The Meanderthals

Cookin’ with gas in the Penh

While popping a batch of popcorn for a lunchtime snack and with a dinner party at our home only hours away, I make the startling discovery that we were really, really low on propane.

As in, almost completely out of gas.

This may not sound like a particularly challenging prospect. But as a foreigner living in Phnom Penh, this is kind of like calling Comcast to fix your cable and internet a few hours before start of the Super Bowl so you can watch the game and taunt your college roommate simultaneously.

As we say in Boston, good freakin’ luck.

This is not because service stinks in Phnom Penh, or that deliveries aren’t promptly completed. To the contrary, in fact. Normally, you call and within minutes some Cambodian guy who weighs less than my right forearm shows up on a motorbike with a rusty tank of propane strapped onto the seat behind him.

It’s piece of cake, once you get your point across. And therein lies the problem.

It’s 1:13 on a Sunday afternoon and I am standing in my living room, my cell phone glued to my ear as I destroy the Khmer language in a fever-pitched and fruitless conversation with a woman on the other end of the line from the gas company.

I begin to pace and sweat as she speaks faster and faster and my grasp of the language begins to dissipate faster than Lindsay Lohan’s career.

The problem, as if often the case when one indulges in speaking a language other than ones’ native tongue – which in my case is anything more complicated than the cryptic grunts folks from western Massachusetts use to direct each other to the closest Dunkin’ Donuts – is that you are rarely saying what you think you are saying.

I tell her I need a delivery of gas, substituting “gas” for the whatever is the word for propane gas.

“Cha, cha, cha…” she says. (“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”) So far, so good.

“Phtea noe ey nah?” she aks. (Where’s your house?)

I tell her the street number and house number.

Again, “cha, cha, cha…”

I relax, thinking we’re cooking with gas now.

She asks me what sounds like a request for the section of the city we live in – songkat – which in our case is Daun Penh. I tell her. She repeats the question but much faster and louder, which seems to be one of Cambodians’ favorite games. This is delivered with a sense of urgency normally reserved for someone who is either badly in need of a bathroom or engaged with a debate with Joan Rivers.

For a clueless baraing on the other end of the phone, this is akin to running head first into a brick wall and, upon realizing that the brick wall remains intact but your painful forehead is cut and bleeding, repeating the process again and again, each time expecting some magical, positive resolution.

Like the experts say, the definition of insanity is repeating the same process and expecting a different outcome.

Undeterred by such obscure logic, we continue our verbal sparring, her jabbing and me parrying. There is no end in sight until she apparently gives up and there’s suddenly a new voice on the other end of the phone.

“Haloooo???” he says, a sure sign that I will need to start over from the beginning.

I sigh. I prepare to do just so, but not before trying a slightly different tactic.

I ask him – in Khmer – if he speaks English.

“Halooo?” No such luck.

So I slog away in Khmer and repeat the description, address, and tell him what I want.

“Baat, baat, baat…” he responds, which is the Cambodian male’s equivalent of “cha, cha, chat…” which means, of course “yeah, yeah, yeah.” Which, as I believe I have already established in this essay, can also mean “What? What? What?”

Then he asks me the same ill-fated question that precipitated the earlier circular, disastrous discussion with his predecessor. This time, however, he speaks a bit more clearly and I realize he is not asking what district I live in (“songkat”) but is asking if I need whatever the hell I am buying for my stove (“jawng kraan.”)

“Baat, baat, baat,” I affirm,  picking up on the game and building a head of steam of my own. Much to my surprise he asks me – and I understand – what size of a tank (in kilograms) I want.

“Dop pram,” I tell him. Fifteen.

“Baat, baat, baat…” he says and hangs up.

This is normally the point that things either get resolved in a hurry or spin hopelessly out of control.

I look at my watch. 1:20.

Sweaty and a bit tired from my abbreviated game of linguistic ring around the rosie, I head to the air conditioned comfort of my bedroom to cool off and await the inevitable call which will indicate a) that they didn’t understand anything I said at all and are calling back to start all over again, b) that they don’t know where my house or street are (normally the #1 problem), or c) that it’s some combination of a) and b) and they’ve anointed some other poor soul to try his or her hand at communicating with the crazy foreigner who apparently wants to buy something.

Much to my surprise, it’s none of the above. It’s the delivery guy, and he is standing at my front gate. It is 1:25…clearly some sort of record, in terms of delivery response time. I think: maybe he’s been circling main streets of Phnom Penh, with 15 kilograms of propane strapped to the back of his motorbike awaiting an alert from his dispatcher.

“Saran! Some idiot foreigner who speaks Khmer really badly wants gas for his stove. He’s at #6, Street 222. Go fast before he calls someone else. And don’t speak Khmer to him…you’ll be there all day. Good luck!”

However highly unlikely, this is an amusing prospect as I wave him into the front gate from my balcony two stories above and open the apartment door to wait for him. Up the stairs he comes, with a tank on his shoulder that is bigger than he is and weighs a third of his body weight.

Two minutes later the tanks have been swapped and he is standing in my living room, staring at the $21 I placed in his hand as though it’s an invitation to a skating party at Rockefeller Center. I point out that the $20 was for the gas and the $1 was a tip for him.

The extra dollar having been explained, he gave me a big smile as he hoisted the empty canister onto his shoulder and heads out the door.

“Baat, baat, baat…”

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