Thursday, January 06, 2011

I'm on a Boat

We're up early the next morning to load ourselves into a tuk-tuk convoy for the waterfront. The dock turns out to be right beside the Titanic restaurant, still lovely in daylight. We've bought our tickets in advance, so one member of the group just hands them out to us to present at the top of the gangplank. In exchange for my ticket stub I'm given a bag containing a bottle of water and a small baguette. There's a very attractive looking boat at the dock, like one of the Bateaux Mouches that take tourists along the Seine through Paris, but maybe a bit taller. That is not our boat. Ours is smaller, a low-to-the-water craft, basically a floating bus, with four across seating, two on each side of a narrow aisle. Our tickets have seat assignments and I'm in 8A. I didn't count the rows: there are maybe sixty to a hundred seats altogether. The roof curves overhead. It's a lot like being on a narrowbody aircraft, and it wasn't just me who thought that, because someone across the aisle from me starts mimicking an airline passenger briefing. It's about this point that we realize that in addition to no oxygen masks to drop down from the overhead compartment, the boat has only two exits, both at the front on either side, right behind the cockpit, and as far as we can tell there are no life jackets or other flotation devices anywhere on the boat.

Adding to the third world death boat stereotype is the fact that a large proportion of the passengers have declined to sit inside and are instead on the roof. The local police are there and apparently have refused to allow the boat to leave until the proportion of people inside to outside is great enough to suggest some kind of flotational stability, so some of them come inside, but as soon as we've cast off the dock, most of them go back up. Everyone on board is obviously a foreigner. There must be yet more dangerous and less luxurious boats suiting the transportation budget of the locals. There are quite a few Germans.

From the boat we can see the houses of the people who live right along the river. They don't have or don't enforce building codes, so these are shacks made out of everything, and also floating homes that appear to be made mostly of bamboo and reeds. Stunningly, a couple have satellite dishes. An aid worker later tells me that some have electricity powered by car batteries which they can pay charge with gasoline generators in the town. We pass people in motor boats and paddle boats, and most wave to us. There are even fishing trawlers made out of reeds and sticks. The Professor on Gilligan's Island has nothing on these guys. Everyone is the bamboo MacGyver flying the Cambodian flag.

I go up on the roof for a bit and meet an Australian who is living here teaching English. It's a better view on the roof, and not too hot because the speed of the boat produces a breeze to whip away the thirty-something or more degree heat. There really is a safety/freedom trade-off. It's being talked about a lot in the US at the moment, and it should be, because once you lose a freedom in the interest of safety, it doesn't take long to stop missing it, so it's essential that people make sure that they really don't need that freedom. I'm really enjoying sitting on the top of a boat that was obviously not designed as a passenger area. It's convex. But the water is calm and the boat is being driven smoothly. I don't stay up long because it's quite crowded and there isn't really a comfortable position to sit for long with no back support, plus I don't want to get sunburned. I lower myself down from the roof to the fifty centimetre ledge (not quite as wide as my two feet heel to toe, with no railing) and then work my way along that back to the door.

One of the choice spots on the boat is in the doorway, where you have most of the advantages of view and breeze without the direct sunlight and scrabbling for position on the curved roof. I take a few photos and videos through the door and then spend most of the five hour trip reading a stunningly unsatisfying Agatha Christie novel, Postern of Fate. There's no trail of clues, just random poking about until someone finds something, and the actual mystery is never revealed. I think it was supposed to be character-driven, but it was never consistent enough in its pursuit of any character to drive anything. I find someone to give it away to.

There are a few people up in the cockpit, or the bridge, I should call it. They might be the captain and his family. It looks fairly new and high-tech, actually. I wonder if this boat is owned by a company or if he is an owner operator and has bought it from the proceeds of carrying people in smaller boats. I'm one of the least capitalistic people out there, so I'm always intrigued by people who invest in something to make money for themselves. Maybe that should be one of my twelve foolish fears to overcome this year.

After consultation with three doctors, I'm taking anti-malarial medication. I seem to be fine without any untoward side effects. It amuses me that the package instructs me to store it between fifteen and thirty degrees Celsius. Is there anywhere in the malaria belt where the temperature is below 30 degrees? A refrigerator is too cold and the ambient temperature is too hot. If a traveller had an air conditioned environment in which to keep it, she wouldn't need anti-malarials!

The river widens out as we go north until we can't even see land on either side. This is the Tonlé Sap Lake. It's not as large as the Great Lakes along the Canada-US border, but it seems as large, from the water-level vantage point. It's just like flying across Lake Superior, except I'm on a boat. I'm on a boat! Stupid internet meme has stolen a perfectly ordinary English phrase. I sleep a bit--can't do that while flying across Superior. We know we're reaching our destination when we start to converge with other boats. There's a faster one filled with Chinese tourists that passes us, a less seaworthy one with bilge pumps spewing fountains over the gunwales, and all kinds of others of different shapes and sizes. There are more floating homes here, plus a floating Catholic Church and a floating English Language School. I wonder if perhaps these people were less disturbed by the regime of Pol Pot, already more closely embodying his back-to-the-land ideals.

We pull up to the dock and once the ship has been made fast, we disembark. This involves walking from the fore starboard door aft along the narrow ledge on the side of the boat and then climbing up onto the dock via the rubber tire bumpers. The boat staff and the local police hold out hands to help us up. The police here, in an understandable opposite to the former regime, really seem to place a strong emphasis on the serve and protect part of their duties. Some of them must be old enough to have been machine gun toting Khmer youth, but despite Nari's sleepless nights and an untold number of other personal persistent horrors, the society here works. I wonder if there are lessons here that Cambodians could be teaching Sierra Leone or Rwanda. Surely their experience at rehabilitating child soldiers and rebuilding a shattered society would be as useful as the university degrees and good intentions of as many privileged western aid workers. Cambodians would have a head start on the climate, too.

The dock at Siem Riep is orderly. The boat staff retrieve our baggage from the hold and nothing is lost. None of the passengers fell off the boat, either, although our Lord Master from last night has lost a shoe overboard. It was a newish running shoe, but the worst part was that it contained a custom-made orthotic support, expensive in Canada and probably not replaceable here, right before the part of the trip that may entail a lot of walking. We tease him mercilessly and try to get him to imagine the delight of the one-legged landmine victim who will find it downstream.

We walk away from the pier itself and are in a little covered market with food and souvenir stands. It's only after we leave the shady area that we are thronged with cab and tuk-tuk drivers all promising us best price, good tour. We have a prearranged hotel trasfer, and the driver is there holding up our group leader's name in an elaborately carved wooden frame. Canadian hotels and tour directors take note: want to ratchet up the class a little, the mahogany carving really does the trick. And the tone it set was not a false one for the hotel. We were welcomed into the immense lobby by elegantly dressed women serving us a delicious iced guava juice. Our rooms in Phnom Penh had not been bad, but these ones are luxurious. Silk bathrobes, all kinds of amenities, a balcony that opened onto the inner courtyard, the swimming pool visible through a screen of banana trees. The leaders basked in our delight at the hotel, as it wasn't expensive.

I went for a walk to find some aloe vera for a sunburned comrade, a mission that she knew that I would enjoy, as it would involve walking around town and talking to people. There was a market right near the hotel and "Aloe Vera" is such a simple word with sounds that are in English and Khmer, so I led with that as a request. Unfortunately the botanical ingredient is in every kind of cream and even drinks, but I wanted the 100% aloe vera gel that is the very best thing on raw burned flesh. I eventually had to go into full-on tourist with a guidebook mode, finding a pharmacy and asking, reading straight out of the fill-in-the-blanks useful phrases section, "I am looking for something for sunburn, please." It may have been the only time I've ever done that. I feel that I've been lazy not to have learned enough Khmer to express myself. At least she understood me and I didn't have to go as far as turning the book around to face her and pointing at the appropriate Khmer squiggles. She had the product just as I'd hoped and I triumphantly brought it home.

I didn't want to go to the tourist street for dinner, so I went into a little place on the street. I expected to just look and point for my food but they surprised me with an English menu. I looked for unfamiliar things that I hadn't had yet and don't have at home. I first chose barbecued eel, but was told ah mien. Don't have. I picked another one, something so alien that there was no English translation. Just nguev. They laugh when I pick it and I'm told ah mien again, but I kind of suspect that it was really that they didn't want to serve that to a tourist. I settle for vegetables and noodles. It's good. They always offer cutlery tines down in a glass of water. Now as I write it up it occurs to me that perhaps they store utensils that way to keep insects from landing on them, but the feeling when you see it is that everyone uses it and just dunks it back in the water. In any event I always clean it on a napkin before use. This is the reason why there are only a few of the group that eats in these adventurous little places, rather than the big hotels and tourist restaurants. I don't imagine that the standards of cleanliness are any higher in the kitchens there. It's not like they're Canada foodsafe certified, and here on the street and I can see how my food is handled as it is prepared. I consider the risk to be a fair price to pay for the amount it stretches my budget--at a dollar a meal I can buy more souvenirs and gifts for my friends--and for the real interaction with people. The whole family that works here is here, eating at another table and probably laughing at the stupid tourist who wanted nguev for supper. There's Khmer karaoke on the TV, but no one is singing, they have the vocal track playing too.

You can't escape being a stereotype when you're a tourist in a foreign land. You're forced to be:

  • an oblivious foreigner on a tour;
  • on the tour but aware that you are getting the tourist-sanitized version; or
  • an "aren't I brave" maverick, expecting some kind of kudos for doing what the locals do every day.

The only way to escape being a white foreigner stereotype is to do something totally baffling, like start an aid organization and become a citizen. Or I suppose build houses in a rural village. Man, were those people ever baffled by us. It was the first time I'd been somewhere with no language skills at all. I wish there had been time to talk in a meaningful way about something more than the identification of cows and chickens.

The hotel pool, it must be said, is fantastic. It's lit underwater and surrounded by little statues of elephants. I swim until the last group of people leaves, then I don't stay and swim alone. It would be a shame to survive the death boat and then drown in a pool.

We had an evening briefing from a member of the group whose friend had spent six months in this area, recommending the best sights to see. Everyone wanted to get going early, and we had no trouble getting tuk-tuk drivers to agree to pick us up at 6:30 a.m., right after breakfast.


Jez said...

Well, I was hoping to find out what "nguev" really was - but a Google search for "nguev Cambodia" or "nguev Khmer" yields this very blog post as its first hit! Foiled :-)
(I realize the spelling/transliteration may not be accurate.)

coreydotcom said...

I love that bit about when you're visiting a country you get stereotyped into a couple of categories. When I was backpacking in South America, certain people were so intent on being "not-touristy" it was a bit funny. Never mind that they had blond hair and hardly spoke spanish, they thought they were living like the locals. Oh yeah, forgot to mention - they didn't even know a civil war was/had been raging in the country - but they were so intent on living like the locals.

Personally, I respect ANY type of travelling. Each has something cool about it. "Touristy" attractions are usually touristy because they are REALLY cool (generalization). However touristy the Machu Pichu may be, it is friggin cool. All-inclusives - I've been. They're definitely not for everyone but if you know what you're getting into they can be very enjoyable. Guided tours - hassle-free.

For having done most types of travelling, each one has its merits and it depends on what you feel like doing - but please don't judge me because I bought a tour to a mud volcano in rural colombia that cost me $12 including lunch and you're doing it "independently" for $8. Relax. I'm not impressed.

P.S. When I blogged about my travels in south america I had a post titled "Take a good look at me I'm on a boat!" - I think we're making reference to the same Lonely Island song.

Aviatrix said...

Jez, you're so right about transliterations. They've gone through French, Vietnamese and English-speaking occupiers so the idea that there could be a standard transliteration into the Latin alphabet has just never arrived. We'd see the same street name transliterated multiple ways in a few blocks.

coreydotcom: Oh good, your comment tells me I managed to properly convey the inescapable nature of being a tourist stereotype, and how each is laughable in its own way. But in the end you're travelling, and if you enjoy the experience the way you choose it, enhanced by your feeling of smugness about not being in one of the other pigeonholes, then good for you.