Thursday, February 26, 2009

MONKEY MAGIC

The bumper sticker reads: "Honk if you want to see an AK47 fired out a car window." The black Hummer hums along just ahead of my moto driver down Preah Monivong Boulevard. And i do mean just ahead: my driver's handlebars almost scrape the rear quarter panel as he weaves along looking for a few empty centimetres of passing space. I have a sudden flashback to the time i was driving my '62 Spitfire down the Mitchell Freeway, just behind a biker with "Coffin Cheaters" emblazoned across the back of his jacket, when my horn suddenly came on for no apparent reason and stayed on. I mean, i can laugh about it now.

I've told my driver i'm in a hurry, and he is obligingly honking and passing everything in sight as he speeds along the wrong side of this four-lane road. We pass the Hummer without incident, then almost have a head on collision as we turn left into oncoming traffic, but of course i'm used to that by now. All the drivers cut the corner as they turn, just so they can ride directly into the oncoming traffic on the steet they are turning into. It's a kind of national sport. I rummage around in my pocket to find my mobile, and punch a Recently Dialled Number.

"Is that Mean Harean?" i ask, as the driver squeezes at high speed through an impossible space between a rubbish truck and a street vendor. The female voice on the end of the line says something i can't make out. There is a disconcerting echo on the phone. I assume that i am speaking to the head of HR, so i persevere. "It's Mark Roy here. I'm running a little late. But i'll be there soon." My words echo back to me, jumbled up with a heavily accented voice which for all i know could be quoting me the price for an ounce of gold in Borneo. "Yes, ten minutes, i'll see you then," i say, and hang up.

You might think it a little loose, taking off to a foreign country with almost no money on the off chance of securing a job with an international daily newspaper. And then turning up to your interview late, and without a CV. But fuck it. This town doesn't make it any easier. I mean, you'd think that any premises advertising 'quality colour laser printing' might in fact be able to produce just that, rather than a faded, striated black-and-white mess that looks like it was spat out of a well-used 1970s photocopier using dirty dishwater as toner. Which, in all likelihood, it was. And when you leave your one-and-only business shirt with the laundry to be washed and ironed two days earlier, you would hardly expect to be still standing there, twenty minutes before your job interview, while they decide to switch on the iron. I stand and watch. There is little else i can do.

"Where you go?" asks a moto driver standing nearby.
"Well, i am supposed to be at the Phnom Penh Post by 11a.m," i say resignedly. I glance at my watch. It's 10.45, and the office is on the other side of town. "Preferably wearing a shirt."
"Ah, yes, i know where that is. We get there no worries."
This sounds promising. "It's on the corner of Sihanouk and Sothearos boulevards," i advise.
"Yes, yes, i be there many times." He waves his hands dismissively. Obviously it won't be a problem.

So it comes as something of a surprise when five minutes later he stops just a few hundred metres from the laundry in front of a large, yellow art deco building, just east of the shrine at Wat Phnom.

"What the fuck is this?" i ask politely.
"The Phnom Penh Post Office," he says.

They have recently introduced helmet laws in Cambodia, for which the moto driver is grateful as i smite him on the side of the head.

The new helmet laws here only apply to drivers, not passengers. Moto taxi drivers carry one helmet and one helmet only, and that's for them. It's a curious arrangement, but one to which you soon become accustomed. Just as foreigners can be pulled up and given a ticket for riding a motorbike during the day with their headlights on, so Khmers blithely ride about at night with their lights switched off with no fear of being pulled over by the police. There is an ineffable and arcane logic to it. Ah, you've got to love the place.

Against all odds, the job interview goes swimmingly, and the CEO shakes my hand and gives me a ticket to their work function at the Foreign Correspondents Club. The function is being held this Friday, and will include free food and drink. This is a good thing, especially when you are down to your last forty dollars. Remind me to wear clothing with capacious pockets. I'm living on about $12 a day coming in through eBay. My room is $4, a meal is around $1.50, and a litre of water is $1. It's a pity the pinball machine deal fell through, because that would have brought some welcome pocket money. But people here will go around stealing integral components, like transformers. It can't be helped. $12 a day means i can live. Not comfortably, by any means, but i can live.

Then this morning i realise i have $12 Australian coming in per day - while all my costs are in US dollars. Ouch.

It's time to cut costs, i decide. Who says i am not a rational human being? First, i decide to sleep all day so i won't spend any money. At nightfall, i set out on foot and find a cheap Khmer eatery across the road from the casino at Boeung Kak. Stainless steel tables, plastic chairs: above us only sky. The menu has an English translation of sorts, offering such delicacies as sautéed frog with red curry pasted, and that perennial favourite, sweat and sour pork. I'm tempted to try the fried swamp cabbage with chilli, hold the eel - but instead i opt for a very tasty chicken noodle soup for a dollar. On the table is a big jar of sliced garlic and chilli and some fish sauce. Mmm. I lash out on a glass of sugar cane juice.

On the way home i am inexorably drawn to the Boeung Kak Drinking Shop. The name "Drinking Shop" piques my curiosity. I walk in and browse the shelves. Only $6.50 for a whole litre of rum? How long has this been going on? A shot of rum here is a dollar fifty, and there are around thirty-three shots in a litre. Yes. This should cut my costs considerably.

And with cigarettes at only fifty cents a packet, it's almost worth taking up smoking again. I could save a fortune.

The next day i'm gazing, as usual, out the window of my tiny fourth floor room, across the mosque to the lake, when i see a troupe of six monkeys scampering across the rusted corrugated iron roofs. They look in windows and frighten the backpackers, jumping up and down excitedly, before clambering along some electrical wiring to the roof directly below. The monkeys just wander about wherever they like, doing whatever they like, with no-one to disturb them. They drop onto a balcony and begin messing with a washing line. One of them pulls down a bra, pulls it over his head, and then wraps it around his chest. He gets bored of this, drops it, and they jump onto an adjoining roof before dropping out of sight between the buildings. Monkeys. Ha. Funny. I pour a couple of fingers of the Baïta Rhum, add some orange juice, and knock it back. Breakfast of champions. Now, time for a swim. Not in the lake, of course - it is polluted beyond redemption. But the freeflowing antics of the monkeys have given me an idea. I pack a towel and walk around the corner to the 4-star Phnom Penh Hotel.

I stride into the lobby like i own the place. Always stride into the lobby like you own the place, i decide. From now on this will be my mantra. Stride into the lobby like you own the place. The air conditioning is simply luscious. I bet they even have hot running water here. And cakes! I walk by a glass display cabinet filled with fancy cakes. I haven't seen a cake since Brunei Airport. I walk down a long corridor, past the entrance to the casino, then circle back past some very expensive-looking shops on an almost impossibly shiny polished wooden floor. I see a sign pointing to a spa and health club, so i meander in that direction. I've brought a small plastic bottle of iced tea with me, filled, of course, with French rum. Because the more of it i drink, the more money i save. Brilliant. Next to the entrance to the spa is a sign in elegant brass lettering, pointing up a flight of stairs, which says simply: "To swimming pool".

After a few laps in the cool turquoise water, i hop out and lie back on the sun lounge. I figure i must be saving a couple of hundred dollars a day lying here. I sit up for a sip of iced tea. Yes, one could get used to these cost-cutting measures.

6 comments:

Robin said...

So that's why your blog is called The Nerve?
Congrats on the job MRC - enjoy.

melinda said...

By god that scene of you on the fwy honking bloody murder at the coffin cheater cracks me up... and as for the rest of your antics, if you're not living on the edge your taking up too much space! As always, a hysterical pleasure reading, you paint a pretty (twisted) picture AD!! ahahaha
Love Urz Truly, Miss Mayhem x

Juice said...

Swimmingly good, as you say.

I'm liking the new mantra,now i wonder if you can get to know the door boys by name??

Anonymous said...

Ahhh...too good!!

Anonymous said...

Great stuff! Once again it appears your uncanny knack for engineering your own demise, then landing on your feet is coming to the fore. Kissed on the dick by a fairy, some would say... although I guess it's easy to make those mistakes in a dark Sukhumvit Soi with a head full of Chang and Mekhong.

miCheLLeBLOG said...

So there was a method in your chaotic madness - the pinball machine. I might have missed the bit about making money from the deal.
Wow, well done on the job. Can't wait to hear more about that.