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Day 50 – Tuol Sleng Tuol Sleng (A Former Teacher’s Lament)

April 22, 2010

Dateline: Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Thursday, April 22, 2010

Today I rented a motorbike. No tuk tuk drivers for me. Just freedom of the open road. The moto came courtesy of a Cambodian girl (paid a bit too much because she was cute). The bike looked fine. As they say, though, looks can be deceiving–except of course for cute girls. They never lie.

I pulled away from the girl’s storefront. She went back to sleeping on the floor with two pantsless babies while I left to discover I had problems.

I got 10 feet when I discovered the first. For some reason, in Cambodia it is against the law to drive with your headlights on during the day. Two friendly Cambodians pointed this out to me as I lurched past by opening and closing their fingers. I stopped, or more accurately stalled, and spent 30 seconds flipping the high beam off and on before I found the light switch. I restarted the engine and lunged forward.

For fun, let’s count down my problems from least difficult to most.

Problem #5: Bike had no gas.

I had to find a gas station pronto or I wasn’t going anywhere no matter how crappy the bike (note literary device: foreshadowing).

Solution #5: Got gas.

As I humped my way to the main road, I saw a gas station kitty-corner to my position. I dodged traffic, pulled up to the pump, and, under the gaze of the gas attendant, stalled and nearly pitched myself over the handle bars.

I held up one finger, asking for one dollar of gas. He asked which grade, I looked confused, then shrugged and smiled. I think he gave me the cheapest one.

Problem #4: Bike had horrible engine idle.

The engine seemed to be idling too low. I had to throttle the thing to keep it going. It was tiring and annoying. It also made it more difficult when I stopped because I also couldn’t find neutral (see below).

Solution #4: Remembered that I am an idiot.

When I’d started the bike I’d flipped a bunch of things off and on to see what they did. I’d accidentally engaged the choke. Once I released it the engine idled fine. It’s disturbing to me how often my problems are my own creation. I bet this happens to everyone.

It better happen to everyone.

Problem #3: I couldn’t find neutral.

I expected it to be between first and second like on a motorcycle. I kept shifting between first and second, trying to find the middle setting. No dice.

Solution #3: Got lucky.

When I was messing around with the gears, I inadvertently shifted below first and found neutral. Getting lucky really works. Try it some time.

Problem #2: Shifting gears.

The gear shift sucked. I almost had to push my toes into the back of my calf to shift up. To shift down I had to rise out of my seat and stand on my heel. Easy it was not.

Also, even though it was a manual, it had no clutch. That meant I had to learn the proper speed to shift gears without lurching. I couldn’t use the clutch to disengage if I got it wrong. At the start, I kept lunging the bike around as I toed and heeled mightily between gears. I looked like I had a combination of Tourette’s, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and Elaine dance.

Solution #2: Discovered that in Cambodia “four” sometimes means “two.”

This bike lists four gears. For all practical purposes, there are only two.

Where I come from (Earth), when you ride a bike you start in neutral and work your way up through all four gears.

Not so here. Here you start the bike in neutral, then go straight to third then fourth. That’s because the bike is geared so that in third you can be at a standstill and not stall. You don’t have to go below third until you stop the bike for good. Also, I could only stay in first gear until I hit 1 km/h and I had to shift out of second to third when I hit 3 km/h.

I also wanted to shift as little as possible because of the crappy gearbox (stand, calf cramp, stand, calf cramp). That meant sticking to third and fourth. Two gears, not four. I’d sit at traffic lights idling comfortably in third. I’d start smoothly off the line with my horde of fellow motorbikers in third. I suspect they were all doing the same thing. If I’d try to do it in first, I’d have had to shift three times in the first 2 seconds of starting off. No one else seemed to be doing this.

So why did the manufacturer set the gearbox so low? I mean, why have so much power in first and second that you can’t use either gear for more than half a second?

Easy. Because of chickens. Live chickens. And stacks of corrugated metal, 100 pound bags of rice, six family members, car transmissions, and six foot square sheets of glass. These are all things I’ve seen on a single motorbike (though not necessarily all at the same time). If you’re going to haul around that much on a little 100cc engine, you have to gear it low if you have any hope of getting it rolling. Here, a motorbike isn’t just for human transport it’s your pickup truck, four-door sedan, baby carriage and minibus. It’s got to be able to handle all situations.

I was just carrying me, so first gear was way too much for my little 160 pound frame. Perhaps the solution is to drag around 200 pounds of lead in the bike’s basket. Or, I could just stick to third and fourth gear.

With most of my problems solved I attacked the biggest one.

Problem #1: Phnom Penh traffic is insane.

Compared to Phnom Penh traffic, Bangkok’s is like your first “Dick and Jane” book–simple, easy to understand and no one will kill you if you read it slow. Phnom Penh traffic, by comparison, is like a linear algebra textbook clenched in the teeth of a rabid honey badger. Nearly impossible to comprehend and, if you don’t read it right, it might just rip your testicles off.

Phnom Penh doesn’t seem to be as jammed up as Bangkok, but that’s probably because nobody stops for anything. Like in Siem Reap, stop signs are meaningless. Unlike Siem Reap where traffic lights actually make people stop, Phnom Penh traffic lights act as strong suggestions.

Basically, they’re only helpful if you suffer from traffic blindness but not color blindness–if you can’t see that hundreds of cars are streaming across your field of vision and therefore you should stop, you can glance up at the red traffic light to confirm that if you want to live you should not move forward. Think of a traffic light as someone telling you not to stick your hand in the river while you’re staring at a school of piranhas devour a whole cow two feet away—traffic lights are helpful but only sort of.

The traffic movement seems chaotic. Until you figure it out.

Solution #1 (ongoing): Accept Jesus as your lord and savior and put your trust in Him OR Realize that to preserve your life you must not fear losing it.

The key to surviving Phnom Penh traffic is to hurl yourself into it.

Need to make a right turn into a busy street? No problem. Whatever you do, don’t stop otherwise someone might plow into the back of you. Just slow down a bit, then roll into the right edge of the lane. You don’t even really have to look left to check if anyone’s coming. No one else does.

Is there a pedestrian slowly crossing the street in front of you in the middle of hundreds of motorbikes? No problem, just ease off the throttle a bit and hold your line. But be prepared to dodge just in case.

Coming to a four-way intersection with no stop signs? No problem. Note whether your street controls the intersection or whether the cross traffic has fortified its position. If the traffic going with and against you is moving, follow suit, but keep an eye out for cross traffic that tries to squeeze in the gaps. Be prepared to slam on your brakes and dodge.

If the cross traffic is moving and yours is down to a crawl, follow suit and ease your way into the intersection. With the help of the travelers headed your way, you will either seize the intersection through force of numbers or you will dodge your way across to the other side.

Need to cross a busy six-lane street full of cars, trucks, pedal bikes, and swarms of motos? No problem, just keep easing your bike out slowly into traffic and trust that no one else wants to die or, in the case of the bigger stuff, scratch their vehicle. Everyone will dodge you until they can’t, then they’ll stop. Then you can deal with the traffic going in the other direction. This technique works best if you can pair up with a car, a group of bikers, or a large truck.

The basic premise is to let go of all that you’ve learned about driving. Release your fear. Trust that everyone else wants to live just as much as you. Know that traffic moves slow enough that they can stop if necessary. Know that everyone in your lane isn’t necessarily going the same direction you are. When in doubt, go slow and let others see you. Since I’m writing this, it’s obviously worked for me.

A few things I noticed while riding. First, almost no one wears short sleeves while on a bike. If it’s a choice between cooking under the heat lamp of the sun or steaming yourself to death inside a long sleeve shirt, everyone chooses to go the way of the steamed dumpling. I concur and always wear a jacket when I ride.

Also, almost no one wears shorts or light colored pants. I discovered why when I got home. My khaki cargos were filthy from dust, soot, and sweat. I can only imagine what my lungs look like. Tomorrow, I’ll be in dark pants, just like everyone else. Not sure what to do about my lungs.

With most problems solved, I headed off to Tuol Sleng Museum to see the most famous Khmer Rouge prison. I’ll be damned if that thing wasn’t hard to find. Phnom Penh is pretty much a grid. I figured it’d be easy since I knew the street number and the main streets to get there.

Nope. There were no street signs in that part of town or any signs pointing to the prison, so far as I could see. I wandered for 30 minutes going back and forth through neighborhood roads looking for the place. It’s like they were trying to hide it.

When I finally found it, I learned partially why it’s not easy to find. It’s tiny. The complex is maybe only 125 yards long and 70 yards deep. The prison is situated in the middle of a neighborhood in some nondescript three story buildings.

When I rolled in and parked the bike, I discovered the reason for its anonymous, residential location. Tuol Sleng prison used to be Tuol Svay Prey High School.

I’ve been to my dad’s high school in the Philippines. I’ve visited my Filipino cousins while they were in school there. I taught college for a year in the hills near Manila. The buildings at Tuol Sleng were buildings I’d seen before. They were quintessential Southeast Asia education architecture. Concrete and brick, open windows with shutters and bars but no glass, bare floors, windows to class rooms on one side of the three story building and open hallways between stairs and rooms to the other.

I loved my time as a teacher in the Philippines. If I want, I can hear the sounds of students clambering into the class, footsteps and voices reverberating off the polished concrete walls and floors. I can remember the feel of the chalk scratching the wooden greenboard I used to write notes to the class. I can see the looks on students’ faces when they learned something surprising. Mostly, I just enjoyed the feeling of people ready to learn. There was an energy there. A good one.

There’s also a nobility to teaching. You’re helping people reach their goal of becoming a nurse, accountant, businessperson, or whatever. If you’re lucky, you might even lead them to being a better human being.

Tuol Sleng was the opposite. The Khmer Rouge used this place for evil. They made people less than they were when they started. They destroyed lives. This place of joy and learning had been corrupted. My happy memories collided with the atrocities committed here.

In the middle of a classroom much like mine sat a bed with chains attached. In another the Khmer Rouge had constructed cramped, makeshift cellblocks by knocking holes in walls and slapping together brick. On the wall of one of these holding blocks there were the words “Les 3 Chevaliers” carved into the wall. I imagine it was done by a teacher to inspire his class to learn or that the musketeers were the school’s mascots (Cambodia was formerly a French colony). Barbwire curtained the open hallways in front of the former classrooms to prevent desperate prisoners from hurling themselves over the side and killing themselves.

Innocent looking gym equipment had been twisted into something sinister. In the courtyard, pull up bars and rigs were set up; you could imagine kids climbing up outdoor ropes for gym class. A little sign next to the bars said that the Khmer Rouge tied prisoners arms behind their backs and strung them up from the impromptu gallows until they passed out. You could still see large clay jars underneath, which the torturers filled with dirty water. They’d dunk the heads of the unconscious in the jars until they revived so they could string them up again.

In my mind, the sounds of kids chatting and running between classes collided with screams of the people who suffered here. Where students had come eager to learn, people were dragged into cells to await their fate in fear. Human beings like me had taken this sacred place and defiled it. They’d turned the world upside down.

I wandered around the buildings, climbing concrete stairs, going in and out of familiar places that now made me sad. In one building, the curators had posted rows of pictures of the victims. The Khmer Rouge had been meticulous in their documentation, writing biographies of each prisoner and taking headshots. The pictures captured an array of emotions: sleepy, confused, fearful, defiant, angry, and even an occasional smile, as if the prisoner hoped his or her optimism and cheerfulness would convince their captors that they were harmless. That they were no threat to the communist revolution. That they were friends.

All to no avail. The people who survived this place were fewer than the fingers on one hand.

The Khmer Rouge sought to free the poor of Cambodia from the oppression of the elite. To that end, they sought out doctors, teachers, lawyers, priests, government officials, people who owned land, entrepreneurs, secretaries, janitors, nurses, railway conductors—anyone educated, enterprising, or marginally influential under the old regime.

Then they looked for anyone with any ambition at all. They hunted people from the countryside who’d come to the city in the past year to escape the civil war and find jobs. These “April 17” people (April 17 being the day the Khmer Rouge “liberated” Phnom Penh) were not “pure” like their brethren in the provinces. The Khmer trusted no one in the cities.

Within days of their arrival, Phnom Penh was a ghost town. Only 40,000 remained including Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge had evacuated everyone else. There would be no urban centers under the regime, only peasant farmers working for the collective good. There would be no religion either, just faith in the party.

Even if people escaped capture, many died because of Khmer Rouge policies. Policies that caused famine, gutted medical care, and destroyed livelihoods. (A brief list: only rice farming permitted and all crops collected and, in theory, redistributed or exported for money by the government; no currency allowed; all doctors, nurses and medical professionals killed.)

In the span of four years the regime wiped out 2 million out of a population of 8 million. Amongst the dead were nearly all those who’d exhibited any ambition in life. It’s unimaginable. It’d be the equivalent of clearing out all the cities in the U.S. and wiping out anyone with a high school diploma, then forcing everyone to raise corn and soybeans. When the Vietnamese toppled the regime in 1979, it must have been like trying to rebuild Cambodia with just folk from the Ozarks. God love ‘em, they might be good people, but to try to rebuild a nation. . .it’s like trying to rebuild a car with 50 feet of rope and a toothpick.

And all that doesn’t account for the emotional scars. I mean, this shit happened when I was alive. People here know people who died in the Killing Fields. Everything felt so familiar to me partly because the world hasn’t changed much since then. A classroom is still a classroom. A high school is still a high school. Gym class is gym class and everyone learns about the Three Musketeers.

As I hopped back on my motorbike and prepared to leave, I realized that there must be a terrible tension about this place. Tuol Sleng is no doubt something tourists want and need to see when they come to Phnom Penh. But it’s probably not a place Khmer people want to celebrate. At the same time, it’s not a place they ever want to forget. In the end, it lives between the conscious and unconscious. There are no signs leading you to its gates, but the buildings still stand. It’s hard to find, yet it’s not hidden. It’s there, but it isn’t.

I started the engine, motored out of the neighborhood to the main road, and merged back into busy Phnom Penh traffic.

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