Malls; motos; ‘are they happy?’

The moto is the primary form of transport in Phnom Penh. Honda scooters in various states of repair and disrepair buzz in all directions through all streets; people carry multiple family members and stepladders and unplucked but dead chickens live chickens hanging by their feet and monks in saffron robes and entire windowpanes – maybe two. I ride on the back of a moto (wearing a helmet!) at least once a day. I usually ask the same moto driver for a ride because he speaks fairly good English and lives near the dorm. (He has a sweet little family, too, and every dollar I give him supports them as well, so that’s a cool side bonus.)

Last night as we were rounding a traffic circle and weaving through the many motos, he asked, “Are there this many motos like this, at this time of night in the US?” Our main commonality is in fact traffic, so this made sense as a topic. No, I explained, it’s mostly cars… some motos, mostly cars.

This morning over watermelon (see previous entry), M. asked me the same question. She explained how in Cambodia, once a kid turns 16 or they graduate from high school, they ask their parents for a moto.  I said:

–It’s the same in the U.S. but with cars. … I didn’t have a car, though. My parents couldn’t afford it. I had to ask people for rides.

–[She laughs at me, a hybrid sympathy/teasing giggle, and sticks up her thumb.]  Hitchhike?

–No, no, hitchhiking, too dangerous.

–So why is there no train or bus where you are from?

–I’m from… the suburbs. There was no reason to build a train because everyone already had a car. [Yes, I realize my logic was falling apart here…]

–How long does it take to get to the city?

–About a half an hour… but no one really goes to the city.

–What about for the market?

[Here’s where my brain got squirmy as the difference between life here and there expanded.]

–Oh, we have lots of shopping. We don’t need to go to the city… there’s big stores everywhere. Like the supermarket. There’s stores named Target and Wal-Mart and… lots of malls…

[The super markets here are very deluxe-y and look like shopping malls. Regular people shop in markets, rich people go to the supermarket and also buy sparkly jewelry there. Apparently.]

–So people buy a lot of things?

–Welll…. sort of. People do buy things. But sometimes people just go to a mall and hang out. They walk around with their friends and don’t buy anything.

–[She looks astounded.] Are they happy?

–Um… That’s a really good question.

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