Parallel U
pt. I

Number 6–Moto Mania

Much confusion ensued the first couple of days. I was assigned three classes but admin only told me of two of them. As a result I refused to accept responsibility for not showing up. I wound up with 12 hours a week, which is just enough to cover my basic expenses. The boss said I could have 30 hours which would net about a grand a month – there are no taxes or deductions – but I said "Hey, I'm near retirement age, 20 hours, maybe 25 is good enough for me".

It's been fun; the students are great but their English is pretty skimpy so you have to speak nice and slow and keep your vocabulary down. Preparation is the bugaboo – I'm just really lazy – but I'll manage. The public universities teach in Khmer (Cambodian) but almost everything private is in English.

School is about a 25 minute walk from my guest house and I sometimes have to go twice a day, but to date I've managed to avoid taking a motorbike taxi. They are almost the only form of public transportation here in Phnom Penh. There are pedicabs but it took me a couple of years here before I ventured onto one. They are nice and slow and three wheeled, but still vulnerable to attack by crazy motorbike drivers, not to mention monster SUV’s. Lately, starting in ’04, tuk-tuks have appeared. Tuk-tuk is Thai slang for three-wheeled taxi. They also go slow because they are mostly cabs built on to the back of 150cc motorbikes. Pulling all that weight they barely hit 15 miles an hour... perfect for me.

They did run a Japanese-subsidized experimental bus system for six months earlier this year – still have some really nice shelters and signs – but it ended when the money ran out. Fortunately the city is compact enough, even though it has a million people, that I can get everywhere I need by walking... my only exercise. However, the moto drivers just don't understand why anyone who could afford to ride would walk. It is, after all, almost always hot, and the streets and sidewalks are often a mess.

Besides we foreigners pay double the local price for the same ride – 50 cent maximum in the daytime, more at night – so their constant "Hello, Moto; Moto, hey; or Moto, papa." becomes almost a form of harassment. You get at least one "Moto, sir", for every minute of walking. OK maybe not harassment, but at least very annoying. I know they're bored and just want to earn a little money and figure nothing ventured, nothing gained but I love to walk – some people climb mountains, I walk – and I just don't care how hot it is or how strange it seems to see a rich white man walking just for the fun of it.

So, when I don't ignore them completely (truthfully, occasionally when I'm in the mood I say, "No thanks.") I respond with a minimalist rejection patterned somewhat after an experience I had in the Philippines. I was getting on a Jeepney for a two hour inter city ride and needed confirmation from the fare collector that it was headed to my destination. Jeepneys for the uninitiated are essentially elongated WWII US military jeeps adapted for public transportation. They are used everywhere in the Philippines. I haven't gotten on the wrong bus very often in my years of Asia travel but even just a time or two makes you kinda antsy about getting it right. As a result I say, "Is this going to ____?" I get no response, so I ask again. This time I look at him closely and, well, it did look like he was nodding his head in affirmation but it had all the force of a blink of an eye. Could that be a yes?, I ask myself. I decided it wasn't quite good enough. I really couldn't be sure, so I ask again. The third time, pest that I was getting to be, he made a clearly perceptible gesture.

So I often do a tiny flick of my head and the moto drivers get the message. I really don't like riding motorbikes even under the best circumstances and traffic here, though it does move in miraculous ways, definitely does not qualify as remotely safe or logical. Over the past few years Cambodia has taken the top spot in this region for traffic accidents.

Of course, I'm used to third world traffic conditions. Those of you who aren't would have a hard time believing your eyes. Actually it reminds me of when I drove a cab in New York back in the sixties. If you had to make a turn during a busy part of the day in midtown Manhattan you literally had to plow your way through a solid phalanx of pedestrians. Well... more like you'd wait until the first mass crossed after the light turned, then when their numbers started to dwindle slightly you'd move slowly into the crosswalk until they had no choice but to let you pass. A few spaced out or insistent types would get their knees bumped a little but that was the price that had to be paid, otherwise you could just park the cab and wait until evening to make your turn.

Here drivers will ease out into an intersection until people going the other direction are forced to stop. The larger the vehicle the greater the respect accorded. Mind you about 80% of all traffic is motorbikes and on busy streets they form a solid mass. You'd wait what would seem like forever to get through if you didn't get a little pushy. It's an incredible bob and weave, ebb and flow, give and take that leaves you in awe. What makes it work is a lot of caution and tolerance.

There is horn blowing of course, but far less than you'd find in nearby Vietnam, for instance, and much of it is related to the real purpose of a horn – warning of danger – rather than how they use it in many countries; i.e., ‘Get out of my way you peon, can't you tell how important I am?’ Otherwise I couldn't handle being out in the traffic for a week, let alone the minimum four months that I've committed to be here.

As a pedestrian, you don't have the bulk to force vehicles to stop, rather you step out at the first minor break in the traffic – only on your left that is, you'd feel frozen in place if you waited for both directions to ease – then start walking. You keep a steady pace and they all slide around you – like Moses parting the waters. Some advise not looking at oncoming traffic at all, saying it only confuses them. I'm not that confident, I can't help staying aware of what’s coming at me.

The problem is you never know what direction they might be coming from. When a motorbike driver wanting to make a left turn comes to a red light he or she will simply make their left and then drive on the wrong side, sometimes for a whole block, until they get a break to snake through the traffic over to the other side. I almost got wiped out crossing a street at an intersection by a motorbike making a left turn who so cut the corner he came from behind me. He was all smiles, ha, ha, as he screeched to a stop. It also brings a bewildered smile watching them cut through corner gas stations to avoid a traffic light – they do it for left turns as well as right.

Life is good, albeit crazy.