When I picked “traveler’s nightmare” as the title of this post, I thought of all the other nightmares out there. What is up with me certainly isn’t the worst thing that could happen, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a bummer.
First, let’s start with the good news, shall we? I am feeling better! (This should make it very easy to infer what happened.) I was able to get out and about a bit in Siem Reap today, albeit in a daze. But that’s progress! Earlier in the day it took an hour to get down to pieces of toast and then another hour to stop feeling nauseated, but I managed! Then a trip to the Angkar Museum, which is actually pretty well put together, for a few hours. Student ID saved me six bucks, which will pay for my dorm bed tonight. Frugality! All the walking stirred my appetite, and I found a pro-local restaurant called The Singing Tree that has a lot of vegetarian options. I got Tofu Amok — no, the tofu did not go into a state of murderous frenzy. If that were to happen, the irony might kill me first. Har har har. Okay end of digression: Amok is a Khmer curry that tastes a lot like Thai curry but it is harder to find a veggie version of it. Or anything, really. Here if you can afford meat and get fat then fortune smiles upon you. But I digress! The happy point here is that I was not only able to stomach the smell of the walk through the market to the restaurant, I was also able to eat the meal with (almost) my usual zeal. And no indigestion afterward. Huzzah! I celebrated my regained health with an ice cream cone. Good and trustworthy pistachio; no need to bomb my gut back to the stone age (again) by getting too crazy. I’m not out of the woods yet, but I can see the sunshine.
Now, I’ll tell you what happened, but be forewarned that it may be a tad graphic, depending on what decides to come out of these finger tips. (As you may or may not have noticed, I don’t do drafts of these posts and don’t edit them later or even reread them before posting. The same is true here. We’ll just have to see, won’t we?)
It all started four days ago. Sunday. I was in Phnom Penh, and had just written a rather long blog entry if I recall correctly. Afterward, I wandered about and got stuck on one street corner because a parade of political ralliers was doing the rounds. I got a streetside seat, had dinner, and was entertained by the antics and energy of the crowd for the better part of an hour. By that point it was quite late, and I had a bus to catch. A quick turn through the night market (the main attraction was performers singing Khmer lyrics to Thai songs, a few of which I recognized) and I was back at Nomads with the ever-helpful Robert. He let me keep my borrowed towel and take a shower before boarding the bus, free of charge. This is a real show of hospitality as most places charge and if you sneak one you feel like a criminal, made dirty by the simple act of washing. To this I say: bogus!
Blah blah blah, some waiting around, book-reading, nose-picking, that kind of stuff. And then! A tuk tuk came to deliver me to the night bus. I was the first passenger. We bopped around different areas of Phnom Penh, picking up three more people from hostel names I recognized from the Internet, and then all of us were dropped off at a corner three blocks from my hostel. Ah, well, it was nice to get a bit of a nighttime city tour. No traffic and the weather is lovely.
Before boarding, I had that premonition that it wouldn’t be long before I had to pee. My bladder sent a telegram saying I would hear again via post in thirty minutes. More time? An email then. The worst is when your bladder comes to tell you in person. That’s when you know the situation is dire. And of course that’s what happened, at 3:37 am on the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. I was in seat — bed, actually — 16B. Top row, towards the back, right-hand side, in the aisle. My bedfellow was an Asian guy with whom I had zero interaction besides sharing a small sleeping cabin. It wasn’t cramped, and from the movement of the bus we could have almost been on a train. But at least trains have toilets onboard. With this bus, there was no such luck. And since this isn’t Vietnam anymore, there are no more toilet stops every two hours. (That’s one thing I marveled at in Vietnam: the buses always stopped just when Mr. Bladder was starting to send friendly letters through the neural network.) I had been sleeping but woke up to the sound of Mr. Bladder ringing the doorbell. I lay there, rocking in my narrow bed, trying to breathe and focus on when we would pull into the next stop, which I prayed wouldn’t be Siem Reap. My stomach started to cramp. The breathing became deeper. Someone bumped my knee walking down the aisle. I peeked through the curtain to see who it was. The cabin boy. Damn! I should have asked if there would be a toilet stop. I watched him pass out of whispering distance, maneuvering around a dark shape on the floor in a way that assured me it wasn’t a person. I watched him up at the front for maybe twenty minutes, debating. In the glare of the headlights, there was nothing but rice fields. No street lights. No other cars or busses. Not even one lonely motorbike. Nothing.
Gritting my teeth, I rolled out of the bed, thumping slightly on the floor below, still tangled in the course sheet. I stripped it quick as I could and made a shaky move for the front of the bus. He was sitting on the steps. I tapped his shoulder and squinted into his face; I had forgotten my glasses. “Toilet?” I whispered as pitifully as possible, unsure if it would translate. “You want toilet now?” he asked. I took a deep breath. Potty stops were obviously not part of the itinerary. Breathe out: “Soon.” I smiled. It never hurts to do so. Okay okay, he says, turning to the bus driver and casually saying something in Khmer. I had retreated a few steps, hopefully lingering. He turned back to me. “Okay okay, driver stop for you.” Sweet baby Jesus, it’s about time! Big smile, for real this time. We do indeed slow down and pull over on the narrow road. It is paved, and still surrounded by rice fields. I waddle to the back of the bus. A full moon presides over the spectacle. Well, I hike up my skirt and make a full moon of my own, right there on the pavement in the Cambodian darkness. Mine is as white as the one in the sky, as white as a flag of surrender to the forces of nature. And what a surrender! There is nothing like a strong, patiently built, roadtrip piss. It was glorious. So glorious, in fact, that I went twice. The only detractor from my satisfaction was that I had to have restraint with the flow, otherwise it would splatter all over my legs and feet and make me itchy and smelly for the rest of the ride. Toilet paper and any potential prying eyes be damned, this was a highlight of the trip. It’s the simple things, right?
Back underway on the bus, my stomach still felt tight. I’ve had cramps before from ignoring Mr. Bladder for too long, and I figured this was one of those. It should go away with a little sleep, I reasoned. So to sleep I went, only to be awakened a couple hours later at our destination. The sun was rising. If we hadn’t stopped, I wouldn’t have made it to see this beautiful dawn. But alas! Here we were, in (or at least nearby) Siem Reap. It was $1 flat rate for a tuk tuk into town to find a place to stay. I got a young man that was friendly enough and at least honest about his job and the network that it creates. As such, he brought me to a hostel where dorm beds were just $2 (the cheapest yet!) and said I could look and if I didn’t like what I saw, we could look elsewhere. It worked for me. $2? I’ll take it. Then I had to sit through a thirty minute talk about the temples with him, which was somewhat informative but was mostly a ploy to get me to book him to be my tuk tuk driver and tour guide. Not knowing a thing about my surroundings and the things to do and the people I could potentially meet, I continuously declined, saying that I was not in a position to make plans. He tried to instill me with customer loyalty, saying that since he was the one that brought me from the bus and to Siem Reap I should stick with him or else I wasn’t a good person, or something along those lines. Yeah, there are other ways to build customer loyalty….
Once he was gone, I set off to rent a bicycle to do some exploring. By this point I was aware that my stomach still felt tight and that the diarrhea was starting, but I was eager to look around and reasoned that I would be able to find toilets along the way. I stopped for breakfast (baguette and eggs) to get going and saw a few places afterward, but every time I dismounted I could feel my stomach wrapping tighter. More trips to the bathroom. This was especially regretful when I stumbled upon the ConCERT headquarters (http://www.concertcambodia.org/siem%20reap.html), which is a wonderful network for volunteers and reliable NGOs, and was too pained by my intestines to get as much information as I would have liked. But the helpful staff were willing to talk and sent me off with plenty of brochures, including restaurants and shops that support volunteering efforts. I smiled through gritted teeth, thanked him, and slowly pedaled away, en route to nowhere.
Following the American folk wisdom that ginger ale settles an upset stomach, I bought a can and drank it sitting by the river. It didn’t seem to do anything except make me emit a series of weak (not even a one out of ten) burps and feel a little bloated. Feeling fatigued, I sat awhile longer before deciding to check out the Peace Cafe, which was nearby on the other side of the river and lay between me and my bed. It was a lovely spot, with wicker lounge chairs filling an earth-packed yard and Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the branches above. It was a lovely spot, quiet and full of people with dreadlocks talking about inner energies and the limitations of man. Alone with a Lonely Planet Cambodia and a plain soup of noodles and tofu, I ate slowly and took notes on border crossings and towns of interest.
I made good progress on the notes (looks like I may have to transfer through Bangkok instead of going directly north like I had hoped – bugger!) but wasn’t even halfway through the soup before the intestinal riot began. Off to the toilet, once again! At this point I figured it was best to give up on exploring and give in to sleep for the day despite it only being four in the afternoon. I paid and slowly pedaled the short distance back to my hostel. My alarm was set for 7:30 pm, giving me enough time to get the bike back at 8. But at the moment I wanted nothing more than to sleep and go to the toilet, not necessarily in that order.
At the hostel, there was someone in the bathroom. I asked if there was another; no dice. One toilet for up to twelve people. Outlook grim. I waited and nearly exploded upon entry. These bouts were becoming more violent. Temporarily relieved, I flopped on my floor-level bunk bed without moving a thing out of my way. I wasn’t down long before the process started again. By this point, the diarrhea was nothing more than brown water with bits of vegetable or fruit skin mixed in, like a kid trying to hide his vegetables in chocolate milk. Damn whatever source was the culprit! (I suspect some jackfruit that I bought off a lady in a muddy alley. I could taste that it was old; who knows how old? And it undoubtedly had never been washed. Always best to buy directly from the lady peeling it and putting it in a bag for you right before your eyes.)
I thought that I might be more comfortable in a private room, so I asked to be changed at the front desk. There was only one left. An old tube TV, no bathroom, no air-con. Just a fan without a cover. I moved my bags, piece by piece. I was physically weakened at this point from all of my generous donations to the porcelain throne. (Hey, at least I didn’t have to squat for this too!) I lay down and felt the urge, as well as another. It dawned on me that I wouldn’t sleep well until the bike was returned, so I hauled myself back outside to pedal it back to the rental place, a scanty two blocks away. It wouldn’t have been safe for any longer trips since a fever was starting to burn and blur my mind. I made it, and on the way back intended to stop at a pharmacy I had seen earlier to get some medication and to stop for water. Water found me first, and I was thirsty. I knew the walk back would be short, but I was so tired that it seemed like all of Cambodia stretched before me. Because of the history here I won’t call it a death march, but by this point I was in pretty bad shape. My head lolled on my neck, eyes meandered without my direction. I was looking for the pharmacy, but after walking (more like shuffling) awhile it didn’t materialize. I figured that I had passed it by, despite my attempts at vigilance. Then I felt that the hostel had passed me by too since I didn’t recognize the buildings. Was there always an abandoned school across from the hostel? I don’t think so. How long have I been gone? Ten minutes? An hour? I couldn’t tell. I was hot, without a map or a watch or a clue. Or a toilet. And I needed one urgently. Angry juices had started to squirm out of me, and it began to burn with every step. I was lost (though I knew I was on the right street!), about to shit (if you can call it that) my pants, and didn’t know how to ask for help. Merde! I started to cry. Just a little bit, but I was feeling pretty, well, shitty at this point. At a loss, I started walking back the way I came. Where are those tuk tuk guys when you need them? At least they may be able to give some direction. I walked on the sidewalk with the traffic at my back, constantly glancing over my shoulder for a tuk tuk. Finally, one appeared. I tried to wave him down, but he just waved back and pointed to his backseat. It had a piece of glass taking up the whole space. Double merde. I tried asking shopkeepers if they knew where my hostel was. Only puzzlement. Was it my accent? Triple merde. Finally, for real this time, a tuk tuk appeared and pulled over at my beckon. I asked if he knew Siem Reap Central Hostel. He smiled, scratched his head, looked around, and laughed. Dammit, just tell me! “It is close to hear, right?” Yes, right there. He pointed twenty meters ahead. Oh my Buddha there it was. I had overshot it by a lot, missing it when it was right in front of my face. I could have cried some more. “So, you want to see temple? You want tuk tuk? I good driver, very cheap, very cheap! Where you go?” he began, but I thanked him and stumbled off muttering about being sick while he was left to find someone who wanted more than duh-worthy information. (Even for a tourist, come on!)
I was back and… someone was taking a shower. Seriously? I begged to be told there was a separate staff bathroom. There was not. I sat outside the bathroom gathered the courage to ask the showerer to please hurry since I was sick and needed the toilet. They must not have understood English, because it was another agonizing ten minutes of listening to someone shampooing and brushing and doing god-knows-what in there while I was about to experience the apocalypse in my innards. I huddled on the ground and cried, snapping at a guy that came to check on the bathroom. “I’m next!” was as close to a snarl as I have ever gotten. The staff were in the back playing cards, and the two ladies near the adjacent doorway kept peeking in at my pitiful state and whispering with the other players. I let nasty things run through my increasingly fevered mind, things that I won’t type out here.
Hallelujah, a miracle. Princess gets out of the shower and I rush in. I turn on the shower so the giggling staff can’t hear my shame. At this point, I give thanks that I am not vomiting too. I also decide that I need to move somewhere where I have my own bathroom. I wait for the burning release to subside, wash my face and hands, and go to my room to begin packing. The door is locked. I think I don’t have the key and go and bang at the front desk until someone comes. I am being rude and don’t care. All this, and it turns out I have the key already in my pocket. I mumble an apology that you wouldn’t believe (and the bell-boy didn’t either, as told by the magnificent eyeroll he gave to the day’s most fussy customer) and head to my room, which happens to be a door next to where the staff are playing their card game. Inside, it reeks of cleaning fluid and stale cigarettes. They were doing something before the card game, it seems. I have only dumped stuff on the bed but haven’t laid on it yet. I am packing again when the urge strikes for perhaps the thirtieth time today. And… someone else is taking a shower in the only bathroom to which I have access. Instead of waiting outside, I pack faster. Back at the front desk, I have to bang again (the desk boy is playing pool outside, I notice) and explain that I am checking out because “I need my own bathroom.” He has to call someone to decide if I need to pay the $2 or not for the bed. Screw the $2, I just want to get out of there! But I am sick and unreasonable and would rather not pay, so I wait the extra minute. I only have to pay $1 for this shoddy nightmare. Fine. Thank you. Good riddance to your lack of facilities.
Fully loaded with my travel gear, I stumble even more through the streets. I know a number of places are nearby on the same street even closer to the central market. I head in that direction. The second place I try has a spot open: a private air-con room with TV and, most importantly, private bathroom. At $15 a night, I take it. Much more expensive than other beds on offer, but I am willing to pay more for comfort while I am in this state. I tell the lady behind the counter that I am sick and she nods understandingly. I also beg use of the bathroom, wherein I discover that the friction from walking while I was lost and loose in the bowels has left angry-feeling blisters in a sensitive spot. They bite into me when the cool water of the bidet hits them. I cry out and try not to think of how hemorrhoids are formed.
In the closet bathroom, I take a few more breaths for composure, then go back to the front desk to finish check-in. I am searching for my passport when I realize: Mother of all Merde! I left it under the mattress at the other hostel! I never do this, but the other place felt a little dodgy and open, so I tried to take an extra precaution. I vowed not to get lost this time and tried to slip in as quietly as possible. A French guy was in the bed now, and I apologized and then turned up his mattress. He understood after I walked out with a pouch and clear folder carrying copies of my identity, real passport, and a wad of cash. As I walked away from this hostel for the last time, I could hear the front desk guy, still playing pool, sing “And don’t you come baaack, oh oh ooooh!” Don’t worry, I won’t.
At long last, I was in an air-conditioned room with my own bathroom. Then I really started to feel the illness. I was absolutely on fire. I took a cold shower, but the water felt warm by the time it hit my skin. The saliva in my mouth was thick and mucousy. I couldn’t stand straight with the pain in my stomach. More bouts on the toilet. I crawled into bed, doubling up on the sheets. I turned on the TV for some distraction: there was a documentary about the history of mind control and psychology experiments. With the way my mind was warping, I could have been one of the patients. I rubbed Tiger Balm all over my body and waited for it to cool me down. It did, and then it didn’t stop. I have never used that much before. My fingers went numb since they had spread it. So I lie there, burning and freezing and feeling utterly drained. I woke up every hour or less to visit the toilet. On one of these visits, I was too weak to stand. I slouched on the toilet, dreading getting up again knowing I would only be back again soon. I sat there for awhile, naked and dead to the world. When I woke up, I tried to stand. My head felt light, and the change sent me over the edge. I fainted. I don’t know how long I lie there on the tiled floor, still wet from the evening shower. But I couldn’t feel the dampness, nor the cold tile. Not a thing. I was out. When I came to, I wondered if I should go to the hospital. “In the morning…” At the moment, all the could do was crawl back into bed and drift off until the next urge awoke me.
The next day, Tuesday, I stayed in bed. The hostel/hotel backs up to a monastery, so all day I could listen to the chanting and music or read or watch TV. Mostly I slept. Around noon, I gathered the strength to go to a pharmacist. This time I found it; it was only a stone’s throw from my new location. The smells of the world assaulted me as soon as I stepped outside. I can’t quite pin down the smell of Cambodia, but it kind of smells like dust, garbage, and old meat. Not really the most pleasing mixture, and especially not to someone whose senses are hypersensitive with illness. (Though this serves a purpose since I am not likely to eat something poisoned again while I can smell like that.) I made it to the pharmacy, marked with the universal green cross and snakes. I even made it inside and was starting to talk about my symptoms when the world started swimming and then went black. I fainted again, though I don’t fancy I was out for more than a few seconds. I came to hearing a jumble of Khmer, with the lady from behind the counter now at my side and pulling on my arm. They got me a folding chair, where I stationed myself for the next hour or so, drinking rehydration powders and debating if I should go to a doctor. My verdict was to just try to rehydrate and sleep. After all, I hadn’t had any diarrhea for a number of hours. Maybe because there was nothing left, or maybe because things were turning around. Rest and fluids are the best medicine, so I bought more powder packets, thanked the lady, and hobbled home.
The rest of the day was spent in and out of sleep, with some TV intervals. Between NatGeo Wild, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, and the Asian pop scene, I was plenty entertained.
Wednesday followed in much the same fashion. I was feeling stronger, though the lack of fluid in my joints was taking a toll. I have never felt like my bones are rubbing together before. Is that what arthritis is like? Ouch. I ventured a little further and tried to get some food down, which I managed (cheers again to no vomiting) but it tied my stomach up in knots for hours after eating. My stomach felt as taut and bloated as a drum, but anyone who beat on this drum would be inflicting severe pain. Sleep was harder to come by, but come it did.
And that brings me to today! I checked out of my recuperation station and got a bed in a groovy hostel next door. There is a pool on the first floor and an open restaurant/lounge space and the sign on the stairs says there is yoga space on the second floor and movie/TV space on the third floor. It is clean, air conditioned, and the toilet and shower are separated. It is a world away from Cambodia, as much else of Siem Reap is. This is a town that sprung up catering entirely to tourists ever since UNESCO named Angkor Wat as one of the wonders of the world or whatever it is. Still haven’t seen it (as is obvious from the story above) but think I will only spend one day to see the most impressive sites. I like temples and all, but I have already seen so many stone carvings from the temples that I only feel the need to see just a few to get the gist, at this point in my life anyway.
Okay it is almost midnight here and this little lady ought get her and her misbehaving intestines to bed. Hope everyone reading this has had better health than me.