Right where two roads cross, and motorbikes try to park, and sugar cane juice sellers are wielding great long sticks of sugar cane; great big buses do seven-point turns into a sort-of parallel with the road position. It’s the Battambang bus station.
Bus drivers usually panic when they see Sparky’s wheelchair, but we have bus-boarding down to a fine, if not shouting-free, art. First, we give the tickets to Tintin and Meena and Snowy and tell them to get on and grab 5 seats. We never buy 7 seats, they all like to sit on our laps anyway. Chris picks up Sparky, in her seat, a total weight of 25kg. He carries her onto to the bus where a seat has been saved, and plonks her down. Her seat gets firmly strapped on.
I get all the bags into the luggage bins, while holding the baby, and guarding the wheelchair. People just love to try to take it apart, pulling and pushing at all the levers, I just tell them “My husband will do it, one minute, one minute.” They are always in a frantic rush.
Chris comes out of the bus again. Half the passengers open their windows and look at us, while we fold the wheelchair, pop the wheels and handlebars off, and stow it. The other passengers are busy starring at our four big kids inside. I grab all the random water bottles, teddies, bits of fruit and we pile on the bus. Then we sit there another 20 minutes while people yell at each other, and check tickets.
On this particular trip, we trundled out of town, dodging scooters, cows and street hawkers, I began to watch the people round me. I was sitting with Baby Boy in his sling on my front, next to a guy wearing jeans and a jumper. There was a lady at the bus stop in 3 tops and gloves. Apparently, Cambodians really really want lighter skin, and so wear long sleeves all the time. Although this is probably great skin cancer protection, it may well be cancelled out by all the dodgy whitening chemicals they also apply, not to mention being extremely hot.
There was a very beautiful little girl with round deep dark eyes and thick curls. She sat over the aisle from me, and one seat back. She pulled open a bag of food and began to eat. First she ripped the legs off and sucked the juice out of then spat out the bony bits. Then she removed the wings on the back, licking each one. Finally , she shlurped all the guts into her mouth.
Far out, they looked like cockroaches.
They were probably some kind of beetle, deep fried black, and salted. I have to admit I was really revolted and fascinated at the same time. And every maternal bone in my body wanted to yell, as I do many times a day. “Don’t put that in your mouth, its dirty!”
My husband has a pet hate of a couple of phrases. ‘Its a small world’ is one of them that he says is demonstrably not true. And judging by the eons we spent on the bus, to traverse a few millimeters on the map, I think I agree.
But its the phrase ‘common sense’ that I am thinking of. Chris doesn’t believe in it. He says you just can’t assume any idea is commonly held. And if it was, would it therefore be a sensible one? He says people all over the world are utterly convinced of diametrically opposing views to other people.
So, is it common sense that children shouldn’t eat beetles? Or is it commonsense that they should, because they are cheap, high in protein, and possibly tasty. Is it, then, common sense that they should be well fried? Maybe, in Cambodian parenting circles, they discuss the extreme common sense of packing beetles on a long bus trip (like Australian mums take sultanas to a long appointment) as they conveniently take so long to eat.
We have an equivocating stance on using gadgetry on long trips. As there’s a TV playing loud Cambodian karaoke, we concede it would be OK to use the iPod and iPhone. Meena and Chris listen to an Indie travel podcast on ‘getting off the beaten track in China’. Tintin listened to a children’s story on ‘when your prayers aren’t answered.’ This is a topic we talk about lot.
I listened to a sermon on the problem of suffering. It is a tall ask for a sermon on suffering to cut it, when in Cambodia. I’ve just been reading about the killing caves in Battambang. I’m not going to tell you what happened there. We are off to Phnom Penh, where there is a torture museum. This place is thick with suffering. You can see it in the eyes of the elderly.
We didn’t go to the killing caves, and we won’t be going to the killing fields or the torture museum. I know its all true, it did happen, and it was really and truly horrific and evil. But sometimes parents have to protect and shelter their children. Mine are seeing an awful lot of new stuff everyday. This is one instance when I’m going to shield them. What would you do?
Maybe its partly a matter of shielding myself too. Grief is not hypothetical.
We made a toilet stop. Women to the squatties, men to wee on the fence. We bought some kind of cake, like a swiss roll, but with green palm sugar instead of jam. I bought ice green tea with ‘super lemon’
If there was such a thing as common sense, i’d just quit my tea/coffee/caffeine addiction. But as there isn’t, each day is punctuated with searches for coffee thats not full of sugar, or made from beans roasted in pig fat . Or tea that’s not ‘nestea’ powder. The green tea with ‘super lemon’, is 10.5% sugar. So I replaced my lack of caffeine headache with a sugar rush.
The karaoke ended and a stand up comedy started. The back half of the bus was filled with young guys, and they laughed and laughed. Then there was some kind of a Cambodian Macarena dance that appeared to be at a wedding. Does every culture have shocking love ballads with three cords and a key change after the second chorus?
At 4 pm, we were supposed to be in Phnom Penh. Instead we made another loo stop. When the driver put on a feature-length movie, it should have dawned on us that there were still 2 hrs to go. The whole movie seemed to be one long fight scene, and I have witnessed a number of re-enactments around the hotel room since.
Baby Boy fell asleep in his sling on my tummy and all the gadgetry had flat batteries. We all began to look out the windows once more. I reckon our driver spent, oooh, at least 70% of the time on the correct side of the road. And he was sure to honk at every single motorbike to warn them he was coming past.
As we began to drive along side the river, we could see floating houses, and vast piles of plastic rubbish. And those who lived in it.
As soon as we pulled into the Phnom Penh bus station, 6 or 8 tuk tuk drivers spied us through the bus window, and pounced as soon as we were out the door. We joked around with them, until we had re-assembled the wheelchair and located all the backpacks. We had the ‘you have 5 children!’ conversation a few times.
One driver has a broad Australian accent and is wearing a t-shirt from Ballina, Australia. I wonder who taught him English? By the time we were the only passengers left we ascertained the hotel was not collecting us as promised, and secured 2 tuk tuk guys to take us to it.
“Pick me,” said one guy,
“I saw you first.” said the Ballina guy
“What about me?” they all yelled, grinning, but also really wanting the work
We sat Sparky in the tuk tuk and tied her wheelchair to the back. Our backpacks were piled high. As we drove out, towing it along, the gathered crowd smiled and cheered.
No sliding in under the radar for this family!