My Credit Card, KFC, the Meaning of Haste, Not the Meaning of Haste, and Dietary WMD.
In the United States, to have one’s credit card account put “on hold” would be grounds for getting slightly upset, peeved even. Fortunately, I am here in Cambodia, and when my dad emailed me to tell me that he received a letter from my credit card company saying that my account had been put on hold due to unusual activity, I did not flinch or get terribly nervous. One, this is because you really can’t use a credit card here unless you’re along the riverfront, the tourist mecca, and thus a place I avoid. Two, this is because I assumed that the unusual activity was the actual absence of activity on my account, and this in fact made me slightly cheerful.
Nonetheless, knowing that should an emergency arise I would need it to get a ticket out of here, I hopped on the phone and called my credit card company. After taking time (stupidly) to learn that all the push-button options were not going give me the service I needed, I proceeded to peck at the zero key until the calm-toned computer lady finally realized that I wasn’t smart enough to be dealt with in her organized way. Thus, she transferred me to “hold” until someone picked up the phone. I sat for a few minutes listening to Kenny G and Tina Turner, contemplating whether or not the music sufficiently justified hanging up. But, just as Tina went into her last chorus of “I’ve Got the Power,” while at the same time I was picturing a 60-something year old woman in a leather miniskirt dancing about a strobe-light-ridden stage and singing, a fine man introducing himself as Earl picked up the phone and started asking me to verify who I was.
After that was done, Earl asked what my problem was. I told him that my account had been “temporarily put on hold” due to this “unusual activity.” He then asked me if I had been in California recently. I told him yes, that I was in San Francisco to attend the Kiva Training seminar thingy. At this point I became concerned that this short trip to California would cause them to suspend my account, but then I remembered that I didn’t use my credit card while I was there. At the same time, he asked me if I went to any KFCs, to which I said no, I hadn’t frequented any Kentucky Fried Chickens during my stay. Thus, we determined that it was someone with my credit card # who in fact had. By now I was amazed at our age’s computer advancements, that Visa and Kentucky Fried Chicken can determine whether or not someone trying to pay for their 16-piece grease bucket and 2-liter bottle of corn syrup is actually paying with their own fixed 8.9% APR money, or mine, in this case.
As the conversation wound down, Earl told me to destroy my credit card, that it was of no use, which I realized when I was trying to buy skype credit with it in an effort to call my credit card company, hoping that being in Cambodia would throw the system off just enough to let me spend $10.00, and thus put some activity on my account and preemptively end what I had thought was the unusual [in]activity. Regardless, for some reason, I can’t bring myself to destroy the card. It’s worthless to me, and to anyone who steals it, but there’s something about having it that is a comfort. This, mind you, is disturbing, as if I now seem to have a psychological aversion to parting with a worthless plastic piece of junk that says Visa.
But I digress. Work here in Cambodia has been good. I spent Monday and Tuesday in Kandal Province, which surrounds Phnom Penh. I was observing Angkor Microfinance Kampuchea’s (AMK) loan disbursement and repayment procedures. While these observations were going on, I had my Cambodian Kiva counterparts practice getting information for business profiles and journals, which they did quite well.
Now, while the work itself went smoothly, with no problems arising, my driving experiences, whether going into the field or getting to the office, have been noteworthy (at least nominally). I awoke Monday morning and began casually getting out of bed and getting ready. I visited with my friend Ratha, but as I looked at my watch I noticed that the time was 7:23am. The office opens at 7:30, and we were to leave for the field at that time. Being someone who is always early wherever he goes, I had timed the ride to my office: eight minutes. I would be one minute late, and would somehow miss the trip out into the field that was arranged especially for me. When pressed for time, I should add, my thought processes lack the rationality that I’m accustomed to approaching most of life’s situations with. Thus, I panicked, ran to Thy (the fastest-driving moto-taxi man I know), and, not being able to resist the theatrical moment that I was presented with, hopped on the back of his moto and declared: “Fly Thy, show me the meaning of haste.” He looked at me confusedly, and so I clarified: “I need to be to work in five minutes.” That he understood clearly. He smiled, started his engine, and blasted up Street 310. We made it in four minutes, and that was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on a moto. Thankfully traffic was non-existent and so my trip was not suicidal (Thy would have made it in four minutes regardless of the traffic), and I now inwardly refer to Thy as Shadowfax, for his magical abilities of getting me to work in half the time allowed me to check my email and go to the bathroom before we departed.
On Tuesday I made it to work even earlier, and this time taking the full eight minutes to get there. We left the AMK office at about 8:00 and drove out into the field. I should note here that the pretty rice-paddy scenery in the provinces makes for a generally enjoyable driving experience, but only for about ten minutes, after which time one realizes that banging against the side of the vehicle every time you hit a big bump is going to leave bruises up and down your left (or right) side. This was not an issue on Monday, since most of the time there were only three of us in the back of one of AMK’s early- to mid-1990s Land Cruisers. It was comfy, air-conditioned, and there was enough space between me and the wall of the truck to allow me to bounce about with impunity. Tuesday presented a different scenario. One of my colleagues, Paujo, a nice bloke from Maine who I share an office with right now, wanted to go out into the field to see the same processes that I was. Thus, as he rode into work at about 8:00am on Tuesday, I called over to him and told him that we were heading out and that if he wanted to join us he could. He ran up to the office, dropped his stuff off, made sure there wasn’t anything pressing that demanded his attention, and came out.
In the meantime, I was casually leaning against one of the Land Cruisers, ready for another pleasant ride out into the field. Suddenly, however, a small Toyota Tacoma pickup truck pulled up and Pok Thy, the regional manager responsible for Kandal and also my guide, hopped in the front seat. I looked in the back seat (and at least it boasted an extended cabin), and grimaced. Four of us—Sophanith, Sophany, Paujo and I—would occupy that four-and-a-half foot space for the rest of the day. Paujo and I had backpacks precariously arranged on our laps or on the floor, which meant either blocking the air conditioning or having no foot room. I opted for the latter, and remained awkwardly positioned but reasonably cool, despite wearing dress clothes like everyone else. We arranged ourselves efficiently (like sardines, i.e.), and I waited for the driver to come shut my door. I was going to shut it myself, but when I tried I incidentally elbowed myself just beneath the ribs with the full weight of the door, which drove home the point that I should not have done that. Thus, it was up to our driver to close my door for me, and while I sat trying to look calm, I was in fact quite worried that much of me was still hanging out of the truck. He shut the door with enough oomph that everything previously hanging out was now smushed up inside. He chuckled. I made an involuntary grunt-like sound.
And thus we drove. When we hit the dirt roads, and the bumps that came every five seconds, my left shoulder banged against the corner of the door and the frame of the truck, while my head bounced back and forth between that same corner and the headrest (the corner won). Additionally, halfway into the journey, I began to notice a numbness coming over my right side from the waist down. Then I realized that I had committed the cardinal sin of long drives: I was sitting (read: bouncing up and down) on my wallet, worthless credit card and all. This too would leave a bruise, though I couldn’t feel it at the time.
Trying to take my mind off this sensation, or lack thereof, I asked Paujo what he figured the life of the suspension on these vehicles was. He said he didn’t know, and instead remarked rhetorically that he wondered what the suspension of his own rear end was, though his choice of words was slightly less kosher. The day continued on in this way, and when it was finally over, I asked Sopanith: how do you say “I’m tired” in Khmer. He told me, and I now have a new phrase, which this week has seen wide usage among those of us going into the field.
I took Wednesday off, needing to go to the bank to open an account, which was an ordeal in itself. The first time I went to the bank they told me I needed a letter from my employer saying that I actually worked in Cambodia and was not some useless lemming merely seeking to make a deposit. Thus, the next time I went into work I pulled up AMK’s letterhead and typed one sentence saying that I work here. Paul, my boss and AMK’s CEO, signed it and had me go get it stamped. In Cambodia, I should add, things with stamps and other official-looking “insignia” seem to be highly valued. On a side note, I should say that this largely constitutes a joke, as the first time I was here I found myself signing my name on fifty certificates of completion for a workshop that I and several friends put together. I could have signed “Santa Claus” or “Mr. Bojangles” with the same effect.
Anyway, when I was at the bank on Wednesday, they asked me if AMK was closed? I said no, and then they asked why I wasn’t at work. I told them: “because I needed to come here to open an account.” To this they replied: “why didn’t you come when AMK was closed.” AMK is closed on the weekend, and, coincidentally, so is the bank. Somehow this point wasn’t getting through, but fortunately some lady kept hearing “AMK” being mentioned, and so she walked over. I looked up, and saw one of my colleagues, who then verified that I am not a useless lemming seeking merely to make a deposit. For example, she too was there instead of at AMK. This is perhaps the first and only time that I will ever be grateful for windows between offices. Hers is right next to mine, and in this case that lack of privacy allowed me to open a bank account.
Thursday I was supposed to go back out into the field, but AMK did not have a vehicle available, and while I was slightly disappointed, my body was glad it had another day’s rest in a nice air-conditioned office. That night I went out with a friend who I met here and a few of her Cambodian friends, as well as some folks she met while traveling. We grabbed dinner and drinks, but as I had a splitting headache I didn’t drink anything and decided to call it a night fairly early. I hopped a moto and set off for home. The next thing I knew, however, I was in the Boeng Kak area at around 11:30 at night. At night, this area becomes a bit seedy, as evidenced by the many strung-out people drinking in dive bars and the drug dealers dangling bags of weed in front of your face as you drive by. This it seems actually takes some skill, since they never obstruct the moto-driver’s field of vision, but manage to slip the bag of drugs between him and his passenger. They know who to market to, evidently. Nonetheless, I found myself saying repeatedly, in Khmer, “no thank you” (why I thanked them I’m not quite sure…instinct, perhaps). Fortunately, I somehow got across the point that, as a wholesome lad, I don’t frequent the prostitute- and drug-ridden sections of town, and instead live in a nice quiet neighborhood, which I eventually got to.
Friday turned out to be a casual day, but a big one since AMK’s Kiva profile is done and I now have access to do things of consequence (hopefully good consequence, mind you). Being very tired though, I was also very ready for Friday to be over, and at 5:30, after a ten-hour day with a working lunch, it was. I shut down my computer, packed it up, and walked out of the office and into the heat of a fine Cambodian evening. I hopped a moto for home, and off we went for the casual drive home. As we proceeded towards my house, however, I noticed that my moto driver didn’t turn right onto Street 310 like most drivers do. Considering the fact that the opportunity to cross from one side of the street to the other in heavy traffic never presented itself, I didn’t blame him. There were other ways to get back anyway, and so he kept driving until he was able to get across the street. By this point, however, I began to notice that the sputter of his moto grew into a loud cough, and, on an unpaved side street about a mile from my place, the engine quit. He jumped up and down on the starter, trying to get some life into the tiny scooter, while I likewise bounced up and down on the seat. Tragically, his efforts were in vain, and I aggravated the bruise on my posterior.
Knowing that my ride was over, I began to dismount so I could start to walk, but he just looked at me and motioned for me to stay seated. He then sat back down, and with his left leg began pulling us along, determined to get me where I was going (despite the fact that he no longer knew where he was going). So there I sat, wearing sunglasses, slacks, a button-down shirt, dress shoes, and a helmet, moving at about half a mile per hour down a dirt road on the back of a moto while the driver pulled us both along with his left leg. This was not “the meaning of haste,” and rather an omniscient being’s way of getting back at me for defying the odds and making it to work on time on Monday.
As we creeped along, and as I sat thinking about how it would be faster for me to walk, and calorically more conservative for him to let me, I began to notice that everyone was out on in the road or on their balconies looking at us (well, probably me). Now, I hadn’t been at all comfortable with the situation at hand, letting some old guy drag me about a dirt road in Phnom Penh, but now that I was being stared at with confused-to-angry looks, I decided that it was definitely the time to get off. I went to stand up, but the guy grabbed my arm and sat me back down, and so I seemed stuck on the back of this guys moto. I felt, very simply, like a jackass. Then suddenly an idea came over me, I could help him out, and so between his left leg and my right leg, we pressed on in our slow journey. After about ten minutes we hit what could legitimately be classified as a road, and so I gave him a buck, begrudgingly took what change he had, and we parted ways. Two minutes later I was on the back of another moto, this one with enough gas, though the driver also didn’t know where he was going, and so after another ten minutes of trying to convince him that I did, I finally arrived home and had a beer.
In other news, and I have no idea what caused this, I have had immense cravings for fast food, not KFC, mind you, but burgers and fries, and Coca Cola as well. I don’t eat this stuff in the US, and I stopped drinking soda years ago, but for some reason I now have deep cravings for it. Thus, three days last week I went over to Lucky Seven (fast food chain) and got a sandwich, fries and a coke. Additionally, on Monday, when lunchtime came, we all piled into the comfy Land Cruiser and drove to a restaurant in Kandal. It boasted “fine Khmer and Thai cuisine in a relaxing and comfortable environment.” The terms relaxing and comfortable are of course strictly relative, as the floor was covered with tissues that previous diners and we used to wipe dust and dirt off our seats, and I spent most of the hour batting flies away from my Coke, which I drank warm because I did not trust the source of the ice. I ordered fried rice, which is a generally safe dish since everything is cooked, but I was slightly dismayed that it came served on a bed of lettuce and freshly cut tomatoes. Hepatitis A aside, I was starving and assume that I’ve been immunized for this, so hopefully I have antibodies. Fortunately, nearly two weeks later and I can say that nothing happened except the fact that I filled my stomach with some very tasty food. My days of dietary WMD are over, and my daily meals have returned to normal: lots of rice, fruit, stir-fried vegetables, and some good meat, pork in particular. Life is never dull here. Life is good.
Much love to you all,
p.s. The wicked French lady came back earlier than I expected. She never paid Thou, saying that her guidebook (three years old, mind you) said that Visa extentions only cost $35, and thus Thou was ripping her off by charging $40. Thou managed to get back at her, incidentally, for when she requested a ticket to Ho Chi Minh “Ville,” Thou’s sister accidentally booked her a ticket to Sihanoukville instead. We laughed heartily as we sat picturing the wicked French lady sitting properly and confidently on the bus bound for the south shores of Cambodia instead of Vietnam./>