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The power of power

It was about 14.30 and I was running late. And not that I hadn’t done anything, riding the bike for an hour to catch the sunrise this morning had just worn me down. ‘Fortunately, I’m exactly have way’ was my last thought before a loud bang signaled an end to the progress on my bike. It was in the middle of nowhere, but the people of the small house I had passed 30 meters before were already walking in my direction. They spoke no English, but from their body language I could see they were looking for a solution. The mother of the house jumped on her scooter, I was directed towards the hammock, everything was going to be ok.

I quickly started playing with the kids, testing which game on my iPhone appealed most them. When the mother returned 5 minutes later she had brought an older lady along who came equipped with a big bag of tools and she started working straight away on my bike. I happily played along with the kids and could see from a distance that she was an experienced tire fixer.

When the bike was nearly fixed she indicated the price: $5. Which isn’t much for European standards, but in Cambodia where the average salary is less than $40 per month this is a lot of money. Through two kids, who had arrived on a scooter, I told her that I really appreciated her work, but that $5 was out of the question. I can pay a maxi….when she walked over to the bike and let all the air out from the tire. I checked my wallet and saw that I didn’t even have $5 in change. Almost $3 was all I had. The next alternative was $10. She obviously didn’t have change for such a high amount. And this was assuming that I was willing to pay the money.

A western looking guy drove by on his bike. I halted him. He was Spanish and and I changed a loose euro for a dollar (I knew one day it would come in handy).

In the end, I paid $4 for repairing a flat tire. I drove on my bike and was quickly overtaken by the two guys on the scooter. After 3 minutes something felt wrong. I quickly checked my pockets and immediately noticed what was missing: my beloved iPhone. Tears came to my eyes, my pictures, my private diary, my music: my life! I quickly concluded that the guys on the scooter somehow must have taken it. I raced back to the house where my bike was repaired. When I arrived I saw the little boy playing with my iPhone while seated next to his father. With an enormous sigh of relief I took the iPhone and drove off again. I was in a hurry as I was late.

What did I learn? Obviously, that I should agree the price up front. Secondly, that teaching somebody about overcharging tourists is not so smart when you’re helpless in the middle of nowhere. That the right price is equal to what the seller is maximum willing to pay (and not what is ‘fair’). And most importantly: the power of power. I saw something change in that woman when she realized that (for the first time in her life?) she had near absolute power over a rich western man. She transformed on the spot from a submissive 3rd world woman dressed in rags into a ruthless business woman. A feeling of self-esteem that I hope will stay with her forever.

Ps: I could have paid her $10 of course and it wouldn’t have changed a thing in my trip. However, when I donate money I want to do it out of free will, not by force. 
Pps: I will dedicate a separate post to technology in the 3rd world

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