Thursday, December 27, 2012

Tuk-Tuk, Madam?

By my calculation, since I’ve moved to Phnom Penh I have been in fifty-seven near-accidents in city traffic.  This is a conservative estimate.

I am not a stranger to the chaotic roadscapes of Asia.  I have waded into the rapids that are the Saigon streets – ten to twelve lanes abreast. I have snaked my way through the busting avenues of downtown Jaipur.

When I first arrived in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand two years ago, I found a general disregard for any variety of traffic regulation.  I documented with amusement the varying interpretations of traffic lights and stop signs and the liberal understanding of the purpose of sidewalks.  None of this, however, prevented me from hopping on my own motorbike and joining the driving experiment.

Here in Cambodia I am more ambivalent.

Succinctly put, Phnom Penh drivers make those of Chiang Mai appear law-abiding and demure.  Drivers here appear to believe they are steering the Knight Bus from Harry Potter, with the magical ability to squeeze through the tightest of spaces.  They do not.

And yet still they try. They accelerate and weave James Bond-style through rapidly narrowing gaps between a motley collection of motos, tuk-tuks and SUVs.

Sidewalks are unashamedly employed as extra lanes, and corner gas stations double as access ramps for perpendicular roads without having to wait for a green light.

Besides the cars and bikes and trucks and motos and tuk-tuks, the streets of Phnom Penh are filled with an entire produce markets on wheels.  There are flocks of chickens strapped to motos, and bags of rubbery plucked chickens in bags. There are towering bags of cabbage, stacks of eggs, bundles of eggplants and protruding poles of sugar cane.  There are large wicker baskets of mangosteens that sink on either side of the bike, extending the width of three motos strapped together.

In the weeks that I have been here, mostly I have ridden on the backs of motos.   They are cheaper by half, than the cushioned, canopied and wood carved tuk-tuks.  The increased danger of course may not be worth the cost.

As in New York or London, one never needs to search out tuk-tuks or motos.  They lounge on every street corner.  “Tuk-tuk, madam?” “Moto, moto.”  Their profusion on the streets of Phnom Penh is explained two-fold: it is a product of the imbalance between available jobs and city population, as well as the ease of becoming a chauffeur. If you have a moto, you have a job. 

The lack of barriers to entering the profession comes with tradeoffs.  In London, want-to-be cabbies must first learn “The Knowledge” – memorizing 320 routes, and upwards of 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks, to any of which passengers might request transport.  In Phnom Penh an aspiring cabbie need not know any streets or any landmarks.   A passing knowledge of the city is desirable, but beyond that it is often up to the passenger to navigate the journey.

I have yet to decide whether I will join the fray.  I continue to weigh the relative safety and stupidity of being a passenger versus being a driver.  I take motos when I must, and I inevitably clench my teeth the entire time – a fact that some passing moto drivers have noticed and laughed at.  If I can, I walk -- although sidewalks are haphazard. 

Perhaps, if I decide to get a moto of my own, I can start offering rides as well.  In the mean time, I’m practicing up on my Khmer driving vocabulary. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Under Construction

Phnom Penh is being built at my doorstep.

Saws, wood sanders and hammers are the white noise of our alleyway, tucked into the southern tip of the city.  The alley is near what was once a small lake.  The lake is gone, recently drained, filled and built over.  On Western maps the lake still exists, they have not yet caught up with the rate of construction.

Phnom Penh used to be referred to as the “Pearl of Asia.”  The Vietnam (or American) War and the Khmer Rouge have dulled its luster.  The city is caught in the in between: dilapidated colonial grandeur, glitzy new skyscrapers and the low-storied growth of a developing nation.  Construction sites are everywhere.

From the balcony of my dorm I can watch the progress of five-story cement facades  criss-crossed by sapling scaffolding.  Construction workers double as trapeze artists along the roofs.

Craning over the balcony I can make out the alley’s carpentry shop below the coconut palm.  Men and women crouch over elaborately carved wood furniture, heavy bed boards and boxy chairs.  I pass the carpenters on my search for motos and tuk-tuks at the alley’s mouth.  Often I see the smallest of puppies playing in the sawdust.

Our dorm is set amidst apartments, primarily two story hastily constructed structures with exposed cement and jutting wire crossbeams.  The most active apartment is directly across from us, five stories and set with curved balconies that would not be out of place at a 70’s style movie theater.  In the early evening shirtless men spend long hours on these balconies, in between the hanging laundry.  They talk on their phones or lean over and watch the alley below.

In the alleyway, children, ages one to twelve, play.  The kids congregate on a parked tuk-tuk, or pedal wobbly tricycles, or shoot at each other with plastic gold automatics.  When I leave the dorm I am greeted with a chorus of “Hello” “Hello” “Hello.”

Farther down the alley, is a warren of slum dwellings – narrow alleys and lopsided structures. I have found tucked into a corner, a neighborhood temple that looks like just another cement construction until you get up close and peer through the grate and find Buddhist murals.

Outside our dorm there are two hole-in-the wall hair salons (quite literally).  I have spent an hour in one watching my roommate have her hair teased and sprayed and curled.  And I have submitted to heavy amounts of purple eye shadow and half inch lashes for the occasion of a wedding.

There are house fronts up and down the alley that double as storefronts.  On tables they sell everything from pre-wrapped sandwiches, to coconuts, to bottles of soy sauce, to whole glistening fishes beset by flies. A few stalls compress stalks of sugarcane, mixing limes in the juice and serving it in plastic bags with a straw – a Khmer to-go mug.

Food carts meander by at unpredictable hours hawking buns, bananas wrapped in sticky rice, and most commonly – salted and roasted eggs on a stick.  The man driving the cart plays a recording on-loop. “Eggs delicious eggs – they are hot, they are nice, they are delicious.” Even the singsong voice sounds heat-wearied.

In the evening when the sun dips behind the new construction, the street fills with families and neighbors dragging circles of plastic chairs into the road.  The men go shirtless and the small children pant-less.  It is not uncommon for small boys to run down the streets completely bare.

Our alley is a workspace, a playground, a communal living room.  By late evening though, the dust settled, the neighbors retreat into their homes and the on-and-off electricity.  Grates are pulled down and locked.  The symphony of a growing city – the saws and sanders – ceases. 

I like to stand on the balcony at this time – ignoring the hum of mosquitos, taking in the fleeting quiet, the slight breeze. 

And then clattering into the night a lone man walks down the now deserted alleyway. He carries two sticks in his hands and plays out a beat of taps - a delivery boy for the midnight snack attacks of the neighborhood.  Soup, noodles, dumplings – all of these he will seek out and deliver for a fee.  He disappears into the gloom of the alley, his tapping following in his wake.  Rat-ta-tat-tat, Rat-ta-tat-tat.