Posts Tagged 'Transit'

It Takes A Village (Or At Least Two Teachers and a Slew of Advice Givers)

I live inside an archway. Do YOU live inside an archway?

They say it takes a village to raise a child. But how many people does it take to teach one giant terrified Westerner to drive a motorbike?

So I’m back to trying to learn to drive. I hope people reading this from other locations don’t think driving a motorbike is actually that challenging. It’s really just that I’m mildly retarded when it comes to physical things (or regular things); that I’m a big fucking terrified baby; and that I don’t have a whole lot else going on in my life here to talk about, a life that is small and cozy and pretty darn good.

My first shot at driving was right when I got here. I’d been in Hanoi all of a week; it was 115 degrees; my life was in shambles/3 bags. And I’d still never ridden a bicycle. Given those circumstances I did pretty well. I met an OG expat who offered to give me lessons, one of those weathered old dudes you know has about a million stories hidden in the folds of their baggy clothing and leathered skin (such as, oh, hitchhiking from Paris to Katmandu in 1972).

After the first “lesson” I got demoted from motorbike to bicycle. We borrowed a bike from the neighboring fried fish stall and wheeled it over to the temple across the street, right on the lake—one of those little pockets of stillness in this big crazy city.

It got to be a thing, those first few weeks—meeting for coffee, going to the temple, Daniel clutching the seat and running behind me like I was five. I was equally into the lessons for the bits of stories that would leak out (“The ship docked in Cairo and my mother went out, hawked a ring to buy medicine for me”) as for the bike riding. I’d let the stories distract me from my fear as I tried to pedal on my own—wobbled and fell over as Daniel strolled pensively, snapping photos and smoking cigarettes and remarking, “Six meters!” when I finally started to get it.

There were a bunch of vendors at the temple, selling bottles of water and gum and candies, those little single packets of rice crackers, and they got to know us. They all thought I was Daniel’s daughter, he told me, which was funny cause I was a different race and about a foot taller. They were all quite liberal with the advice too, which they shouted out to me in Vietnamese as though I’d actually understand, in a way that I was beginning to understand as totally characteristically Vietnamese. It didn’t seem so different from the way the ladies at the Vietnamese nail salons in Oakland would bark at me when I’d walk in: “Ok, manicure, you pick a color!”

One lady in particular would get real into it, walk up to the handlebars and gesture and point and rattle on, then stop and smile at me, laugh a little.

“She’s right,” Daniel would say. “You need to look up.”

She was the lady who leapt up and applauded when I finally made it 20 meters by myself. I wobbled past and grinned.

“How old are most people in America when they learn to ride a bike?” Daniel asked later over coffee.

I shrugged. “Five or six.”

“And how old are you?”

“29.” I looked into my coffee, ashamed.

Daniel nodded, took a long drag. “So today you have grown 26 years.”

I smiled.

It was all going great, going just swimmingly, until the next lesson when he’d decided I was ready to go back on the motorbike. It was an especially hot day; I’d come over to his house and he was fighting with his girlfriend; we’d gone to a different temple and I’d fallen over about ten times, shaky from the heat and the frustration, my legs bashed by the foot pegs so many times they’d looked like bruised bananas the next day. I’d also gotten three jobs and a private student by that point, all scattered in a fucked-up hodge-podge of hours. I decided to go on motorbike-driving-learning hiatus until my schedule mellowed and the heat broke.

Which would be about now. I’ve got my regular dude I use—a whole crew of xe oms, actually, who all live on my peninsula, who were mean and yell-y and mad-dogging at first but who now smile and wave at me when we pass, in another way that has started to seem characteristically Vietnamese to me, like I had to earn it.

But not driving in Hanoi sucks. It’s expensive and you can’t fucking go anywhere and you’re reliant on your friends and you get stuck places and it gets even harder to motivate yourself to ever leave the air-conditioned comfort of your bedroom.

Daniel’s busy working as a personal tour guide for eccentric wealthy people, so I’ve nominated my roommate as my new teacher. He seems okay with the role, though I guess he doesn’t really have a choice. I rented an automatic bike—“retard-proof,” Jacob calls it—and for a week now we’ve gone out, toodling around the peninsula in the evenings or the afternoons.

See: Magical. #nofilter

Our peninsula is kinda a magical place, like a little village smack in the middle of Hanoi. It’s got those rural rhythms, the expectedness of things: the bun cha stall that’ll be smoking meat in the mornings; the boys that play football in the road in the afternoons; the evening drink stall; the woman who rolls her clothing and bra cart out at exactly four o’clock everyday. It’s got the village characters too—the homecoming king and queen, who are the proprietors of the cafe we go to, always smiling and graceful and classy; the fat babies; the deranged rooster who shits on the cafe tables; the zealous young woman always kneeling at her altar (“like Carrier’s mom”); the woman who boils her stinky herb tea in the alleyway cause it’s too stinky to boil in the house; the four old military men who march around, “their evening constitution,” with straight backs and high knees, wearing their old army-issued socks.

My favorite person on the whole peninsula is the little water-brained dude. He’s really little, like under five feet and scrappy too. His facial features are a bit squished and his hair is stringy, bald on top cause I see him sitting there, on the bench or leaning on the railing, staring into the lake as he picks at his hair. It’s not so common to see mentally disabled people in this part of the world; they’re usually shamefully tucked away, out of sight, so I like seeing him. I also just like him; he’s got a good sweet vibe to him. We started smiling and waving to each other and when I come down the block I always kinda look for him, get bummed if he’s not sitting there.

We see all the characters as we toodle around, chatting and bullshitting, Jacob giving me pointers that my brain understands but my body can’t follow. Complicated stuff like, “Don’t put your foot down” or “Don’t yank the handlebars.” The neighbors here have also begun to chime in with advice and encouragement—one man making throttle motions, sliding his hands together in a way that indicates that at any moment, any moment he expects me to just soar off in competent confidence. Right, I think, smiling and looking away.

So the other day we were at it, putzing slowly, when we came around the bend and I saw my water-brained friend. He started waving to me. “He’s totally you’re homie,” Jacob remarked as we approached.

“Totally,” I said.

We inched up and my homie started to say something to me in his garbled Vietnamese.

Jacob nodded. “He’s right.”

“What?”

“He says you need to put your feet up.”

I turned to my homie, shrugged my hands in the air. He grinned and laughed.

“This is great,” I said to Jacob as we eased down the alleyway back towards our house. “Like, if you’re ever busy one day, I could just get my homie to give me lessons.”

We laughed, shook our heads at the bumbling ludicrousy of me as we rumbled past the trash bags and kitten cages, the pot of stinking tea boiling beside the gate.

The Xe Om Saga, Part Two: Exactly 100% Like Dating

This, but in 115 degree heat

Remember that humorous, uplifting and vaguely life-affirming post I did a few months ago about finding the dream xe om driver?

Yeah well, that shit blew up.

The funny thing was I kept relating the search for a xe om to dating. Cause it’s totally similar. Which is NOT Vietnam specific; a far wittier and more insightful friend in Phnom Penh correctly surmised that having a regular tuk-tuk driver was always like having a boyfriend—the jealousy, the controlling, the weird reliance you have on them and the even weirder, unspoken power dynamics. (She told a hysterical story about getting into a fight with a tuk-tuk driver that culminated in her screaming, “You are not my boyfriend!”)

So, Hanoi: same jam, different mode of transit. The situation with Da devolved for a variety of reasons, which you can explore here (you’ve all been reading your Vela regularly, right? Riiiiight?!)—but the thing I didn’t get into in the piece is the way in which it was totally, 100% just like dating.

1. Suspicion: “He can’t possibly be interested in me.”
2. Disbelief: “Okay, so he’s interested but there’s gotta be a catch.”
3. Honeymoon: “Holy shit! He’s interested in me! And he’s not crazy!”
4. Settling In/Cracks Emerging: “Everyone’s human, no big.”
5. Ignoring of Flagrant Red Flags: “That’s totally NOT alcohol on his breath.”
6. Increase in Frequency of Red Flags, Combated with an Increase in Denial: “That’s not indicative of scary anger management issues! That’s not indicative of scary anger management issues!”
7. Realization: “Fuuuuuck. That’s indicative of scary anger management issues.”
8. Breaking Up: “But why do I still feel guilty?”

(Here it should be noted that while I’m completely powerless to stop this cycle, I do still have some shreds of self-preservation and have thus not dated in a long time. Like, a really long time.)

The only way in which my relationship with Da was not like dating was in the end: we only exchanged two texts after I dumped him. He didn’t show up at my work unannounced, didn’t harangue me on various forms of social media, didn’t leave sobbing messages on my phone at 4am (cause I don’t have voice mail, thankyouverymuch). And also dissimilar to real dating, I found a new dude the next day; it’s been two months and he has yet to show any signs of mental/emotional instability.

This isn’t just a haha funny thing. I remember when I realized that my patterns in relationships didn’t just apply to the romantic sphere but tentacled out into every relationship in my life: my work, my friendships, everything. Of course the same pattern would hold true for a motorbike driver, right? It’s not like I get to move across the planet and escape this shit.

I guess the crazy thing to me is how much we sniff each other out, without even knowing it. How much we communicate our various forms of brokenness and the compatibility of that brokenness, in some animal part of our brain we aren’t even aware is at work. How much we keep finding different versions of the same people, all over the goddamn earth. Who knew a 50-something Hanoian xe om would evoke the same emotions in me as a 22-year-old Oakland punk? It’s kinda remarkable, really.

But of course the real crazy thing is, after I’d been working on this piece for a few hours last Friday, I headed out to my meeting. I was walking up Xuan Dieu, listening to my headphones and dodging the blinding streak of headlights when whooooo should I see drive by?

Yeah, that’s who.

He said my name and gave a little wave.

Which was totally, 100% NOT like dating.

The World’s Worst Traffic Jam, or Back-of-the-Bike Cultural Reflections From a Non-Driving Coward

Since I am a complete and utter coward (no, traveling sola, moving across the planet to a developing country and regularly publishing uber personal essays DOES NOT count as “brave”), I’m still not driving a motorbike. I was working the whole I-just-arrived angle, then moved on to the I’m-working-6-days-a-week-and-it’s-115-degrees angle. But, after three months and with the seasons about to change, these excuses are expiring and leaving me with the stone-hard reality of my own cowardice.

Which I was contemplating on Wednesday when my xe om driver picked me up from my private tutoring gig over in the high-rise housing complex and was whisking me down around West Lake to the Old Quarter. I was on the back of bike, the day was sliding off like butter and it was perfect, you know—one of those pink glowing moments Hanoi gives you, when you’ve had your ass beat by the heat and humidity and exhaust all day, and suddenly there’s a softness, a breeze off the water and a sigh in the air, and suddenly the weaving of the bikes doesn’t seem like a haphazard plot to maim us all but like some crazy intricate dance choreographed by a mad man, or else like electrons buzzing and twitching and not colliding anywhere near as often as you’d reason they should, as they would if all there were was a human consciousness behind it.

Which is to say I was vibing hard with Hanoi, gazing out across the lake and feeling the breeze on my greasy-ass skin and thinking to myself, “It’s really time I learn to drive one of these things.”

And then we came around a bend, grinded to a stuttering halt and snared into the worst traffic jam I’ve ever been in.

You know that REM video? Hanoi puts that shit to shame. Instead of silently staring out from our own little isolated boxes of alienation, Hanoian traffic jams are pointing, honking, careening shitshows where the overarching MO seems to be Find Any Possible Space To Shove Your Bike And Ram It The Eff In There. Which is pretty much the MO for all the traffic here; it just gets intensified in a traffic jam, in fact makes the traffic jams worse because instead of negotiating the situation, teasing it apart like a hairball, more and more bikes get jammed into the situation, more and more aggressively.

The problem appeared to be two cars. There were coming down the same narrow street in opposite directions, attempting to pass one another. In theory, there was enough room for the maneuver; in actuality, since none of the surrounding bikes were willing to wait for the cars to pass each other and had instead tried to force their way between, around and alongside the cars, the situation had tangled and frozen into a gridlock.

People pointed. People sighed. People honked and idled and then cut their engines off. People drove up on the sidewalks, inched their way between each other until you could heard the crunch of bike parts tapping.

I for one was stoked to be not driving, not responsible for negotiating the mess. Like the small children wedged between their parents’ bodies, I got to space out and contemplate life and culture and the cool way the light shot off those reflective windmills.

Expats always complain about the traffic in Hanoi. It’s one of the hardest parts of living here; more than just aggravating, the traffic is loud, dangerous, life-threatening and lacking in much that resembles Western notions of order and safety.

So it’d surprised me when I’d heard my adult Vietnamese students complain about the traffic as well. “So noisy,” one man had said, pinching his eyes shut and shaking his head. “People very rude,” another woman had agreed. “Crazy. Like they want to die.”

This had struck me as funny, cause they were basically the same complaints expats have. And the first thought I’d had was, Well, it’s your city, why don’t you change this shit? Visions of Driver’s Ed courses and traffic lanes danced in my head, the same way visions of some take-charge traffic director with a clear grasp of spatial relationships and problem-solving skills floated in the air above the mammoth jam, in which my xe om and I had now been stuck for fifteen minutes.

But here’s the thing being an expat has taught me: you can’t get rid of your culture. Even the parts you hate, the parts you logically understand to be irrational, counterproductive, inhibiting, etc. It’s the same way people look at Americans and say, gun violence and lack of universal health care; they can shake their heads and ask, “How on earth can you let that go on?” Granted, there’s powerful lobbies behind anti-gun-control and health care as a private for-profit industry; while I can certainly point to those as reasons, at the end of the day I feel like that doesn’t account for all of it.

At the end of the day—the pink end of the pink day, which would be enjoyable if you weren’t mashed into an exhaust-sucking gridlock—the US’s oddities don’t feel that different from the Hanoian traffic: life-threatening phenomena that a lot of other cultures simply wouldn’t tolerate. There wouldn’t even be a debate around them, you know? And all I can do when people ask me about them is shrug and say, “It’s our culture.”

And it’s a funny thing, to watch yourself be a part of a culture, both independently aware of it but unable to stop yourself from being it, doing it, perpetuating it. I’m working at an international kindergarten these days; there’s some 30 nationalities present at the school and one of the craziest things is watching how even in two year olds, you can already see the cultural programming—the differences in the Koreans and the Israelis and the Australians. It’s given me a greater appreciation for the depth of culture, how it shapes every way we operate and function—or don’t operate and don’t function, how we get stuck in a completely avoidable gridlock on a pleasant autumn evening. I mean, how many times have I caught myself being the big, loud, ignorant American?—caught myself but been unable to stop myself?

And I guess it’s an even funnier thing to be completely outside of a culture, to sit on the back of a bike and watch all these Hanoians sigh and point and honk and know, you can tell, know that mashing themselves into every imaginable free space isn’t helping anything, but being unable to stop. Cause that’s the culture. And if you don’t do it, you’ll get run the eff over.

We made it out eventually. It only took thirty minutes. I said, “Yay!” and my xe om driver laughed, and the breeze came up off the lake again, the faster we moved. The bats dipped and the fishermen leaned on their poles and while I felt a certain degree of tolerance and understanding for the social programming that had created the jam, I did not in any way wish I had been the one driving, the one to have to negotiate that mess. Because I am a coward.

Kinda Like Dating: The Xe Om Saga

Number one most aggravating, expensive and demoralizing part of my move to Hanoi: transit. This city is big and confusing and filled with about 10 million motorbikes (no, really) and even without the heat it’d be pretty damn unwalkable. So you take xe oms, motorbikes—the same as you do in Phnom Penh except here you’ve got a helmet and the driver can read your destination’s address. So you’d think it’d be a better jam, but. It. Is. Goddamn. Expensive.

I guess most people don’t arrive in a city and immediately start looking for jobs and going on interviews. Most people don’t get three jobs in two weeks and have to venture out to these far-reaching, newly constructed parts of the city where the schools are located, twenty minutes away from center (not during rush hour)—venture out for evening classes and early morning classes, before they know their way around or where exactly they’re going, when the city still looks like miles and miles of exhaust-laced sameness.

So. My first few weeks involved a lot of getting lost, getting stranded and getting extremely fucking annoyed. Mostly at myself, since I couldn’t communicate, couldn’t haggle, didn’t know how to ask the driver to come back when the class was over. So I’d come out of a dark building at 9pm in a desolate part of town, look around and realize there was fucking no xe om to take me back to civilization. I’d walk for ten minutes and the xe om I’d finally find would take one look at my ill-fitting clothes and desperate, lost expression and know he could take for whatever he wanted. $4 back to center? I wasn’t exactly in a position to negotiate. Well played, xe om, well played.

I tried to keep it in perspective—I was brand new here and didn’t know shit, so I kinda deserved to get ripped off. You have to earn not getting ripped off, is how I feel, and that takes time. So until then I was just gonna have to bleed money. Like $8-10 a day. And arrive to new jobs thirty minutes late because the xe om didn’t know his way and ran out of gas and yelled at me when I couldn’t tell him which direction to go.

Exactly.

(It took about a week to figure out that, as utterly terrifying as the idea of driving a motorbike is, it’s not at all viable to live in Hanoi and not have your own transport. So I found someone to give me lessons—not an easy feat considering I didn’t know how to ride a bicycle and had never balanced on two wheels. That’s a whole nuther story for another day, but for now I’ll just say that there’s bruises up and down my shins and I’m probably a good month away from being mobile.)

So the most immediate solution was to get a regular xe om. I was in the market, evaluating each ride for safety, courtesy and relative knowledge of the city. It was kind of like dating, except that when I found a potential candidate I didn’t know how to actually communicate the fact that he was a potential candidate. I would look at him longingly, try to pantomime a request before letting my arms dangle back to my sides and walking off, demoralized again. (Not so different from actual dating, really.)

I was spending a couple weeks in a guesthouse in the Old Quarter while I waited for a room in a house to open. The guy who ran the convenience shop across the alley (really just rack of water and cigarettes in his living room) was giving me overpriced, jerky rides to work and back, but I was stoked to just have a regular dude and not have worry about getting stranded. (Think of this as the Substandard Convenience Fuck—I did.) But one day he decided he wanted SEVEN FUCKING DOLLARS to take me work, so I ventured down the alley to find another xe om.

There was a cluster of them perched on their bikes on the corner. I sighed and did the usual approach, pointed to the address I’d written down on my falling-apart notebook. Negotiated a price, strapped on my helmet, hopped on. It wasn’t till we were halfway there that he started talking to me. In really good English.

He picked me up after class, took me back to the guesthouse. He gave me his number and told me to SMS him when I needed another ride. I did and man, he was pretty good. Safe driver, knew the city, open to negotiation. It was kinda perfect. Too perfect. Just like dating, I was hesitant, suspicious of Mr. Perfect Xe Om who could speak and read English, and was happy to tote my monolingual, newly arrived ass all over the city when he could probably make more hustling tourists in the Old Quarter. Don’t get attached, I told myself. This can’t last.

So when I moved into my new house last week and left the Old Quarter, I figured, you know, that was the end of a good thing. My sweet summer xe om fling. “Thanks for the rides,” I told him. “But I’m moving up to West Lake.”

“You need ride, you SMS me,” he told me.

“But isn’t that kinda far for you?”

He shook his head. “You SMS me,” he said again. It was more of a command than anything else.

Well, it’s been a week now and this fool is still showing up. He even texts me at night to ask when I need him the next day. It still isn’t cheap, but given the circumstance, it’s the best I could ask for.

I was already pretty stoked when he came to pick me last night. It was late and I was in my stupid work slacks that make me look pregnant and it had been a long day of classes and I was hungry and ready to go home. Like that.

I came out of the building and saw him sitting on his bike. He was nodding his head, and I heard a faint, distorted blare of music.

He waved and circled over. The sound became louder. And recognizable: “Hotel California.”

I laugh burst from my belly.

“You like?” he asked. He held up the thin cellphone from which the song was blasting. “I just buy.”

I shook my head and chuckled. “I love it.”

I got on and we headed back. It had just rained and the air the fresh, the road still pocked with puddles that reflected the lights. He played the song over and over—we must have listened to it four fucking times—and he sang along to his favorite lines (“pretty pretty boys / that she calls friends”). I laughed and felt the breeze on my face and thought, you know, I’ve found a good one.

Though really, he found me.

Take Me Home, On a Malaysian Highway

This is what this song with forever be: the Malaysian countryside, flat and scrappy through the window of a bus. Me crying.

Sometimes songs get wedged in you; sometimes you know it when it’s happening, have that vague feeling of a future memory forming. Like hearing “Pumped Up Kicks” on the fire escape of a Soho loft, the first week I left home—afterparty of an art opening and 800 sleazy Italian guys offering me cigarettes, that sweet kid from Manchester in his first 2 weeks in the States, too shy to admit he was lonely. Which wasn’t the first time I’d heard the song—it was being shoved down my throat on a daily basis—but I don’t know, I just had this feeling then, that the air, the night, the lights from the apartment across the alley—that it was all being stored up somewhere and that whenever I’d hear the song from now on, this moment would come crashing back with a nostalgia for something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Well, I heard “Pumped Up Kicks” in one of those malls in KL and turns out I was right—standing in the gleaming florescence of consumerism, I felt a kind of homesickness for that moment. In a city that wasn’t mine, talking to some kid I didn’t know, watching the dim figures move through the next building over. It doesn’t make sense, but I know you know what I’m talking about.

One of the ironic benefits of living abroad, I was telling a friend recently, is that I have so much more time to read music blogs and download music that, while I can’t actually go to any real shows, I’m way more in the loop than I was in the States. So a string of 4+ hour bus rides, chasing across the east coast of Malaysia, what ended up kind of characterizing my trip—it gave me lots of time to catch up on all the new albums I’d cluttered my phone with.

So, “Take Me Home.” It’ll be this: an overly air-conditioned bus, roadside restaurants passing through the tinted window—“restorans,” metal tins of food, men smoking and women’s scarves flapping. Smooth highway and pocked skin—the poor part of a rich country. Swinging curtain that won’t snap shut brushing my shoulder, bag of banana chips and that constant feeling of having to pee that I have on long bus rides. Two seats to myself so I can curl my knees and pretend that no one can see me when I start to tear up—when he hits the keys on that warbly keyboard and it sounds like something from a well come rise up—“I’ll be so still for you.”

I swear it’s not just that I’m about to get my period, that I’m not just tired—I straight start crying on my bus and I’m surprised by it, you know? Like—Really? This is happening right now? Yeah, yeah, it is.

It’s the night before maybe; the song stirs something in it. Wooden porch of a beach chalet, ramshackle sea-shell clatter, cat at my feet, bug spray and cigarettes and brandy in his cup. He offers me some; I say no. He has wrinkles in his forehead that makes him cuter. He has strings tied around his wrist and bad taste in music but it isn’t that that stops me. It’s something else, I’m not sure what, but I just can’t do it. I smile and say I’m tired and go back to my room before it can happen, before anything can happen, and something about that makes me wanna cry then, in that moment. But I don’t. I play (and lose) a couple games of Sudoku on my phone and snap out the light.

So maybe I’m making up for it now. But it’s not that even really that scene I think about now, not the moment of it at least, but more the feeling. The “goddammit.” The “this again.” The “damaged goods.” “Like a shadow of a shadow of a shadow.”

I’ve been joking about it, that I’m writing “How Not To Get Laid Across The Fucking Planet.” Since I don’t know what the hell else I’m writing. I’m doing research; I’m in character; I’m method acting. Hahaha, it’s all so fucking funny. I’m dragging myself across the planet like something caught beneath the tailpipe; I’m dragging myself down this Malaysian highway and I don’t know where I’m going—I’ve got no guidebook or maps—and I’m turning the music up so I can’t hear any of it, trailing behind me, scraping against the pavement and possibly screaming but probably just whimpering—behind me and I can’t hear it, except for now, in the pitch of a high note—“Like a foooooool.”

“What’s the dating scene in Phnom Penh like?” Josh asked me a couple days later. I spit out a sour psssh—“Fucking dismal,” I replied.

But I knew that, I knew that going in, and you wanna know the fucking truth? I sought that shit out. Like a kind of relief, like a cop out, like “I won’t have to deal with that at all.” So it was weird, you know—as weird as the shopping malls and overpasses and Starbucks—to be hit on in Malaysia. I should have been stoked right? I should have been giddily shouting a “fuck yeah” the way I was the first day in KL, right?

Well, I wasn’t. I was alone in a mold-smelling chalet; I was crying on a fucking bus; I was listening to sensitive bummer music some older version of me would have laughed at and closing my eyes and rocking my head like a goddamn blind person, feeling god-knows-what welling up inside me and pushing the backtrack button over and over and over, so I must have listened to that song like 12 times in a row—knowing that it was getting seared into me, that some future version of me was sitting somewhere, smiling in nostalgia hearing this song again. Why are we always nostalgic for the most painful shit? For the shit we never really had to begin with? Or is that just me?

The Malaysian highway passed. Eventually, I got where I was going.

A Morning Ride Through The City

The morning is cold.

Well, not cold, but cool—breezy and clouded, which for here is Arctic. It’s 8am and I’m getting in a tuk-tuk a friend had arranged. He’s waiting outside of the French restaurant on the corner, holding a piece of paper with my name on it, and it reminds me of leaving an airport’s gates, all the men in cheap suits holding signs of tourists’ names, and how I’ve always kind of wanted to be one of the names, to be Arriving, instead of just wandering off with my too-heavy backpack towards the local bus.

I step in my ballet flats into the tuk-tuk, smoothe my blouse as I sit down. I hold the plastic file case, filed with copies of my resume, down in my lap. We start off.

My friend arranged for a tuk-tuk to take me to 10 different schools, where I’m going to drop off 10 resumes and hopefully get called back—a kind of carpet-bombing, I’m-out-money-and-a-need-a-quick-job technique. The tuk-tuk driver knows the route; he’s done it often, for foreigners like myself. Or not like myself—I imagine them younger, in nicer clothes, with a TEFL certificate on their resumes or at least some teaching experience.

We move through streets fresh with bustle: children in school uniforms, people in baby blue shirts driving their motorbikes to work, old men eating pork and rice at the food stalls. The monks are out, doing their barefoot rounds, and when they chant it sounds like bees buzzing.

Mornings are kind of magical in Phnom Penh—cool and alive, cleaner feeling, not yet bogged down in the heat or exhaustation. I don’t usually get to experience them, since they start at dawn; by the time I’m usually out of the house around 10am, it’s mid-afternoon by local standards, and the pork and rice stalls are shutting up shop.

And it’s cold this morning—the sun is hidden and there’s a cool breeze. It’s exciting, to feel chilly here, and I suddenly remember my dream: that I was somewhere cold and drizzly, like London, and that the air felt crisp on my cheeks, almost stinging to breathe. It’s funny—I’ve been homesick for fog, for foggy mornings, when the dense mist rushes past and the world feels quiet and still and small.

And it doesn’t feel that way this morning, but it feels close. Close-ish. There’s something almost Italian in the weather—the way the clouds sit in the sky, a feel to the air—crisp but twinged with exhaust—that reminds me, not of an ancient quarter, but of the industrial outskirts of a Italian town—Grottaglie, or that cheap hotel we stayed out way outside of Venice, with its gravely road and teenagers and 40-minute bus to the tourist canals and massive train station.

Which is ridiculous—there is absolutely nothing Italian about Phnom Penh. The smells are of fermented fish sauce and trash, steam buns instead of fresh-baked bread; the old women wear pajama suits instead of dresses, the men loose button-up shirts that hang off their sharp limbs, instead of sweaters over their big bellies and those old-school newsie caps. There’s a chaos to the street—welding shops and electric lights and women in face masks weaving between SUVs—that you wouldn’t find anywhere in Europe, even in Italy.

But there’s something in the morning that makes me nostalgic for something I can’t quite name, that reminds me of a place that isn’t quite here. We stop in front of schools—big broad buildings with mounted emblems and security guards, receptionists who take my resume disinterestedly—and I’m in and out in under 2 minutes, in most cases.

We crawl out of the city center—past gas stations and narrow pitted roads, shops with rows of potted plants—and I think of how big this city is, and how I only ever see a very small part of it. I watch, observe the sort of dance of it all that I can’t see when I’m walking in it, or snared in traffic, or sweating in the mid-day sun. And I’m kind of in awe, I realize. It occurs to me that I haven’t been in awe at all, this whole time—been so focused on not being fazed, being blasé and un-culture-shocked, that I haven’t just sat back and reveled in it.

I Skyped with a friend the day before, the familiar posters on the wall, flannel shirts and winter coats scattered across the room. I was telling him some ridiculous story—something about a chicken and a street dog and a hand-tractor full of staring eyes—and he laughed and said, “Yo, do you realize how cool that is? That you just get to be there, and have these experiences?”

And it didn’t strike me in that moment as naive; it didn’t strike me as something said by someone who hasn’t gotten to travel much, hasn’t ever left the Western world, someone who’s easily impressed by my stories, for whom even the mundane details of my daily life seem like adventure. His comment struck me in that moment as true.

I sit back in the tuk-tuk, as we bounce through the city, and I just watch. I smile. I don’t worry about being the Tough Traveler; I just let myself revel.

It’s 11am by the time I get back to my apartment. I pay the driver and step out of the tuk-tuk. The fresh breeze is gone; the clouds are heavy; the air is swampy.

The morning is gone and the spell is broken.

A Not Entirely Atypical Tuk-Tuk Ride Home

9pm so I give him a good stare down, check the eyes for red and glaze and drunkenness. I watch the way he walks to the tuk-tuk, parked a few feet away from where we’ve haggled the fare. He walks straight enough to drive straight, so I sigh and start to climb in.

“Ok,” he says, sitting down on the bike, “7000.”

I pause, my foot on step. “No, 6000,” repeating the fare we agreed to.

A grin. “Ok, ok, 6000.”

I sit and he sits. He throws a look back at me.

“You want to smoke weed?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to.”

“You no smoke weed?”

I smile and play it coy, “No, I’m a good girl.”

“Oh. I thought you were mafia.”

“Oh, really?”

“I see your tattoo, I thought you mafia.”

“No,” shake my head, “not mafia.”

He throws his helmet on. He doesn’t clip the chin strap.

We take off and turn the corner and it’s the usual questions: where did I make my tattoos? (USA) Is that where I’m from? (Yes) How many? (I don’t know) How much it cost? (A lot. But it should, it lasts forever.) Do I like them? (which is not a usual question and I smile: Yes.)

“But you no smoke weed?”

“No.”

“You no want to be happy?”

“I’m already happy.”

“But you be more happy.”

“Not if I smoke weed.”

“Oh, you smoke weed before?”

“Long time ago. When I was young. But I’m old now.” (Coy again, and I think how, broken language aside, it’s not so different from conversations I have with backpackers or college kids or, fuck it, my own peers, in bars or at shows—not entirely atypical.)

He speaks pretty good English and he’s driving straight enough and even knows where we’re going, so all things said, he’s a damn good tuk-tuk driver. We move through the pitted streets, slowly settling from their daily buzz—meat smoke thinning, piles of trash waiting for pick-up.

More questions, his eyes in the side mirrors more than on the road: How long will I be in Cambodia? (One year) What do I do for work? (smile: I’m a writer) I live in a guesthouse or apartment? (bigger smile: Guesthouse tonight, but tomorrow I move to an apartment) You live with roommate or alone? (another smile: Alone) Why alone? (I want to) I come live with you? (No) Why? (I want to live alone)

We approach the Orussey Market: lights and umbrellas and neon plastic stools and buses parked and smoke, still plenty of smoke billowing and twisting and rising into the night. I tell him the name of my guesthouse.

“Oh, you stay there alone?”

“Yes.”

“I come stay with you?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want you to.”

“You no like boys?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You like girls?”

“I didn’t say that either.”

We pull up in front, parked motorbikes in the glow of the reception desk, long shadows of security guards sitting listless in plastic chairs. I pull out the bills and step out of the tuk-tuk, hand them to him.

He takes off his helmet. “Goodnight, madam.”

“Goodnight sir.”

“Sleep good.”

“You too.”


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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