The Dirt Road
Cambodia travel story
Of all the roads that we can walk down on this earth, I found myself on a particularly strange one. A long dirt road transparently encompassing the dichotic essence of savagery and beauty that perpetually circumscribe our reality. It was this road that, the hookers, thieves, tuk-tuk drivers, and wild-eyed drug addicts took home each night beside me. Somewhere in the heart of Siem Reap, it came to life like a grim fairytale mutating into cold, hard matter. I walked it every day to get to the pub.
It was just far enough away from the tourist hot spots that you could truly catch a glimpse into the nature of the people, their lifestyle, and the chaos that carried it. With the right set of eyes, you could even see the remnants of the hell that was inflicted by Pol Pot on the elders. It lingered in the creases that lined the sides of their faces like engraved rivers from forgotten tears that dried up long ago under the brutal rays of the sun.
The first day I walked down it, I watched one dog that the locals called the Cambodian razorback ruthlessly rip apart a crippled, old cat. The dog had stalked the poor little thing as she gimped down the road with an injured leg before he ambushed her and clamped his fangs into her throat. I wanted to help, to stop the dog, to do anything but the fear had won as I heard the deep, feral growls reverberate around me. I could only envision the rabid dog chomping infectious razors into my body as I became the next victim. I wasn’t mentally prepared to be stuck in a Cambodian hospital getting rabies shots and stitches across my mutilated flesh.
I had heard somebody tell me before that certain theoretical physicists believe the world ceases to exist when you aren’t looking at it. I wondered about this as I walked past the old, dying cat. It wasn’t so much the sight, it was the noises I heard after I passed them. That world was no longer in my vision but the awful noises and squeals of agony still rang eerily behind me. I could feel it slither around my bones until my skin ran cold. I couldn’t understand how a world disappears when you didn’t look at it. The sounds of suffering followed me with each step until I was far away. Even then, the morbid memory of the croaking old cat drained my thoughts until I was drunk enough to crush it behind the new chaos of the evening.
The road was fairly empty and desolate for the first kilometer or so besides the occasional massage hut. I couldn’t necessarily call it a parlor as it was nothing more than a room crafted out of thin pieces of warped wood splitting and cracking under the waterlogged Buddha pictures. Tuk-Tuk drivers sped past wildly spewing enough dirt into the air that it was easier to walk with your shirt above your nose to avoid hacking up brown mucus later. They were always offering more than just a ride. Depending on the price, this could range from shooting AK-47s to buying someone’s daughter. I found it best to avoid eye contact and simply only exist in my own head.
Children would follow you down long stretches of the road trying to sell you the more innocent things of life. The most popular were the hand-crafted string bracelets. The kids would try to beat you in rock, paper, scissors, as a sort of wager on the potential purchase. Something as simple as this could also serve to be rather conflicting under the surface of the innocents. If you bought the bracelet, you were helping their family financially for a day. However, if the parent noticed the child could make sales, they were notoriously known to pull them out of school to keep them selling on the road. These little hustlers were shadowed by the others who held up cooked spiders and crunchy snakes on old pieces of cardboard as the specialty dish. Eye contact was ok here but deep down, it hurt.
Somewhere near the end was the darkest secret of the whole road. I was approached one evening by a skinny, man who wandered towards me from a long shadow that fell from a metal fence pieced together by bits of scrap metal. He was nervous and on edge as his pencil mustache quivered violently below a pointed nose. He introduced the place as the greatest tourist attraction of the city before he opened the gate but I knew that whatever was beyond it would only perpetuate the horror of the road but I followed him anyway. I suppose a part of me was curious about the hidden suffering of the world even if it was agonizing to see. Maybe a part of me wanted to feel that pain. It was the closest feeling I would get to some of the poor folks who inhabited the road.
Between stained curtain walls, ramshackle beds sat stained, ripped, and sunken with a death-like odor that permeated every inch of the place. There were women on each mattress but the look in their eyes only displayed a certain emptiness that shined like dark coals burning in a fire. The only things they were missing were shackles and chains around their ankles. I’m sure in some way they were shackled to that life even without the chains though. All I could do was give the skinny guy a disappointed look and walk back to my dirt road and buy another beer on the way home.
It was then that I saw a little naked baby showering under a grimy, broken pipeline along the gutter of the road. He was smiling a smile that knew no evil. It knew no hurt. It still had love, hope, and an unbroken spirit. He splashed happily in the water as the dirt became mud under his tiny feet. That gave me a sliver of hope that under all the pain and suffering of the community there was still a chance for another generation. There was still a chance to find happiness before the dirt road sucked it away from you. Because even though the dirt seemed hard and dry, it can always be shaped and molded as the water flows through it and those happy little feet leave the footprints of tomorrow.
(Cambodia Travel Story)