My general rule of thumb growing up has been that if your phone is ringing before 7am on a workday, it’s either very good news (like “your sister just had the baby!” type of good news) or very bad news. In Cambodia, it has been my experience that it is always bad news.
And so at 6:45am on a Monday morning last month, when my phone began ringing before the alarm, I had already subconsciously prepared myself for a frustrating start to the day.
“Hello?” I answer somewhat languidly, having seen the name and number and realizing that it couldn’t possibly be anyone else.
“Tim this is Visal I cannot drive you today because have flat tire but will pick up in the afternoon is OK,” replies Visal, former tuk tuk driver since demoted to motodop, utilizing his customary run-on sentence technique and ending with his inimitable “is OK” rhetorical that he uses to end virtually every sentence – neither question nor statement.
Visal is my motodop, providing daily transportation on the back of his motorbike to and from my job because I am too terror-stricken to drive myself in Phnom Penh’s traffic. I pay Visal $60 at the beginning of every month to shuttle me in the morning and back in the afternoon, a rate which works out to $1.50 one way. Visal persuasively explained that it would be better for him to get paid monthly so that he could get work done on his bike. He had received his lump sum payment the Friday preceding this particular Monday, rendering me impecunious to use another driver without first stopping at an ATM to be followed by a money changer because believing a motodop could change anything larger than a $5 bill is akin to believing the Sun revolves around the Earth.
I have always found that living in Cambodia is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you really can do anything you want here without the hassle of the burdensome regulations that have come to strangle the Western world: you can start a business, drive the wrong direction on major boulevards while talking on your phone, and generally act the fool with complete impunity from the forces of law and order. On the other hand, small problems can snowball into major inconveniences: power cuts when you’re working on an important business project, people driving the wrong direction on major boulevards while talking on the phone, and friends of yours acting a fool in one bar or another.
Is Visal’s phone call an example of “very bad news?” Probably not. At the end of the day, it’s just another small pain in the neck that is the tradeoff of living in Phnom Penh. But does his bike really have a flat tire or did he stay up too late the night before buying beer for his mates at his local KTV with the money I paid him? I wonder, but never insinuate.
I can never articulate my anger at Visal. Maybe because I feel bad for him? Maybe because I know if I yell at him he won’t come to pick me up in the afternoon either? Why did I agree to pay him for the entire month, I inwardly remonstrate with myself. Now he’s got me by the balls.
“Yes, well OK then. Thank you for calling Visal.”
My friendship, if one wants to call it that, dates back more than three years with Visal. With a skin tone comparable to someone with permanent jaundice and eyes to match, Visal was one of the first local acquaintances I made upon my arrival in the Kingdom of Wonder in early 2012. He was the only tuk tuk driver posted outside my guesthouse in the Wat Botom area who didn’t clap in my face whilst inquiring if I wanted to go to the shooting range. I later found out he was the only driver without the nearly incestuous kickback relationship with the hotels on the street as well. Being a newly-arrived outsider with no friends, I felt a certain kinship with him. While driving me around the city and conversing with him throughout that day I got the impression he wasn’t completely vacuous either. But aimless, jobless, and near enough penniless, Visal seemed the type whose life was the epitome of an impoverished Third World existence.
“Tim, I ask you question is ok?” Visal inquired on that Monday afternoon when he did indeed collect me in the afternoon from my job.
“Sure Visal. Ask away.” Is he going to ask me to pay for the flat tire repair? I’ll take 2:1 odds for that one. Is he going to apologize for not coming in the morning? Not bloody likely. Well go ahead and ask your damn question; I’m sitting on the back of your motorbike man, it’s not like I have a choice in the matter.
“Saturday you will come to see my family? They live in Kandal province. I will drive you, you not have to pay anything to go there! Is ok?”
I have been down this road before. I have traveled to the provinces to meet my ex-girlfriend’s family where I not only had to pay for the ride out there, but I was also expected to cover two boxes of beer for the extended family which included an ice-addicted brother and an uncle whose occupation was to drive around on a motorbike fixing oscillating fans.
“Oh gee Visal, I don’t know. I’ll have to check my schedule first.” I don’t want to be intentionally perfidious, but I simply can’t find a polite way to explain to him that I would rather stick pins in my balls than spend my weekend sitting on the floor of my motodop’s impoverished family’s wooden shack drinking warm Angkor and eating squid and beef on that portable barbeque thing everyone seems to have except me. But ultimately I relent. I agree to visit his family over the weekend, and of course it turns out to be one of the coolest, most memorable experiences of my time in Cambodia.
“Tim, I have the great news,” Visal exclaims to me one day a few months back, misusing English’s definite article as is his wont. “The U.S. Embassy is hiring 100 security guards and I want to ask if you can help me with the online application.”
This is actually something I would have no problem assisting him in. Any embassy job is highly sought after for Cambodians and the salary could provide the employees with extra discretionary income to perhaps send one of their kids to school who otherwise would not have been able to go. But I feel the need to warn him of the seriousness of working for the U.S. government “You know Visal, working security for the U.S. Embassy is not the same as working security for Smile Mart right? You can’t be lazy.”
Visal nearly guffaws through the open front of his helmet. Turns out, in the late 1990s, Visal had a security position at the U.S. Embassy. He lost it nearly two months after starting because he fell asleep on the job. “Back then, I had very good salary and I would go out every night. In the morning, I was very tired. What can I do?” he pondered with regret, but also with a hint of a smile.
At first, I could only muster a rueful shake of the head. I have never met such lazy people in all my travels. But then, even I had to smile too. I have never met such people who are as content with their lives as Cambodians.
A few odd jobs and Visal was eventually able to put together enough money to purchase a tuk tuk. But after his wife became sick with a life threatening illness, the medical bills forced him to sell it. “What did you get demoted to motodop?” I asked upon running into him for the first time since my return to Phnom Penh last year. “Pretty soon you’re gonna be the net ru jayk guy selling grilled bananas on the side of the road,” I added with a little too much laughter than was called for. Visal didn’t find my sense of humor agreeable.
I try to be as empathetic and understanding as I can whilst living in this developing country. The longer you stay here, the easier this is. That said, no one likes to have their benevolence taken advantage of. My relationship with Visal became, for me, the perfect encapsulation of how these two juxtaposed sentiments are always in constant conflict with one another here.
There was one time where I gave Visal an extra phone I had because his cheap, ten-dollar Nokia was hopelessly broken and he hadn’t the funds to replace it. “If you’re ever going to be late, just call me, please. That’s all I ask,” I instructed him.
And yet there I was one day after work, standing in the oppressive heat of Cambodia’s dry season for 25 minutes, sweating bullets and waiting for Visal but neither seeing him or receiving a phone call. I tried calling him but kept getting that automated Khmer message which tells you the person you are trying to call has their phone off.
“Where the hell were you yesterday?” I demanded in a rare moment of rage the following morning after I had to pay an extra $1.50 to get home after already paying Visal at the beginning of the month.
“Oyyyyyy, I have big problem with bike chain. What can I do?” Another favorite expression of his apparently.
“You could have called me! Didn’t I just give you a god damn phone for exactly this scenario?”
“I know you give me phone but I have no money on the phone ha ha ha.”
Luckily for Visal I have Sicilian blood coursing through my veins, and the ability to coldly calculate the options available to me before I make a rash decision based on raw emotions. Should I just hit him with one punch to the lower jaw and end his day right there? Or should I throw him to the ground and stomp him a few times?
In the end, I laughed along with him because what would getting angry accomplish? Indeed, what can I do?
“I’m only paying you $50 this month,” I calmly articulated to Visal some days after that. “The reason is that you failed to pick me up one day last month so I am docking you $1.50 for that. Moreover, we have three public holidays this month when I do not need you to drive me.”
The look appearing on Visal’s face was one of malevolent indignation. “This is not good to me you know. You know my family very poor you no need to be cheap like this.”
“Visal listen to me. You drive me in the morning and afternoon. There is nothing preventing you from picking up other customers at all other times of the day to earn more money. If you don’t like this arrangement, I will find someone else to drive me.” And then, after a pause, “Is OK?” for good measure.
There are certain images one never forgets. For me, the top three are the Twin Towers falling down, that malnourished African boy and the vulture waiting behind him, and the look of betrayal on Visal’s face when he saw me one time being driven by another motodop. He will accept the $50 for this month.
But Visal is very clever, more precocious than even most of the American university students I used to teach. He’ll get me back: 2,000 riel for a bottle of water here, 5,000 for a liter of gasoline there.
“Didn’t I just pay you $60 yesterday? Why do you need to borrow 5,000 riel for petrol today?”
“Alright, alright. Here. Forget it!”
Trying to contest these matters with Cambodians is an exercise in futility. Visal has the home-field advantage here, and he’s going to win.
I considered getting a bicycle a few times. It would certainly be more simplistic and also comes with a sense of independence and self-reliance. But I was confronted with the question of how to break the news to Visal. If I told him on the last day of the month that I didn’t need him anymore, just when he would be anticipating his next payday, it would be a rather heartless thing to do. But I reasoned that if I gave him his two weeks’ notice, he might just piss off and not take me for the final two weeks. Three years in Cambodia have told me that loyalty doesn’t go far here. Would it be appropriate to pay him $10 of separation money the way I once paid for my ex-girlfriend’s lunch after informing her the relationship was over?
But there is always something else preventing me from giving Visal his marching orders. After a long day at work, to walk out the doors and see Visal (usually) waiting at the curb in a plaid shirt two or three sizes too big taking a brief, little siesta on his bike, his goofy but genuinely mirthful smile upon seeing me, and listening to him pontificate on some random anecdote of Khmer culture, I realize that Visal is as much a part of my life in this country than anything. I can no more fire him than I can imagine leaving Cambodia at this point. For better or worse, no matter how annoyed I get at Visal, I recognize that I need him, as crazy as that might sound. I am here to stay in Cambodia as Visal is here to stay with me.
What can I do?