Hai mươi tám. The Blind Rickshaw Driver

My rickshaw driver was unable to see clearly, was continually adjusting his ill-fitting glasses, and with dusty accidents on clogged traffic roundabouts, I suspected he was half blind. But every day Duc was there to pull me through noisy back alleys to the market for a breakfast of sweet yellow mangoes, his familiar Hello Kitty doll dangling from his handlebars.

He was my go-to for all the sights around Saigon; and the mangoes were like huge pearl drop earrings, splayed apart and squeezed and devoured until the juice ran down my arms and formed puddles in the folds of The Saigon Times.

One day he drove me to the Cambodian embassy where I was to apply for a tourist visa. It was a laboured process in those days, and I would need to wait for the application to be approved. The remnants of the Khmer Rouge were still to be found on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and a risk of kidnapping was there, even though the war was long over and ‘Kampuchea’ was no longer just a footnote in the guidebooks.

I stood in line with a Chinese American and we filled out our applications, and I suggested that we could travel together, once we’d received the visas.

The days went by, during which Duc took me on a tour of the Củ Chi tunnels, which could not accommodate my size despite my diet of mangoes and papaya, then we floated past the stilted houses on the Mekong Delta, and we looked in on the Vinh Trang pagoda.

I read The Quiet American and I read about the Cambodian genocide. I felt it was always important to read something about the country, and not necessarily something factual, but something that reflected the mood. The Soong Dynasty in China, The Mosquito Coast in Honduras, Mishima on Kyoto, and so forth.

Travelling is the greatest of communal activities, but it is also, for most of the time the loneliest adventure.

After the stopover in Bangkok, I travelled up to Hanoi by train alone, visited ancient perfumed temples alone. I walked past Hanoians in charcoal suits, squatting at low tables on grey pavements as they conducted early morning business over Courvoisier and a bowl of phở that I could smell and taste; but not be a part of. I stopped in on Hue to pick a path by myself, through tourist landmine fields. Maybe it was the season, or maybe it was me, because throughout that time I had not met anyone for more than a few hours.

The first time I flew to Thailand the plane was near empty until the stop in Dubai, after which it filled up quickly. I was at the back, in the smokers’ section, and I could see everyone file on, but it was mostly single men. I thought it odd, but how naive I was.

My second flight to Bangkok, there were no such illusions, and now it was me seeking Sanook.

In reality, the being alone was no different than my time in Koh Si Chang watching the dead dogs being piled up by the side of the street.

It was no different in Guilin, after a warm send off from the locals whose cabin I shared on the overnight boat. Or in the Sinai, after I detoured from a traveller with Tourette’s who kept on at me whenever I smoked a cigarette. Or in Ceiba, when Amy went off to do her Peace Corp thing and I went off to discover the interior. Or off the beaten path in Honduras, when I realized there was no hotel in town and my lousy Spanish wasn’t going to find a room for the night.

Or in London even, with yet another weekend wasted on clubbing.

Duc took me to pick up my visa three days later, but I had also gotten cold feet from the trickling reports of issues in Angkor Watt… It was like I used to hear, yesteryear on the BBC, when they broadcast bombs in Beirut, or terrorist attacks in Israel.

The guidebooks were right about Fez, or at least my experience reflected them. Fez was where I was chased down, alone and surrounded, so I needed a guide, to keep the other guides away, and then I needed a camel ride, and then I needed a rug. Yes, the books said single women travelling was definitely not recommended, and even as a man I found it difficult, and found myself being regularly harassed, before I escaped to Rabat.

Then there was the advice I received in Hong Kong.

”Don’t go to the Philippines because you’ll get shot.” Certainly if you go to Mindanao.

I thought I’d go anyway, if only for three weeks, because I could always lay my head low if things were that bad. Instead, the Philippines was paradise, it was all Corazon Aquino and People Power, and I needed more. I tried, but struggled, to extend my visa in Manila, and it was only later on, once I arrived in Baguio, where I found a regional office, that I got the stamp extended to six weeks.

I was SO happy.

I danced out of the consulate singing.

And I bought a twelve-year-old chicken from a street vendor and was about ready to kiss her when the passers-by looked at me funny, so I calmed down, and bought a pair of sunglasses from the stall next to hers and put the glasses on, to hide my joy.

So when it came to my Cambodian visa, I should have felt the same, the drive, the ambition to continue, the fuck it. But I didn’t, and all my reading made me second guess, made me think that I had ridden my luck, and how long could I ride my luck for?

I was chicken, damn it, and I didn’t take that bus. I didn’t get to Phnom Penh; even though I’d hung with the Cambodian immigrants and evacuees living in DC; posited with them a way forward from the Hun Sen days.

Six months later, my weird friend Ted Bucco, who lived on the corner of Florida and R, did get there. He stayed by the shores of the Tonle Sap with the madam of a brothel in a town that I never got to see, and he still lived to tell the tale.

My Chinese American friend? He took the bus by himself and he wrote to me soon after.

Yes, they were held up by a truck on the edge of Angkor Watt, and for some minutes they thought they were in danger, but the Khmer Rouge thought better of it. They held us up, he wrote, and they looked at what they could steal, but after a small squabble they drove off because they thought that the tourists weren’t worth the trouble after all.


Photos are of river life in Ho Chi Minh City.

ยี่สิบเจ็ด. A Blossom in the House 二十九. Hong Kong Handover
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