Published Sunday, August 3rd, 2014
Words by Lizzie Akass
The salt burns my eyes. I squeeze them closed but this only traps it between my lids, grinds it into my flesh. I open my mouth to scream in agony, in terror. But the air that pours from between my cracked lips slides upwards on my skin, encased in pools of silence. Before I can stop myself, I have breathed in. The caustic sensation gushes down my throat, creeping into my lungs, causing unbearable pain. Scorching my insides. I retch and choke as I begin to spasm uncontrollably. My arms flail above me, trying to find my torturer. My neck strains as I desperately push back with as much strength as I have remaining against the hands that are keeping me down. I find his thick, sweaty fingers. I fiercely struggle against him, trying to break his hold, to push him away. My lungs are convulsing. I am running out of oxygen. My eyes sting and the impulse to breathe becomes more and more unbearable. My eyes open again in the blurry hell, squinting and straining to find some possible escape. But there is none. I find his little finger, ripping it back with as much strength as I have left. I hear a faint, muffled cry of pain, and then an explosion of black splatters of ink cloud my vision as he hits me in retaliation, forcing out my only remaining oxygen. I see a few tiny, almost insignificant bubbles float away, and a faint wisp of crimson as my blood dilutes in the water. The blackness in my vision expands. I am blind. In despair, I feel myself begin to drift out of consciousness as the pain grips me too severely to fight it anymore.
I think I’ve lost. I think I’m going to die.
Our driver for the night welcomed us to Cambodia and
escorted the three of us in his quaint tuk tuk from the Phnom Penh airport. The hot air was thick with pollution and we leaned squeamishly away from the backs of our plastic seats, feeling beads of sweat creep uncomfortably down our spines. We were shocked at how utterly different Cambodia was from its bordering country, Thailand, where we had spent a month of excitement and leisure.
When traffic caused us to stop, men in neighbouring vehicles leered in at our bare skin and grinned at us. Our driver pulled into a petrol station to refuel, and an employee came and greeted him. This young, thin man saw us sitting in the back, and sheepishly walked over. Almost endearingly, he approached us with a weak hello in his best English, and then proceeded to speak in quiet, nervous Khmer, barely able to look us in the eye. We smiled kindly but glanced quizzically at our driver, who had begun to laugh at his friend in good humour. He explained that his friend had said he thought we were pretty, and he liked our white skin. He’d also asked our driver what we were doing later that day.
We looked at each other in surprise, suppressing an awkward laugh, and gently explained we were very tired from our fourteen hour’s travelling, and needed to rest. He looked away in embarrassment and nodded, shuffling quickly away.
The following days passed slowly. We spent our mornings lounging by the pool on the roof of our hotel, attempting in vain to bronze our white skin, and trying to ignore the stares of builders on roofs either side of us. In the afternoons, we ventured out, always finding the same driver, who we began to befriend. On our second day, he took us to the killing fields, where we saw the calamitous and horrific effects of the Khmer Rouge regime. The human skulls staring back at us from behind glass sent shudders through my entire body, and as we read of all the different ways in which millions of Cambodians were brutally murdered, thousands in the grounds where we stood, an overwhelming sadness and fear gripped us. We were very quiet the rest of that day.
One morning, our driver took us to an animal sanctuary outside of the city, where we pulled our scarves over our heads en route so as not to see the crippled walking skeletons reaching into the tuk tuk as we passed them, crying out for help, their impossibly skinny fingers clinging limply to cigarettes and buckets. At the sanctuary, we fed potatoes to monkeys, and a woman working there told us we had beautiful white skin, and that her black skin was ugly. We tried to tell her that she had lovely skin, and that in our country, she would be seen as our equal, but she shook her head disbelievingly and smiled. You could see her tongue through the gaps where teeth should have been.
We asked our driver to take us to a temple. As we arrived, a group of little girls swarmed to the tuk tuk, giving us small white flowers and asking for money. A delirious old man leaned in and offered us a handful of black berries. The girls squirmed with laughter, sat in our laps and played with our hair. They asked us where we were from, and if we went to school. They told us they liked our teeth, and that our skin was beautiful and theirs was no good, that black was evil. My friends and I exchanged a look of pitying despair as we tried again, without success, to explain we were exactly the same as them, but the girls looked sympathetic of our ignorance and told us we were wrong. We paid our dollars to the children, and they took our hands and led us around the ruin. They told us to pay our respects, so we gave the gifts they had given to us to a dark figure in a robe. I tried to peer inside the blackness but I couldn’t tell if it was a statue or a skeleton.
One day we went to the Russian market and the night market. Both the smells of fish and sweat burned our noses, but, trying to support some of the older, more vulnerable women, we bought as many silk scarves and patterned trousers from them as we could fit into our backpacks. We had planned to go to Wat Po after a few days: the tourist’s city, far more prosperous than Phnom Penh. We were told that was where the true beauty of Cambodia lay. However, we learnt of a severe cholera outbreak that had begun just before our arrival. City officials were encouraging tourists to stay away, so we didn’t go.
On our last day, our driver took us to the Daughters of Cambodia Visitor Centre, where we met young women saved from the sex slave industry and child trafficking, and put into the centre to learn skills, receive an education and counseling, helping them to ease back into the outside world and be able to work in a variety of businesses and workplaces. We read the plaques hung all over the walls, explaining the horrors the women went through, and how Cambodia was one of the leading countries for human trafficking. When none of the women were looking, we pushed all of the change we had into their donations box. We were embarrassed for them to see we had only brought a few dollars with us that day, as we didn’t need much to pay our driver, and could mostly only give them riel. We decided to come back to give more the following morning before we left for our flight, but we didn’t.
We had one more stop to make on our final day, just outside of the city. We were perhaps fifteen minutes from our destination when an open-topped car filled with men with guns crashed into our tuk tuk. They surrounded us and seized our driver, forcing him to the ground and pushing the muzzle of a rifle into his neck as he cried out in pain. We screamed and kicked and clawed and punched but they were everywhere and we had nowhere to run. We had two men holding each of us as we struggled and fought. They took our phones, our cameras. They wanted our passports, but they were in the hotel. They wanted our money, but we had given it to the centre. They became furious, screaming in Khmer. They took the little money our driver had and I saw him begin to cry. We pleaded and begged and they spat in our faces and kicked us to the ground. I saw trickles of red caress my friend’s temple as she struggled to stay awake. They roared in broken English that we would either be sold or killed. They wanted money, and they wanted revenge for our being white, and their being dark, for us being born into a country of wealth and security, and them into poverty.
I think I’m going to die.