Archive for March, 2008

Food Poisoning, an Accident, a Bug, a Body Guard, and on Getting Over Food Poisoning, an Accident, a Bug, and a Body Guard.

March 29, 2008

 It has been some time since I have blogged, and while the title of this blog may imply that the reasons are food poisoning, an accident, bug problems and trouble with a body guard, this is in fact not the case. Rather, I have been, quite simply, lazy. That being said, the title is instructive on what has in fact transpired over the course of the last month or so since my last blog.

I will begin with my food poisoning incident, if for no other reason than because it happened first. Anyway, I met up with my friend Dara and his wife, as well as Sambath, people whom, for those of you who don’t know, I met the first time I was here. And, together with some other folks whom I hadn’t met, we all went out to dinner, which was quite enjoyable. This, mind you, was not how I got food poisoning. Rather, this is simply the beginning of the story, for, while eating dinner, Dara mentioned that he and his wife had rented a minibus to take them and a dozen friends up to Siem Reap for the weekend. They only had three people committed to going, and so there was ample room for me. Thus came the invitation for me to join them, which I readily accepted after asking my boss at work if it would be ok (on a side note, my boss and Dara’s wife, Sotheary, used to work together, so that may have helped). Anyway, roughly nine of us ended up making the trip up to Siem Reap, which was exciting since I really hadn’t left Phnom Penh since I got back, so I felt I deserved the vacation.

Unfortunately, I am genetically predisposed to getting sick whenever I go on vacation, and in this case it was only a matter of how exactly that was going to happen. Never have I been sick before in Cambodia, but the instant vacation is thrown into the equation, sickness comes out on the right side of the equals sign. Fortunately, in Cambodia, there are ample opportunities to get sick, and as such my genetic makeup was not under serious threat of change. Anyway, we pulled over to take a break from the drive and get some food at what most would classify as a “dive,” but which is, to the accustomed eye, a quaint little roadside establishment, replete with tasty food. I had now been given my opportunity to get sick on some delicious noodles, which I did.

The effects were not immediate, and for the rest of the drive my new friend Tara and I sang along to Beatles songs and, to my surprise, John Denver’s “Country Road.” By the time we arrived at our guest house, however, I was beginning to feel a bit off. Not sick, really, but off, which I can only articulate as a state of still being full long after the food I ate should have left my stomach. Thus we all went to dinner, and the concerns began pouring in over how I was not eating much. One, I had just stuffed myself four hours before. Two, that food hadn’t budged, so I wasn’t hungry. Nonetheless, I ate. The rest of the night was uneventful, though I spent the next morning trying to explain, to my friends’ amazement, how I wasn’t hungry at a late breakfast. Well, by this time it had become clear that I had some kind of food poisoning. I won’t go through the symptoms, but will confine my comments to simply saying that sometimes you just know what’s going on.

After breakfast we all went shopping, though the most that I can say that I did was a sort of pseudo-browsing—that is, looking at stuff simply because I had my eyes open as we walked through different shops (I’m not a shopper). When that was finished, and Dara had a new watch, we piled into the van and drove to the temples, at which point I, being the only white guy in the group, got to hop out of the van and buy my ticket. There was a little concern that I would not be able to handle this task, but after a little while I was able to convince them that, as an American, I am a veritable expert in standing in line and blindly shelling out money.

Hopping back into the van our driver took us to Banteay Srei, which is a bit of a drive from Angkor Wat and the other more famous temples. Tara is a temple enthusiast, and was very excited to go visit. Moreover, I was managing quite well. There was a knot in my stomach, but I just kept telling myself “mind over matter, mind over matter.” When we got to the temple we all piled out of the van and into one of the trinket shops set up just outside…to do more shopping. And as we shopped, browsed, or pseudo-browsed, I began to get a whif of some fried noodles coming from one of the food stands. Instead of my calm, meditative mantra of “mind over matter, mind over matter,” my brain began frantically repeating “get rid of this matter, get rid of this matter!” Thus, just outside the temple grounds, I hurled, with our minibus’s driver pounding my back and me saying “thank you, brother” in between bouts. Then came that feeling of elation that immediately follows throwing up, as if all is better and life has returned to normal, which it had. The rest of our little travel cohort then came to make sure I was ok, suggesting that I should lay down and rest. Well, as someone who is still actively defending his rightful title of “Last Man Standing” from the first time he was here, I was hardly in a position to lay down and rest. Additionally, I had come this far to see Banteay Srei, so there was no way I was going to miss it now that I was feeling bettern than I had for the previous 14 hours. Thus, I downed a bag of sugarcane juice, and walked with everyone else into the temple to admire the really, really detailed carvings. Thus ended my trip to Siem Reap. The drive back was uneventful beyond more stops for shopping and pseudo-browsing.

If having a slight bout of food poisoning wasn’t enough being leveled against the body, the following week continued to try to kill off my desire to be here. To be sure, if I have one complaint about life here, it isn’t the heat, the mosquitos, the food, or the language barrier, it’s the damn traffic, which sucks mightily. The traffic, in my opinion, is at its most dangerous when people try and follow the rules which are only nominally existent. That is, there are stop lights, but their purpose is largely symbolic. For example, when one’s light turns green, this does not mean go, it means “take the next ten seconds to make sure that everyone who’s planning to blast through the red light does so without you being in their way.” But then of course, as people sitting at the red light see you not moving, they assume, it seems, that this means that they should go, and so it is quite possible to sit at a light all day without going anywhere. Thus it is necessary to strike the appropriate balance, putting yourself in people’s way to demonstrate your intention of going through the intersection, while at the same time not getting run over by the people who don’t seem to grasp that you actually have that intent in the first place. This, mind you, was not the scenario I was in when I got clipped by a moto driver on my way to work on the thursday following my return from Siem Reap. Indeed, while turning off of Sothearos Blvd. into the little side street that runs in front of the Phnom Penh Center, where AMK’s office is located, a moto driver in a hurry to go wherever he was going decided to slam his moto into my front tire, thus sending me over the handle bars and flying for a good five or six feet before being introduced to the really bumpy and sharp pavement.

Some of you may of course be concerned with my well being, but for those of you who don’t know, my family is genetically programmed with a certain expertise in falling, whether from roofs, trees, skylight wells after the ladder has fallen out from under us and we are left dangling as our arms push against the walls to keep us from dropping, etc. (these are all documented cases). Thus, as I flew over my handle bars, I unconsciously prepared myself to execute what we call “the paratroop roll.” I will claim to have done this expertly, as nothing is broken. More importantly, I was wearing a helmet, and can now attest to its quality, which, being Cambodian, is at best questioned regularly. Either way, it kept my head from splitting open as it hit the ground, and in light of this accident, I maintain that anyone who comes here and plans on riding on motos and doesn’t fork out the $14.00 for a cheap helmet is nuts, since my head would have split open nicely.

On a side note, I should add that the moto driver stopped to see if I was ok. Admittedly, I am choosing to interpret his stopping as an effort to make sure I was ok, as opposed to seeing if I was conscious, and if not take my wallet, which I have also seen here. A friend of mine had something similar happen to him. He got in an accident and tore many a ligament from his arm, chest and back. Another moto driver pulled up, bringing a great deal of hope to my friend that he would not have to figure out how to get up and get to a good hospital all by himself. Sadly, the person simply walked over, looked in his backpack, and, seeing nothing worth taking, drove off. Anyway, this did not happen to me, so I just walked the rest of the way to work with my mangled bike, and began a 12-hour day, which ended as I came back to Phnom Penh from the field at about 7:30 at night, after the office was closed with my helmet locked inside. In other words, it was a ride home that I can only express as one being overrun with feelings of being gunshy. Oh well, all is good.

The weekend saw things pick up quite a bit. Me and the cousins drove out to “Lo-weigh,” a village which spans the border of Kampong Cham and Prey Veng Provinces, for the 100-day ceremony of my cousin Mony’s dad’s death. The drive was long, but uneventful, aside from driving an old toyota corolla along some really bumpy dirt roads for two hours. Toyotas are remarkable machines, by the way. Anyway, when we arrived I was an instant spectacle, as I was one of the only foreigners they’ve ever seen (maybe the only one, except for maybe my uncle Jim). I won’t go so far as to say that I am the only white person they’ve ever seen, for living in the same village was a white Cambodian, and unfortunately I think my presence opened the door for some discrimanatory remarks levelled against him. But aside from that, I got to spend a couple days in rural Cambodia, which was very nice. Things are still pretty patriarchal, or at least that’s how it seemed (I’m trying to avoid too much of an Orientalist slant to things, for those of you familiar with Said). The men drank; the women cooked and cleaned.

That being said, the beverage of choice amongst those gathered around the table playing cards, to my dismay, was not the innocent Angkor beer, but vodka. Rather, the Village Chief whom I had the “privilege” to sit next to (sleezy guy) pointed to it and called it vodka, and in Khmer was trying to ask me how we call it in English. I was certainly not going to betray vodka’s good name, as I’ve been to Poland and had some delightful stuff, and so I simply found myself uttering the words “jungle juice,” which I think is more accurate anyway. Then of course came the widespread effort, “a coalition of the willing,” if you will, to get me to drink that stuff. Simply breathing within a four-foot radius was sufficient to be able to taste it—paint thinner, for those of you who are curious. Nonetheless, I finally settled to taste it, not drink it, and so I took the shot, poured it begrudgingly in my mouth, and promptly spit it out, a process not at all dissimilar with using mouthwash, and the effect on the germs in my mouth was the same. I’m convinced that everything in my mouth was killed, and so if I ever have a desire to wipe out all bacteria (or all cellular structure in general, for that matter) from my system, I now know where to get it.

After the drinking situation had been settled, everyone resumed playing their card game, which I don’t understand at all (though admittedly it doesn’t appear to be complicated). Regardless, I had been a spectacle for the entire evening and into the night, with the Village Chief constantly assuring me of my safety in his Village. That being said, as I sat there peacefully a giant black bug the size of a small rodent suddenly jumped from the ground, over my shoulder and into my lap as I sat watching the card game. I don’t exactly know what “the bejesus” is, but it was promptly scared out of me. I immediately jumped up, screaming rather crudely “What the fuck is that?! What the fuck is that?!” And what, mind you, was the reaction of everyone in the area? Not a thing. Nobody even turned to look at the weird American jumping up and down screaming obsentities because his life was felt to be threatened by the biggest beetle in the history of the universe (it was probably genetically enhanced by all the “jungle juice”). In my astonishment and temporary insanity I continued screaming: “holy crap, I’ve been a spectacle all day, and now that I’m actually doing something worthy of mention you don’t even notice! What the hell is going on here!?” After another 15 seconds of my total lapse in mental clarity as spurred on by the giant death beetle, the Village Chief reached over, flicked it off of my pants, chuckled, and said “ot bahnya ha” (my terrible spelling of what “no problem” sounds like in Khmer). Thus, the Village Chief was true to his word in assuring my safety. (I should note that I had to take a ten minute break from writing this because of a yellow jacket hovering around me…yellow jackets are my enemy incarnate).

Anyway, the next morning in the village was quite nice. I took a walk early in the morning, at dawn, and when I got back the monks to perform the ceremony had come. They wanted to meet me, but, like everyone else, said they couldn’t speak Anglais. But then I heard them say Francais (both words are cognates in Khmer…I think), at which point I intervened with a brief and poorly pronounced “Je parle un peu du Francais,” and so our conversation began, which was a blast because I got to speak with a 75-year old monk from a generation that learned French. Honestly, how many people come to Cambodia and get to speak with an old person, since not many are still alive, and not many speak English, or remember French well enough to converse (which is all too understandable)? Regardless, that was the highlight of my month.

By that sunday afternoon we had packed up our stuff and drove home, and life resumed to normal. I planned a trip to Vietnam, deciding to spend my birthday in Ho Chi Minh City, thinking that perhaps this way I might actually remember that it was my birthday (I have a history of forgetting completely). I took off from work on Wednesday afternoon to pack before my bus left early the next morning. On that bus ride, I happened to sit next to a nice bloke heading to Ho Chi Minh to get some medicine, and so we chatted intermitently throughout the trip, and decided to share a guest house since we were essentially staying for the same length of time. When the bus got to the border, my new friend pulled out a picture of himself to show me. This may strike some of you as odd considering he was sitting right next to me and thus I didn’t need to see a picture, but this one was different, for it showed him in his uniform…his military uniform. “I’m a Major,” he said, which I took to be sufficient rank to cause me problems, but then he added, “…in the Body Guard service.” Now, this may have been foolish, but I somehow found myself asking whose Body Guard service, to which he replied quite simply: “Prime Minister’s.” And thus I seemed to be in a slightly less-than-ideal situation, which was reflected in the response that I quietly uttered to myself: “oh……shit.”

We made it through customs without difficulty, and arrived in Ho Chi Minh City a couple hours later. We got off the bus, and went searching for our Guest House, with my new friend asking me if our various options suited me. I simply said that if it worked for him, I would be just fine (really, what does one say in that position?). Anyway, we finally settled on a place and unpacked our bags and parted ways for the afternoon, during which time I started breathing again. That evening, however, we had dinner plans. Well, he had plans and I was invited (read: felt obliged to come), so I hopped on the back of the moto that he rented, and just as my ass hit the seat he gunned it off the curb and up the street. This in itself nearly caused me to do a backflip off the thing, which prompted me to think to myself about a possiblity that I could never have imagined before—I’m was going to die in Ho Chi Minh City. Fortunately, we made it to the restaruant in one piece, and sat down to dinner, during which time my friend said that he knew Tae Kwan Do, and began showing me his scars from the war(s) he’s fought in. He then went on to describe his liver condition, which he had briefly mentioned was caused by too much drinking when he was younger. This in itself was not particularly scary, since that was his problem, not mine. But when he said he was here being treated for Hepatitis C, I nearly choked on my noodles, then politely excused myself from the table to “go to the bathroom,” and instead ran to an internet cafe to see if I was at risk. Answer: NO. The next day I left the hotel before he woke up and didn’t get back until late, and he left to go back home the next morning. Everything after that was part of my return to “normalcy”: coming back to Cambodia, not having food poisoning, not getting in an accident, and not sharing a room with one of the Prime Minister’s Body Guards.

 

I’m a bit tired, by the way.

 

Much love to you all,

 

Mark

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