The Other Side of Travel: Minivans
Twenty Khmer stuff into the back of a minivan just as the sun comes up over Kratie. Twenty Khmer, a white guy, and a bus meant for twelve. This is the start of a bad joke. Empty canisters, bags, and tarps are tied to the back of the van. A young Cambodian with a perm and an impossibly white t-shirt and smile throws bags of rice into the van to be shoved under our feet. Large metal farming tools that I am ignorant of are placed on top of the rice bags and wedged into any remaining space. My bag sits on my lap blocking the view of most of the van, but what I do see is a van full of Khmer making jokes, assumedly about my light skin color or nose length; I smile politely.
Thirty minutes outside of town the minivan pulls over and all twenty Khmer men get out to pee in the bushes and then smoke a cigarette. In less than a minute everyone jumps back in the car. After another thirty minutes the minivan stops again and the men repeat the last stop. There seems to be a strange side-of-the-road ballet in minivan travel that I have not quite figured out. The road shifts from smooth paved gravel to a rain-flooded, pot-hole paradise that throws the passengers back and forth against each other. My pinioned legs twitch and then begin to tingle while my back aches heavily from the two different heights of seats that I sit across. The compulsion to move grows from quiet murmurs to a blood-curdling scream in the back of my head as I feel blood clots start to form in my legs. No man my height has any business traveling through South East Asia. I try to focus my attention on the outside world in hopes of distraction and relief. A family of four on a motorbike speed by, not one of them wearing a helmet; the children wear orange flotation life vests. One of the children holds a rooster with his right arm. This is a Cambodian version of a Norman Rockwell painting. My legs are completely numb and I beg God for assistance. The minivan turns into a rest stop for lunch – prayer answered.
I use upper body strength to drag myself from the metal cage and sit on one of the restaurant chairs waiting for the feeling in my legs to return. Another Khmer man…no…the same one as before makes a joke about how I look. Ironic that my white skin, sharp features, and height are all negatives here. Ostracized, I sit alone and eat a delicious bowl of chicken-bamboo soup. A dark foreboding swirl of grays and blacks begin to cover the sky and signal a coming storm. We pile back into the van and race ahead of the inevitable rain.
The man sitting in front of me keeps the window open. His teeth display crooked canyons through his wide, yellow smile. Every minute he makes a wrenching noise and then spits out the window as if his own saliva is poison in his mouth. A water buffalo stands knee-deep in a rice field with a brightly-colored bird on it’s back as it slowly chews the chuff. Twelve shades of greens and yellows surround the two symbiotic companions before the dark of the storm slowly drains the color from the day. The bus stops once more and the men jump out to continue the ballet as I stretch my legs out once more. I have been transformed into the visage of a minivan jack-in-the-box. Rather than returning back to the minivan, eight of the men unload bags of rice and tools onto the side of the road. This field far from any town will be their ending destination for the day. The rude man with the crooked yellow smile gets off and so does the rice bag stashed under my feet. A sigh of relief audibly escapes. Banlung catches our view an hour later and a second sigh of relief releases. “That was the worst minivan experience I have ever had,” I tell the twenty-something Khmer with the start of a beard who sits nonchalant behind the hostel desk. He chuckles and smiles slyly, his English is excellent, “Until the next one, right?”