Sunday, December 14, 2008

Afternoon Coffee, Cambodian Style

I’d been traveling in Cambodia for six days, Phnom Penh for two, when first the absence of any proper caffeine infusion truly came home to roost—in the form of a whanging headache. A hot morning had given way to a hot afternoon, and lunch had been predictably devoid of sugar or other recognizable stimulants. I suppose it’s one of the great clichés of developing world travel, but it bears repeating anyway: You don’t know how much you depend on such things as coffee, until they’re suddenly very hard to come by.

I had in my company a “guide”—a sort of hired valet that a western traveler in Cambodia ends up with before properly asking for him—named DaVann, whose job was ostensibly to determine what it was that I wanted or required, and make it happen. In reality most Cambodian guides spend most of their time pitching a series of practiced itineraries through the most frequently visited stations on the local tourist circuit, among them the Toul Sleng (“S21”) interrogation facility, the killing fields of Cheoung Ek and, perhaps somewhat improbably, a pay-to-play firing range where, for the modest sum of $300, the interested westerner may blow up a live, full-grown cow by means of rocket-propelled grenade. Not much of this was going to happen, this day, with this head—and some of it wasn’t going to happen at all. “Where we go now?” said DaVann, a toothy grin pasted on the back of the question as he leaned across the table to chuck me on the shoulder.

"Coffee," I said. "Please," I added. "Hurry."

Now, if recognizing the preciousness of certain taken-for-granted daily amenities is the first cliché of developing-world travel, then surely the juxtaposition of things too hard to come by, against things too easy, is the second. In Ban Lung—a dusty town of barely a thousand people in the remote northeastern jungles of this war-ravaged country—it is possible to book same-day travel on not one but two different airlines, to and from the capital, for fifty bucks, but it isn’t possible to get a hotel room with a working air conditioner. On the island of Ko Chang, in the Gulf of Thailand, it’s possible to buy pizza, rent movies, obtain a cash advance from a credit card, make a satellite telephone call, and have six stitches sewn into one’s arm after crashing one's rented motor-scooter, but it isn't not possible to have laundry returned at the end of the day that isn’t wringing wet. Under the circumstances I might have been forgiven for thinking coffee a tall order—given that I’d been offered none since crossing into the country. But for DaVann, this was the easiest command he’d been given in a good while.

“Okay!” he literally shouted, thumping the table as he rose—and just like that, trailing a festival of dust and un-muffled motorbike exhaust, he shuttled me off—down one of the town’s countless unpaved side streets, and straight to the front door of a dingy and half-lit storefront about a dozen blocks to the seedier side of town. As we idled up, DaVann described the place in exactly this way, saying, “Okay! We stop at Vietnamese coffee shop, okay!”

“You speak Vietnamese?” I asked, climbing off the bike.

“Enough,” said DaVann, winking.

“They speak Khmer?”

DaVann grinned at me—not as meanly as I might have thought. “Not much,” he said.

Having been rent repeatedly and tragically by wars, first brought upon it by outsiders and then of its own internal and vastly more gruesomely efficient designes, afterward, Cambodia is these days essentially a colony of Vietnam. In December of 1978 it was invaded by the nascent military power in the region, officially for the purposes of ending a series of opportunistic border incursions but really for the purposes of ending the rump genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge. As with most such supposedly noble military campaigns, however, matters got significantly more complicated when Pol Pot and his followers quit the capital city in March of ’79 and melted into the jungle:

The Vietnamese, following the playbook of their Soviet benefactors, simply didn’t leave. Today one out of every seven residents of Cambodia is actually Vietnamese, not just in terms of ethnicity but in the sense of holding Vietnamese citizenship and caring not a whiff for Cambodian immigration policies. Over half of the businesses in Cambodia are owned by Vietnamese. One, single Vietnamese woman owns twenty-five percent of the real estate of the entire country. The Prime Minister, Hun Sen, carries a Vietnamese passport, and his ruling party, the “Cambodian People’s Party” or just “CPP” is staffed at its highest levels entirely by Vietnamese civil servants, many of whom go “home” to Vietnam on weekends. It wouldn’t be surprising that tensions sometimes run high between the two groups—and that I might therefore have thought twice about being driven by a Khmer guide to a Vietnamese shop. Never mind: Coffee had been promised when we got there.

In the event, no one at the shop paid us the tiniest heed—in fact I eventually had to walk to the counter to place our order, though by all accounts, this was business-as-usual. DaVann assured me that Khmer patronize businesses owned by Vietnamese every day. So, we did just that: the two of us idly sipping our coffees, not really paying much attention to anything, including each other, for some time. Personally, I was enjoying the shop television, which at that moment was showing “Die Hard 3: Die Hard With a Vengeance,”—this particular copy having been dubbed into Khmer and then subtitled, absurdly, back into English.

I was particularly taken with the way the reverse-translators were handling the delicate subject of all the adult language in the picture. During a tense moment in the first reel, when Bruce Willis said to Samuel L. Jackson, “No, I wasn't going to call you a N———, I was going to call you an asshole,” the English subtitles in our local copy of the film reported the line as, You know, I was just thinking that you aren't a very nice person. This was such great fun that I might have been content to sit there and watch the rest of the picture, but for the strange sounds I kept hearing outside on the patio. Throughout my first and second cups of authentic Vietnamese brew, whenever the explosions and translated expletives of the movie abated long enough to permit it, I continually noted the voice of a young, attractive-sounding female, calling out similar-sounding phrases in an obvious, telegraphed sing-song. To wit:

“bee - YONN - bee - HIGH!”


“bonn - bee - SOTT!”


“TONE - bee - HIGH!”


…And so on. After about twenty minutes of this—just as arch-villain Jeremy Irons’ character was quoted saying, I have always respected your elders, but today you shame them with your dishonesty—I leaned over to DaVann, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “what the heck is that?”

“What the heck is what?” he said, earnestly. “The movie? Isn't it American?”

“Yes, yes,” I said, shaking my head, “the movie is American, and—may I say—it’s plenty terrible enough without you guys helping to make it worse. What I meant was, what the heck is that lady yelling about?”

Consider my surprise when it turned out that she, and about a dozen other people, turned out to be playing a Vietnamese gambling game so arrestingly similar to bingo that I see no reason to refer to it by its local name. The cards, the funny little wood discs with numbers painted on them, the money piled in the middle of the table—it was as immediately recognizable as bingo could ever hope to be, when stripped of the bulky highlighters and the mashed-potato smog of a thousand forlorn cigarettes. It had come to this, apparently: I'd spent close to twenty-four hours locked inside of aluminum tubes the size of a guest bathroom, and here I was sitting in Whapeton, North Dakota. These people were playing bingo.

It goes without saying that we split the cost of a card. And we won—on the very first play, we won. The woman calling the numbers lifted the ashtray and handed us the enormous pile of money underneath, beaming at us as DaVann slowly and methodically divvied up the loot. We won, we won—well, we won about a dollar a piece, actually, but it surely felt like a lot of cabbage when dispensed in the form of quasi-worthless Khmer currency, fresh from a community kitty that hadn’t been ours a moment or two earlier.

I tucked my half of the booty in my pocket and called it quits—watching with mild discomfort as DaVann played his share down the toilet, one fifty-riel note at a time. After watching about a dozen games, sneaking peaks at the crazy movie translations from time-to-time, the shop proprietor suggested that I draw the numbers. Now, I don't speak Khmer and I don't speak Vietnamese. I don't speak French, either, but that hasn't stopped me from thinking that I speak French, so we agreed that this would be the language I'd use to call the numbers.

The two of us were lucky to get away with our lives.

See, the problem is, the stakes are pretty high to these folks—fifty riel may be barely more than a cent to a westerner on holiday, but to the typical person in Cambodia, it's like a five dollar bill, proportionately speaking. You put some oafish American klutz who claims to speak French in charge of calling the numbers, he calls even one of them incorrectly—and you don't get your money. Tends to piss a person off. And frankly, you would be amazed how easy it is to confuse swah-sont seesse (66), with swah-sont sez (76), when placed under that kind of pressure. I was amazed by this fact twice.

Once we were a safe distance away from the angry mob chasing us, we settled back down at our established favorite haunt for dinner. Two days in the city, and already I was a regular. Indeed, DaVann, the waitress and I were chatting idly—as old friends—when a campaign van pulled up, its bullhorn booming out the garbled election promises of the CPP. This was the summer of 2003, and the country was at the time deeply distracted with the earnest and important work of putting itself through the sham of a rigged election. We watched in muted fascination as scores of young volunteers in matching T-shirts disgorged from the back, then watched with something not unlike astonishment as the youths fanned out in a quietly disciplined and ominously efficient manner to wallpaper the neighborhood with leaflets. One of the canvassers, a twenty-something female with a degreed-looking way about her, pranced over to our table and tried to hand me a brochure.

Managing a polite smile I waved my hand at her as she approached, saying, “I'm not Khmer citizen.”

“It's okay,” she said, smiling, “you can vote anyway.” She said this without a whiff of humor or irony. You can vote anyway.

“But I won't be here,” I said, wondering how a ballot from an American on vacation would be counted in such matters—and not certain I wanted to know the answer.

“Still okay,” she said, by this time sitting in the chair next to me and grinning. “You take absentee ballot to America, you mail back, we count vote.”

“But I don't know anything about Khmer politics,” I said, thinking this the decisive resolution of the matter. The girl's smile only got wider.

“Neither does anyone else,” she said.

I took the leaflet.

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