One day, in a Dairy Queen near Sheena’s parents’ house, a strange thing happened and we found ourselves sitting in the booth adjacent to the booth occupied by Alice Cooper. Several years later, in a place very much unlike a Dairy Queen, we once again found ourselves in the company of creative greatness. This time it was in Cambodia, in the tiny seaside village of Kep. But first, Alice Cooper.
“Oh…my…God, lookovertherequick—it’s Alice Cooper!” I was screaming and whispering at the same time. I had long since passed through the gates of puberty, but was still taking a risk; if my voice had cracked at any point while scream-whispering then I would have inadvertently screamed the information mere feet from the celebrity himself, rendering my sighting not only non-secretive, but outright embarrassing.
“Oh wow,” my mom whispered back. “I can’t believe it…now, which one is she?” I flopped my head around wildly as if it were attached to a neck of rubber and then stared deeply into her eyes so as not to be misunderstood. I spoke loudly enough so that Sheena could also hear, just in case she too lacked this basic knowledge, but not so loudly as to allow Mr. Cooper to overhear. “Alice Cooper is Freddy Mercury’s long lost scary cousin.”
“Freddy who?” It was no use. She took it on good faith that Alice Cooper was a big deal, and without warning stood up and started walking over to his table. What!? No! You can’t just show up uninvited! It was too late.
“Hello,” she said, bending down right in the man’s face. “Are you Alice Cooper?”
“Yes I am,” he said, Oreo Blizzard in hand. His wife and kids stared at my mom. This had probably never happened before. At least not since Wayne’s World.
“I just wanted to tell you that you have a very beautiful family.” And with that he went back to eating his Blizzard.
Having spent the last several months socked in by mountains and jungle, we’d had enough and decided it was time for the sea. We drove southward until we could drive no more, whereupon the road curved from south to east, and to our right the angry sea lashed the shore with dark, frothy wavelets. The road became narrow and winding, and to our left a mountain grew up out of the jungle creating a bulbous jungle-covered peninsula. On the far end of the peninsula we arrived in the small town of Kep. Signs advertised fresh crab and the water’s edge was lined with thatched cabanas. This would do. Oh yes, this would do.
Just outside of town, beyond the last row of cabanas, we came upon a grassy area shaded by the outstretched branches of a very old tree. We situated Nacho twenty feet from the sea wall so that our sliding door opened to the ocean. The sound of lapping waves made the rest of the world inaudible and the faint hint of ocean spray did nothing to help the small rust spots starting to form in Nacho’s window frames. Awning, lawn chairs, table, drinks. From our very own roving beachfront resort we sipped our beverages and let the tension from the road seep out the soles of our feet as the sun plunged into the horizon and set the sky ablaze.
In the morning as we lay in bed listening to the waves lapping the shore we heard someone get into a car, which had been parked at some uncivilized hour next to us.
Reer reer reer…reer reer reer…reer reer reer…
“Engine’s not getting any gas,” I said to Sheena, still half asleep. The driver tried for several minutes, but the engine never fired. “He’ll drain his battery.”
I looked out of my screen window and saw the driver walking away from the car toward the road.
We got up and made breakfast, and in doing so realized that we were almost out of coffee. When breakfast was over we opened all of Nacho’s doors and windows, and started roasting a batch of coffee. It occurred to me that doing a write up on how we roast coffee on the road might be interesting to some, so I got out the camera and a notebook. Just as the beans were getting into a nice rolling first crack, the driver and his compañero returned to the car to try to get it going. Above the sound of cracking coffee beans I could hear the failure.
Soon the two came around to find us; Sheena greeted them and then they started talking to me.
“Not now amigos,” I said, juggling a camera and a stirring spoon while trying to keep the beans from burning while writing down cook times. “Give me ten minutes!”
When I emerged from the van, the two men were sitting in their dead car waiting for me.
“It is dead” one of them said, pointing to the battery under his open hood. I gave the engine a quick once over and then told them what I’d deduced while lying in bed that morning.
“Your engine isn’t getting any gas.” They stared at me, confused, and then sprang into action and removed the battery. Once the battery was free they brought it over to Nacho and asked if I could charge it. I figured, what the hell, and charged it for a couple of minutes and gave it back. Within a few cranks it was dead again.
“You guys are out of gas.” Finally one of them left to go get some gas.
While the younger of the two was out getting gas, we got to talking with the other. His name was Prom, and he split his time between Phnom Penh and Kep. He had a wife and a kid, preferred the city to the country, and wait, what?!
“I’m a movie star here in Cambodia.”
“You’re a what, now?”
“I’m a movie star. Have you seen the movie My Family, My Heart?”
“Uh, no. But it sure sounds good.”
He went on to describe what the film was about, and informed us that he played the leading role, a bad boy obsessed with money.
“So do people in Cambodia recognize you on the street?”
“Yes, especially in Phnom Penh. That’s why I never go out unless I’m wearing a pollution mask and sunglasses.”
“Can I touch you?”
The following day, Prom swung by our campsite with his wife, a thin and shy young woman with a great big smile, and their two sons. We hopped in their car and headed for the interior of the peninsula where a friend of his operated a butterfly farm on the land owned by an elderly and wealthy out of town German fellow. We frolicked with butterflies for a while before climbing to the top floor of the tall three story house, designed and constructed out of natural materials by Prom’s friend, putting us above the jungle canopy. From behind the house two ridges fanned out on either side of the property creating a shallow canyon that emptied into the sea. From our vantage point the ridges perfectly framed a view down the valley to the ocean, perhaps a mile away. We welcomed in the evening from our deck chairs, watching the ocean turn from green to dark blue to black, and then it was time to go home. Probably a typical evening for a Cambodian movie star, we figured.
On the way back we rolled along the base of the mountain for a while before stopping beside a roadside shack where an old woman served bowls of rice noodles from a giant cauldron.
“So, is this okay?” Prom seemed worried that we wouldn’t like it. “I don’t know if you’re worried about…eating clean food.”
“Prom, there is nothing that you could do to this food that would make us not want to eat it.”
“Okay, it’s just that some tourists are worried about getting sick.”
The following evening we decided to have a picnic dinner at our beach side camp site. We spent the afternoon preparing food and setting up a nice picnic area next to the sea wall, and then I decided to go explore the interesting boat launch just a short distance from our camp. It was made up of two elevated concrete ramps that extended out into the sea before slanting downward and into the water.
I coolly strolled out onto the narrow concrete plank above the water. I pulled my sunglasses down and slid my hands into my pockets and daydreamed about starring as the bad boy in my very own Cambodian romance flick. As I reached the high tide mark the slanted ramp became covered in razor sharp barnacles. La-de-da—I walked on. A moment later, nearer the low tide mark, I placed my sandaled foot on a green slimy mess of bio-growth, and my foot immediately squirted out from under me like a bar of wet soap. I did the splits, a thing that feels terrible to a grown man having inelastic groin tendons, and began sliding on my side toward the angry green ocean, only a couple of feet away. Just before reaching the water, however, the friction between the razor-sharp barnacles and my doughy white skin was enough to stop my downward trajectory, sparing me from a painful and watery dip. I whimpered, frowning, afraid and dripping blood from my hand and ankle, as I inched my way back up the dangerous barnacled plank to safety.
The picnic dinner went off much more pleasantly than my evening explorations. We ate Burmese pumpkin curry, fresh vegetables, cucumber salad and fresh fish as the cool air poured over the sea wall and the faint salty mist made the air feel charged. We chatted about life in America, and then switched to the far more interesting topic of life in Cambodia. Prom recounted his experiences in film and in business. Like many others we’ve met in developing countries, he longed to visit America, but found it impossible to come up with the money given the low value of Cambodia’s currency.
In the days that followed we relaxed at our camp by day, while by night we hung out with Prom and his wife, exploring the best seaside restaurants, dessert spots, and scooting around the small town in his little white Toyota. On our final night we sat around a table at a seaside restaurant sipping drinks. By now his shy wife had really opened up, and we felt as though we were hanging out with old friends. For the first two days we didn’t think that she could speak English, but now Prom’s wife was easily conversing, laughing, and playfully harassing Prom. When they dropped us off for the final time we were sad to say goodbye.
In the morning we awoke early and began breaking camp. The village was quiet and the coastal road carless except for one car parked on the roadside far off in the distance. We ground some fresh coffee and pulled a couple of shots in our GSI espresso maker, and then sat on the sea wall to drink it. Finally, as the morning wore into day, we fired up Nacho and rolled out. As we made our way down the coastal road, we could see that the parked car from earlier that morning looked familiar. As we drew closer we could see that it was a small white Toyota. I rolled up next to it and lowered my window.
“Prom, I didn’t expect to see you so soon.”
“I know, I’ve been here all morning.” He looked really happy to see us. “I was headed to the gas station and I ran out of gas. Now my battery is dead.”
After a friendly haranguing and a quick lesson about internal combustion engines, we put some of our spare gas into his tank. Now it was finally time to say goodbye. But what can a common man such as myself say to a cultural icon such as this that he hasn’t heard a million times already?
“Take care of yourself, Prom.”
And then I remembered my old friend Alice Cooper, and followed up for good measure.
“You have a very beautiful family.”