For the month of February, each writer’s post will begin with the same line, which we’ve borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
All this happened, more or less . . .
I stood at the door of the bus, staring out through the glass at the Cambodian sidewalk outside. “I have to go to the bathroom,” I said for perhaps the fifth time. “Toilet.”
The bus driver shook his head and stared past me. The door remained shut. The bus remained stationary and the people outside the bus continued to take bucket showers in the street.
My husband and I had boarded this overnight bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh roughly five hours previously. For perhaps three of those, I had needed to get out and use the bathroom. Now we had clearly arrived in Phnom Penh and one person had already left the bus. When I got to the front, however, the door was closed.
“Please?” I tried again, pointing outside. The bus driver shook his head, but the person he seemed to be waiting for approached. He opened the door to let the newcomer inside, and I darted off the bus. Shouting behind me disappeared as I sprinted to a well-lit hotel, shuffled past the sleeping clerk, and peed in their bathroom for a minute straight.
When I got back to the bus, they were yelling at everyone to get off the bus. Tuk tuk drivers hounded us, offering pumped up prices. We were forced to take one since the bus—like many buses in Cambodia—parked itself on a street outside walking distance of anything besides a bucket shower on the sidewalk.
On a tuk tuk to the airport, tired and frustrated. The early morning was quieter and cooler, but still men and women on mopeds sped past us. I leaned into my husband’s shoulder and let my eyelids lower to a half-doze.
Long fingers wrapped themselves around my laptop case’s handle. The fingers belonged to a man riding behind his friend driving one of the many motos on the road. I watched as the case was lifted away from the floor of the tuk tuk where it had rested against my ankle. A pressure built against my calf, the strap stretched to its limit. My laptop case thunked back to its place at my ankle, my strap still solidly wrapped around my leg.
The thief looked surprised to have had the laptop jerked out of his hands. His friend continued to zoom past, certain the lift had been successful. My reaction time was slow and sleepy, but the profanity and hand gesture I threw at the pair was not.
The van driver ushered the other passengers out. “There—bus to Phnom Penh.”
But we weren’t going to Phnom Penh. We were trying to go to Siem Reap. Which is why the van driver’s next words as he looked back at us were not comforting. “Bus to Phnom Penh,” he repeated, pointing. “Siem Reap—I don’t know.”
He shrugged and the van door was slammed shut from the outside. Our van driver took off around the parking lot, which was hilariously devoid of other vehicles in driving condition. He barely hesitated before charging back into traffic.
Driving in Cambodia is not a careful endeavor. It is not orderly. The rules are, at best, flexible. Lane markers are ambiguous if existent, and right of way is determined not by a defined set of expectations for drivers but by grit and vehicle size. Or—as in our case—desperation.
It quickly became clear that our van driver—or his company—had made a mistake, and he was trying to correct it. As he wove around farm traffic and cut off mopeds, he answered his phone a dozen times or so. “Yes,” I imagined he was saying, though I know zero words of Khmer. “I have three foreigners in the van. They need to be on your bus. Where is it?”
Fifteen minutes later, I ought to have been losing hope. The bus was nowhere in sight and the van’s gas gauge was dangerously low. The calls had stopped and our driver had grown silent. But I believed in him. Semi trucks were getting out of his way. Vehicles piled two stories high with hay were veering to avoid us. Still, I believed.
When we finally found our bus—thirty minutes of careening through cars later—our van driver grinned in relief. We burst into spontaneous applause. Our faith in our madman of a driver had been rewarded.
Elaine Schnabel (’11) spent her twenties traveling, blogging, and earning various master’s degrees. Now earning her PhD at the University of North Carolina in organizational communication, Elaine researches and writes at the intersection of religion and communication. You can find her blogging at Religious (Not Crazy).