Broken Laptops and Buddhist MonksApril 27, 2015
My laptop broke. It didn’t just break, it coughed, grabbed its throat, said something about its legacy, and bit the dust. It was three hours before deadline.
I knew there was no coming back from this. It was five years old, the bottom half of the plastic casing had somehow been ripped away revealing Terminator-esq inner circuitry. So much so that whenever a Cambodian saw me tapping away in my room at the pagoda where I was living, they’d sidle up to me, point at it and say “coit” (meaning “broken”). Yes, I’d agree. Coit.
Over the years the laptop had short-circuited from a spill of English breakfast tea, given up producing the “£” symbol and taken up the habit of having a three-and-a-half minute crisis whenever asked to do more than one thing at once. But I loved it like a pair of old trainers. Even though it was much heavier than its modern counterparts with a flickering screen and defunct battery.
An emergency replacement had to be found, and fast. My editor had generously extended the deadline on my article after I read too much Hunter S. Thompson and started inserting paragraphs of mad prose detailing the relationship between me and my geeky translator rather than actually writing the story I was commissioned to write. No, I couldn’t reign on this assignment. A new laptop was needed immediately.
I jumped on my bike and roared out of the pagoda, not stopping to return the waves and calls of the incorrigible pagoda kids, or pulling over to let the head monk know where I was going – a courtesy he was quite fond of. I sped to the nearest town – Takeo – and skidded to a halt in front of the first laptop shop I could see.
“Me, require . . .. this . . . laptop, mine bust, see? I buy, I buy, OK?” I pointed wildly at the laptops behind the counter. The clerk couldn’t have been less moved by distress. He looked at me, dumbfounded by my gibbering. The stress must have got to me because I started waving hundreds of dollars around and screaming, “quick buy now, buy laptop, I pay.” The clerk slurred something in Khmer, shrugged, and returned to chatting with his friends.
I stood gaping for a few seconds, cursed him and the shop and sped away. Coming to a halt at the next shop I flung myself inside and, to my relief, found a clerk that could speak English. I had her remove the four laptops in my modest price range which I weighed in my arms like a fairground piglet before declaring I would buy the lightest one immediately.
“OK, OK, you wait now.”
“Wait?” My eyes bugged. The extra 1000 words I had to write by the end of the working day hung like a trembling guillotine blade above me. “How long?”
“One hour,” she said sweetly. I watched in despair as my new laptop was placed in a queue to have Windows 8 loaded from a DVD with Khmer scrawled in black marker on it.
I danced a frustrated jig, gave up, and headed to nearest air-conditioned petrol station supermarket where I ate ice-cream and watched school children ride their Hondas home whilst simultaneously texting or carrying out intense debates with other children on motorbikes.
An hour later, walking back to the shop I realized the likelihood of completing the article was fading with the twilight sun. I called my editor.
“Don’t worry, we’ve replaced you article for that issue,” he said.
“Oh really?” I replied.
“Yeah we’ll put in the next issue so don’t sweat.”
I formed my hand into a squeegee and scraped lake of sweat from my brow, and said “OK fine, fine, no problem.”
I sat in the shop watching the last of the software being installed on the new laptop. The stress slowly drained from my body leaving in its wake only a sense of being very very tired.
It was a few days later when a monk walked into my room. Cambodians don’t knock. Having been raised in single-room dwellings and spending their most intimate moments in the sight of neighbours and relatives they don’t see the need to. He stood behind me, an orange, slightly irritating presence.
“You verily are a good monk today?” I said, trying out my polite Khmer.
He nodded and smiled. There was a pause. Visible above the slash of his robe was a rare temple tattoo of a bird-headed god with spread wings. He put his hand on my shoulder and smiled. Then he turned and looked around my room. He passed his eyes over my mosquito-netted bed, over the spider-webbed bookshelf onto a table on which was laid clothes, a few person items and the broken laptop.
The monk walked up to laptop and pointed at it quizzically.
“Oh, laptop broken is,” I said. He nodded and pointed drastically at it and then at his chest. He was asking if he could have it. I wondered why he would want a broken laptop.
“No, understand monk, laptop broken is,” I repeated and prized it open to show the tear in the plastic and the visible circuit boards.
The monk smiled. “Can I have it anyway?”
At that point I realized a few things. For most of the young monks at my pagoda it wasn’t a love of Buddhism that propelled them into the monkhood; it was poverty. For many, their families struggle to support them and pay for education. Having their sons ordained significantly eases their financial burdens. The laptop may have been broken but it was as close as he was going to get to owning one.
“Sure, monk, have it,” I said. He picked it up, glowing with gratitude. Words of thanks bubbled up, but knowing my Khmer wasn’t good enough to understand, he stopped halfway and broke into the chant monks deliver to the devout who give them donations. Surprised at this outpouring, all I could do was plant my hands together, bow my head and receive a blessing in exchange for one broken laptop.
Maybe one day the monk will fix it. Maybe one day I’ll have enough spare cash and time to have it fixed for him. After he left, I reflected, thinking over the files I left on the laptop. Thousands of documents and programs from five years of use. And did I . . . . ? I stopped and thought carefully for a second. Yes. I was 90% sure there was no porn on it.