Engineering change

October 21, 2014

Last week, I was on my way to Kampot province on business with a colleague. He picked me up early in the morning, and we were wending our merry way south, when the car started making ominous noises, and the engine began cutting out. We managed to make our way to what I was told was a garage, and a number of teenagers made their way over, and began the age-old ritual of sucking on their teeth while staring at our engine.

So I resigned myself to uncountable hours of sitting around. And so it came to be.

But unlike many garages where I’ve spent time, this one was quite fascinating. For a start, most of the tools seemed to be made of refashioned lengths of rebar. It was even filthier than most Western garages. And there was no electricity.

Despite all this, they guys had the cylinder head off in a couple of minutes. In between rounds of tooth-sucking, various people headed off on extremely lengthy moped journeys to pick up new accelerator couplings and head gaskets. Eventually, all the right spares appeared, and a few minutes later the engine was purring away nicely. It was quite a feat of skill and ingenuity. Our trip was ruined, but it was an education into what you can do with practically nothing at all.

I was thinking about this as I watched, at some length over the past couple of weeks, the erection of a couple of extra storeys on the building next door to ours. Lorries keep turning up laden with bricks, which have to be unloaded by hand, two at a time, by large gangs of labourers. This takes a full day for each truckload: a job that with pallets and a forklift would take less than five minutes. Then the bricks are stuffed into sacks and carried on to the roof, which is another full day per load. It’s the same with sand. It makes me weep at the inefficiency of it all, but, of course, it employs a lot of people, which is a good thing.

And the health and safety! Kids in their mid-teens in nothing but sunglasses, jeans and flip-flops hanging from one leg upside down 60 feet up while tack welding. I truly can’t watch.

Yet this country, despite its technological limitations, has more Sim cards per capita than anywhere else on earth (I’ve been told). Even Blossom has two. And after dark, the labourers, who all sleep on the roof amongst the piles of sand and bricks and cement, all play with their mobile phones, the little silvery lights sparkling like a shoal of fish through the darkness. It’s most odd.

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One Response to “Engineering change”

  1. Peter said

    Thanks, Rupert. Becoming quite addicted to your posts. They are both entertaining and educational. Perfect. Keep them coming, since I am now longing to visit this country you clearly have such great affection for, Cambodia!

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