The woman in the seat across from me calmly said, “I don’t know it you quite understand. I can’t swim and this is my worst nightmare.” Another whitecap slapped against the side of the glorified canoe riding low in the water and splashed over the top.
“If we go into the water,” and that was looking more likely by the minute,” put on a life jacket, grab onto the end of this wrapper and I’ll pull you to shore. I’m a strong swimmer.” Okay, so doing laps in the heated pools in Sydney don’t quite count. Neither does bobbing around in the waves on a couple of scuba dives, but I figured the exaggeration might help instil a bit of confidence. The wrapper would put some distance between us in case she panicked.
The Mekong River – about five kilometres across – was deserted. As the tropical storm approached the small boats headed for shore; they wouldn’t reappear until the wind and rain died down. The fat translator from Delta Adventure could call for help, but how quickly that would happen in Cambodia was hard to calculate. I figured we’d be in the water for a while, which wasn’t life threatening unless there were currents or undertows.
Why the Mekong?
We – 11 passengers and three crew members – had left Chau Doc about five hours earlier. I’d skipped across the border into Vietnam on a visa run the day before. After an interesting little exchange at customs they had finally issued a work permit. So, theoretically, now I can stay in Cambodia forever if I want to keep renewing my permit by the year. And I don’t even have to leave the country.
Flashing back to the situation on the boat, even though I don’t understand Khmer, I recognize panic in most languages. And the crew was worried as we were taking on water quickly. Boy-Rambo stripped off, disappeared into the hold and started to bail with a plastic bucket.
“Does anyone have any duck tape?” was the question from the engine room. Boy-Rambo bobbed up and tried to fix the sump-pump while the water continued to gush in. Actually no. I carry a few band-aids in my medical travel kit, but that wasn’t going to be much help.
“Expect the best, plan for the worst.” My neighbour had a zip-lock bag and I emptied mine so there was enough room for everyone’s passports.
“Is anyone here a good swimmer?” The guy in front of me volunteered so I figured it best if he took the zip-locks and I concentrated on the woman who couldn’t swim.
Suddenly Boy-Rambo headed for the front of the boat, grabbed a package of cigarettes and turned around with a red lighter between his teeth. He bolted back to the engine room and disappeared into the hold. Hells bells, he was going to melt the plastic covering on the wires on the sump-pump to fuse them. And right next to where he was standing were five or six plastic jerry-cans of petro. The fat translator held the cover down to keep the wind from blowing out the flame.
Goody, goody. If the petro blew it would be like an exploding cigar in a black and white movie. While I often say I want a Muslim burial, ending up at sea like Osama Bin Laden wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. The seconds ticked; the wind howled; the rain lashed; the boat bobbed.
But karma, good ju-ju and inshallah were all on our side. The sump-pump kicked in and we headed for the dock in Phnom Penh. The windshield wiper couldn’t clear fast enough, so one driver steered and the other held open the window so he could see where he was going.
Fortunately now that I have a working permit stamped in my passport I don’t have to make a visa run every 90-days.