Bandit Country 3

In the case of one’s food requirements, the remedy is to try to draw what one wants (my stylised sketch of a bird produced not a chicken’s wing, but two fried sparrows on a skewer), or point to what others are eating – invariably Chinese soup, from which the tentacles of small river octopi tend to trail. All this gives the greatest amusement to the customers, although, with the chiding finger of several thousand years’ civilisation behind them, the Indo-Chinese have far too much maiden-auntish con¬trol over themselves to laugh uproariously, as Africans might. In this case one of the heads ofthe family was fetched, who with dignified bows invited me into the kitchen, where in the antechamber to Dante’s hell I selected some brightly dyed mincemeat, which was delivered to me wrapped – in Hungarian style – in a cabbage leaf. Salt was always rare and precious in these places, and one was expected, in its place, to dowse one’s food in rancid sauces or to nibble between mouthfuls at salted fish. This cafe, however, supplied what was described in English, on the tin’s label, as Ve- Tsin Gourmet Powder, a yellow and pungent spice, which, if you used enough, produced a faint salinity.
Something like a state of emergency seemed to have been proclaimed in the neighbourhood, and several members of the National Guard were mooching round looking for somewhere to sleep. One of them slumped into a vacant chair at my table, and his rifle clattered to the ground. He groped for it, picked it up, leaned it against the table and stuck a flower down the barrel. It was an oldish weapon with a rusty bolt, but the butt had been most tastefully carved with a close, intricate design of leaves, through which a helmeted horseman charged with raised sword. When it was time to set off again, the driver himself went round the village to look out each passenger, tracking down with difficulty some who, wanting to make the most of the excursion, had wandered off to see the local sights. We were leaving some of our fellow-passengers behind and collecting some new ones – Cambodian women who arrived carry¬ing their belongings in beautifully woven baskets. Their good looks were subdued by the determined composure they adopted to cover all traces of excitement. The girls’ hair was done up in thick, glossy chignons, but the older women wore their hair in the close, ragged crop which happened, quite by chance, to correspond to the European fashion of that time.
Leaving the village, we thundered on through dead-flat country. On each side stretched a milky slough with deep pools, the colour of pale yolk, in which buffaloes squirmed like fat, grey maggots. The sky was iron-grey over this waste of tempera. For the first time I saw glossy ibises, in extraordinary partnership with eagles, paddling awkwardly in the shallows. The villages here were quite different, and for a short distance each house had a kind of totem pole with a carved, wooden cock raised in front of it. The country manners, too, were informal. At a hamlet stop an exquisite lady in black knickers descended the steps of her house, and, stationing herself with her back to us, before a large earthenware jar, began her morning toilet. Properly, the bonzes averted their eyes. Across the road the building of a new house had been started – a combined village enterprise which would take three or four days – and the solemn moment of the insertion of the central pillar, flying its red banner, was being feted with flutes and drums.
And so we went on, the driver, it seemed, feeling his way with quiet perspicacity across the gentle, sunlit, dangerous landscape, stopping sometimes to make enquiries from a peasant, and then making perhaps a detour into the white waste to avoid some doubtful village. The bus took terrible punishment. We developed electrical troubles and without slack¬ening speed the driver sent his mate out to repair them. With the bus leaping and lurching beneath him he crawled barefooted all over the front end, opening first one and then the other side of the bonnet, wielding his pliers to strip and join wires and insulating the joints with oblongs of tape he carried stuck to the skin of his legs. People who wanted rides were always trying to stop us. The driver took no notice of ordinary civilians, shouted polite excuses to bonzes, and stopped for soldiers.
In the early afternoon there was another pause. Once again there was a Chinese restaurant, and the family, until the invasion from the bus took place, could be seen taking their siesta on the tables in the background. It was a very enterprising concern; probably under new management. The food was served in splendid gold-edged bowls, splashed over with Chi¬nese lettering, and stylised cocks and dragonflies had been painted on the spoons. But in spite of its amenities the restaurant did not object to patrons bringing their own food. While I was busy with my salted prawns one of the passengers, a frugal Cambodian, sat down at my side, ordered a glass of tea, and unwrapping a banana leaf produced a small bird, looking as if it might have been fried in bread-crumbs, which, holding by the beak, he devoured in two bites. When we had both finished our meal he got up, smiled and beckoned to me to go with him. We walked a short way down the street and he pointed to a house which consisted of a framework only supporting several intricately carved doors. There were no walls, and just as we arrived, the occupant, who had been reclining on a mat under a parasol, got up, opened one of the doors and came down the stepladder into the street. From his dress, which included a thick, black pullover and a topee, I judged him to be a man of importance. My companion grinned and said, pirate.

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