“I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky
Siem Reap. Cambodia. I’ve been channeling the good Doctor – Hunter S Thompson – on this trip. But it’s a Dostoevsky line that slams into the cells of my brain as I sit on the patio of Le Grande Cafe, one of Siem Reap’s numerous outdoor bistros, struggling to remember the date, the day, the reason I exist. It is late in the morning, the touri hordes have yet to descend upon the town. Still ensconced in their buses, shepherded to yet another ancient, crumbling temple they’ll only get to enjoy amidst the pandemonium of a few hundred of their fellow travellers; a raucous scrum jockeying for the best view, the best photo, first in line to get back on the bus. But the beggars are out, blatantly displaying their deformities. Missing appendages, a tragedy yes, but a boon if you need to pull at the heart strings of foreign visitors whose pockets bulge with riel. An amputated arm, stick thin legs, or twisted spine guarantee a windfall. A handful of change paid in appeasement, soothing the guilty conscious of Westeners who can only assume their nations hold some responsibility for the locals’ deplorable state. I’m on my second, or is it third, cup of coffee. Caffeine is coursing through my veins, slowly jump-starting my lethargic mental state. I’m almost there. Almost awake. Almost aware.
I pop another valium, a looming habit addictive as eating M&M’s. A counter to the effect of the caffeine, a hazy veil to enshroud my consciousness. It’s balance I seek: my body alive, nerve endings afire, my mind in sluggish motion like the cafe’s ceiling fans languorously stirring up the dust that coats this parochial town. An aimlessness in both purpose and spirit. Am I turning into a drug fiend? No Not me. I’m not to blame. The fault lays with Siem Reap, a bucolic setting that commends peace within. Harmony. Stillness. A centering of your wa. The constant reminder that death and disfigurement wait just steps off the path, a harsh juxtaposition. Cambodia offers no shades of grey. It’s black or white, good or evil, kill or be killed. It causes my psyche to ache for the means to drop kick the edge off reality. But I have yet to achieve the drug induced state that will quell my cognitive process. It is my only goal for the day. The Doctor would approve.
Early for me, not too late in the morning for the rest of the world, the sun has yet to reach it’s zenith, still angling its rays across the dusty street, spilling its warmth onto the cafe’s cobblestone floor. The serenity of the morning is jarred. An undercurrent of cataclysmic proportions envelopes the street. Like a scene from a bad spaghetti western an apparition appears backlit by the sun: a haloed band of farangs, well past middle age, raucously stumbling their way across the dust ridden street, not so much weaving through the traffic as daring to be hit, their beer bloated bodies surely a winning match against the rickety bikes and decrepid motorcycles the locals load with entire families, goods from the market, and fowl for future meals. Each of the farang clings to a can of Angkor Beer, craftily hidden in a brown paper bag, a life ring to keep them afloat in the turgid existence that life has cast their way. Muscle T’s that yearn for muscles, plaid shorts in need of a wash weeks ago, black socks that only serve to heighten the paleness of their hairless legs. The tall one has a faded blue tattoo running down his leg, the design more appropriate to someone a good forty years younger. Rummy eyes hidden behind cheap sunglasses they take up position at the table on the corner. Expats. Why is it that you can immediately pick out the cantankerous old alcoholic farang who have taken up residence from those only passing through?
What traumatic event is it in their past that makes them want to soak that motherfucker in amber fluid that roasts your tongue as it courses down your gullet and sends its radiant message of hope and love to the far precincts of your body and numbs out your mind with the buzz of alcoholic bliss? What is the causation that results in an attraction to a foreign land where they’ll live out the golden years of their lives soaking up equal parts of torpid sun and cheap gin, a locale they’ll never consider home and which will never consider them to be anything more than a ravenous tick sucking at its life blood, a blight that plants its obese ass squarely on your chest like a fat black cat asleep in the night? Is there within me that germinating seed that could easily blossom into my being called to join their ranks? Is this sad existence to become my fate?
I try to avoid the thought with as much determination as the locals display in trying to avoid the sudden presence on their street that mimics the effect of a great white settling into a new cove. Tranquility lost. Danger sensed. Turquoise blue waters soon to be stained a bloody red. Wary of the peril, they make themselves scarce. Urchins cut a wide swath to avoid them, scurrying off to safer shores, leaving a sense of having sailed too close to the wind in their wake. Tuk Tuk drivers give up their chase for customers; a nap under a shady tree a safe and more unassailable position. Deformed beggars disappear fearful of their bodies being victimized yet again. You can almost hear the theme to Jaws echoing through the town. No one wants to take a chance. No one wants to sleep on the volcano that erupts within these guy’s souls. No one wants their bad karma to rub off on them.
They amuse themselves at the expense of a beggar who didn’t get away, his limbs incapable of the speed needed to avert disaster. Their laughter not of humor but of boredom. I start to object before my anesthetized mind can still my sense of outrage in favor of safety. But as my feet plant squarely on the floor, I see worn, multicolored bills passed. Their entertainment paid for. The beggar content. They know and are known.
The waitress who won the unlucky lottery of having them take up residence at her station ignores their presence, hoping they’ll disappear, or that maybe the Khmer Rouge will make a guest appearance and bring their bloody act to town yet again. But it’s not to be. Their patience and lack of purpose rule the day. Summoning every shred of courage to her aid, she approaches, her order pad a shield against their abuse. As boisterous as they’ve been in their revelry, I cannot hear their order. Shots to wash down the tepid beer? A bottle of amber gold to match the morning’s festering mood?
The staff shows an alertness, attentiveness, and speed unfamiliar to my experience in this somnolent town that holds a place of honor for any local moving slower than a snail on quaaludes. The waitress returns, careful steps balancing the weight of a serving tray heavy with their order. Served, beer abandoned like a cheap whore who dropped her last hit of crack down the sewer drain, the toothless old coots fall upon their feast like jackals devouring the last scrapes of flesh off the carcass of a fallen wilder beast.
The still lingering effect of my previous night out crawling through the bars on Pub Street dims. My fourth cup of coffee serves to clear my befuddled mind, allowing for a splinter of clarity, a momentary spark of lucidity. The scrim drops from sense and place. The lardaceous mounds of soggy fried foods laden with grease and promising to further clog their already hardening arteries that I’d envisioned dissolve into a kaleidoscopic tableau of ice cream, piled high in chilled glasses, dripping with sugary toppings festooned with tropical fruit; a confetti of chilled confections sweetly strewn across the table. A kids party of vacationing seniors happily gumming their frozen desserts takes stage. The bats take wing.
Fuck I need a drink.
I leave the old folk to their just desserts, moving off down the street past the market and its swarm of flies gliding on the waft of putrid fumes rising off what already is no longer fresh meat. Concentrating on the tedious process of laying one foot down after the other, I head back to my hotel where Tony, my tuk tuk driver, waits. My lack of a morning in Siem Reap but an ill conceived memory gladly left behind.
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