“F#ck off, old man,” wasn't quite the response I expected from the dreadlocked young woman sitting at the computer in the hotel lobby. Or, perhaps, it was.
Outside the business of Phnom Penh carried on as usual. As in Auden's words on Breughel's Fall of Icarus, “everything turned away” and everyone turned away. Those others who had also been waiting suddenly had urgent texts. I didn't want to be here.
But, outside, this altercation will go unnoticed . There are no plowmen or shepherds in the market but the fish scalers, the street-side barbers, the clickaparadiddle of stick on bamboo signifying a soup vendor is near, the saffron-robed monks on their mobiles, the purveyors of sweet green oranges will just carry on earning a dollar or two if business is good. A thousand riel or two if business is bad.
The reason for the outburst was that I had pointed out a sign on the lobby's only computer which limited customer use to 15 minutes. I had had the temerity to point out that she had been using it for 40 minutes.
Outside the rain teemed on Sisowath Quay as the mourners filed back from the final day of official mourning for the Father King. He was their King in the way that his son may never be. He was the King who gave his people bicycles and helped facilitate the peace agreements in this battle-born nation. The tuk-tuks were doing well in the rain but the cyclos less so. Why does anyone volunteer to become a human airbag sitting in a wicker chair in front of an oversized bicycle while the rider sits safely away from any accident that should occur? Charlie will still be waiting at the bar to repair my sandals as he has done for the past few years. I cannot compete with Trigger’s broom's 17 new heads and 14 new handles but my sandals that I started with five years ago are still going strong thanks to shoe boys of Vietnam and Cambodia.
I had pointed out that I only wanted the computer for a few minutes to sort out my debit card. Apparently the fraud division of the bank does not talk to the branch division which has details of my journey. It also does not talk to the service for which I pay to notify me by text whenever my cards are used asking me to contact them if I am concerned about the transaction. However, her business was more important: updating her Facebook profile; adding more pictures of her friends' partying with Mekong buckets and generally keeping in touch with her hundreds of virtual friends who are all 'missing her like CRAAAAAZEEEE'. She also had to check whether the bars recommended by Lonely Planet were still open.
Outside the sugar cane grinders carry on producing the sickly sweet syrup and the young boys and girls try unsuccessfully to sell roses. The working girls are beginning their respective shifts: the garment manufacturers will be off to the new, mainly Chinese, factories springing up on the outskirts and will probaly earn the newly increased minimum wage of $68 a month for 6 ten-hour shifts; the other working girls will ply their wares along the bars of Sisowath and will achieve the shoe girl's monthly wage in three nights. It's a tough career choice.
Having travelled for a number of years I was not really surprised by the outburst. I have not encountered any racism, sexism or homophobia. Ladyboys throughout South East Asia are universally loved. However ageism is everywhere from the patronising American 'Sir' to the ubiquitous 'Papa' of South East Asia. One gets used to being tolerated at most and invisible at least in the travellers' world. If I want to do something assume I can: I do not need extra time for the hike in King's Canyon I do not need special assistance to climb Sydney Harbour bridge.
I met dreadlocked Girta later that night at the pop-up bar outside the hotel. She apologised for her behaviour and explained that she was stressed. Those awesome fishbowls of spirits on the Khao Sahn Road, the snake villages of Hanoi with their snake hearts still beating in local vodka, the tubing down the riverside bars of Van Vieng (temporarily closed because of the number of drink-related deaths on the river) and the late-night partying inside the hostels while life goes on outside had begun to take their toll. LOL.