Monday, May 23, 2011

Cambodian Night Fright

 There's a good chance I may not live to finish this blog.
  I am composing this in the back of a car travelling at high speed down a dark highway in the south of Cambodia.
  Our arrival at Phnom Pehn airport was uneventful, just passing though the gauntlet of 10 military officers who check your passport, take your money, and review your customs declarations. In Malaysia, the job's done by one person with a computer; here, it's a pre-computerized throwback process. Welcome back to the developing world.
  Oh jeez. He's passing again. My foot digs into the floor. The propane-powered car has no pickup at all. The lights of a transport truck are growing ahead. He flicks his high beams at us. We cut back into our lane with seconds to spare.
  We ignored the airport touts when we arrived and looked for a taxi service to Sihanoukville, about four hours' drive to the south, on the coast. It's near sunset and we wanted to get there tonight. Short version: no intercity drive service at the airport. A guy approaches us, has a friend with a car, prices have gone up for  gas, blah blah. An hour later we are sitting in the back of a late-model Camry with good seatbelts and struggling aircon.
  Please don't pass on this curve. Oh Christ. Here we go again. My nails dig into my thigh.
  Our driver seemed a pleasant enough middle-aged man. We front him $20 of his fee to fill the tank to get us to Sihanoukville, and we began snake our way out of PP's commuter traffic.
 The road's in good shape, and traffic lights and rights-of-way are mostly observed in the big city. We pass through PP's endless suburbs, past windowless garment factories whose workers  are now piling onto half-ton trucks, heading home, packed liked sardines in minivans. The pace of traffic is speeding up as the sun races for the horizon. A last few moments of half-light, and our universe shrinks to the confines  of our Camry.
  The only other lights on the highway are transport trucks and local boy's motorcycles.
 You don't have enough room to get between those motorcycles. You don't. You don't.
 You did.
 Last time we were here we took the bus. Dirty, smelly, noisy. Never again, we thought.
 This way gives us a much  better view of local driving customs. Suicidal driving customs, it turns out.
 Take, for instance, the language of high-beams. In Canada, you may flash them to warn about a speed trap, or if the other driver has his highs on. Here in Cambodia, it's its own stand-alone language.
  Each time our driver wants to pass, he flashes his intentions to the vehicle in front of him. If it's a truck or bus, they'll flash to let him know the way is clear ahead. The driver then goes into the opposing traffic lane, on faith, flashing high beams at the traffic that has the audacity to be heading the other way. Several light signal exchanges now take place, and drivers in both directions cede right-of-way. Usually. Or they'll slow down, or if they're a motorcycle, swerve off onto the gravel. Laws of physics trumping traffic rules. Several more flickerings either settle the issue amicably, or the drivers flash a photonic middle finger to one another.
 All this is of course, happens in the opposite lane simultaneously to us, with all the other drivers on the road, several high-to-low beam conversations going on at the same time.
  The use of turn indicators is another sub-dialect, not to get into now. Because I am surely going to die in the next few minutes.
  Our driver is confident, not very chatty but friendly enough. He seemed to know what he was doing, and we were only going 60km. That's a comfort.
 Until I double-checked the speedometer. This was an American model vehicle. We were travelling 60 miles an hour down a country road. Passing on curves and up hills. Depending that every other vehicle also has working lights- hardly a given. Going faster when we could. And faster.
  Then it starts snowing.
  Big, fat, thick flakes fly toward our headlights, hitting the windshield. It looks everything like a September snowstorm in Yukon, when the ground is bare but a squall blinds the way ahead.
 Not snow. Insects. Insubstantial, like may-flies by the river. But millions of them are everywhere, peppering the windshield.
  The driver hits the wipers, smearing the 'snow' across his field of vision. He gives a soft Khmer curse and hits the sprayer button. The plain water in the spray does nothing but add streaks. But when the water hits the air-conned windshield, condensation forms on the inside of the window, fogging what little clear spots of visibility were left.
  This doesn't slow down our driver. We are now heading down the road, blind, in near-blackness, at 60 miles an hour.
  The only points of reference the driver has, between smears of clear windshield, are the lights of the oncoming transports, now passing uncomfortably close to  my door.
  The driver slows as we head into a nameless highway town. He pulls into a parking lot to clean his windshield, refill the wiper reservoir with water, and we take off again.
  The drive gets hairier as the road gets lonelier and darker between the dirty little Cambodian towns. We straddle the painted line, hitting 80 now. We pass more transports, farmers on tractors, families walking along the road, ghosts in our headlights. Every new challenge on the road follows the same pattern: flick lights, change lanes to pass far too early, too slowly, and watch headlights grow ahead of us, pull into our own lane at last moment.  It never gets easier.
  Then we pull up to another guy, also doing at least 60. Our driver signals, moves into the oncoming lane. It's on a blind curve, but that's par for the course. Then, as we move to pass, the other driver accelerates.
  Of course, such challenges to manhood cannot be ignored. The douchebag in the car ahead weaves into our lane when our driver speeds up, blocking him. Side by side, they race at ever-higher speeds. Finally we overtake him. On a hill.
   We leave our opponent in the dust, now having to stay above 80 but with no-one ahead. I glance at my wife. She's closed her eyes, making peace with her maker. I want to die with my eyes open. 
  But this is ridiculous. I have to try to relax.
  I glance off to the side, close my eyes for a moment.
  Then WHAM!.
  Something is under the car. The wet,sickening sound of something tumbling, breaking, but it happens too fast to see. Our driver cuts down 10 mph, checks his engine indicators. A few kilometres later we pull through a toll booth, and our driver pulls off to the side of the road. Checks for any marks on the grill, anything under the carriage.
  'What was it? I asked. 'A box? An animal?'
  The driver just grins at me, and his English has done a disappearing act. He smiles, mumbles irrelevant 'yes'es to my questions, lights a cigarette, draws on a water bottle.
  We stretch for a few minutes, then he throws his bottle into the shrubs. He nods to me. “Twenty minutes to go", he says.
   The toll booth recedes in the distance. I wonder what else we have left on the road.
*   *   *
    The first street lights of Sihanoukville reduce the anxiety that we'll hit something we don't at least see first, though the driver takes no opportunity to slow down as we enter the city.  A turn down a side street or two, and we reach our destination.
    We pull our bags from the trunk and I pull out my wallet.
    I fish out his fare, and add an extra five.
    "Good driving", I say, and shake his hand.
    He pulls out without looking back,  heading to his family four hours away. I have no doubt he'll get there safe and sound.

1 comment:

  1. "You don't have enough room to get between those motorcycles. You don't. You don't.
    You did."

    Ha ha.

    Jeez — horrible! What the hell did he hit? Probably a dog :( Bad, bad experience. I'm glad you lived through it.