Friday, August 22, 2008

Berber Shows and Chickie Grills

When I was in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, in the mid-nineties, I hired a cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) driver on retainer. I paid him the princely sum, for cyclo drivers, of about $7 a day, to be at my beck and call 16 hours a day. He got me from place to place and took me on tours of the city. He was a poor, young guy from a village several hours away. He'd come into Saigon for days at a time to earn money to bring back to his mother in the village; he'd sleep outdoors, by his cyclo, near my hotel.

In most South Asian and Southeast Asian cities there are a range of private transportation options at descending cost levels: taxis, motor rickshaws (like the Thai tuk-tuks), and cycle rickshaws. In a few places there are even old-style rickshaws pulled by walking "drivers." I could never bring myself to engage one of those.

The bicycle rickshaw drivers are generally dirt poor and work for pennies. Rarely do they speak any English. It's a tough life. My $7 stipend to the guy in Vietnam was the equivalent of several days' earnings for scattered short hauls for locals. I remember once in Jaipur, India, I had asked a bicycle rickshaw driver the rate for a trip. "Chaa rupee," he said (six rupees in Hindi, pronounced like Che), about fifteen cents. He was amazed and effusively thankful when I gave him seven rupees. These guys don't usually get tips.

My Saigon driver did speak a little English, which is why I agreed to hire him for three days, though his accent was quite thick and he was very hard to understand. He was good-spirited and eager to please. As we were riding about town he'd point out things of interest, or presumed interest, to me. Since I was a guy traveling alone these often had a sexual angle, though it often took me a while to figure that out.

At one point he pointed at a shop and said what sounded like, "Berber show! Berber show! Masa! Masa!" I had no idea what he was saying. Surely there weren't any Berbers in Vietnam, so what kind of show was he talking about? And what about Masa? I have a Japanese friend named Masa, and masa is the cornmeal base for tortillas and tamales, but he couldn't have been talking about Japanese men or Mexican food. It finally sunk in: he was saying, "Barber shop! Barber shop! Massage! Massage!" I had heard about these special "barber shops" in Asia. A guy sits in the barber's chair and gets serviced by the female "barber." Any hair that gets cut in the process is, I assume, only incidental.

Another time we passed a large public square. "Here, every night, chickie grill," I thought he said. I tried to make sense of this one. I had recently read about a street in Yogyakarta, Indonesia where at night hawkers sell fried chicken, so maybe he was talking about something like that. "Grilled chicken?" I asked. "To eat?"

He cracked up. "Chickie grill to eat! No, no, no!" Somehow he conveyed to me that he was talking about prostitutes.

Chicken girl, I learned, is a term in Vietnam (and, indeed, much of Asia) for a prostitute.


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