Taking a break from reviews this week. Below is a snippet of life in Cambodia.
I’ve had my red bike for about six months now, and she’s dusty. Her bell jangles a bit when I ride over potholes and sections of inexplicably lumpy cement, and her brakes are squeaky. But (most of the time) she gets me where I need to go.
Riding home from work in the hot-season sun I take the back street instead of the main road. I’m thinking of lunch and listening to a playlist of angst-y 1990s rock music. Then slap! A sound like a balloon bursting whacks me through my headphones. My front wheel starts to wobble. I stop to look. My tyre is squashed against the road like melted rubber. I humph, get off, and wheel my bike along the street; past half-smiling side-of-the-road-men with (so it seems) nothing better to do than watch me go by. Garbage is playing in my ears and I am grumpy. At the nail/tack/piece-of-glass. At the sun. At my delayed lunch. And at myself, for still – at 29 years old – not being mature enough to laugh at my small misfortune. I humph some more and continue wheeling and peering into side-shops, looking for a man with an air pump and inner tubes.
When I find him he appears ancient, lying back in his recliner on the pavement. His skin is tree-trunk-brown and sun-spotted, and it hangs with age. His hair is white. He doesn’t wear a shirt, just faded Puma shorts (I think of Puma’s questionable factory conditions in this country) that overlap his knees, and plastic slip-on sandals. A woman rouses him at the sight of me and my sad bike. At first he seems grumpy, too – upset maybe to be awakened from his midday siesta. Part of me groans inside. I’m dreading the language barrier, lazy now in the heat to speak Khmer. He wants to put air in my tyre at first, but then I show him the jagged tear in the rubber. He takes hold of the bike, and pokes uncertainly at its fancy leather basket pouch (I feel suddenly embarrassed by my extravagant expat anti-theft precaution). He lays the bike down and gets to work. Staring at my bike from this angle I notice for the first time that it has a quote on the side, above the pedals:
Those who are sticky about their way of life are nevertheless wonderful!
I stand on the side of the road awkwardly holding my backpack.The man pulls out my inner tube and shows me the numerous holes. I still can’t tell how he feels about me, and this situation. He shows me the little valve on my tyre, and I manage to understand that whoever put this one in did it wrong.
This moto, the man says in Khmer, shaking his head. He points to another – this bike (gong).
I nod, not sure whether I’m being told off or commiserated with. I want to tell him I didn’t know. I want to say in Khmer crazy (chguat) about my previous mechanic, but I’m scared this man will think I mean him. I want to please him, this old man bike-fixer. His approval is suddenly very important to me.
I stand and crouch and stand and crouch and try to avoid the smoke coming from his blackened tube-patching kit. He motions for me to sit in his recliner, and I start to think maybe he doesn’t hate me. I sit for a while, watching. But the smoke finds me again.
The man waves me over to look at the holes.
So big! He says, and smiles a wide smile.
I smile, too. He drags a red plastic chair around so I can sit closer to the bike and observe. A sleek Mercedes pulls onto the sidewalk and I have to shift a little. The driver nods to me in thanks when he gets out. I wonder how this old man in his Puma shorts and this Mercedes driver feel about each other. I wonder if they even think about each other at all.
Behind me – in this little pavement world – a middle aged woman with colourful pyjamas and a very short haircut (the kind people often have here after someone close to them has died) plays with three small white dogs. One is curly and scruffy. Another is very fluffy, with sharp over-biting teeth. The smallest has a red collar with a bell. It is so tiny and cute I almost lean down to pat it. The man is struggling with my bike’s valve. He tightens it, but underwater – the tube half inflated so it looks like a curved black snake – bubbles still rise. The man fights with it. He wins. He goes to get another washer from the shop and on his way he hits the cute white dog with the back of his hand. Hard enough to make it yelp.
The holes are patched. My sticky bike stands. The man asks for 5,000 riel (about $1.25) and I give him $2 – it is all I have in my wallet. He has spent over half an hour with my bike and wants so little. He grins. He asks me in Khmer where I’m going. I say home. He asks me where. I tell him. I say not far. He smiles and says finished. I ride. And I’m not grumpy. I feel good. Better than I did before the dogs, and his smile. Better than before the smoke, and the sun. Better than before my sticky bike went slap!