Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Things I Hate

Dear Ted,

You hate many things: smoker’s breath, Ernest Hemingway stories, Scott Bailey, deadlines, people who are too good at karaoke. I may, in fact, know more about the things you hate than the things you like, and that is how I know that you are my friend, because when two people tell each other what they hate about the world, it doesn’t mean that they’re misanthropes, just truthful with each other. You also hate people who sugarcoat things, so I should admit that it’s not always roses and sunshine over here. Cambodia is a vibrant country full of strong and beautiful people. There are also some aspects of it that annoy the living shit out of me. These are, in truth, small matters in the global scheme of things, but it often does not feel like it when you have to look at them every day, and I thought it might be time to get a few things about Cambodia off my chest.

Dog Genitals
Let us begin with the fact that I come face to face with more furry testicles every day than I have in a lifetime in the United States. Yes, one would see the odd purebred Boxer kept for breeding strutting his stuff in Washington Square Park. But apparently no one in Cambodia has ever heard the gospel of spaying and neutering your pets. These omnipresent canine nuts cause multiple problems. For one, they lead to dozens of gnarly-looking, agitated and mistreated strays roaming the streets. (If the Buddhist notions of karma and rebirth are true, then you should fervently hope that you don’t land yourself in the animal kingdom of Cambodia next time around. Stoned pigs strapped to the back of motos on their way to slaughter, irritable crocodiles displayed in tiny cages, the howl of kicked dogs in the night—it’s a PETA nightmare.) For another, dog nuts seem to be a magnet for a whole host of diseases that I sincerely wish I knew nothing about. Scaly, itchy, misshapen, bleeding, ripped open, or swollen to the size of cantaloupes—you name a symptom, and I have seen a poor dog afflicted with it in his most sensitive of parts. And the horrors are not just limited to genitalia. All female dogs that are even months beyond puppyhood sport slack, stretched-out teats that all but drag in the dust. These do not seem as susceptible to disease, but as I watch them whipping painfully to and fro when a female dog so much as trots, it puts me in mind of the realities of mammalian aging and a mortal depression begins to set in.

For a while, I could not understand why my fingernails were perpetually dirty here. And then I realized that it’s because I always have mosquito bites and scratch them. I am where the dirt is coming from. A layer of Cambodian dirt mixed with my own sweat is permanently caked on my skin, and no amount of showering will remove it. I wonder sometimes how many pounds of dirt I must have ingested since arrival just by opening my mouth or licking my lips. Now, during the hot season, the dirt becomes airborne and then comes to settle on my pillow, my toothbrush, my dishes. This, I think, is actually preferable to the wet season, when the whole of Siem Reap turns into a giant mud puddle which gets splashed up the back of my legs as I walk. And surely my feet will never be the same again. I have never been a foot fetishist, but the sight of a fresh pedicure on some newly arrived Western tourist alongside my calloused, grubby paws is enough to cause me actual physical pain. The issue was not even resolved by a trip to Dr. Fish, the place at the night market where hundreds of fish will eat the dead skin off your feet. My soles did, indeed, feel softer but were still stained the reddish-brown of Cambodian grit.

Bad Jokes
I love the Khmer for their good cheer. Old women smile toothless grins and try to stroke my cheek, and happy babies yell “Hello!” from every street corner. But there is a serious mismatch when it comes to our notions of what is funny. Aside from Khmer pop music, the most popular entertainment offering on long bus rides is a strange variety show which seems to consist mostly of shrieking drag queens and a small child dressed up as a surly pirate. Maybe there is smart dialogue that is simply lost on me, but judging from the reaction of fellow bus riders, the mere appearance of that pirate is enough to make all the passengers almost pee their pants with laughter. And for some reason, my fellow inhabitants of Siem Reap cannot—cannot—get over how funny it is that I go jogging in the morning. Running apparently registers just above pirates on the laugh meter. It is not uncommon for at least eight tuk-tuk drivers to double over in laughter as I jog past, and all of them then proceed to make the same joke. “One, two, three, four,” they yell like a military drill sergeant, occasionally running along with me for half a block before collapsing to the ground in peals of hilarity. “But you saw me yesterday,” I want to say, “and you did the same thing.” Weird foreign habits are apparently the bad joke that never gets old in Cambodia.

Hairy Moles
Just a few moments after trudging over the Cambodian border for the first time, we stopped to ask for a taxi at a deserted hotel. The valet may have been helpful; I am not certain because all I could do was stare at the astonishing mole on his chin and the handful of black whiskers, each maybe four or five inches long, growing out of it. It was alarming, as though a large paintbrush had begun to sprout from his face, and it waggled at me tauntingly whenever he spoke. What I couldn’t have known then is that he is hardly alone among his countrymen. It’s rare to see any Khmer men sporting facial hair, except for this one glaring exception. Khmer men and women alike seem to be attempting to grow long, ZZ Top-style beards, but only from their moles. Everywhere I go, hairy moles are leering at me. When I asked our seventeen-year-old buddy Han (my go-to guy for this type of question) about the phenomenon, he said that people believed it was “unhealthy” to cut mole hair. He was a little foggy on what would happen if the hairs were cut, but whatever it was, it was bad.

But what can I do about any of this? The best approach I’ve found so far is to shrug and laugh politely one more time at the jokes of tuk-tuk drivers. Besides, maybe it is important to hate a few things, no matter where you live. It’s a way of reminding yourself of the things you like. May you dream tonight of Fitzgerald and nonsmokers. As for me, I’ll close my eyes and think of home, of loofah sponges and The Colbert Report, mole-hair clippers and neutered beagles.



Andrew and Emily said...

Aw, dude. Beagles...

E.A. Durden said...

Anyone who acts like they have no complaints is about a centimeter shy of being a fascist. Be wary of the perpetually good-cheered.