Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Land O’ Lawlessness

I was patiently waiting at the 4-way intersection near my house when the officer, his helmet and moto prominently labeled “POLICE” reduced speed as he motored through the red light.  He was, albeit, cautious/ This was a stark contrast to the rebels who audaciously careened through the same light a few moments earlier. The three young helmetless boys were on a single mission, weaving their way through and leaving a wake of older people shaking their heads and the young girls giggling with their daring and foolish bravado.  

I’ve become both resigned, weary and demoralized by the various traffic transgressions all around me every day: no helmets, going the wrong way down the street, U-turns across 4 lanes of traffic, texting on a motorbike, driving a moto so fully-laden that the handlebars meet the sternum, and naturally the generally charming and happy  families of 5 balancing on a single overloaded bike- the smallest babe tucked in vertically with the breeze ruffling through the fluff on her head.

Postcards from Cambodia
There are times when I just have to say, "Life here is so dangerous.  I cannot understand these rules." I saw a man leaving the gym with a q-tip sticking out of his ear.  Workers who were toiling at one of Phnom Penh’s many construction sites were killed when a ill-constructed “elevator” dropped them from five stories up.   On every road trip south from Phnom Penh, if you leave the town around 4pm, you will see dozens of trucks loaded with girls getting ready to return to their villages after working in the factory.  Just yesterday, at least 20 were immediately killed and likely a dozen more to die from serious injuries when their overloaded factory-sponsored minibus (36 people in a vehicle intended for 12) was hit by a bus.    “Cambodia is open for business! “ says the Minister of Commerce.  No one should have to risk their life, everyday, to earn income.

There is also a new traffic law that has some people worried.  There will be limits-   only one passenger one (plus child) on a moto.  Everyone wears a helmet. Fines for drunken driving are going up. I am starting to see some impacts of this.  There is no widespread enforcement, but those who have the money are starting to comply and I wonder if there will be hope for change.  Perhaps the deaths of the young girls, the second accident this year, will create more awareness.  On a recent trip south, I saw 2 girls out of 20 strapping on their helmets after boarding their cattle truck for the ride home. My heart went out to them- such a small, naive and  likely futile gesture of self-protection in a very dangerous world. If only their employers would give them a seatbelt.

There are times that I head out into the fray myself and enter with my bicycle into the fantastic, flowing confluences of 5 streets that is the traffic circle around Independence Monument. In this land, one often moves from the inner lane to the outer lane with impunity.  Cars and motos and bicycles flow in and carry  out, slow down and speed up, nudge and sometimes wait motionless when the drivers are dumbfounded with the  patterns of their fellow drivers. 

On one workday on my way home from the gym, I approached the motodup taxi for the ride through the swirl of traffic around the Monument up ahead.   The young man handed me a helmet to use. This is the first time this has ever happened in 30 months of living here. I looked at him, smiling and dumbfounded, blitzed with a happy surprise of safety and compliance,glowing and basking in the glow of someone following the law.   In that moment, I  witnessed the moment of social change.  I  pulled my helmet out from the tote bag on my shoulder and saddled up for the short ride home.  

A young man at work stringing telephone
wire amonga beautiful vista in Koh Kong
province.  He clutches a piece of metal
rebar in his flip flop to ascend the pole.
Photo by Barbara Devine.