The Scam

Brief aan Lonely Planet over gebeurtenis van 23-12-2006;

We should have known. The energetic black man wearing glasses was uninterruptedly boasting funny facts in a voice that reached a convivial depth when laughing and an annoying high pitch when trying to get attention. The white couple behind him was more reserved when it came to letting the whole bus know how enthusiastic they were about all these petty oddities of travelling abroad. Nonetheless, they were participating in what had started as a mere one-man-show. Compared to these three (who had actually just met but heavily enjoyed their shared national background) the rest of the fistful of passengers was very calm and silent. They seemed to be a reflective compensation for the ongoing stream of loud anti-communication taking place on my left hand side. When the bus finally left bordertown Poipet to head for Siem Reap, some kind of silence set in. I suppose the shocks of the bumpy trajectory cradled the steamy occidentals. And of course, the trip was a long tiring one. And of course, to lengthen the journey, the Cambodian middlemen proposed several "toilet stops" near eateries and restaurants. And of course, they had to replace a flat tyre while it was already dark and all the passengers could see that the replaced tyre was intact. By that time the word "scam" circulated gently through the conversations of the visitors. But not too loud, not too self-assured. We reached Siem Reap about six hours later. It was only nine in the evening, the cosely illuminated city prepared for hot Christmas nights and passengers who had made a little nap found themselves in a good mood and shape to arrive. I had held and overheard some conversations and I can say that most of us endulged the "show" with a sense of ironic and relaxed patience. And yes, the three "loud ones" had probably gone through an exhausting trip from Bangkok, while my girlfriend and I only smoothly toured since the morning from Khorat. And yes, the word "scam" had now appeared many times and had maybe more strongly empoisened some during their short but rough snooze while speeding through the rural darkness. But many others too came directly from Bangkok. And most of all, none of this excuses the course clash of self-supposed civilizations that followed. As said it was about nine p.m. Two hispanic travellers had hopped off with some Cambodian passengers before entering town. Mightless, the middlemen saw the possible overnighters escape, for, of course, the strategy of exhaustion and late arrival was directed on weakening the will of the visitors, so that at least some of them would stay at the middlemen's guesthouse. There was no cunning in this plan, as most of us already described it as a "scam" (read the guide books) and the middlemen openly adverted for their accomodation, at which place they also said the bus would eventually stop. So, while we drove southwards along the well-lit hotels, the white, red-freckled male of the couple had collected all his frustration and let it errupt in a tragicomic exposure of boldly misplaced manhood. "Okay, right, stop the bus right now," he shouted. The small Cambodian:"No, sir, we are in traffic, we can't stop here, we'll stop in town." Quite zen. The the same useless dialogue with rising irritation. The tall jock went to sit down, defeated by the tiny Asiatic and the shushing of his own girlfriend. Besides her big bossom I noticed he ironically wore a t-shirt branded "Independent", well known by skaters, with some kind of Maltese cross on it, originally the symbol of the Cruisaders, which is less known by skaters, I presume. All that time the rest of the bus shut up, my girlfriend shut up, I shut up. That made it even more ridiculous. We were watching a play of low acting quality. "Scam" was pounding in the young man's head, in his veins and finally in his tongue. Then he charged again; "Stop now! Stop at the lights!" The asiatic David reacted fiercily against the occidental Goliath, while in their hearts they both felt Davids, shitting their pants as I could see their nervous gazes. Anger and angst. Then the white man held a tirade with words as "scam", "ripp off", "fuck", "if this happened in my country". There was a pause wherein I intervened. Stupidly, I reacted as a true 21st century rationalistic pacifist, asking him to stay calm, adding that we we're all on the same bus, on the same "scam", though we knew off since the start, that he shouldn't compromise us all and that, besides, I doubted that his guesthouse was north of town and that the driver was bringing us straight to the East Bank, which was very near to the centre. I trembled inside. Irritation and fear. I could have wacked him. He could have hit me. For treason or stepping on his manhood. He shut up and ruminated. We were both big fellas. Then on arrival the irritated Cambodian called us to understand the situation; that this was not a "scam", that, yes, they brought us here but it was better than at the pushy bus station, and most of all, that they didn't force our minds. We were free to go. Upon aking us to pass the backpacks from the back to the front in order to ease leaving the bus, the white independent heeded us all not to follow that advice. Another clash followed between David and Goliath, there were two mutual pushes, then again some heavy words including "you dishonnor you're country" towards the middleman. The rest of us cleared the scene. I was last man standing and while Mr. Independent probably sneered off some tuktuk drivers, my girlfriend and I started a chat with the middle men. The black traveller interrupted us very unpolitely to add his share of frustration to the salty situation. What for? Ask him. Scam or not, I do not utter judgement on that. Everybody knew off, that's what I say. They dropped us off right in the center, near a cheap and seemingly cozy guesthouse, theirs or not, in a quiet neighbourhood, that's what I saw. They were just trying to make a honest living in a dogpoor and warscarred country, that's what the middleman said. They did not force our minds, that's what he said. They did not force our bodies either, that's what I thought, but you can't always expect to have it your way just because you paid ten bucks in what happens to be "your" currency, with thereon the faces of your dead presidents. We were not droven off to concentration camps or killing fields, that's what I thought, just to a small town near one of the seven world wonders. So, was it worth going nationalistic about it and dropping background expectations and customs on a foreign context? Was it righteous to call someone who holds as much pride and patriotism (for that's about all that's left) a "dishonnor to his country"? Was it smart to create conflict in a culture that does all to avoid it and tries to keep "face" and harmony? Could he as well have stepped upon his head? Besides, was it right to compromise us all, to put us all in the same basket while we were only in the same bus? Did someone ask him to speek in our names? Had we all lost our speech, except for that one word?

The day after that I found myself staring at some bossom in the center of town, just to notice the couple looking away from me, both speechless.