Post 9: the full story of the bugs, my friend, and his family

My darlings,

I've finally had time to tell the full story, so i'm going to re-post the photos from installment 8, inset in the text (andrew, blogger king, told me how), and you should get it the right way. Here we go:

Day 7: If you know me well, you will have heard me say that the gods of irony are the only gods there are. Fine, I’m talking out of my ass, but whatever your denomination, you’ll agree that they make their presence felt in more than abundant vestigia. So on the heels of a misanthropic post for which I took a little deserved heat (yes, I know I should give everybody a chance -- just as, theoretically, I could give ever restaurant a chance -- but I have reason to suspect that my hunches on both fronts are often correct when they scream out, “Must avoid” …), I find myself not only speaking to but befriending a Cambodian on the bus to Siem Reap (launching city for some of the world’s finest temples, including the famous Angkor Wat). My new pal, Bunthon, will ultimately facilitate some intense and fabulous insider experiences that I’ll try to detail to some degree, but yesterday left me so mouth- and eye-overloaded (they literally ached in their orbits from gawking), I’m not sure what I’ll be able to do it all justice. (And, yes, Plaegian, I also realize that it could be your creator could have sent Bunthon – my own chainsmoking Beatrice -- to remind me of the errance of last post, but for now I’ll stick to my theological guns.)

Ok, so I decided to bus to Cambodia instead of heading to the Mekong delta and boating up because some months ago Lisa advised against the latter, saying it was “most touristy – horrid.” Normally I love river travel, but then again I prefer it if I’m traveling alongside the river, by foot along the quays or amid the leftover condoms and syringes on the banks (cue the Suttree descriptions). Plus I felt pretty contented with Saigon; the parts that I wanted to explore on foot I did, and to do anything else I would have had to strap myself to the back of a man and be motorbiked around (which, as with having to be marsupialed to a masculine in my first skydive, would have taken some of the fun out of it.) I am sad, though, to have missed Cu Chi, the unbelievably elaborate – and therefore that much more depressing – tunnel system built by the Vietnamese soldiers to elude the Americans during the war. If you want to know just how awful man can make life for man, these will rival anything this side of the harshest imprisonment or slavery.

Off I went to my little bus; I had stockpiled peanut butter sandwiches, steamed buns (which all prove to be awful), the veggie/meat/rice dish (inedible), water, and pickled salads. My brother mistakenly warned me about getting bahn mis for the trip, as he ended up with an infernally spicy one for his 12-hr ride, resulting in no small discomfort (I’m going to try to believe him that those particular chilis were extra hot…), so there was little threat of that. I’m sure he would have been much happier had I duplicated his experience. Still, I went to such lengths to make sure to have a light pack when I left the states; now with my one-day’s provisions, I was carrying what felt like 40 kilos. On the way out of Saigon, I mostly took notes for my forthcoming post on the erotics of girls on scooters (especially with the terrorist-looking cloth masks they often wear over their faces because of the smog, and with the long armguards that look like 50s Hollywood starlet gloves). I’ll make sure to post one of my photos as an example, as soon as I find one that doesn’t feature two schoolgirls in uniform riding tandem…

Once we’re into the countryside, it’s not long before we reach the Cambodian frontier. Wouldn’t it be nice to be a border guard, to have no trace of humanity whatsoever, to be more dour and joyless than American socialists, and to spend your day making people’s lives atrocious? Such a great group of men. Mercifully, one of the perks of the tourist bus is that we are assisted with our visa applications, otherwise I’d probably still be trying to convince the authorities that all those articles on Nerve are by some other jack murnighan.

Cambodia. Wow. It’s immediately different (and not only because there are enormous American and American-style casinos just inside the border check – and shanties across the street). Obviously the script is different, and it’s suddenly a bit scary to not be able to make out signs, even when I consult my supposed alphabet (who is this publisher Thomas Cooke, anyway. His fucking language books are utter fucking shite. Again, since they’re intended for brits, aussies, and us, it’s probably a Volume II of the Proust situation; they make them out of garbage because they don’t think anyone is ever actually going to open them).

After the language and Vegas Bally’s – no joke (oh, and the billboard for Tiger beer that says, It’s better on top, enjoy winning!) -- you immediately notice roadside stands with shelves of old Johnny Walker red and black bottles refilled with yellow liquid. Of course, I wanted to pull over and swill whatever it was; only later did I realize that these are gas stations, and the bottles contain petrol. And then you notice the marshiness -- man, this country is wet! The Netherlands are reputedly under sea level, and apparently huge chunks of Bangladesh wash away after a bad monsoon (killing dozens of times as many people as 9/11, by the way), but I’ve never seen a place as swampy or fen-ny or boggy or rice-paddy-y or however it should properly be described. It’s beautiful.
The houses are mostly like shanties on stilts, though in some cases they’re still ground-level – perhaps floating – and connected to the road by long wet narrow single-tree-trunk footbridges that would make Nadia Comaneche a little nervous (though I saw a young girl just walk over one like it was nothing).

There are cows everywhere, most on leashes by the roadside; there are exquisite, quite impressively horned, slate-colored oxen (I saw an old man squatting by a mud lake then noticed his plow team lolling up to their eyeballs in the muck – very sweet); there is an abundance of pool tables (don’t ever bet money with a skinny Asian man at a poohall); there was a troupe of men pulling a highwire cable down the length of the road like some mythic snake; there was a boy chin-deep in the flood washing his cow, and when he saw the bus coming, he started jumping up and down and waving; and on and on. And then we got to the ferry.

The ferry. Good god. We bipeds need water, clearly, but in overabundance it is our natural enemy. Not a large river that we were crossing, but an utter impasse for the less-moneyed, to them the very earth’s rim. So they congregate, and they
accumulate, and the better-off ones pack themselves into Toyota van and onto Toyota vans and mash their cargo into and onto Toyota vans until the rear is tied up in such a distended state it looks like my sister-in-law, Hillary, walking backward in her present gravitude. (the photo above was actually a rather light load compared with some others. Then today I saw two Toyota light pickups each with literally 30+ people in and on them. Unfucking real.)

To serve these masses, women and kids with trays and bags and racks of food, none of which I can purchase, tragically, as my fancy tourist bus’s windows are sealed for the AC. Ugh. So many things I would have liked to try, though I must admit, as noted above, that I wasn’t quite ready to cross the Rubicon of the giant flying cockroaches

(you realize that each one is the length of my palm! And wide! And thick! Good god, biting into one of those you would have detonated a pint of bug gelatin into your mouth). Looking into a van, I see a little boy eating tiny live shrimp and an impossibly old man rolling a cigarette (wide-gauge, like I roll them) from a yellowed bag of the skankiest tobacco I’ve ever seen (which gave me ideas…). My eyes were paining from the exertion, and I finally thought, Ah, ferry-town ferry, shuttle me to and fro, shuttle me amid all and all, fore and back till I’ve seen all that is see-able, all one can witness, and then let Charon take the rudder…

We continue. Through Phnom Penh where we stop and I pho á la Hanoi
and we start again, hamstrung in city traffic (but oh, girls on motos…), and I see the sublime and unexpected beauty of a truck carrying 10,000 unboxed bottles of fish sauce. Eventually we leave the city and begin driving by villages and countryside of enormous beauty. The people when I make eye contact smile. I wave and they laugh and the bus moves on.

Eventually we stop at a roadside market, where I see the tray of tarantulas and again fail the nut-check. But then a man who has been on the bus, who had pho at the same place in Phnom that I had pho, who I took to be Indian or Pakistani, bends to order the spiders, and I say, Ah, you are getting them. And he says, Yes, do you want to try? Now I believe you will all understand that it’s one thing to wuss out alone (I disappoint myself with utter impunity) but when there’s a witness… So of course I can’t demur. He hands me a gooey object and it is surprisingly large and even a little heavy. I ask if you eat the whole thing and he looks at me like I’m an idiot, then nods, tilting his head back as if to say, Chug it.

I bite off the headside half. And chew. And swallow. And smile. It tastes a bit candied, actually, not sweet but sticky and chewy like a cross between chiccharones and tamarind paste (or sun chips and a prune). The flavor is not one that had been logged in my register, but it was somewhere on the line between fruit and meat, again a bit plummy, though if you could imagine a plum with no sweetness, or like a jerky made out of a particularly delicate mango-fed beef. Not amazing, mind you, but good enough that I ate one again later (as you will see).

Apparently once the vendors see you eating spiders, they open the floodgates. Out come the locusts (or grasshoppers for the less eschatological among you) or crickets, which Andrew tells me this is (hell if i know -- to it looked way to big to be a cricket). They too are fried (what dubious thing isn’t put in oil?), and here I had heard that the outside was crunchy and the inside a vile substantial pudding. But again, how could I say no in front of my new friend? In one goes, whole (I really didn’t want to see the color of the pudding), and to my surprise it was genuinely good. Again a bit like a candy, with a wafery crisp outside and then, yes, pudding, but pudding that tasted a bit like coconut cream. My friend, Bunthon, tells me both the tarantulas and the locusts are the specialty of this particular village, and, as I’ve never heard a Westerner say they liked a fried insect, it could be that these are particularly good specimens of the same, the Kobe steaks of edible horrorfilm beasts. (but then I admit to a somewhat large palate; take Marmite: if you don’t grow up eating the stuff, you’re not supposed to be capable of liking it, and I _love_ Marmite…)

Anyway, now Bunthon and I are friends. I ask him if he knows anyone who runs a guest house; of course he does and he’d be happy to take me. (I’d be suspicious, but I have no room reserved and he seems genuinely friendly). It turns out he is one of the Cambodian reps for a pan-SE Asian tour company, South Breeze Travels, and would be happy to hook any of you up with as fancy a trip as you want. Actually, he wants me to do it and charge you whatever I can get, keeping the commission. Email me at the address in my profile…)

When we get to Siem Reap, instead of taking me immediately to the guest house, he invites me home for dinner with his wife and family
(at the sound of the word wife I took a deep internal sigh of relief. Right, Leif?). Of course I accept, awkward as I feel, and we are tuk-tukked back to his house. In I stroll, forgetting to take my sandals off (it’s my first invite in, and I had forgotten protocol). I meet his family; his toddler son screams in fear when I look at him; his 4 yr-old is afraid too but eventually starts taking my picture and everybody and everything’s picture (his camera) and then won’t stop showing me his homework and dragging me around by the finger.

Bunthon and his wife are excellent hosts; dinner is served on the floor, and consists not only of the fried delectables from the market (which the kids eat up like fries) but sour fish soup which you spoon onto your rice and add a little chili (every time I have grabbed the chili spoon since I’ve been in Asia everyone looks fearful).
Then strips of beef and an incredible tray of the standard Cambodian vegetable medley: sliced cucumber, basil leaves, the herb I photographed that Bunthon had no English name for, lettuce chunks, cabbage, carrot disks, and shredded banana flower (the spirally pink/red thing). This you dip with the beef in with one of two killer sauces – unbelievable. One of them Bunthon says is very Cambodian and that Thai and Vietnamese people don’t like it. (I admit that the difference was lost on me; had he had said it was very Thai or Vietamese and that Cambodians don’t like it, my taste buds would have been none the wiser).
He also poured me a beer and himself one, and was sad when wouldn’t have a second, though he did. Then he made me have one when he had his third. Then he said I could spend the night there (which I refused only because I had gotten so little sleep, and my awkwardness was reaching its apogee) and apologized for keeping me so long while he had his fourth. “I like beer way too much,” he said, then drove me through the dark bumpy streets on the back of his motorcycle.