I visited the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday and they assured me that I’m eligible to apply for a 60 day tourist visa if I return on Monday with proof of onward travel. If everything goes according to plan, I could be on a bus to Laos as early as Thursday and cross into Thailand sometime in mid-February. If so, Saturday #83 will have been my last Saturday in Cambodia.
I left the hostel around 10:00 am, used the crazy-fast wifi at my new favourite Cafe (Brown’s) to book a March 28 flight from Bangkok to Zurich, and found a shopkeeper to print the e-ticket that I’ll submit with the visa application on Monday. I was back at the hostel by 1:00 and managed to squeeze in a 90 minute nap and some more research into Laos before 4:00 pm rolled around. You know what 4:00 pm is, don’t you? In my current world it’s the official start of Happy Hour.
Now, you’re probably wondering where this is going. It’s late afternoon and the best he can come up with is printing an e-ticket and ordering a cheap beer at a hostel bar? Is this one even worth reading? The short answer is maybe. The longer answer is maybe not.
I’ll admit that Saturday #83 was quiet, even by Phnom Penh standards. I just didn’t feel like a big ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ kind of day. I might still be recovering from an emotionally draining Saturday #82 at the Killing Fields, or maybe it’s the fact that my sister and her husband have returned to Canada and I won’t see any family until July. It might also be the fact that I’m stuck in visa limbo for a few more days. How do I deal with that? “Sure, another Tiger beer,” please.
By 6:00 p.m. I was well lubricated and ready for another walkie. My motivation was twofold: It had cooled down (from 36C to 30C) and the bartender had just announced that Happy Hour was officially over. The price of beer was set to rise from 75 cents to $1.25. “Highway robbery,” I said. “I won’t stand for it.” So I decided to head down the street and see what would happen if I said “yes” at every possible opportunity. I’ve used this story-generation technique many times and it generally works out well. Even when it ends in disaster it makes for a good yarn, so what have I got to lose?
I had been walking for about 10 minutes when I came across a woman standing at the entrance of a business called Seeing Hands. Unlike the girls who lounge around outside many of the, ah, less reputable massage parlours in this part of the world, this woman did not call out “massaaaaaaaaaage” as I passed by. Not only did I not get a “Hey, sweetie, you like happy ending?” but the woman didn’t pay me any attention whatsoever.
I didn’t know what to think. I wanted to stay true to my plan and say yes at every opportunity, so I was glad that I didn’t have to lie and tell the woman I’d be back later, yet I was a little put out that she didn’t consider me to be a potential customer. Is it that obvious? It wasn’t until I was close enough to smell her perfume that I realized why she hadn’t acknowledged me. She was blind.
I immediately remembered why the name Seeing Hands had sounded familiar. There had been an article about the business in a tourist magazine I read on the flight from Saigon to Siem Reap. Seeing Hands is a chain of spas that provides training and honest employment to the disproportionately high number of blind adults in Cambodia. It’s a great concept. Blind people are said to be particularly good at massage thanks to their heightened sense of touch and customers can relax knowing the masseuse or masseur isn’t thinking: “Boy, she should get those roots touched up” or “What, they don’t sell nose hair trimmers in Canada?”
I liked the fact that Seeing Hands is a legitimate business providing a hand up to people who might otherwise fall through the cracks in a country like Cambodia. In this case I didn’t even need someone to call out “Hey, honey, you want massage?” before I said yes.
I followed the blind woman inside and spoke with a sighted receptionist who determined they had an opening in 10 minutes. A one hour, full body massage goes for $7 at Seeing Hands. I think I paid 15-20 times that amount when I had my last massage at a rehab clinic in Toronto’s First Canadian Place. I could get used to this, I thought.
When the receptionist asked if I had a favourite masseur or masseuse, I told her that not only was it my first visit to Seeing Hands but it was my first massage in about 10 years. “Someone gentle,” was my only request. I didn’t want to end up black and blue like a friend did after visiting a steam bath in Tiblisi (Georgia) where the masseur was a former Olympic weight lifter of about 300 pounds. I had no desire to come out looking and feeling like the side of beef Sylvester Stallone trained with in Rocky.
After forking over my seven bucks I was shown to a massage table at the far end of a big room, right below the air conditioner. There are no private areas at Seeing Hands. This isn’t one of those places. I’m sure the communal massage room is set up this way to protect the blind staff. If a client pulls something in a setting like this, the other clients will realize what’s going on. (Editor: You couldn’t find a word other than ‘pulls’? )
I changed into the set of loose-fitting PJs that were provided and laid face down on the massage table. A few minutes later someone tossed a warm towel over my back and started to go to work on my shoulders. There was no discussion. If I hadn’t noticed his shoes through the face-sized hole in the table, I wouldn’t have guessed the hands working the golf ball sized knot out of my right shoulder were those of a man. A very small Cambodian man, but a man nonetheless.
The hour passed quickly. I wouldn’t say it was the best hour of my life, let alone the best massage I’ve ever had, but it was certainly worth seven bucks! I received change from a 10 and I won’t have to spend $100 on a chiropractor, as my friend did following his scheduled 12-rounder in Tblisi.
On the way back to the hostel I realized that I had $3 in change burning a hole in my jeans, so I stopped at Panda Mart – a convenience store / snack bar / late night hangout for tuk tuk drivers. As I sat at a window seat enjoying the two necessities of life in a country where it’s still 30C at 10:00 pm – air conditioning and Root Beer slushies – I got a very strange feeling that I was back in Toronto at a 7-11 store on Queen West. Was I hallucinating? Was it a symptom of my slushy-induced brain freeze? Was I missing home so badly that I’d consider eating a dried up Taquito and picking up a copy of the Sun?
No, I’m not missing North American junk food or even North America for that matter. But as I recalled my many late night trips to 7-11, primarily to buy expensive tins of Friskies when Tyson insisted that dried food was beneath him, I realized what had triggered this little Toronto flashback. A radio was playing over the PA system and at the end of a commercial for a duct cleaning business, I heard the announcer plug the company’s web site. It was something or other “.ca.” That got my attention. The next ad was for Barrymore Furniture. Then TD Bank. I’m sitting in a convenience store in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and they’re playing Toronto radio station CHUM-FM!
I finished my slushy and decided to buy some Tylenol in case the brain freeze got worse. When the teenaged girl at the cash register counted out my change I asked if she liked the radio station they were playing. “No, it’s horrible,” she said, “but my boss is Canadian and he makes us play it.”
“Those evil Canadians,” I said.
It was only after I turned to leave that she would have seen the red and white flag on my backpack. The door was closing behind me when I heard her yell out, “Hey CANADA! Roger & Marilyn. Yaaaaaay!”