buffet with real Khmer dancers performing for us. Our last day read like a Siem Reap travel brochure. Street meat was the last thing on our Cambodian bucket list, well sort of: We wanted to try opium.
Opium was consistently pushed in my face the entire time we was there, only to receive a sharp “no” and what I can describe as a football stiff arm of an “excuse me”. We learned when we first arrived in Cambodia that the punishment for drugs was serious and wanted no parts of it. We were rude as they were persistent and it felt like it paid off, by that time no one bothered us anymore – except for the little girl from a few nights earlier with the infant who forgot that we brought her a huge can of Infamil. Kara used that moment to teach the little girl a thing or two about being busted by a digital camera. Whatever. I left her to her moment to take a quick walk along the strip. There I saw the guy that sorted me out with the weed from a couple of nights before. Poking his head out of a dark alley, he was every cliche I could have imagined for a foreign drug dealer. After some light bargaining I take off with a bag of what appeared to be dried motor oil. I grab Kara and we run to our hostel giggling like a pair of school children that stole something.
I smoke proof the entire room. Of course, none of us know how to smoke opium. The first thing I do is rub it on a cigarette; this causes the cigarette to peel as the black tar on it makes it impossible to pull any smoke. Our room smells like a bunch of auto mechanics at a cigar party. After a half an hour of looking at each other with “do you feel it?” faces we try to put it in a blunt along with some weed. Kara isn’t a pot head so the weed instantly puts her to sleep. I’m awkward.
The sunrise was only 1 hour away. Everyone kept telling me how I shouldn’t leave Siem Reap without witnessing a Cambodian sunrise so I forced myself to stay awake. While Kara slept I Googled how to smoke opium and realized we were doing it all wrong. That explain the nausea I had in place of the anticipated euphoria. I peeled the remainer of the drug off the baggie it came in and rolled it into a ball as per instruction, placing it on the tip of my key. I then lit the ball and took a deeeeeeeeeeeeeeppppppp hit off the fumes.
For about 20 minutes I saw myself doing stuff then actually doing them. I was holding a beer before I reached out to touch it. I was sitting outside of my room on a balcony before I left my bed. I was smoking the rest of my weed clip before I even sparked it. And I saw the sun rise, feeling its warm bliss on my face before it actually rose.