Expat Tales: Chapter 2 (the continuing saga of what happened after I quit my job…)
Growing up during the Vietnam War, I remember hearing stories of “boat people” escaping from the destruction of their country. Some of those Vietnamese refugees even settled in my small hometown and I remember being drawn to them, curious about their adventures in getting to rural Minnesota. Many years later I also found myself escaping Vietnam by boat, on a 3-day cruise up the Mekong River from Saigon to Phnom Penh.
Creepy Dutch Guy
On the final day of the cruise, I was hanging out at a riverside café, chatting with the other refugee-tourists, new faces who had merged from the other tour groups. We drank coffee and patiently waited for our boat for the final leg out of Vietnam, across the Cambodian border and into Phnom Penh. One of the new faces was an older guy, a curly-haired chain smoker with creepy blue eyes that kept watching me. I found out he was Dutch and nicknamed him “Creepy Dutch Guy”.
Halfway to Phnom Penh I found myself sitting on the back deck, getting some sun and fresh air while CDG chain-smoked. We chatted and I found out he was into tennis, yoga, and meditation. He was also “kinda Buddhist”, except for the whole smoking and drinking thing. (“OK.” I thought, “maybe he isn’t totally creepy”.)
A few hours later, as the cityscape of Phnom Penh came into view, I mentioned to Creepy Dutch Guy that I on my previous trip I hung out at a great place, the legendary Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC). When we said goodbye at the Phnom Penh pier he said he’d look for me at the FCC… so I avoided the place.
Avoiding Creepy Dutch Guy
A few days later, I was wandering through a local market in Phnom Penh and I spotted his wild, curly hair from a block away. I panicked and ran up a side alley, hiding next to a pile of disgusting garbage. Why was I avoiding Creepy Dutch Guy? Could I continue to outrun him? Was Phnom Penh big enough for both of us?
One of my favorite things to do in any new city is find a café with comfortable chairs, good coffee or cold beer, and a view of the world going by. Since “CDG” knew of my previous hangout I was determined to find a new one. Fortunately, I found my new spot just two blocks from my hotel and very near the Grand Palace.
The Sarcastic Salesgirl
The next evening I was people-watching at my new favorite spot, sipping a cold Angkor beer when I was approached by a traveling salesgirl carrying her large display of Cambodian guide books, silk scarves, and assorted stuff. She was young, maybe early teens, but wise from years of working the streets and learning sarcastic English from the tourists she tried to sell her stuff to.
Many Cambodia children become victims of child prostitution, a growing problem in Cambodia, with sex tours becoming increasingly popular. I wondered if her job in sales allowed her to avoid being forced into a much worse career. Since I was low on cash, I told her to meet me there the next evening and I’d buy something.
The following evening I wandered back to the same café, ordered a cold Angkor beer, and waited for my new friend. A short time later she arrived, her tray full of stuff, and I told her to pick something. She chose a beautiful gold and black silk scarf and I paid her the $2 USD without even bartering. As I handed her the money she had tears in her eyes. “You came back! Tourists always say they’ll buy tomorrow but they never come back!” I still have that silk scarf and I still think about her, wondering if she’s been able to continue her lucrative sales career or if she’s gotten sucked into something much worse.
Flashbacks to 2003
My first time in Phnom Penh was in 2003 on a humanitarian mission organized by Airline Ambassadors (www.AirlineAmb.org), a wonderful group of airline employees who use their travel for good. Since I’m not very good at doing the group thing, I arrived in Phnom Penh a few days early so I could spend some quality “me time” doing my own thing, like a day trip to Oudong.
Our hotel was a decent, mid-priced place with a wonderful view of the Mekong River from the rooftop restaurant. A sign in the elevator announced that the “spa” was still under construction but in-room massages were available so I signed up for one that afternoon. Having never had an “in-room massage” before, I was a little nervous – what do I wear? Will it be awkward?
Awkward and Sad
There was a knock, and I opened the door to the face of a young girl who looked no older than 13. A little shocked, I let her in. She instructed me to lie on my back as she sat down on the bed near my feet. Her “massage” began with an ineffective foot rub, and then moved up to light pressure on my calf. It was unlike any other massage I’d had, but I assumed she was just warming up, or that traditional Cambodian massage was different, kind of like Thai.
About 20 minutes later, she offered more than just a really bad massage. I was stunned and pretended not to understand, but I realized that I had just been propositioned by a victim of child prostitution and it was a sickening feeling. When I appeared confused, she dropped it. We were only about 20 minutes into our 1 hour massage, but I knew then that her bad massage technique was not just “warm up”, that Cambodian massage was not “unique”, and this whole situation was just sad. So, I showed her to the door and paid her for the full hour while she begged for a big tip.
Many years later, when I bonded with the young salesgirl, I had a flashback to that Cambodian massage experience. I hoped that my small purchase of a silk scarf would allow her to avoid becoming a victim and forced into the “massage therapy” business.
Next stop: Siem Reap – volunteering in a remote village, outrunning Creepy Dutch Guy, and getting eaten by bugs.