Sunday, March 27, 2005


We're tight, me and the motodops are.

You don't know them? They're the dudes who cruise through the streets of Phnom Penh on their motos like erratic, slightly crazed sharks hunting for human prey, zigzagging past pedestrians and bicycles, cars and cows, ignoring the traffic rules that I'm not sure they even knew existed in the first place. (Actually, that's not entirely fair; I don't think the rules actually exist, and I'm exaggerating about the cows, but last night, around nine, on the back of a moto, I did see three carts of timber being pulled by three men on horses, so you can see where I'm going from).

They're the informal taxi drivers of Camboida, is what they are. From about five in the morning to nine at night, you can basically just walk along any major (and usually minor) street in Phnom Penh, wait five, four, three, two and one seconds, and wham, bam, thank-you ma'am there there'll be, the motodops, wearing their sun-worn baseball caps like a knight wears his helmet, raising their index finger, hoping against hope that you'll say yes, yes, yes, you'll take them for a ride.

The thing is, I usually do -- but not weekdays around five p.m.

Nothing personal. That's just when I walk home from work, slowly, casually, usually trying to read a book as I walk, which proves I haven't learned any lessons from life whatsoever, because I was reading a book as I walked when a homeless nut in Tokyo whacked me in the stomach with a two by four and forever changed my attitude towards violence, but hey -- I live and learn, and then I forget. That's what I do.

The motodops don't know this, though.

They think I want to ride with them.

I could write a whole book on the looks and grins and scowls and words that motodops and I exchange on a daily basis. (And I just might, along with the novel about Santa Claus I'm considering doing, and I am too serious about that baby, just wait.)

A partial and by no means comprehensive list of motodop lingo, both verbal and physical:

The offer: "Motobike, sir?"

The surprised gleam in the eyes: They've seen a foreigner, spotted the potential for money, cash-in-hand, and their body reacts.

The backward glance: A quick shift of their head as they realize they've driven by a foreigner.

The raise of the finger:-- one, two, three: The three,three,three-rides-in-one! offer they offer you as you shake your head in rejection, hoping that the first time you said no was a joke, the second time a maybe, the third time a yes.

The sheepish smile: Common to all Cambodians is the nervous, slightly shy smile that they use when they get embarassed, or are at a loss for words. These smiles are one of the many charms of the Cambodian people; you reject them, and they smile, and they're a stranger, and you smile anyways, and they smile, and that's how humanity gets a few more brownie points because of it.

It does get annoying after awhile, this constant badgering on a daily basis.

It's not a big deal, I tell myself, and it isn't.

And the truth is, when I'm back home, I miss it. Back home, there's only paved roads and odd-shaped cars and traffic walks and everybody ignoring each other, going where they need to go, oblivious to who's next to them, whether they're driving or walking, biking or rollerblading.

Here, on the streets, it's life close-up and personal, life intensified, life and all the human interactions it requires in-your-face, twenty-four seven (or just about). There's dust and dirt, coal and fog, donkeys trucking wood and kids shitting in the sewers. (Which, when you see this, at twelve midnight on a Saturday night, on a darkened backstreet, makes you pause, wretch, wonder what kind of world we live in, what kind of God is presiding.)

And there's also your friendly neighbourhood motodop -- a throwback to another time, perhaps, when a complete stranger would take you from here to there and back again for a small fee.

Funny that I would find that here, of all places.

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