“Hello! Sir! Tuk tuk!”
“My friend. My friend, you like smoke? You want hash? Skunk?”
I swing my head from side to side, eyes pressed forward and staring at an unidentified point on the horizon. It’s a gauntlet out here, and I’ve still got 5 blocks to go–meaning I’ll have to reject about 15 more requests, ranging from firing a rocket launcher to taking a ride anywhere to straight up begging for money. There will be amputees and children, blind people and the mentally handicapped, and I’ll walk past them all, with my clattering flip flops, and feel guilt bloom to a hurried rhythm.
When I finally get to the restaurant–The Riverside Cafe–I lean back in a cushioned chair and scroll the internet with my right hand while I mindlessly grip a mango-pineapple smoothie with the left. Twitter: Food updates and one liners. Instagram: Food pictures and feet. Yawn. I click on the YouTube App and watch some news bloopers, only to be interrupted by two boys who look to be about ten. They are grimy and dirt is spread across their young faces, adding a somber determination to the neutral, brown eyes and outstretched palms. I point at my wallet sitting on the table, and one shakes his head at me. I raise my hands in question, and he points to my bottle of water. My face flushes as I stare at the 1.5 liter bottle towering over my plate of noodles. It’s frosty and glistening with condensation, a truly glorious sight on a muggy day near the equator. His eyes stare through me and I see–maybe for the first time–how truly important that single bottle of water is. I crack it, but fear stops me with its onslaught of selfish and paranoid rhetoric. Does this child have diseases? Does he want the whole bottle? What will I drink? I settle on pouring some into a glass, filling it to the brim and handing it to the grubby hand reaching up toward me. He downs it in two quick gulps and smiles as the blast of cold water against a dry palette restarts his day. I gesture toward the glass, silently asking if he wants another. He doesn’t. His lips stretch upward in a final grin before he bounds off to catch up to his friend.
I stare back at my noodles and suddenly they don’t look so tasty. The oil pooled at the bottom of the plate taunts me with the fact of my eating only because I don’t have anything better to do. I think I can feel the wifi,–the high speed internet that we foreigners need and require so desperately–surging through my bones. Cambodia has 4% internet saturation. This wifi is for me, just like the oily noodles and the shimmering refrigerated water and the waiter calling me sir.
A man in a wheelchair approaches, his leg mysteriously invisible below the flabby skin dangling near the knee cap. He’s selling books, specifically one called First They Killed My Father which is about the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge that murdered around 2 million of their own people during the 1970’s. I guess that he stepped on one of the millions of land mines that dot nearly the entire Cambodian border. I open my wallet and pull out a dollar and feel my head drop in shame as I hand it to him. He takes it with both hands and pushes them together in a blessing that he holds in front of his face.
I don’t know how to say you’re welcome in Khmer. I nod and watch him wheel into the beating sun and uneven concrete of the rushing road.
The noodles have become grotesque. I motion to the waiter for my bill and contemplate the walk back, instinctively flinching as I think about how many humans I will have to ignore, disregard, and dehumanize on the way back to my air conditioned hotel room. I don’t want a ride anywhere, and no, I don’t want any sunglasses.
The emphatic words “Tuk tuk!” saturate the teeming lanes of Phnom Penh and can get pretty tiresome. It’s impossible to walk 10 feet without being solicited. There are too many tuk tuks and tuk tuk drivers, all desperately competing to take tourists across the city for a dollar. They aren’t begging, but they’re damn close. It’s a simple truth that I don’t have the resources to help even a fraction of these people, and the convenience function of the mind soon begins to tune them out. They become sights, mere blending features of my whirlwind flight of travel fancy. I learn to put in headphones, stare with vacuity, wander with feigned naivety. “Tuk tuk!” begins to rattle in the background, a tolerable annoyance like a squeaky hinge or a knock in the engine.
I’m heading to the beach in the morning. Be happy, going to the beach, fuck yeah, it’s all good. Ocean time, baybay. It’s cheaper down there too.
The thought holds briefly, but there’s nothing behind it, nothing there. I should probably drink another bottle of water. It’s goddamn hot today.
Yeah, I’m getting sick of hearing “Tuk tuk!”
But not nearly as sick as the drivers are of yelling it.