Chapter 66: A Cigarette for Your Landmine
Stephan was hungry for adventure and eager to experience anything new, and I was more than willing to use my vehicle and resources to monopolize his time. When a free weekend came along, I suggested a trip to Angkor Wat.
“I can drive us there,” Stephan said, holding out a hand.
“Knock yourself out,” I said as I tossed him the keys. He had never learned to drive in Poland, but hoped to get his license when he returned.
“Why should I do that?”
“No, I mean have a good time practicing. I’ll try to be calm.”
We bumped along the roads to Siem Riep, the town that had grown up around the temple ruins of the ancient Cambodian empire and its former glory; the restoration of that glory was the rallying cry of the Khmer Rouge. A cassette played Ray Charles singing the words of Stephan’s favorite song: “I see trees of green, red roses, too / I see them bloom, for me and you /And I think to myself /What a wonderful world.”
Gazing out the window, I realized that I had left the Third World behind and had entered a Fourth World, a world that had existed unchanged for centuries. Humpbacked cows and huge water buffalo loped alongside us, some with calves trying to suckle. No electricity lines were connected to the wooden hovels built on stilts with nothing more than palm leaves for their roofs.
Stephan saw them first. “CJ, look at the soldiers coming towards us.”
Armed government KPAF soldiers on motorbikes, bicycles and even an oxcart—carrying not only AK-47s, but also rocket launchers and hand grenades—passed us, their cold stares chilling me even as the temperature climbed with the sun.
“Have you seen guys like this a lot?” I asked, trying not to sound as alarmed as I felt.
“Yes, we’ve been seeing Khmer Rouge guerrilla movements as well as these government troops. It’s why Untac is so anxious for the Poles to have escape routes ready.”
We were lucky to cover the one hundred seven klics over rutted, potholed roads fast enough to arrive in Siem Riep before the sun sank beneath the horizon. Unlike Kampong Cham, the town was clean and replete with guest houses as well as bland and boxy cement hotels and restaurants―all full of gaudy lights announcing new places to visit. It was as if Disney World and Las Vegas had merged their resources and built an entire town in six months flat.
We settled on a small new hotel with an outdoor restaurant and cheap rates. In the morning I played tour guide, trying to tell Stephan about the temples, but he was more interested in the deafening cacophony of insect and bird sounds. The dense undergrowth of small trees, bushes and ferns impeded our way, and occasionally the jungle’s canopy was so thick that we couldn’t see the sky. Brilliant colored orchids sprouted off tree limbs and leafy vines wound their way up thick tree trunks. I switched from explaining temples to sharing my limited knowledge of plant life.
“Did you know that the philodendron is promiscuous? I asked.
Stephan’s interest peaked as I pointed to some rich, green, leafy vines.
“And orchids are whores.”
Standing there together was idyllic—his laughter coming easily as he got the joke, his hand reaching for mine. I closed my eyes and savored the moment.
It was hot and humid so, by the time we arrived at the main temple of Angkor Wat with its three thick spires rising above a hundred granite steps, we were limp, wet and drained. As we climbed over some rubble to access the base of the temple, Stephan stopped suddenly and asked, “Do you hear that?”
Above the deafening buzz of insects, I finally heard a soulful sound. “That sound?”
Stephan took my hand again and pulled me into a hall. An elderly man, dressed in a dirty white shirt and pants, sat on the ancient stone floor playing a lute-like instrument. Light filtered in through the open colonnade, casting gold and yellow shadows on him and giving the scene a sense of other-worldliness. He was oblivious to us as he played his ethereal and classically Eastern music. The sounds washed over us as Stephan captured the entire scene on video, down to the brown gnarled hands and dirty fingernails of the elderly man who serenaded us.
On the road again, Stephan was happy to be in the driver’s seat. A white Untac truck swerved out, passed us and hooted its horn—reminding us to drive faster, as it was getting dark. We were making good time, until we saw a huge, empty woven basket sitting unattended on the side of the road. I wanted to investigate, but Stephan’s touch on my shoulder reminded me again that we needed to hurry to get off the dangerous road before dark. Both the Khmer Rouge and the KPAF had been setting up random checkpoints and planting landmines at night to control the secret movements of military supplies and equipment. Encountering one would be fraught with danger.
Despite driving non-stop, night fell as we entered the northern outskirts of Bakane District. Darkness covered us like a blanket and swallowed even the light from the Land Rovers headlamps, reducing our speed. Potholes and the uneven roadbed were treacherous.
As we approached a village not far from the district’s border, I heard shots—pop, pop—only about two hundred meters away. We were practically at the first bridge when we saw the shadowy forms of men standing in the road. We had come to a government roadblock. Four armed soldiers in KPAF uniforms waved to us to go back, shouting, “Toev, Battambang.”
Returning toward Battambang would put us in Khmer Rouge territory and greater danger, so we had no intention of turning back. While the KPAF soldiers were unpredictable and dangerous, they were more notorious for intimidation and extortion than kidnapping and murder.
I stepped out of the car and, with as much clout as I could muster, said, “Chia muntrey bauhsnaut srok Bakane—khium trauma Bakane toe peteh in Poŭthĭsăt!” I hoped that I had said, “I’m the DES of Bakane District, and I’m going to my house in Poŭthĭsăt,” which would give me some authority if they were actually government soldiers.
“Boom―boom,” they barked, indicating that landmines were hidden under the barricade of brush. The soldiers made a show of stepping gingerly over the pile of sticks and palm fronds to demonstrate the danger. I listened to my own terrified panting as I blinked in the darkness. Do something. Think.
Shaken, I grabbed hold of the car’s door to stop myself from falling. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I could see the men better. Not young kids, the soldiers were thin and stern-faced, each of them carrying an AK-47. More shocking, one had a grenade launcher slung across his back. Was this part of the game—tricked into reversing our direction or tricked into extortion? Yes, it was a game, and we had to play it.
“Toev, toev,” one of the soldiers growled at us, again pointing toward Battambang.
“Aut loyii,” I gasped, holding my hands out palms up to show them I had no money. My mind raced to come up with something that we could offer as a bribe. The soldier snarled, walked to the car and peered into a rear window. Moving slowly to the other side, I gently opened the rear door and saw a carton of Marlboros lying on the floor. Should I offer them a carton? A pack? One pack.
Seconds passed, maybe minutes. Finally taking the pack of cigarettes, the soldier retreated from the car and signaled the others to remove the barricade to let us pass. Suddenly the landmines disappeared and the road was clear. But we didn’t dare to breathe again until we were safely beyond the range of their weapons.
I fumed, because the whole scene had been a charade. There were no landmines, only twigs and brush and posturing. But the guns were real. We couldn’t have chanced it; we couldn’t call their bluff.
The roadblocks had sprung up like mushrooms after a spring rain. At the second barricade, the soldiers made us wait a long time before coming to the car. Eventually, the same scenario was repeated―this time costing us only four cigarettes. We felt a little cocky, like we knew the rules and could play their game.
There was something about a single soldier at the third stop, his face gaunt and angry, that made the hairs on my neck spike. He looked like the soldier from the boat on the Mekong— the one who had fixed his big gun on me. This man stood behind a lowered crossing gate, glaring at us. Alone, he had no witnesses and no one to calm down the path to potential violence. My flight response kicked in, forcing adrenalin rapidly through my exhausted body.
“Stephan, this guy is different. We need to go. We need to go,” I said in a throaty whisper. He gripped the steering wheel, his eyes flashing over to the soldier and then to me.
I practically flung the pack of cigarettes at the soldier while repeating my little speech in Khmae. Trying not to telegraph my fear, I reclined in my seat as if ready to leave. He caught the pack of smokes and almost imperceptibly nodded his head to the right. Accepting that motion as a signal to go, Stephan shifted into drive and gunned the engine. The truck jerked to a stop. The soldier had stepped in front of the Land Rover with his weapon leveled at us.
Stephan, his body rigid, took in a long hard breath. In the darkness, I could feel the fury coming off him. I barely squeaked out the window, “Panyaha?”
“Baye,” he said, holding up two fingers.
I grabbed another pack of cigarettes and held it out to him. The soldier took it from my hand; his cold, impassive eyes studied me; and a lascivious smile formed on his face. Then he looked past me at Stephan. His mouth twisted in anger, and he stepped away.
“Toev,” he snarled, as I felt myself yield completely to fear.
A lone soldier at the fourth stop waved us through without the charade or menace of the previous barricades.
“Stop the car,” I ordered.
“CJ!” Stephan cried, hitting the brake.
I jumped from the truck to reward the compliant man with a cigarette for not requesting one. This impulsive act gave me a sense of safety and normalcy—until the wooden plank beneath my feet gave way and my leg slipped through a hole in the bridge. Pain seared up it like a hot knife. I freed myself but averted looking at the guard or Stephan. Feeling clumsy and embarrassed, I limped back to the car.
“Drive,” I ordered.
As Stephan approached the final bridge and roadblock, my rage sprinted ahead to take control of the night. I barked an order to allow us to pass. I barely acknowledged the armed guards, whom I considered to be no more than a mirage of threats. As the last word passed my lips, I shot a look at Stephan—which he clearly understood to be a mandate to accelerate past this last hindrance and get us home.
There was no relief, no euphoria—only dull shock. An uneasy silence settled on each of us as we relived the night’s gauntlet, which occupied our thoughts like a waking nightmare. But as we drove the last few klics, the fear began to subside, replaced by a blossoming of gratitude and affection.
I felt Stephan’s solid, warm hand on my shoulder and it had calmed me, switching my thoughts from terror to memories of the old man playing his flute, basked in the temple’s golden shadows. I moved closer to my lover. I remembered how merely the sight of him in uniform could suck the breath from my body. We had lived a lifetime in the span of a few short months, and we had done it together.
We had survived the roadblocks, but would I survive losing Stephan? Suddenly feeling helpless again, I needed Stephan to stay with me to feel whole and safe, making a lie of all the c’est la vie crap that I’d been trying to embrace.