Monday, January 21, 2013


Over the past ten days, I've reached another set of milestones of life in Phnom Penh.  My “virgin” contract was successfully completed and the document is being printed.  I got a tooth extracted that was ready to fall out anyway.  I enrolled in Khmer lessons and have checked out some gyms.  I’ve created lists, mulled over plans, and analysed my financial situation.  I've rationalized the long dry spells that can sometimes characterize the life of a consultant.  I've done networking of some form every day.  Despite the complexity of my self-directed inner life, there are times when circumstances change in the world around you, which ripples out into other changes, and moves on and on through the universe. 
The man on the lower right calls out as he approaches up the alley.  He sells noodles.
The man on the lower right calls out as
he approaches up the alley.
He sells noodles
Men have started working on the terrace outside of my apartment.  What previously was relatively quiet place to work was corrupted by the construction of a bamboo scaffolding outside the front window late last week.   The space is now crowded with a couple of guys who’ve spent the past two days hammering off the chipped ceramic finish off the concrete pillars that hold up the railing.   When they showed up at 8am on a Saturday, I knew this was the time I would go on a morning loop bike ride through town.   I had a general direction in mind, but the intention was to circle around town.  Phnom Penh has a generally logical layout, thanks to the French.  My concentration on navigating traffic has really impeded the awareness of the “bigger picture.”   I am hoping that with enough circumnavigation, I can recognize thoroughfares and eventually figure out the shortcuts across town.  

I happened to pass by the pharmacy that is the only place in Cambodia that stocks the glucose testing strips I use.  I needed to restock and I had enough money with me to buy them, so I dropped in for a resupply.  The young guard gestured me into a spot right next to the front door.   Ten minutes later, I came out and my bike was gone.   I’d forgotten to lock it.  The poor security guy avoided eye contact, mortified that it happened and scared of what I will do.   The pharmacy staff jump into action, reviewing the security tape.  They played it on the monitor in the retail area and we all clustered around to watch. One young woman obligingly placed her palm over her mouth in a typically Asian gesture that indicates you are watching something horrible about to unfold.   

The time clicks by at the bottom of the screen.  My bike is poised in full view of the camera. The customers come and go from the front door.   An old woman with a stick across her shoulders and the baskets of noodle makings hanging from each end walks by and the group murmurs in a universal, “definitely NOT her” confirmation.   We’re all waiting.  Then, there’s a movement in a corner, a young male passerby, a glance to confirm, and a split second decision to move.  My little red bike and the helmet in the basket was gone.  I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.    The owner was apologetic and I was chagrined at my distraction.  There was little to be done.  I apologized to the security guy in pantomime before I left.  He was at risk for losing his job.

I got a tuk tuk home,  replenished the money stash and went shopping for a replacement.  Fortunately, I’d been through this drill before.  Bikes come into Cambodia from both China and Japan, collected from thieves and cast off shops in richer countries.  There’s a two block radius where nearly all bikes come to be bought and sold.   Meandering on foot through the area, I passed by wafts of spray paint, very dark skinny men squatting in front of bowls of grease and turpentine, women shopkeepers with their cash purses slung across their shoulder. The bikes are in various forms of destruction and construction, newness and oldness, colors and styles. They are lined up as soldiers on attention, poised for action.  As I stood on the sidewalk discussing price with one vendor, a man pulled up next to me on his motorbike.   
Bikes in transport.  Gil
Bikes in transport. Gil
“Do you remember me?” he said, “I work at the pharmacy. I’ve been driving around looking for your bike.”  He shows me a few photos of red bikes on his camera, and mentions the thief’s distinctive blue headscarf.  I thank him for his thoughtfulness and kindness, give him my phone number in case he sees it and we part ways.  At after that moment, I am ready to move on and make a decision.   I thrill a bike vendor by agreeing on a beater bike and negotiating only a couple of dollars off with a replacement brake cable and a headlight thrown in if I buy a new bike lock.  All for $31. I venture around the corner for a new helmet and make my way home. 

On the ride home I consider a few options for lunch, but in the end I’m pulled to the stalls that line the street in front of the school that’s across the street from my apartment.    A nice woman agrees to make me noodles and vegetables, I purchase an iced green tea from her neighbor and sit down on a bright red stool in the shade under the big umbrella and dig into a beautifully presented and simple meal that brings sustenance, hope and reassurance (75 cents).  The students on their lunch break look at me with curiosity and I bust out a few words of my newly acquired Khmer language, which results in lots of smiles and giggles.  I let the food vendor know that I will see her again soon.  We exchange names.

It’s the first time I've explored the food vendors in my own neighborhood.  It’s the first time I've not locked my bicycle when I’m out and about.   This is, for many months, the first time that I've had more than a week of relatively unstructured time to fill up all by myself without the endless list of home improvement projects or travel adventures.  Every morning, I wake up and wonder what is going to happen next.  What new things will I learn?  What new projects or exploratory challenges can I cook up for myself?   What emails/texts/or other signals will arrive? 

New bike in the secure parking area on the ground floor.  If I'd parked my bike farther from the door, it might have survived.
New bike in the secure parking area on the ground floor.
 If I'd parked my bike farther from the door, it might have survived.

Last night, I was reading The Marriage Plot, a Christmas present from my sister.  The Society of Friends shows up in one of the character’s lives.  In an instant, I was triggered back to my early twenties.  I was active with the Friends meeting during college and followed the practice as I moved to Cambridge and lived with a few girls in a shared house on a quiet street on Huron Avenue.   The Friends meeting in Cambridge was held in a 200 year old brick colonial not far from my neighborhood.  The meeting was big; over one hundred people gathered each Sunday for silent communion.  Quaker practice believes that the spirit of God lives within each person.  When people are moved to speak, they stand and do so.   With a bit of a trembling voice one Sunday in 1985, I talked about my bicycle.

For a few months, I’d been looking for an old bomber bike to commute to the train station at Harvard Square.   I needed something that would be unattractive for thieves and reliable. At the time, I was working on the streets of Boston with homeless youth bearing witness to trauma, prostitution, , mental illness and alienation.  At the end of my night schedule, I needed a simple and fast way to get from the Harvard Square station to home.  Since I had free time in the mornings, I walked nearly every day on the loop around Fresh Pond.

One morning, in the midst of the detritus of the Brahmin intelligentsia lined up on the sidewalks outside of their mansions, I found my bicycle waiting in a trash pile.  Cumbersome in its heavy black steel frame, the chain was rusted and the tires were flat.  It was completely and utterly abandoned.  

Gleefully, I hauled it off the pile of Hefty bags, wheeled the bike back to the house and set about to get it into action.  That Sunday I spoke about the providence of my bicycle.  The belief that the world will always provide what you need when you keep your desires simple.  That often by slowing down, we can see things that others would pass by.  In casting off what we don’t need or those things that no longer serves us, we can sometimes open new doors or create joy.   

These are days where I’m loaded to receive and waiting for the next step to unfold.  I know that each action creates ripples of reaction.  I’m both the person tossing the stone in the pond and the still water waiting.  Somewhere, deep in the recesses of Phnom Penh’s vast urban poverty, someone will benefit from my forgetful lack of stewardship: a month of food for a family, transportation for a student, a helmet for a teenager.   I am bonding to my new silver clunker.  The bike vendor installed a new bright blue bell just for me.    

Angelas Bike, Artwork by Sean Breithaupt.
Angelas Bike, Artwork by Sean Breithaupt.

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