Tuesday, June 07, 2005


It's not every day that you see an attempted robbery.

This one didn't involve gunfire or banks or men-in-black suits wearing Richard Nixon masks. (There wasn't a befuddled, elderly security guard in sight.)

And even though I know, rationally, that Phnom Penh is not exactly Barry's Bay, Ontario, in terms of its safety, I often forget. Strike that, counsellor -- I ALWAYS forget.

Typical story: Me, on the back of a moto, heading for lunch.

(An aside: Living in Japan for four years, I took the train, literally, every day. Living in Cambodia for two years, I have not taken a train once, but I've taken a moto, literally, every day. That means something. I'm not sure what, but it means something.)

In front of me was a motorized tuk-tuk -- basically a comfy little couch, with a roof, on the back of a moto. Two foreigners, a man and a woman, were sitting in the back, travellers, tourists, the woman clutching her enormous knapsack, the kind that must be handed out automatically at the airport upon arrival.

Good thing she was clutching it, too.

Two young Khmers on a moto, both male, pulled up beside the tuk-tuk. The passenger reached out his arms and grabbed the woman's knapsack. (It's an open space, so it's easy to do.) He tugged once. The woman looked confused. He tugged twice. The woman started to get that look, the one that says: "Wait a minute -- I'm being fucking ROBBED here." The kid tugged one last time, and the woman held tight.

And that was it.

The moto with the two young punks sped off. The woman turned to her male companion with a "can you freakin' BELIEVE this?" look. My motodriver smiled and shook his head.

Once again, I'm faced with how clumsy and mundane and bewildering true crime is, the real stuff, not the Hollywood fiction, the stories we've been told for so long that we rarely, at any level, even recognize as stories.

Real crime is awkward and direct and out-of-the-blue.

And it always, always has repercussions.

You can bet your ass that that woman's view of Cambodia has forever been altered by that simple, brief encounter. Here she is, probably her first day in town, and wouldn't you know it -- somebody tries to rob her. She will fly back to Canada or America or England or Australia and that will be the centrepiece of her story, how Phnom Penh is a dangerous place, how even in broad daylight she was a victim of an attack, how she wouldn't necessarily recommend it as a place for women travellers to chill out.

And that's how countries get the reputations they get. (And people, too.)

One person does something to another person. The other person reacts, resists, survives. Lives to tell the tale. And that tale is passed on to others, mouth to mouth, word to word.

I don't know where the two dudes on the bike scurried off to. Don't know where the undoubtedly-frightened tourists ended up either, for that matter. Back to their hotel, maybe. Or a bar for a stiff drink, perhaps.

Me? I went to lunch.

We move on, all of us, the perpetrators and the victims and the spectators.

What else can we do?

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