Day 20: Siem Reap
As promised by the travel agent, a tuk-tuk driver is waiting outside the bus with my name on a piece of paper like those rich people in the movies, only I’m not rich and I think this is real life. He takes me to a hostel called Topsky. Everyone in the dorm is still sleeping so I toss my bag next to my bed and head downstairs to have coffee over a phone call with my sister.
Over breakfast at a restaurant down the street I attempt to make at least a shadow of a plan for my upcoming trip to India. After a couple hours of leafing through my guidebook, I’ve only managed to lengthen my list of places to visit and polish off two meals.
I pack up my stuff and walk in the direction of town. Ten minutes later I’m stopped by a middle-aged Malaysian lady on the sidewalk.
“Are you from Holland?” she asks.
“No! I’m from Canada.”
What a coincidence! Her niece is currently waiting for her Canadian visa to do an exchange program at the University of Victoria; the city I live in. This lady, let’s call her Mona, is accompanied by her brother. They kindly invite me to join them for lunch at her sisters’ place, a short distance away. Her sister would love to hear about Canada from a real live Canadian, and maybe even gain some peace of mind about sending her only daughter to another continent.
It would be selfish of me to deny easing the mind of a worried mother, and so a few minutes later I’m wedged between Mona and her brother on the back of a scooter. We pull up to a humble house down a dirt path. I follow them inside and am greeted warmly by her cousins and brothers and sister, all at least twenty years older than me.
“Where’s your daughter?” I ask the sister. Mona said she would be here to talk to about her upcoming trip to Canada.
She’s at the hair salon now, they say.
A beautiful home cooked meal of fresh fish and rice and vegetables is laid out on the table. Only Mona and her cousin sit for a few bites, but they all shower me with questions about where I’m from, my job, what my dad does.
Then they insist on a few rounds of karaoke. The brother, we’ll call him Jack; a plump, balding, jovial character, warbles in perfect tune to English love songs from the 50’s while I cough out some off-key version of the same. I get a standing ovation from the crowd.
Jack is the chattiest of the bunch, telling me about his career as a professional Blackjack dealer in the VIP section of some big casino in Kuala Lumpur.
“You must come visit!” he screams. “You know how to play Blackjack? I will show you how. And I will show you how to win, and you come to my table at the casino in Kuala Lumpur and we can make a lot of money together!”
I laugh and nod.
These guys are just hilarious.
But then he pulls me aside into a room and his sister shuts the door behind us. A table with a green cloth and three chairs sit in the middle. He perches across from me and brings out a case of poker chips and a deck of cards.
He says he will show me how to win every game at his table as long as he is the dealer and I am the player.
For the next hour, I am rapt with attention as Jack explains how it works. It involves math, of course, and some swift signals and cues. We play a bunch of practice rounds until my winning streak is unbroken.
Mona sneaks in part way through and sits in the chair next to me, paying close attention at how the whole cheating process works.
Once satisfied with my level of playing, Jack stops to shuffle the cards. His smile fades. Staring into my eyes, he says that although I have mastered the winning process, how can he be sure of my unwavering confidence?
On the day, when I walk into the big casino and sit down at his table – ‘not knowing’ him, of course – will my voice waver? Will I make it obvious that we’re not complete strangers? Will my shaking hands give away the whole charade and jeopardize our winnings, my clean criminal record, his job?
“I invite you to an initiation game,” he says.
Every weekend, he has clients – rich clients from all over the world – who hire him as Blackjack dealer for their private games and out-of-casino gambling habits. He gets a cut of the winnings, usually ten percent. Last weekend, a very wealthy client of his, Madame Joule from Brunei (I don’t know how people come to be called Madame, but she deals in diamonds and I assume this may have something to do with it), won a game of Blackjack.
“She won thirty-thousand dollars. And do you know how much she tipped me?”
He puts his hand in his pocket and slaps a couple American one hundred dollar bills on the table.
“Well that’s a little unfair,” I say.
“Yes, but that’s okay. Because I know I can get it back from her one day.
“Anyways,” and he continues.
He wants me to come to one of these “casual weekend games” and play my hand against Madame Joule, test my winning streak and my nerves, whilst, I can see, this Jack character gains his redemption through my new skill-set.
This has all turned rather serious, and the afternoon is becoming more criminal-y than perhaps I’m cut out for. I’m all for new adventures, but cheating people out of thousands of dollars, be it Madame Gyp-Tip or The Sultan of the Seven Seas, sounds a little out of my conscience’s comfort zone.
Of course, the fact that I won’t be in town next weekend is an instant free pass to excuse myself from the whole production.
There’s a knock at the door. Jack jumps up and his sister is on the other side.
Jack closes the door, his eyes wide, waving his hands excitedly at me as though telling me to calm down and prepare myself. Somehow that is my understanding of it.
I look at Mona.
“Is he serious?”
The door opens and Jack’s sister escorts a lady in a gaudy silk dress with a high collar. Her hair is permed and the chalky face is highlighted by red lips.
“Ah! Welcome, Madame Joule!” Jack sings.
Double-yew tee eff, mate.
Her cakey face smiles in my direction and Jack introduces me.
My heart is surely the loudest thing in the room and my brain is frazzled by the pressure of the situation.
“Nice to meet you, Madame Joule.”
After a little chit chat, she asks if I would like to join her in a game of Blackjack. Jack’s eyes burn a hole in my face.
“Why not?” I say.
Maybe I’ve been drugged.
Mona is still sitting on my left, and Jack is in his dealer’s chair kitty-corner. Madame Joule seats herself across from me.
“How much would you like to start the pot at?”
“Two hundred,” I say, slapping the two American bills on the table Jack had showed me earlier. How’d that end up in my pocket?
He’d mentioned earlier that this lady is silly rich, but has more money than brains. And she likes to gamble, but isn’t exactly good at it. Her conversation leads me to believe he was honest in this telling.
I win the first round, and when we raise the pot, Jack ‘loans’ me money he records on a clipboard, while Madame Joule whips a stack of fresh hundreds out of her purse, counting off a few thousand dollars.
Everything goes as we’d discussed in my ‘training’; I lose one round to sidetrack any suspicion, Madame goes for my claim that I don’t carry cash, (hence borrowing money from Jack), and prying questions are derailed by Jack’s timely interruptions.
Madame Joule keeps pulling money from her bag; the pot grows; my hands stay calm.
My heart is still working it’s way through my chest though, and guilt pokes at my brain in regular, torturous intervals. This lady is as smart as a burnt log. Maybe she carelessly throws money around and maybe she tips like a cheapskate, but who am I to cheat someone out of their own skrilla?
My skin prickles with goosebumps in the over airconditioned room. I look at the clipboard. My ‘loan’ is almost $20,000, which Jack and I have already discussed is for show only, and whether I win or lose will make no nevermind to my own wallet.
I look at the table. A stack of American money from Madame Joule’s bottomless purse, totalling $20,000, sits neatly on the table.
In my hand, I hold three cards equalling 21. And, as my criminal dealer has me informed via cryptic hand signals, Madame Joule is the bearer of a losing hand. This is our last round.
The pot is at $40,000. All that’s left is to show our hands.
“Miss Dayna,” Madame Joule addresses me. “We have nearly reached the end of our game. I now have $20,000 of my own money on the table, and you don’t have any.
“I understand you don’t carry cash for security reasons, however; with so much money on the line, I need to see that you have your share of the bet with my own eyes. I request that you show your $20,000 in order for me to continue the game.”
I protest with my same excuse of not carrying cash, and discussion between Jack and Joule and myself breaks out of how to deal with this. Jack looks at me.
“Well, you have the money at your hotel, no?”
He then requests a moment with me outside the room to discuss what we can do about the situation. Madame Joule agrees, and I take my hand with me when I leave.
Jack sits me down on the sofa.
“First off, what exactly is your hand?”
I tell him 21, and he seems to have thought I only had 20. Suddenly his eyeballs bulge from his face and his hands wiggle wildly through the air again. He says we must get the money to put on the table so we can finish the game, and win the $20,000 from Madame Joule, which will be split between him and myself with a small cut for Mona.
“We’ll tell her you must excuse yourself from the game to get the money from your hotel room. I can borrow most of the cash from my friend. But you’ll need to get the rest, maybe five thousand dollars, to put on the table.”
Warning bells are abundant in my skull.
“No way. I will not put any of my own money on the table. How do you know this lady anyways? And why did she just show up? I thought you said you do these games on the weekend.”
Most of these questions go unanswered, but he insists he knows her through his work and drives home the fact that we are THISCLOSE to each having ten grand in our pockets.
“We just need to show her you have the money! If we don’t show it to her, then we fold and she wins! We’ve come this far!”
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This runs through my head like a treadmill and the whole situation feels completely bonkers.
I don’t agree to putting any of my own funds anywhere, but when we go back in the room, he tells Madame that I request a break to go fetch the money and will return with it to put on the table. Will she accept this request?
She will, although she’s never done this before. She says that she must leave to cancel an appointment, and to call her once I’ve returned with the money and she will meet back here.
We seal each of our hands in seperate envelopes, signing them and locking them in a safety deposit box that is then locked in the drawer of Jack’s dresser.
Madame Joule takes the key and excuses herself.
“See you soon.”
When she walks out the door and I’m left in the frigid room with Jack and Mona, the immediate pressure of the situation is relieved. My head clears a little and my heart slows to a walking pace, even as the two berrate me instantly.
“Okay! You must go now to get the money!”
“I TOLD you,” I say, “I don’t HAVE any money. And I’m not taking money out from my credit card.”
Jack’s face twists into a sorrowful gaze that makes him look like he needs to make a bowel movement.
“But if you don’t get the money to show Madame Joule, then we have to fold, and Madame Joule wins. And I lose that two hundred dollars I gave you to start the game with.”
His little guilt spear twists into me for a moment, but I grab a hold before it goes too deep.
“I’m sorry about your money, but you just jumped this on me! I didn’t know Madame Joule was going to show up five minutes after you told me about the initiation game.”
Maybe it’s that I finally have the space to realize this whole situation has made me feel all backwards and icky, or maybe it’s the ridiculousness of the words I just said aloud that finally clear my head.
Are we about to scam ‘Madame Joule’ out of $20,000? Or am I about to get scammed out of my travel funds?
I grab my bag and stand up.
“I’m going. I’m sorry about your money, but I can’t do this.”
Mona and Jack get upset. They argue with me for a couple minutes, but I stick with my decision.
Then, as though I’d just turned down an offer of pancakes, Jack puts a little smile on.
“Okay. No problem.” He shakes my hand.
“Just remember not to tell anyone about this. It could ruin my job, you know.”
They insist on dropping me off where they’d picked me up hours before. On the back of the scooter again, Mona chats to me the whole time, trying to change my mind about getting the money out. “We’re so close!” she says.
I ask her if they do this sort of thing often.
First time, she says.
And was this whole thing planned from the moment she started talking to me on the sidewalk?
She shakes her head so her dangly earrings hit her cheeks.
She even asks where I’m staying so they can drop me there.
Finally, I step onto that sweet sidewalk from where they’d suckered me away hours before.
“Now please give my brother twenty dollars.”
“For gas money.”
The galls of this gal!
“Gas money!” I laugh. “Gas does not cost twenty dollars. Here. I’ll give you two.”
They take it and ride away.
I stand like a dazed alleycat alone on the side of the road.
I’m not really sure what just happened, but I do know that I just paid two dollars for lunch and a story.
Siem Reap is a busy place, with bars and restaurants packed with Angkor Wat freshies cooling off with cheap beer. I sit with a cold one, still sorting my head around the afternoon. I write on a patio as the monsoon comes and goes.
Later on I run into Lucia and Jorge, the cute Spanish couple I’d met in Kampot. Familiar faces!
We go for dinner and I tell them my tale of afternoon gambling and they share awry travel stories. Eventually we say goodnight and go our respective ways.
Back at my hostel, I crawl under the raggedy covers with empty pockets. But as I close my eyes, I can’t help but feel like ten thousand bucks.