Wheeling Amanda's bike through the lobby to the front of the
guesthouse I propped it on the kickstand and tossed my tool
pouch to the ground for another procrastination session. A
tuk tuk driver, the same one who watched me for hours the
day before, lounged in the rear of his motorized cart and
called from his perch in the street, "Tomorrow you need a
tuk tuk? Go to Killing Fields?"
"No, thank you," I answered.
He remembered what I told him the day before and said,
"You be in Phnom Penh five days and no go to Killing
Fields. Today we go later when sun down. Very nice time."
"No, thanks. I told you yesterday, we are going to ride out on
our bikes," I said, making the fateful error of engaging in
He slowly leaned forward, closely examining the contents of
my tool kit and said, "Too far bicycle. No sign. Easy get
lost. I take you. Cheap price. Pay what you want."
"No. We go bicycle," I said before realizing I was speaking
like him. Ignoring his persistence I turned my attention back
to Amanda's bicycle and my busy work.
Like millions of my fellow Americans I become a master of
the fine art of procrastination as the fifteenth of April looms.
It is at this time of year when I find the energy to thoroughly
complete all of those little jobs that I have been putting off for
months. Our travel equipment has never before received
such lavish attention. The bikes are cleaner and more
lubricated than when they left the factory back in the 1980s,
the camp stove has been completely disassembled and
polished, and the leaky O-rings on the water filter have been
replaced. I even patched the Swiss-cheesed inner tube that
cluttered the bottom of my tool pouch for months.
It is in mid-April when the Internal Revenue Service, the arm
of the American government responsible for extracting an
annual pound of flesh from each citizen, demands a full
Escheresque accounting of the previous years finances.
Being halfway around the world on a bicycle is no excuse.
Amanda watches this process with fascination. While she
likes to call herself a Mexican, she is in many respects a
fraud to her national heritage. Each day without fail she
carefully logs our expenses and income. She is a Mexican
without the mañana. My job is to take the numbers she has
meticulously calculated, plug them into the proper tax forms,
print out the results, then march off to the U.S. embassy to
submit the paperwork. Trouble is, when it comes to taxes
my middle name is mañana.
As I dug though my pouch for a rag, a young street girl of
eight or ten years old, covered in a streak of grime with a
baby strapped to her back stopped to ask, "You buy book,
mister? Pol Pot, Killing Fields, Lonely Planet good book,
cheap cheap." She carried a pile of books that seemed too
tall for her to handle yet she maneuvered them with
practiced ease just under my nose. These children are
everywhere in Phnom Penh. They carry bootleg copies of
the most popular books and sell them for two or three
dollars. The local charities post signs in the cafes pleading
with visitors to avoid these heartbreaking hawkers. If they
can make a meager living on the streets, the posters warn,
they are kept away from the help of the charities.
As I said, "No, thank you," I noticed the title of the book on
top of her pile, "Sexpat." CNN had interviewed the author a
few days before for a story about expatriates who retire to
Cambodia, as the title hinted, for sex. According to the
author Cambodia has become the pedophile capital of the
world. Endemic corruption and an indulging culture allow
the trade to flourish. The terrible irony is that by selling the
book the children become more likely to fall victim to the
monsters it exposes.
"You buy book mister, cheap price, help my brother," she
said in a pleading voice.
"Sorry, but no thank you," I said as I finished up my work,
packed up the tools and wheeled the bike back into the
When I came back to the room I found Amanda doing yoga.
She was waiting for me to go for our morning run. As I put
on my running gear and did some quick stretching I told her
about the girl selling the book. Leaving the hotel we jogged
past the tuk tuk driver, "No thank you," and a hoard of young
booksellers, "No, thank you," as we ran out to the waterfront
path along the Mekong.
"We've traveled in some really poor countries," I said as we
ran toward a line of motorbike taxis, "I can't figure out why
Cambodia is really getting to me." The drivers jumped up
as we approached and said in unison, "Moto taxi mister?"
"No thank you."
"I take you. Where you go?" One persistent young guy
asked as he trotted along next to us.
"Running," I answered.
"No run, I take you," he said.
Amanda laughed and asked me, "Do you think it's the car
salesman technique in reverse?"
The mototaxi driver heard the word car and said, "No need
car. I take you there cheaper."
"What do you mean," I asked Amanda?
"You know. Car salesmen. They ask obvious questions to
get a customer to say yes. If they see a wedding ring they
ask, 'Are you married?'"
The mototaxi driver began huffing as he continued next to
us, "Yes, I married."
Amanda ignored him and went on, "If they see a baby seat
in the car they ask, 'Do you have kids?' By saying the word
yes over and over the customer is put in a positive state of
mind," she said as she hopped over a small barrier, leaving
the mototaxi driver behind.
Running along the sidewalk toward a large waterfront hotel
we passed a group of street children gathered around an
older woman who was dolling out fistfuls of sticky rice. In
front of the hotel an older man in filthy clothing approached
and asked in a hushed voice, "You want smoke weed?"
"No," we yelled in unison.
As the days went on in Phnom Penh we began to drop the
"thank you" and answered with a simple, abrupt "No". Even
that curt response would cause the questioner to follow us
for several blocks. The constant barrage made polite
refusal difficult and eventually we began to ignore any
unsolicited question. It seemed perversely crueler to spark
hope in the seller by responding than to ignore them.
Absolute desperation has that sort of wicked logic. Looking
it in the face and seeing your own reflection can be
shocking. Cambodians have a way of exhibiting just how far
removed we are from true need.
Back at home the basic elements of life are easy to obtain.
If anything our greatest difficulties stem not from need but
from overindulging our wants. Nearly every action we take
is done to gratify a desire. The fine line dividing need from
want is made much wider when need is so vividly on
After the morning run along the waterfront I returned to the
guesthouse intent on making some headway with the taxes.
With forms and instruction booklet spread out on a
glass-topped table I began to compute the amount we would
owe Uncle Sam, but after just twenty minutes of punching
numbers into Amanda's tiny pocket calculator, my eyes
For years I had avoided getting prescription eyeglasses.
Amanda was a four-eyes from childhood and would often
chide, "Make your eyes work. They're a muscle. If you get
glasses they will only get weaker." But I was squinting
constantly, so much so that a permanent crease had formed
across my brow.
So off I marched in the pleasure of procrastination to a
rotund, happy optomotrist on the main thoroughfare who,
after a computer scan and detailed analysis of my two
apparently oblong eyeballs pronounced in remarkably fluent
English utter amazement at my ability to function without the
assistance of spectacles. With the help of his overly
efficient female assistant I chose a pair of fashionable
rimless Japanese frames and ordered the lenses to be
made the following evening. The bill for eye exam, frames
and lenses came to just under thirty-four dollars.
Unlocking my bike in front of the optometrist a young man
approached leading a blind old woman with a bulky battery
operated amplifier strapped around her neck. She croaked
out a hideous, ear piercing song that covered over every
other street noise with an electronic screech. Plowing his
filthy hat into my chest the young man begged alms while the
crazy eyed woman turned her attentions in my direction.
Pedaling away as quickly as possible it felt wrong to refrain
from tossing a few coins into the beggars' hat. Yet the
countless international charities in Phnom Penh that exist to
assist such people encourage travelers to resist the
temptation to give a handout. The International
Organizations claim that beggar-masters exploit the
destitute and keep them in slave-like conditions. They
suggest that tourists stem their conscience by making
donations directly to them, agencies that are better
equipped to deal with the disadvantaged of Cambodia. I
could not help but wonder who is taking advantage of
whom. Had the situation here become a legitimate way for
foreign donors to fill the deep pockets of the Cambodian
government in the same way that I would have been funding
the blind woman's beggar master.
Like many around us in Cambodia we found ourselves
asking, "How did it get like this?" On the outskirts of Phnom
Penh we decided to visit the place where all the travelers go
to find the answer to that question. The area has earned its
name from the popular American movie, The Killing
Leaving the comfort of the air-conditioned guesthouse we
began pedaling to the outskirts of town. As the traffic
thinned the sun-radiating asphalt road narrowed and
eventually turned into a fluffy-dirt track that threw up clouds of
dust. At the construction site of a bridge we slowed to allow
several tuk-tuks to pass. The dirt road plunged down into
the red sandy riverbed, crossing the dry crusted bottom then
turned up a short, steep incline to rejoin the paved section
above. I sped down the hill, enjoying the opportunity to use
my bike off road, and left Amanda in the dust.
Crossing the riverbed I noticed one of the tuk-tuks stalled on
the crest of the hill. The motorcycle's front wheel had made
it over the lip and back onto the road, but the rear of the
motorbike and the passenger cart attached to it were still
dangling over the incline. The driver turned the wheel and
held the brakes while the four Cambodian passengers got
out and held the cart.
The incline was wide and I began to pass the stalled tuk-tuk
on the low side, leaving plenty of room if it were to roll
backwards. The passengers gave a furious push but the
driver was not ready and had the front wheel turned far to the
right. The cart lunged forward as the motorcycle turned
sharply and headed back down the steep hill directly toward
There was nowhere to go. The motorcycle came at me
fast. With the weight of the cart rushing forward the driver
dug his heels into the dusty sand but skidded right into the
side of my bicycle, plowing into my ankle with his front
wheel. I jumped over my own handlebars and pulled on
them with all my might. Once off the bike it swung freely with
the continued force of the motorcycle and was simply
knocked out of the way as the driver careened further down.
The passengers scurried after the cart as Amanda pedaled
out of a cloud of dust. She helped me to my feet. One of the
passengers handed over my dented stainless steel water
bottle. It had taken the full weight of the tuk-tuk and
survived. My ankle had a small cut where the front wheel
had hit. I could feel that it would be bruised but not really
damaged as I limped up the hill to the road.
I was furious. I wanted to pummel the driver for losing
control of his cart and the passengers for pushing it. Yet I
knew it was not really his fault. The passengers pushed
before he was ready. And they were only trying to help. It
was not their fault either. And that made me even madder.
There was nobody to blame. As the group came over and
inspected my bike and my ankle we all realized there was
no serious damage.
Yet I was still angry, still grumbling to myself in my foreign
tongue. The passengers stared at me with uneasy smiles.
They could not understand why I was angry.
For that moment I could see every Cambodian in their
passive faces. I was angry for being drawn into their
blameless victimization. I was enraged at them for allowing
their children to be turned out onto the streets, furious at
their acceptance of corruption and their clawing
desperation. I wanted to shout them out of their apathy and
prod them from their weakness.
Amanda put her hand on my shoulder and said, "Okay.
You're okay. Calm down." Immediately I stopped.
Silently we watched as they climbed back into the cart and
drove off. It took us a few moments to get ourselves back
together before we pedaled the remaining kilometer to the
Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
The small parking lot was teeming with tuk-tuks, minivans
and tourist buses. Limbless beggars sat on the dusty
ground before bowls filled with dollar bills. Women called in
nasally voices from their food stalls at the edges, "Cold
water mister? Very cold."
Locking the bikes next to the ticket booth Amanda paid the
entrance fee and together we walked into the site. Finding
a comfortable bench in the shade of a Logan tree we sat
and gathered our bearings.
Taking the guidebook from her pannier she began reading
some of the facts she had highlighted days before. One fifth
of the country's population exterminated by the Khmer
Rouge. Phnom Penh residents frog marched to the
outskirts of town. Death by bludgeoning to save bullets.
Mass graves. Women, infants killed. Currency eliminate.
Education outlawed. Year zero declared.
In the center of the site just a few meters from where we sat,
a large Memorial Stupa contained thousands of human
skulls piled like melons in a market. Just behind our bench
a large square pit, one of a dozen in a field, sprouted
tattered bits of clothing from beneath the soil like shoots of
newly planted trees. We had seen enough.
Riding back to the guesthouse neither of us said much.
Later that afternoon I stopped procrastinating.
On our way out to the embassy we stopped at the
optometrists office to pick up my new glasses. The nice
round man was there and proudly fitted them to my face.
Turning to look out into the street for the first time I could not
believe what I was seeing. The Khmer script sign on the
barber shop a few stores down was crystal clear in a
telescopic sort of way. I could see perfectly when looking
directly ahead at the cost of losing all sense of the
Leaving the shop I felt different as we pedaled through the
streets. I could no longer simply move my eyeballs to get a
good feel for what was going on around me. Now I had to
make a conscious effort to turn my head and look directly at
At the gleaming U.S. Embassy we parked the bikes and
entered an oasis of perfection amid the chaos of central
Phnom Penh. After walking through two metal detectors
and sending our panniers through two very different
scanners, we were permitted access to the bombproof
window behind which was a busy office full of American
A cheery young woman looked up and said, "Hi," with a hint
of surprise in her voice. "How may I help you?"
"We'd like to turn in our taxes," I said as Amanda passed
the envelope under the lip of the window.
"Taxes?" She asked as she took the form and check from
Years before while traveling in Europe we had submitted our
tax forms to a consulate in Spain. Since then we have
completed the process through the internet, but the cost of
doing so had increased significantly with the complexity of
our shoestring publishing company. This year I completed
the forms the old fashioned way.
"Let me ask," the young woman said brightly as she
carefully propped the envelope and check against the
glass. Returning a moment later she said, "I'm terribly sorry.
I spoke with the Counsel. He said we are unable to send
taxes through the pouch," as she slipped the envelope back
through the window.
"The pouch," Amanda asked?
"The diplomatic pouch," she said, "it's for official
government business only. You could send it by DHL or
UPS or Federal Express." Then she dipped close to the
counter, smiled and whispered, "I wouldn't send it by the
Cambodian Postal System if I were you."
"Okay, thank you," Amanda said quickly pulling me from the
window before I had a chance to complain.
"That's going to cost a fortune," I mumbled grumpily as we
walked away from the window. The security guard on the
other side of the thick glass watched as we opened the
heavy door and I muttered in his direction, "All I want to do is
pay my taxes and you won't take them." But he had not idea
what I said and smiled through the glass.
Back out on the street the day seemed brighter, more vivid
than ever. It was going to take some time before I was used
to my new glasses. Coming from the orderly embassy the
streets appeared dirtier and more frenzied than before. The
light was harsher, the disarray more confusing.
Seeing those well fed tranquil Americans at work in their
museum-like enclosure made me uneasy. It exhibited to me
just how far away we were from home.
Turning to look one last time at the embassy I was strangely
comforted by the envelope that I grasped in my hand,
knowing that it gave me the ability to return whenever I
It would cost us another thirty dollars to mail our tax forms
and payment to the Internal Revenue Service before the
deadline. Yet somehow we both agreed that it was money
|Money Well Spent
Phnom Penh, Cambodia