Lights Out!

Tonight as I was leaving the Hagar office, I discovered the street blanketed in a present calm.  Everyone was up to the normal— cooking over a heavy iron cauldron, playing in the street, sniffing and pawing at the garbage, fixing a greasy moto, pushing a rickety cart full of snails doused in chili peppers… But something was missing.  It was the light.

A power outage tends to be a simple and regularly occurring thing here in Phnom Phenh, though I am still

Twilight

Twilight

getting used to the “TWWWEEEKTWEETAH” that is signal of our generator’s motor bursting forth into motion, like a trusty, lumbering giant turning a huge crank. Imagine five impatient little kids with cheap plastic whistles trying really diligently to “TWWEEAKKK!” in unison, but without much luck. And so the generator lurches forth, pouring out filthy pockets of smoke that waft up to the second floor where I can see it from our window. Most of the time it does its job and all is well—we continue with our work unscathed. Though every once in a while we too must remain patient and powerless.

Any business that means business must have it’s own generator here, otherwise nothing would ever get done. They take are huge heavy, metal boxes staked out front, about the size of the boxy white VW Vanagon of my childhood (no, not the, cool-kid retro VW bus, but the awkward, obtuse beast we regularly bought the cheap plastic four-packs of hubcaps for).  They’re so obvious that you don’t even really notice them.

Hop on!

Hop on!

The electricity here just isn’t reliable. It’s not an outrageous fact, just a fact of life, and so most of the world around here just keeps moving.  I found this fact to be quite true as I hopped on my bike towards home and entered the swarming traffic. Now, the traffic is pretty much always in some state of swarm, but tonight the few traffic lights were out and even the police were trying make some sense of things. I actually think this may have been the first time I’ve ever seen a policeman here… (and it’s almost been three weeks! Such is Phnom Penh).

On a normal day, the traffic patterns here are a borderline farce.  It’s kind of like a relatively slow moving circus minus the friendly monkeys in tutus.  There are lanes and general sides of the road to stick to, but as most of the traffic consists of motos and tuk tuks, it’s just too tempting to scoot on down the wrong side of the road waiting for the right side to clear out. Making a left turn simply means pulling into oncoming traffic and plugging along before the median keeps you from crossing over.  Nobody ever really stops for anyone, they just slow down a bit as you ease yourself in the oncoming wave of vehicles…

That’s a normal day.  Today wasn’t quite normal.  It was like the absence of two traffic lights gave everyone

Tuk Tuk Vision

Tuk Tuk Vision

permission to drive as badly as they ever wanted, like when you have a substitute teacher in elementary school.  At the intersection of two very wide, busy roads (Monivong and Sihanouk) EVERYONE was going. EVERYONE from EVERY side of the road. There were even a few diagonal side-shows dodfing around with frogger- like agility. I would have laughed, but I was in the middle of it, running on instinct and a few choice profanities I didn’t have time to utter. When the traffic gets hairy, I often take my survival tips from those tiny little fish that swim alongside Great White Sharks.  They get a little protection, way more street cred than they’d ever get on their own, and the benefit of the draft making their swim more like coasting comfortably. I wasn’t quite coasting comfortably, but I did make it to the other side.  Where the lights were working. Then I laughed.

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One Response to “Lights Out!”

  1. Jane and Lane Says:

    I can clearly see this whole scene playing in my head… esp the part at the end where you laugh after surviving the crazy mess. So excited for you! (Janelle)

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