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Next stop ‘nam
A desi girl's tale of cheep beer, dead crickets and a bewildering 'bus man'.
As a good Indian girl, I get all sorts of reactions when people find out that I prefer to travel alone, ideally to a far off place and at least for a month at a time. Eyebrows hit hairlines and well-meant advice is generously doled out, peppered with worried 'But what ifs?', 'But, who will you talk to?', 'But why?! '.
Well, I find travelling alone the best way to pamper myself. It's better than a spa, even better than chocolate. It's when I can guiltlessly and shamelessly submit to whatever whim might take my fancy.
It's probably a good idea though, not to fancy a hangover when crossing a Cambodian border in a state transport bus.
It all started when I planned a backpacking trip through Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. After much calling and fist-shaking, I still couldn't manage a Vietnam visa and then a kindred soul told me that I could skip the endless communist visa red tape by entering Vietnam by road from Phnom Penh.
After a few disturbing days in Phnom Penh, where the Cambodian government has sold the Khmer Rouge killing fields to a Japanese company, creating a towering ticketed graveyard which is frequented by visitors who gawk at the mass of crushed skulls and bones, I'm more than ready for Vietnam.
Two days, two passport size photographs and $30 later, I've got my precious visa, a state bus ticket to Saigon and an evening to waste.
Too many Cambodian beers shared with a pair of excited American girls leave me heavy headed and a bit deaf the next morning. The shady corner right at the back of the bus looks about right and I wake up only when we screech to a halt. This is somewhere on the eastern edge of Cambodia and the landscape is straight out of a western.
A dusty highway disappears into the horizon on both ends while our motley group of travellers trickles out of the candy pink bus. A small food stall sells some greens along with fried crickets for a snack. The 'bus man' says something rapidly in badly accented English which I gather means that we should wait here while he goes to the border with all our passports and validates our visas. Sure, whatever. Let's try those crickets.
They are crunchy, tasteless and worse, their thin legs tend to get stuck between teeth. The young girls behind the counter giggle and point me to the toilets at the back where I try and pick out the stubborn slivers stuck in my mouth, while the dead cricket puts up an impressive fight.
By the time I get back to the front, the motley travellers along with the bright pink bus have disappeared. I give my head a little shake and blink hard. Surely, the aliens will beam them back to land any second now. Frozen, I scan the scene slowly, coming to a stop on the faces of the girls behind the counter who have stopped giggling and are now staring at me in shocked silence.
Truth dawns and I force my disbelieving brain to do the calculations. Luggage - on bus. Passport - on bus. Phone - No signal. Cash - Yeah, I've still got that.
The girls are now running around, talking to me in rapid-fire Cambodian. I respond with wild gestures pointing at them, the crickets, the toilets and where my bus should have been. They reply with equally strong gestures pointing in the general direction of Vietnam. So what... they expect me to run all the way?
I'd like to think my powerfully persuasive nonverbal arguments, but more likely sheer pity, drives them to help me flag down the next mini-motorcycle that comes cruising down the highway. The surprised driver is yelled at while I jump on behind him and off we go chasing after the candy pink bus.
Surely, this is a movie and I'm still asleep. The border couldn't be too far away right? After all, the bus man came back pretty quickly. Willing the mini-moto to go faster, I'm imagining all the many ways I could kill the bus man for leaving me behind, I mean, don't they do a head count? Blow a whistle? Check the toilets at least! I'm also feverishly hoping that this will one day be just a funny story, and I'll get to tell it.
Halleluiah! I can see the border and there's my beautiful, candy pink bus parked just across. I thank the mini-moto savior;stuff all my leftover riel into his hands and rush to the barricade only to be stopped rudely by a uniformed Vietnamese guard toting the largest rifle I have ever seen, who yells at me demanding "paesppogh!"
My eyes are glued to the bus while I try and sign language some sense into the gun. He obviously speaks only one word "paesppogh", "paesppogh". That's when the bus moves a couple of centimetres and suddenly the gun doesn't seem so big as I duck under the barricade and race towards it gesturing wildly at the guard screaming "come, come paesppogh, there!". Mercifully, I run straight into the bus man who is walking towards me like an idiot holding my passport and scratching his head. The passport is waved at the angry guard like a cross at the antichrist and he shrinks back muttering angrily at me.
I think I would like nothing more than to strangle the bus man, sue his company and his entire family for the next 10 generations but I'm so relieved that I hug him and thank him and sit in the bus with my eyes wide open thanking my stars and the gods and bees and pretty much everything as I roll into Vietnam on my candy pink bus.
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