January 23, 2010

Dinner Disaster

Eating alone is one thing. Eating alone in the middle of converging social problems, that's another. Choosing among the endless mediocre beachfront Bar and Grills for dinner, I finally slumped into the cushy beach seat under a sign saying “Khmer and Italian Food.” I ordered a pizza (the waiter told me that it would be a few minutes before the electricity came back...um, don't forget: it's Cambodia.) and a bottle of soda. I opened my Bill Bryson text and returned to my linguistic-nerd bliss. The Khmer waiters took turns disturbing my reading. I almost never turn down a chat with a foreigner, but when the extent of the conversation is, “We not want customer sit alone. You very beautiful...” I'd prefer to just keep to my book.

I can handle awkward waiter convo, but once my food came, the trouble started. Pathetic amputee beggars came to my table, “Madame, Madame.” I did as everyone else does, nothing. Beggars with no legs scoot up and down the beach all day, so tourists become adapt at ignoring. You try not to look, but it's sad and awful. Speaking of awful, every few minutes a disgusting, older western man strolls by with a young Khmer woman. Some sit in reclining chairs, grinding perversely, ignorant of the surrounding public. Stomach-turning, really. My greasy pizza wasn't going down so well. A little Khmer boy, probably 5 years old, with a plastic bag full of aluminum can and bottles on his arm strode up right next to me, pointing at my half-full bottle. First I smiled and said no, but he didn't leave, so I tried to show him that I was still drinking. He stood there, dirty-faced, eyes fixated on mine. He stabbed my soul with his jaded little eyes. I focused on my pizza as he stood, staring at me, hating me. I thought, yep, I don't wanna be here anymore.

A group of the bracelet sellers approached the table next to mine. The children who sell bracelets are endearing, have good English, and are strategic salespeople. However, my sociology background (and some common sense) tells me not to support child labor. These kids should be in school or at home being kids--not hawking friendship bracelets to tourists like me. At the same time, if they can't sell anything, will they be in trouble at home? Do they have money for food? Too many unknowns. The table next to me was as rude as I had been all day, but the girls came to my table, without talking to me, hooked their bracelet string to the lamp in front of me and started knotting the strings, hoping to make a sale. The oldest one, probably fourteen, sat down next to me and started asking about my boyfriend. I declined her many bracelet offers, and she gave up, enjoying the comfy chair. Her younger counterparts braided away, chatting in Khmer. Catching a glimpse of the underbelly of Cambodia's tourist industry, I shuttered to think that this was only the public side of affairs. What's happening in my hotel that prompted the sign above my pillow reading: you are forbidden to take advantage of children sexually, all forms of child prostitution is forbidden and illegal in our guesthouse.? That's ugly.

The little boy wanting my bottle left, perturbed. Just then, a beach cat with half a tail, probably infested with who-knows-what, jumped onto my lap mid-bite. I love cats, but not this one.

The yucko cat did me in. I was beyond panic. I felt hot and dizzy and angry and upset with the world for putting me here on this beautiful beach by myself in the middle of something so awful. Without a second thought, I pushed the cat off, downed the rest of my soda, grabbed my purse and hurried to the bar. I threw some dollars at the Italian guy, offered, “Grazi!” and wished I could could just discretely teleport out of Sihanoukville, out of damn Cambodia. Alone, panicked and on display for the rest of the diners, I'm not sure how discrete I was. My hotel was at the other end of the beach and I couldn't get there fast enough. My flip flops struggled against the wet sand, and my long skirt impeded my legs from running. I wanted to scream as a stray dog started chasing me, barking. I turned around to face it, and luckily it cowered away (I might have actually barked, too, I don't know).

Conquering the rough stone sidewalk off the beach, I rushed into the hotel, grabbed my key and locked the door behind me. What the hell was that!?

Safely in my room, door double-bolted, I reflect on the Sihanoukville experience. The daytime was wonderful. Even though it rained, I had a lovely day, and I even composed a nice blog about how Sihanoukville is a descent place to vacation. Perhaps it is nice, but I won't be going to dinner alone again.

Many tourists seem to find an escape from the maddening parts of Sihanoukville by smoking dope or binge drinking (or indulging in the prostitution scene). Obviously, those are not choices I will make, so I'll have to figure out how to survive the next two days. Mid-dinner panic is too unpredictable and it is a waste of food.

For now, I'm gonna pop another piece of Iranian Dental Association Approved gum. Yum-o! Tastes like Iran! A few Korean music videos and I'll be ready to go to sleep. Tomorrow, I'm hoping for sun.