Although my preferred mean of travel is on my feet, literally walking in the gutter with eyes darting in every direction, sometimes it is necessary because of rain, distance or scheduling to resort to other modes.
Thus have I indulged myself in a tuk-tuk on occasion. Infrequently, I have hailed a man on a motorcycle, the chief hazards with motos being the lack of a helmet and daredevil drivers. (Actually, it is motodops who hail pedestrians, not the other way around, with boundless hope in the face of constant rejection.)
But one vehicle I cannot bring myself to take is a cyclo, which is something like a rickshaw propelled by a man at the rear pedaling forward.
The individuals literally behind those vehicles obviously want, and desperately need, the work. Almost all of them seem aged and worn well beyond their ages. They almost always are old with a lifetime of pain and deprivation apparent in the creases on their weathered faces and the dimmed light behind their eyes.
Nonetheless, I cannot bear to have another human being sweat and strain so hard just to ease my passage through the streets, and none too fast at that. If the going is slow, it also is surer and probably safer than other options.
One might argue that I’d be doing them a favor, yet I find such reasoning to mark slight progress onto a slippery slope. Should men patronize prostitutes because their pimps will beat up the women for failing to make enough money? Do we purchase blood diamonds so the miners will have an income?
One of the two English-language dailies recently ran a piece about the dying breed of cyclo operators, the demand for whom is fading in streets increasingly clogged with motor vehicles.
The amount of cyclo business is consequently so diminished that one 71-year-old man, who survived incomprehensibly arduous farm work and unimaginable deprivation under the Khmer Rouge, has his earnings down to as little as $50 a month, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
Although tourists in the Riverside neighborhood make up the bulk of the demand that remains, I have seen older Cambodians seated in cyclos evidently on their way to or from errands elsewhere, usually in a market. They make picturesque subjects for the same tourists who are eager to snap photos of adorable children in tatters and women who labor on construction sites as quaint mementos of life in the developing world.
As for my photo at the top, I tipped the obliging driver for his cooperation to illustrate this post. Yet I can’t say that I am proud of what I did or that I no longer fail to feel somewhat guilty.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org (traveling until mid-September)