Every country has something that throws you just a little off balance when you arrive.
In Burma, it was thanaka paste and longyis. The men wear western dress shirts, and longyis (sarongs) knotted at the waist. Their sarongs are jewel-colored, often with a small check pattern. The womens longyis are neatly tucked at the side, hobbling them to a lady-like mince. I wanted to buy a mans longyithe colors were betterbut they wouldnt let me. It would be a scandal, like Marlene Dietrichs tuxedo. Then I wanted to knot mine in the middle for comfort, but old ladies used to scurry to fix me up in the street. Tucked at the waist, my longyi always fell off. In Burma, I made sure my knickers were clean.
The women wore thanaka paste, a yellow paste ground from a special bark. It was used as sun-protection, moisturiser, and make-up. They daubed circles on their cheeks and noses, or sometimes stripes. At first it looked bizarre to me, as if everyone had forgotten to remove a face pack. I wondered how to construct a delicate enquiry about this skin disease epidemic. But later I wished I had brought some thanaka back with me, because the Burmese were the most beautiful women Ive ever seen, far more than the overrated Thais.
Here in Ecuador, I am startled by the small, pink guinea-pigs on plastic trays in the supermarket meat counters. They lie on their sides, shaven and buck-toothed, and they look very cold. I still havent tasted cuy (kwee! kwee! kwee!), though theyre strangely tempting when theyre brown and crispy and Ive had a bellyful of canelazo.
In Laos, I was taken by the baby monks flip-flopping everywhere in their orange robes, shaven and tender as Ecuadorian guinea pigs. Some were tiny, no more than eight or nine years old. At dawn they walked the streets in long lines with their alms bowls, in age order, stopping wordlessly whenever a lay person came to drop a ball of rice and a spoonful of curry into each bowl. In evening, they would lean over the walls of their monasteries, motherlessly, hoping for someone to practice ingrik with. I wanted to cuddle them. But women cant touch monks.
In Vietnam, it was 747 cafés. They love their coffee, the Vietnameseyou always eat and drink better in the former French colonies than in the British. But the classic seating plan of a Saigon café is not exactly La Coupole. They favor orange and brown plastic seats, facing front, and close together in rows of two, three, and two. You expect a Sixties trolley dolly to bend down next to you and murmur ´Chicken or beef?´ The leg-room isnt wonderful. But the coffee is good.
I thought Catholic Mexico would be a homecoming after Southeast Asia. But in Zincantán and San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, the church floors were strewn with palm fronds. Here and there neat rows of candles were stuck to the floor with wax, and from above they looked like a city grid seen from an airplane at night. Whole families sat on the floor, praying and sometimes sipping from a precious bottle of Coca-Cola to promote the burps of sacred wind, or passing an egg over the body to get rid of evil spirits. A score of men in extraordinary costumes—white shorts, elaborately-embroidered tunics, ponchos, and high-backed sandals—arrived to garland the saints, an honorific position for men of good standing. My familiars, St. John the Baptist, Jesus, Mary, St. Michael, all had aliases in this Mexico.
In Cambodia, it was skulls that struck. Skull production was the major industry of the Khmer Rouge. At the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh, theres a high pagoda stacked with skulls as a memorial. Thousands of them sit ear-to-ear on labeled shelves. Adult Males, 30-40. Children. Adult Females, 50-70. Most have high, flat, Khmer cheekbones, missing teeth, and cracks where they were beaten to death to save bullets. There is a small section, chillingly labeled Caucasian Males, for the four or five young Australian and French sailors whose boats veered off course in the Gulf of Thailand and who were brought into a closed Kampuchea to be tortured to death. I had seen their photos at Tuol Sleng, the prison where victims were tortured before they were brought to the Killing Fields. They are baffled twenty-somethings with sailors´ tans and Seventies haircuts. Also shown, as far as I remember, are copies of the crazy confessions that some of them wrote, extracted by the instruments now displayed in the museum. I still dream about them.
More skulls roll around in boxes on the floor of Tuol Sleng, below black-and-white photos the Khmer Rouge took of their victimss faces. 28 years later, nobody knows who these skulls were. They are not carefully-documented, individual murder victims like the men of Srebrenica, they are bleached and nameless bones, a storage problem. In such volume, they become no more frighteningor human—than than the piles of candy skulls for Mexicos Day of the Dead.