Saturday, July 19, 2008

Vannac at the Esplanade

When they get back, Sophie and Vannac are going to know more about yoga and the body than I do.

Vannac, actually, had his first lesson in bodies on the day he arrived in Cairns. When I was here two years ago and first started thinking about ways to get Vannac certified, I remember going down the Esplanade, the grassy strip beside the sea, and seeing the ocean of mostly-naked sunbathing backpackers as the most glaring clash of cultural values that a Cambodian would face. I wish that I had been with Vannac when he went out to explore on that first morning; but I did have the pleasure of hearing about it, several times, in fact.

After a morning with the neighbour’s unsecured wireless connection, I shut my computer and asked Vannac if he’d care to join me for a walk and some neighborhood reconnaissance. He was in his room and said he’d been out already and wanted to rest, so I went out alone. Later that afternoon, I again invited him to leave the premises, and again, he said he’d rather not. We all spent most of the first few days sleeping, so it wasn’t surprising that he was still taking it easy.
That evening, though, as we bumbled around the kitchen preparing our respective evening meals, Vannac broke the comfortable silence between us and mentioned in an unassuming voice that he had gone down to the sea today and walked along the grass. I was pleased that he has gone out by himself, and asked him what he thought. He looked down and grew that apologetic smile, and said “yes, it very nice.”
Without quite catching my eyes, he continued, carefully picking his words as if to keep the reality of what he was saying at bay.
“I walk all the way down.” Did he wonder if I knew what was coming? I nodded, na├»vely.
“I see many people. They lie on the grass.” He looked to the side, as if he were trying to figure something out. “Many people, they have no clothes on; the girl they take off their shirt and wear only…” and he drew with his hands on his body, unsure if his words could actually communicate this, “they wear just bra and underwear.”
Ah, yes. He looked at me, pleadingly. I smiled, composed, maintaining his trust so that I would get all the details.
“Those are backpackers, Vannac. That’s what they like to do, lie in the sun to get suntanned.”
“In Cambodia, they think crazy. They would never do like that. I think I tell my family and they do not believe me.”
“Yeah, people have different ideas about bodies. Here, they feel safe enough and free enough to do pretty much whatever they want with their bodies, men and women.”
He was still slightly mesmerized by the mental image.
“I try to take picture,” he revealed, with utter innocence, “but the police came and say that I cannot.” The police? I put down the carrot I was grating and turned to him. This time I was less successful at maintaining composure.
“The police, Vannac?” I tried to keep my eyes in my head and my laughter if not disguised, at least subdued. I failed.
And this is where his story became slightly less linear, although a narrative came together after a few repetitions, first to Priska and then to Sophie, and then to anyone else who came in the house to visit.

“I took picture of the people who lay down on the grass to get the sunshine. I see a group of Japanese people come to take a photo but they walk very fast, they just move and they take. So I try to follow, but I not move so fast. I don’t know, I just stand there and I take and then I stay there. And the police, they came over. They wanted me to show them the picture that I took. They tell to me that you cannot take picture of the lady or the children and they asked me to delete just one. The rest okay, but they asked me to delete one picture.”

When Priska heard this, (“Hey, Priska, guess what Vannac got up to today! Tell her Vannac!”) she roared with laughter at the idea of our innocent Cambodian perving on backpackers, dazzled by oceans of thighs and rolling expanses of breasts. It is unclear how the police came over, and it sounded from certain tellings that one of his models got up and objected, but, as this dissenter only made one appearance in countless recitations, it is hard to say if he misspoke, or if he was so mortified that he decided to edit her from the final version.

Good ol’ Vannac for getting in trouble with the police on his first day in Cairns! We are all proud. We got great pleasure imagining the dialogue that would have taken place between the police officers and Vannac, our man’s English getting a little rusty when he’s nervous, but always retaining a calm, respectful and innocent demeanor. He would have raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders and put his hand to him mouth, and said “oh, I am so sorry, I did not know, I never see like this before.” I wonder if he would have appealed to Cambodia to explain his behaviour, or if he decided to just swallow it himself. He would have willingly handed over his phone and shown them anything they asked for and apologized again and again; in fact, he probably would have quite endeared himself to the security guards and stroked their authority in quite the right way. I wonder if he thought he’s be asked for a bribe.

The three of us went back to the Esplanade last weekend to have a snack by the public pool. Vannac, now an old hand at all things bizarre and confronting, marched in undaunted. We found an unused patch of shade and ventured to sit down for our picnic, but Vannac got that glazed look and awkward smile again, and couldn’t quite get himself to sit down. We looked over and saw a small herd of bikini clad girls lying on towels, buns up, just beside us.
“Does it make you uncomfortable, Vannac?”
“No, it’s okay.” Pause. “But, I cannot eat here. Maybe we go to eat over there.”
Indeed, and I must say that my years in Asia would also have me eating somewhere a little more subdued. So off we went to a distant patch of grass under a tree, and he pointed out the Japanese tourists who walked speedily through the crowds with their tiny cameras held waist high, snapping shots with stealth.
“Oh, they don’t believe me when I tell them. My family say I’m crazy.”


Anonymous said...

Yeah cos sexually harassing women is funny. Taking photos without permission is hilarious. Cultural sensitivity and taboos go both ways. Disgusting behavior

Isabelle Skaburskis said...

oh my god... why are people so ANGRY?! Is it fun? Or is the world just such a horrible place for people that they look for any opportunity they can to make a situation into something shitty and victimizing? Is there some global epidemic of disempowerment going on? Or is it an internet thing? I wonder if all blogs attract such venomous readers.