We were travelling overland on a group tour. A small party of international travellers of varying ages, sizes and descriptions, united by a love of adventure, the unexpected and a curiosity for different cultures. We were strangers on arriving in the country, but had become a happy unit by the time we left it.
It was toward the end of our experience. We had negotiated canals by dugout boat, cities, historic ruins and jungles, temples, beaches, swam in forest rivers, discovered deserted hill forts and learnt of the genocide and regime which had scarred both a people and land. The journey took us by train, boat, public bus, and in the back of pickup trucks which transported us far and wide across Cambodia.
We had been travelling for many hours by mini bus across treacherous dirt tracks and uneven broken highways. It was early April and nearing the end of the dry season. The air conditioning unit had long since broken, and relief from the heat was occasionally brought through the open windows along with views of dusty fields, shacks, ploughs, occasional cattle and waving children along the roadside. Lorries frequently passed us, precariously piled high with goods or stock, mountains of cargo which were often double the size of the vehicle carrying them and were sometimes topped off by sleeping human bodies or roped, bewildered looking animals.
Our tour demanded a twelve hour journey that day, and we were relieved when the bus pulled in for a break at a roadside cafe/interchange. It was a square concrete looking building, which was offset with brightly coloured plastic tables and chairs. It was busy with a number of (mostly) men eating, gambling, or conducting business as traders would meet at the ‘half way point’ between towns to exchange/buy goods and other matters.
Tumbling wearily out of the bus I was immediately conscious of how strange we looked to the locals. Our dress, our manner or gadgets and adornments, all seemed alien in this world despite the fact these were ‘simplified’ versions of ourselves so as to accommodate our travels. Reactions to our party were different all around Cambodia and often related to the level of tourism development which had taken place. It was curious and beneficial to experience life as a kind of ‘other’ an alien in a foreign land. Sometimes it was curiosity, indifference, annoyance, frustration, fascination, but usually we were greeted with compassion and with a warm generosity. Having recently recovered from such tragic events, the Khmer people seemed to usually find something to smile about regardless of their circumstances. People here though, seemed a little less trusting of strangers.
During the regime many people were sent out to work the land and forced to live in poverty (and still do). Most Khmer people learnt to survive on whatever they could find, which is how the local snack of fried tarantula came to be popular in this particular area we passed through. Usually at ‘service stations’ you could pick up essentials – bottles of water, fried rice, mango, salt and chilli pineapple, everything always wrapped in tiny plastic bags, but it was the only time I ever saw anything like this on my travels there.
The sight of the spiders was fascinating. To see them all together was, essentially, your worst nightmare realised. Even dead they look pretty formidable given their size. I was interested in how something which people were usually so afraid of could actually nourish them. So I bought one. I was the only person to go for it. Most of the others were so frightened of spiders it was just too gross to be considered.
It tasted mainly of garlic. The legs were furry and on the ends were charred, sort of like a burnt furry twiglet. They were hard to swallow at times and got stuck in my throat. There was a small amount of firm meat on the body. I can’t really remember what it tasted of now – I think mostly garlic and woodsmoke. I think I had a good go at it and ate most of the body. Might have left a few legs though. The other travellers were impressed/repulsed.
I felt strangely proud in that moment.
We continued on the journey by bus and in the evening finally reached the capital Phonm Penn. The idea of the tour experience overall was a deliberately ‘local’ one and for most of the holiday we camped, stayed with local families, used *very* basic guesthouses or overnight transport.
The hotel in the capital was our one night of luxury.. but by then it seemed almost obscene that after our extraordinary backpacking adventures we now stayed in a palace of chrome and glass complete with running water, air conditioning, toilets with seats and neatly ironed pristine white sheets. I felt perfectly fine for the entire night but it wasn’t until getting up the next day that I began to feel queasy.
My roommate said she was sure it was the spider that did it.
We got up a little late for breakfast and rushed to make the sitting. It was a weekday and the prestigious hotel was bustling with high end tourists and Khmer business executives. By then I realised I felt rough, really rough. We were quite high up in the building, perhaps on the top floor and we both managed to squeeze into the busy mirrored lift right by the doors.
It must have been the motion of the lift dropping that made my queasy stomach turn so violently. I held on as the lift began to sail steadily downward. Floor 8, floor 7, floor 6, (I needed the get to a toilet pronto) floor 5, floor 4, (just hold on, I thought). What happened next was some kind of unfortunate miracle of timing.
The lift reached the ground floor and I can remember thinking as I heard the familiar ‘ding’ that I was going to make it. (I am definitely going to make it) I thought.
The doors swung back and in almost perfect synchronicity, as I stepped out through them, I vomited violently (perhaps in the manner of the exorcist film or similar) straight out across the lobby in front of the reception desk, a queue of guests waiting to check out, most of my fellow travellers and several tables of nearby breakfast diners. I can still remember the look of shock on the receptionist’s faces as my body wretched involuntarily and dramatically to expel (possibly the spider but we don’t know) whatever it was that poisoned it (Which I then helplessly deposited in the middle of the posh reception).
Once people had gotton over the shock, it seemed that no lasting damage was done. Things were cleared away, and I, after a few days, recovered.
People have since asked me, if I had the choice again, would I still eat the spider?