On the road with Ensar

The Great Cambodian Experiment: IX

Flickering through the backseat window like a film reel, my tired eyes wonder at the romance of truck drivers asleep beside the road. Midnight, wives and kids and dreams spread across a creased country map folded up, tin canned tuna, benzene for the truck, caffeine for the driver. We make a pit stop to pray the evening prayer, stretch our necks, our cramped legs, then hit the mist hovering over the bumpy potholed gravel road. The moon dangles in one place while trees flash through the headlights in a discord of green-grey at a steady 40 miles to the hour.

We’re not a big outfit, and one that operates on the fringes of this trade. Here, we can’t use freight ships or airplanes. Instead of cargo boxes, we’re stuck with suitcases or wheat sacks. Instead of being loaded onto a courier van, the suitcases go into the boot of 2007 Toyota Camrys (the car of choice for long distance taxi drivers in Cambodia).

With false dawn just in, I awake from a half slumber. Ahead, a gravel curve leads into a straight stretch of tar. A three hour long chorus of rocks flung up against the metal bottom of the car fades into a verve where four rubbers roll to the steady drone of four pistons pumping. But then the brights start to shine off center. The Camry sways, breaks the rule of the white spotted stripes, then slowly swerves back to the right side. I look to the steering wheel but see the driver’s chin against his chest. I shake his shoulder: “You want me to drive?” He says he’s fine, we’re almost there.

We pull over to pray fajr at the first of its time and Ensar goes to sleep as soon as he straps himself back in. At daybreak, I roll down the window to drink the humid morning breeze. The driver slaps his own face a couple of times then points ahead and says, “That’s us there.” Ensar rocks up his head, looks at me with bloodshot eyes. “What’d he say? We’re there?” He looks left and right wide eyed like someone who only now realizes the sun’s up.  “We just cleared the dirt road, we’ll be there in 30 minutes, in sha Allah.” He rubs his eyes, yawns, and suddenly starts to dig out his passport as he says, “Couldn’t do this in the dark.” I then watch him craftily pull out an expired Cambodian visa from page 43.

I’ve got about ten of those glued in my passport, four more that I tore out and stuck on the jackets of two pocket sized notebooks, a couple that form part of the collage on my laptop, another one or two folded up somewhere.  Sometimes they don’t notice, but when they do it always slows things down at customs, who take offense and demand you explain why you disrespect their country by removing the visas. What can you do? I’ve hardly had this (extra-paged) passport for a year and the pages are almost maxed out. The South African embassy in Bangkok says it’ll take three to four months for a new one.

The street lights along Koh Kong City’s sidewalks are still on and the shops closed, but Mr. Supachai’s been expecting us. We’ve been storing our precious agarwood piecemeal at his house over the months, and we’ve come to finally collect everything. He invites us in for breakfast before we head out, asks about our last few weeks on the road, what we have planned for the distillation, and if we know how crazy we are for doing this. With a fresh flush of caffeine we load everything onto his truck while he explains to the driver where to drop us, and sees us off… “You owe me a bottle when you’re done!”

At the border, nine locals line up with their two wheeled push wagons weighed with wheat sacks stuffed with agarwood with orders to wait until we get our visas and signal for them to start bringing the bags over. When we get to the visa counter, Ensar goes first. And like me, he’s got some explaining to do…

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