Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor Part XIX
“But, they’re just heads with giant feet,” I shook my head.
“They’re supposed to represent…” Elise crouched down to look at the plaque in front of the statues, “…the four people groups of the world?”
I stood there on the sidewalk with my to-go box of takoyaki–a sort of deep fried dough ball will a piece of octopus in the middle. Kuidaore is Osaka’s unofficial motto or, Eat ’til you drop. After three days of sneaking around the city with hardly any sleep, the street food was the only thing that kept me going. I stabbed one of the balls with a chopstick (don’t judge, reader. Between the sneaking around and running for my life, I didn’t have much time to practice eating.)
“Okay, I guess I can see…wait, only four?”
Elise stood up and shrugged, “You could also argue the opposite: why divide people into groups at all?”
The sun was setting as we loitered around the Dotonbori–playing tourist while waiting for our chance to glean some information. I guess we weren’t playing tourists since we technically were tourists. This city was full to bursting with activity at all hours of the day. Here in the Dotonbori, colorful lights flashed up and down the busy pedestrian walkway that ran parallel to the river. Street vendors hawked grilled meats, fried breads, and everything in between in combinations I’d never thought edible. At one point I thought I saw fish ice cream and hoped it was just a translation error.
Speaking of seafood, however, it seemed there was constantly an aquatic creature of some kind watching over us. On one end of the street was a massive inflatable puffer fish floating above the sidewalk, advertising the restaurant where you could test your mettle and eat the bulbous fish’s lethally poisonous body for dinner (speaking of eat til you drop…). Further down the walkway was an even bigger animatronic crab. It’s legs and pincers moved back and forth, simultaneously beckoning patrons inside to eat while scaring them away with its jerky robotic movements.
The Dotonbori was like a food carnival, and it was our home for the past few days.
We lingered next to the strange statues–four large pillars carved into heads, but with no bodies to speak of other than human looking feet jutting out under their chins–and waited for our mark.
Mark? Reader, at this point, my life had been so flipped by Elise and Laurents that I even started talking like them.
Anyways, our mark was supposed to be coming by any moment now. Laurents used our existing notes to find him on our first night here and started following him. We knew they had a facility here in the Dotonbori, but we couldn’t pinpoint which building it was. Based on what Laurents learned from eavesdropping the past few days, he was supposed to come in to work tonight. Now, it was my and Elise’s job to find out where he would go.
Why Elise and me instead of Laurents? Well, even though we didn’t know exactly which building they were operating out of, we had a strong suspicion it would be…well…let’s say we had a feeling that Elise and I would blend in better than Laurents.
Elise gave a clipped whisper as we pretended to admire the bizarre statues, “I see him.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him enter the lobby of a building with bright purple neon lights.
“Okay, I guess we’re, ah, are you read-” but she was already leading me by the hand towards the love hotel.
Once inside, Elise and I played the perfect couple–young, excited, and anxious. At least, she did. You know me by now, reader. You can probably guess how awkward I felt. It was convincing enough for the receptionist at the desk, though I imagine I wasn’t the first male who clearly felt out of place in such a…sensual environment. The staff were probably all too used to uncomfortable guests.
As the receptionist focused on the computer checking us in, Elise tried to steal glances down the adjacent hallway to see our mark slipping into an elevator. We watched as the little screen of Japanese characters above the door changed. At first, there was a number next to the characters, indicating the floor. After he entered and the elevator began moving, the numbers went away and only the characters remained. The basement?
We took our room key and the receptionist explained–in incredibly well practiced English–how a love hotel works, how many hours we had, etc. though I hardly heard her over the pounding in my head and chest. Was it Elise? Or the fact that we were in a foreign country tracking a criminal organization to gather information? Both?
Giggling a quick arigato to the receptionist, Elise tugged at my hand, pulling me down the hallway. “C’mon silly,” she was still playing a part, right?
We made it to the end of the hall. Our room key came with a little paper indicating clearly in both Japanese and English that our room was on the second floor. Once inside the elevator, Elise tore the little paper into the smallest pieces she could manage, putting the shreds in her handbag. Meanwhile, I looked at the elevator buttons, scanning for the Japanese character we saw in the hall. It didn’t take long to find and, sure enough, it was at the bottom of the column. Some sort of sub-basement.
“Okay,” Elise took a deep breath and was suddenly dead serious, though she was still holding my hand, “if they catch us, we tell them we got turned around. Just go along with whatever I do.” There was nothing but confidence in her voice, but with every word she spoke she squeezed my hand harder until hers was shaking just slightly, “We’re just excited and dumb.”
“Drunk on love,” I offered as I pressed the button to go down, “you’re doing great, Elise.”
“Just tipsy on titillation,” a nervous laugh escaped her chest.
“Hm, exhilarated on excitement?”
“Too long,” she quipped, “Lost in lust?” and gave me a (very) sarcastic look of seduction.
“Stumbling on se-” the elevator doors opened before I could finish. Elise pulled my arm around her shoulder while sliding a phone out of her purse. As we stepped through the door, she hit the camera button and we got to work.
I knew poverty existed in the world, but this was a whole new level. Manila was a dichotomy. For every skyscraping office building there were a dozen destitute and homeless living in its shadow. The constant chaos of the city, though, meant there was a perpetual flood of people–of every social status–always moving and in every direction.
It was so crowded that we would watch as men, women, and children clambered onto the exterior of full, wildly decorated miniature buses called jeepneys. There was no common color scheme denoting them as part of any public transit or company. One would be a bright pink pastel with stripes, another might be a shiny chrome, covered in stickers and ribbons. These flamboyant contraptions would then race through the streets with their surplus of passengers perched on the roof or even hanging off the back and sides as though it was a regular part of their daily commute. This country was so wild and lively, raw and uninhibited. Finding anybody through the streets of this city seemed impossible to me, but Laurents somehow managed. After our success in Osaka, this time he was the one going in.
Osaka went flawlessly. The basement was a series of dark offices with a few lit, occupied ones at the far end. Elise and I went through the empty rooms, finding drawers full of documents, maps, letters, and names posted on walls, bank transfer statements. It was a treasure trove. We moved quickly and methodically. Every picture was sent back to Laurents, then both the picture and the sent message were auto-deleted on our end. Also on the phone were several selfies of us looking like lovebirds around Osaka to further help our lie in case we were caught, but there was no need. We were in and out without a peep. The offices were strangely empty save for the one guy we followed in, and he was holed up in his own office the whole time. No one else.
And now we were in Manila–the next stop on the list of cities Alice sent in her cryptic messages. Laurents already knew the location. It was a warehouse on the edge of town that, as far as the public was concerned, was storage for oyster pearl farming equipment. My and Elise’s job was to stay nearby and receive the pictures he sent, or if things went south, receive his distress call. The life of the city was so overwhelming, though, and it was hard to grab a moment to focus. It made cities in China look like suburbia.
Another problem was theft. More than once, a bunch of kids tried to rip Elise’s bag right off of her arm–and the last thing we needed was for our evidence to be stolen, sold, or worse, discovered by the wrong criminals.
We found our solution thanks to another interesting aspect of the capitol: churches. Big, beautiful, ornate buildings that seemed to bleed history and reverence. and they seemed to be on every block.
The churches were no exception to the crowding humanity. Every Catholic Mass was packed, and between services, there was the constant flow of the penitent looking for confession, prayer, blessings, or maybe just a moment’s rest from the raging outside world. But the quiet environment allowed us to focus and think. It also gave us a chance to look at our notes and phones without prying eyes or sticky fingers.
Which means we were in the back pew of a crowded Mass when, in the middle of a beautiful Liturgy being spoken in Tagalog, Elise’s phone started chirping with new messages. First it was one, then a second, then a flood–dozens of little beeps as Laurents’ photos started pouring through. A moment later, mine started going off with equal fervor. We sounded like an army of wind chimes charging into a hurricane. The priest glared at us as we politely excused ourselves, shuffling past irritated worshipers as we squeezed out of the pew, heads bowed.
Within an hour, though, we were lifting off in the Candlweind, headed to our next destination. The view was incredible and we tried to count all the islands within sight. It was impossible. There were thousands of little dots scattered like flecks of paint across a bright blue canvas. I tried to imagine each island being as packed as Manila, each with their own little church equally as packed with people looking for a moment of peace.
Reader, do you have any moments in your life where you can’t remember anything about a place or trip–not because it was uninteresting–but because there was one single event in hyper focus that made everything else a blur?
I only remember one thing from Cambodia, but not because Phnom Penh was uneventful. To be honest, it was probably one of the most beautiful places we’d visited, so Elise and Laurents tell me.
The Candlewind was hidden quite a ways away. Actually, that’s an understatement. The Candlewind was in Thailand, across the border and half a day away. The forests along the border between the two countries was the only safe spot we found. I don’t remember why, exactly. Something to do with the villages dotting the rural countryside and tensions on the border discouraging wanderers who might spot us.
By now we had a routine established. Once in the city, it was Laurents’ and Elise’s turn to sneak into the building while I waited to receive their messages. On the day they were supposed to go in, I found a spot to wait while the phone we used to store all our evidence began vibrating (we had a new rule after Manila to keep it on silent. If there was an emergency, I had a second phone that would ring loudly when they really needed my attention.)
This time, however, after the first few messages came in, there was a pause. A few minutes went by in silence. That didn’t happen in Osaka or Manila. Elise and Laurents should’ve been steadily going through as much material as they could, taking pictures of anything and everything (we could always delete useless ones later). A pause was unexpected.
Was there a connection issue? No, my phone seemed fine at least.
Maybe on their end? Or did they get caught?
I gave it some more time. After about ten minutes, panic started rising in my throat. Our standing rule was that if things went south and there was no chance of rescue, whoever was on the outside would go to the authorities with whatever evidence we’d collected up to that point. But did we really trust the Cambodian police? After all, we snuck here across the border from Thailand. I’d probably be arrested, deported, or something worse. No one else even knew I was in this part of the world.
I started dreading the worst when, suddenly, the messages resumed. They came in at a slower pace, but at least it was a consistent and steady stream.
I chalked it up to a weird connection issue and forgot about it until we were out of town and heading back to the border.
Something prevalent in southeast Asia, reader, are motorcycles. Everyone seemed to have a motorcycle or a scooter. They were cheap, easy to repair, good on gas, and their size helped navigate the messy fluidity of the traffic. So, it was natural for us to buy the three cheapest motorcycles we could find as a way to get back to the Candlewind. Laurents already knew how to ride one and Elise picked it up pretty quickly. For me, it was reminiscent of my days riding across the US at the start of this whole adventure.
This is where my memory becomes vividly clear. The three of us were far out of town chasing the setting sun, surrounded by nothing but fields and villages and forest as we sped through the Cambodian countryside towards the border. I remember the humid evening air rushing past me, and above the roar of the engines and the wind, a loud pop came from Elise’s motorcycle followed by a nasty clanking noise. Nothing crazy happened, she just slowed down and pulled to the side of the road. Laurents was up ahead and began stopping as well. I pulled up the rear.
As Elise’s bike slowed, it began to wobble. It looked like she was having trouble controlling it on the loose gravel and dirt on the roadside. It was barely noticeable at first until, suddenly, it slid out from under her and threw her to the ground. She was going slow enough that she wasn’t injured, but her bag was snagged on a nearby tree branch and ripped open, pouring out several papers that started blowing in the wind. Laurents was up ahead and started snatching up whatever papers blew along the road toward him. Elise leapt up (that’s when I realized she wasn’t hurt) and started doing the same. I scrambled off the road to help grab some sheets before they were whisked by the breeze into the forest.
And that’s when I saw it.
Stuck under a bush was a torn piece of paper, most of it was written in Khmer but, right in the center, there was a picture of a man and woman outside of a building. The two appeared to be locking up for the night, but their faces were clearly visible in the photo. The man wore a big smile on his face, clearly satisfied after an honest day’s work managing his little business. The woman looked tired but content with her arm wrapped in his.
I knew what I would find beneath the photo, and my eyes immediately caught the only two English words. Names, actually. Moog and Sondra.
Check back in two more weeks for more!