Monday, February 8, 2010
I am one of those people who foolishly take pride in their hardness and feign a tough exterior. I hate it when people see me cry, and so, I avoid doing so at all costs. I fear vulnerability, and I feel that crying exposes a part of me that I like to keep hidden. This past weekend, I was stripped and left shirtless and swollen-faced, spilling enough tears to fill the Tonle Sap. My god was I embarrassed.
It all started when my mother’s side of the family left for Siem Riep. Six people took my Uncle’s beloved Lexus SUV, and the other 12 piled into the rented van. Because I am a guest to this country, I was reserved a seat in the SUV. When I first stepped in, I thought that I was lucky to have gotten a seat in the air-conditioned and leather-seated car. Little did I know, my uncle would barrel his way down the bumpy unpaved roads for six hours to Siem Riep. I am approximating that his hand was on the horn for at least 1/3 of the way there—that’s two hours. I don’t think I am exaggerating. Now, I’d heard about people who drive luxury cars and don’t mind the rules of the road, but I’d never been a passenger of one of these drivers.
“Put your seatbelt on,” my mother whispered to me, as she snapped hers into place. For once, I obeyed her. The road is intended to work just as many roads do: one lane per direction. Our car was always on the opposite side of the road, heading towards on-coming traffic. But we were not in the wrong for we were in the Lexus, and so all other vehicles must navigate their way around us. If you’re on a moto or a bicycle, forget it, you’re doomed. Maybe if you’re in a military car or a newer, shinier, and more intimidating Lexus, then we’ll sway back to our respective lane. I kept silent, recalling my own experience driving and my biggest pet peeve: a backseat driver. I closed my eyes and tried my best not to look at the little motos and carts and ratty cars that might fly into us at any minute.
Along the way, we picked up some food sold by street vendors: ping-peang (tarantula-looking fried insects), ripe mangos with salt and chili dip, sticky rice with black beans stuffed into bamboo stalks, and other freshly made or caught snack foods. The ping-peang had long legs and large heads—quite unappetizing looking things. Oh they’re so good! remarked my 15-year-old cousin. Everyone in the car reached for a handful of these finger-long insects except for me. I learned my lesson with the last insect I ate, chunrut. I had a few slices of mango, skipped the chili and salt dip, and had a little bite of the sticky rice. So far, I wasn’t leaking any unwanted fluids.
When we made it to Siem Riep, we stopped at Banteay Srey Restaurant, a venue that we would frequent for the remainder of our meals during our three-day stay. The food there was decent, not good enough to be the restaurant of choice for every meal of the day for
the entire trip, but alas, I had to be the polite guest who minded her manners.
The next day we went to Phnom Kulen, which required driving up mountainous dirt roads and falling in and out of potholes. I don’t think the Lexus is intended for such driving, and neither is a lead foot. Speed on such roads only lead to bruised heads and arms as bodies crashed into one another and the roof of the car.
After about ten minutes hiking up the steps of Phnom Kulen, I regretted, for the very first time, donning my cowboy boots. They’re just not meant to trek up and down rocky hills. Tripping on a rock and flying face forward, a woman sneered, Som mouk hai, meaning it serves me right. I stumbled around the mountain for about two hours, praying at various Buddha statues and pagodas. The biggest attraction here is a Buddha that was carved from a large stone in the mountain. What caught my attention most were the beggars who lined the steps of the mountain. Most of these people were women, children and cripples. There are many money-exchange kiosks along the way whose sole purpose is to exchange large bills for smaller ones to give to beggars. Siem Riep is a city that is completely geared towards tourists. I exchanged a twenty for two bundles of 100 Riel notes, and walked up and down the steps giving out the bills. Still, I ran short.
By the time we got back to our hotel, I was feeling slightly woozy. We didn’t have time for dinner, so my uncle picked up some street food, consisting of rice, salted eggs, and various meats—including tripe, intestine, and the Cambodian delight, liver. I was a bit starved, so I foolishly indulged in everything.
The stomach pains began. Forgive me if this is too much information, but that night, I might as well have slept in the bathroom with my bum glued to the pot. My body clearly had yet to adapt to Khmer street food.
The next day, I decided to be a trooper and continue exploring Siem Riep. I went to the market and got a fish massage against my will. My little cousins insisted that the feeling of fish eating the soles of your feet is sensational. When I put my feet into the pool of water where ten other people also had soaked their feet, the fish swarmed mine. It was terrifying at first, and when the grey little things bit my feet, it didn’t hurt, but tickled. These fish crowded my feet and left everyone else’s unmassaged, though I wished it were the other way around. My cousins asked, “Why are the fish eating only your feet?” I told them that it was because my feet were the sweetest. My mother countered, “Because her feet are the dirtiest.”
During the next two days, we visited Angkor Wat, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the Cambodian Cultural Center. Now, I know Angkor Wat is supposed to be one of the most astonishing places one can visit, but I was too busy running from squat toilet to squat toilet to pay proper attention to my surroundings. Luckily, I’ll be headed back in March to explore it in good health, I hope. The Cambodian Cultural Center features wax figures and a plethora of shows from different Cambodian cultural groups in staged mini-arenas. I mostly found these to be kitschy and artificial. I don’t recommend it.
My seventy-year-old great aunt visited all these places with a big smile on her face and cane-less. My legs increasingly felt like jello, and I sniffed Tiger balm every ten minutes, trying to liven myself up.
When we went to Banteay Srey for dinner after the five hours we spent at the Cultural Center, my first instinct was to hurl. I finished my business in the restroom, and sat down at the table. Exhausted, dizzy, and feeling like someone had punched me in the stomach, I propped my head on my fist. Then the tears started. I don’t know where they came from. Honestly, I was surprised myself and a bit pissed. But they kept coming. The food hadn’t arrived yet, the waiters were freaked out, and the children at the neighboring table looked like they wanted to give me a hug. There I was 22, nearly 23 balling like a little child.
My hungry family shoveled food in their mouths as I sniffled with my eyes shut during dinner and compiled a nice hill of tissues on my plate. When we got back to the hotel, it was coining time. I had no choice in the matter. My three aunts and their maid laid me down on the bed, took off my dress, pulled out their Tiger balm, and began rubbing the thin end of a coin up and down my back. This lasted about an hour until I had dark streaky bruises covering my back, arms, and chest. I imagine I looked like a warrior of sorts. Or maybe this is what an exorcism might feel like. But I actually did feel better. My aunt tells me that coining is an old traditional way of healing that works much faster than medicine. It immediately releases toxins from your body, and so once you are coined, you feel relieved. I think being coined helped me not necessarily physically, but emotionally, which I think is equally important for one’s healing. It’s like having a good cry, and it hurts for a while, but then you feel better.
That is, until the next day when I still felt like shit. I didn’t feel like crying anymore, but my body hurt like hell. I was pining for the medicine I’d brought over from America that I’d foolishly left in Phnom Penh because I thought I was invincible from illnesses. I slept for the remainder of the car ride home in the big van instead of the jet-setting SUV. I popped my American-made pills when I got home, and slept for another fourteen hours.
Today, three days after my coining, a waiter at The Living Room, a cafe I’ve taken a liking to, pointed to the warrior streaks peeking out of my tank top and asked, “Oh, you get coin too?” I thought the bruises would have disappeared by now. Later, one of the Harpswell girls said to me with a big grin on her face, “Older Sister, the mosquitoes have eaten your legs and now they’re full of scars, and now your body is full of bruises. How will you ever find a songsah (boyfriend)?” Fml. I was just thinking the same thing.