While I am being generous with the word "girl" I am just a person from small-town anywhere trying to survive the culture shock of "Asia-Easy". Well, it ain't that easy, but then again, it ain't that hard to survive where there is no snow, shopping galore and food every 5 metres. Singapore, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Thailand, educate this prairie girl.
Wednesday, 27 February 2013
The tuk-tuk diaries
Fancy tuk-tuk in Melaka
Pardon me, Che Guevara, because I don't mean to impose on the highly famous "The Motorcycle Diaries" however, in my little world, it feels like I have crossed Asia on a tuk-tuk and made it out the other side, alive.
Coming from Canada, I had no idea what an Asian tuk-tuk was. As Canadians, we think it is our god given right to own a car, a mini-van for the kids, a truck for hauling the weekend trailer, a sled to cruise in the snow and maybe even a quad to roam around the north forty if there is enough mud to get down and dirty. Public transportation and taxis are foreign to most of us, unless we have swilled down too many drinks on TGIF happy hour.
My closest experience to these tiny transports would be the Pneumonia Carts that whizz around Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico. Compared to the tuk-tuks, the Mexican carts are champagne next to no-name beer chugged down at a country jamboree.
My first experience was India and I have never looked back. Each region I have visited has their own version of the tuk-tuk but no matter where you go, the drivers are hungry for business and willing to take you on the ride of your life. Every time I hire one, I think it might be my final day on earth but even with all the close calls, the honking and blaring of horns, I manage to survive. We won't mention all the kissing of the ground I do, when I get through another excursion.
Houses on stilts from floods
Our latest joyride in Siem Reap was fancier than some and less than others. It consisted of a motorcycle pulling a seated, covered cart that could carry four but often ten were crammed inside. What we didn't count on was the dry season in Cambodia, making for asphyxiation by red dust that coats every thing in a fine red silt, including our lungs. Most people wear masks but the "newbies" in town forgot. We had to pull our T-shirts over our noses, making us look like we were on our way to a badly orchestrated bank heist. Bonnie and Pedro, cameras, not guns, a blazing, Mexican style.
In Phnom Penh, the tuk-tuks were the same, but we noticed many rickshaw drivers pedaling or pulling people in a tiny cart meant for one scrawny posterior, not the four we saw stuffed into the seat. Luckily the Cambodians are wee people. One western rear would barely fit into a rickshaw seat but in Asia, why take one when four can ride?
There is a special dance that occurs when you cross the road in Cambodia. With the thousands of scooters, it is best to cross when you see a small break in the traffic, don't hesitate and act like you own the road. Like a beautifully choreographed Tango, the drivers will weave in and out never giving your presence a second thought. Miraculously you emerge, unscathed on the other side.
On our journeys we have seen scooter gangs as far as the eye can see, and I thought I had seen everything until I went to Siem Reap. I have witnessed several strange items being carried on scooters but we had to look twice when we saw a man carrying a queen sized mattress and box spring, strapped precariously, riding shotgun.
Off to market
It is always pleasant to go for a Sunday drive in the country, but on this Khmer outing, it was a family tree on a scooter. Papa was driving, while first born sat in front helping him steer. Mama was behind with a child wedged between, standing on the seat. The granny was perched, sidesaddle on the back, holding an infant in her arms, with a smoke hanging from her lips. In total, there were 6 people on a scooter meant for one. How the wheels managed to carry that weight is anyone's guess, but perhaps that is why Cambodian people are slight.
If that wasn't enough, we saw several scooters with two huge pigs strapped to the back. For the sake of Porky and Wilbur, I hope they were dead; they looked pretty stiff to me as we whizzed past.
We saw dozens of drivers carrying hundreds of upside-down chickens, tied by their feet on their final drive to the chopping block. They were squawking and clucking, with their heads bouncing off the potholes and wind ruffling their feathers.
Our hired driver informed us that village chickens, such as these, were the most delicious. He told us they were more tender. No wonder, they were being tenderized on the fly as they took their final ride to some restaurant serving up Chicken Curry Amok. Not a nice way to leave this world, and I avoided eating any chicken or pork for the entire trip. Mango salads suited me just fine.
Another way to travel
Cambodia is a fascinating country and I am pleased I had the opportunity to visit a small portion before I left Asia. It was an in and out trip, however, it made a deep impression on me. While the country is so far below the poverty line you can't find the percentile, with many people making less than 75 cents per day, I was charmed by the locals. I was amazed at the service, the quality of the food and how we were treated with respect and dignity.
Kids waving to us
You can see the poverty everywhere in Cambodia and yet, the children were happy to meet us and when we left a US two dollar tip with a lady at the foot massage, you would think she had won the lottery. The death and destruction of such a country is unimaginable to most people but when you drive through the country side, you will see, even with the little they have, they take pride in their homes and work. The people that have lost their limbs to the land mines still smile when you pass them on the street.
Life in Cambodia
I don't feel I am done with Cambodia. Every day I think about the poverty, the survivors of the land mines and the children that are sold by their parents into the human trafficking for the sex trade. The poor are conned, the children work in sweat shops and often the tourists that think they are volunteering for a good cause are being completely scammed due to a big heart. Cambodia has come a long way since it opened up to tourism in the 1990s but there is a long way to go to for human dignity and rights for all of the citizens.
I may never get back to Asia, but I know I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the people of Cambodia. I recently read about a special Canadian, former RCMP officer that has dedicated most of his life to helping the people of Cambodia. I may just have to look him up and see what I can do to help.