We race through the steadily brightening pre-dawn of Phnom Penh on our rented scooter, en route to a meeting with our translator and all-around guardian angel, Seiha Kong.
Most of the mainly one and two story buildings of the city still huddle in darkness, though a few auto shop lights are winking on and a few pedestrians, mainly elderly, shuffle around the narrow streets.
We enter the highway leading out to the University district where we’ll meet Seiha and instantly, an overwhelmingly sweet scent surrounds us – the rows of jasmine bushes lining the kilometer-long park next to the highway have sprung fully into bloom due to the rains of the past day.
It’s barely 5 a.m. but many citizens of Phnom Penh are already exercising in the murky darkness of the park, their forms barely visible to the eye, taking advantage of the rare cool of the summer morning.
Somehow we’ve managed to fit all our gear and ourselves onto our tiny scooter. Wedged in front of me between the seat and the steering column is our gear bag, bulging with video heads, rigs, sound equipment and cords of all kinds. Stax’ backpack bears the weight of the camera equipment.
Groundwater sprays up from under the fender. I can only hope that the gear bag isn’t getting soaked through.
We pull into a gas station where a bleary-eyed Seiha is waiting. It’s too early for words and we’re in a hurry. We park briefly in a yellow pool of light. Stax quickly hops off the back of the bike and climbs aboard Seiha’s scooter.
For this last part of the journey to the family’s home, we can’t both be aboard this bike. The tiny Honda Dream – the only one the place had left – is underpowered to say the least and rides dangerously low to the ground.
Overnight the heavy rains have swelled the puddles on the dirt road to lakes and the few paths not underwater are basically rock-strewn mud traps. Mangy-looking dogs scamper out from dark doorways and into the road. We swerve around them.
I follow Seiha’s taillight closely. This densely packed neighborhood is still a virtual maze to my sleep-addled mind. But suddenly I’m forced to stop. Seiha, pulling further and further ahead, doesn’t notice.
I’ve reached a puddle that is so deep and wide that it consumes the entire roadway and looks to have partially flooded the ground floor of the houses on either side. I hesitate. Seiha’s taillights are now far ahead. I can barely make them out anymore. He’s cleared the puddle easily. But he’s also lighter overall, and the suspension on his bike is also at least 8 inches higher than mine.
I slowly edge the bike forward into the water, sputtering through, keeping to the outside as much as possible. My sandals drag across the surface of the mini-pond.
I hope there won’t be a deep hole somewhere that will swallow my tire, I hope there’s no glass that will slice into the rubber, I hope a stone won’t jam into my undercasing, I hope the water won’t flood the exhaust system and choke the engine and foul the plugs and short out the electric or worse – and above all, I hope that when I look down the precious gear bag itself won’t be half-submerged in the water.
I’m almost through when an unseen obstacle stops my front tire cold. The poor bike jerks and just about tips over into the drink. Why didn’t I rent a proper motorcyle? I curse myself.
I’m forced to give the throttle some more juice. Whatever the obstacle is, let’s hope it isn’t sharp. The motor whines. The back tire spins and fishes out pathetically. Then suddenly the front suspension pops up over the lip of a giant divot. The tire slams down on the road. Just like that, I’m out.
I gaze ahead, giving the engine a good rev to clear the system of mud and water.
I’ve lost Seiha. I can only hope my brain – as many of you know, not the greatest with directions – can remember the convoluted route from our brief shoot last night.
TO BE CONTINUED…