Rochelle

by aengelson | November 24th, 2009

So a bit more about our “other” motorbike.

minsk 1

Rochelle.

In addition to the new Honda Wave we bought, which has been great, we have a 1998 Minsk made in Belarus, which we named Rochelle (in honor of the faux film “Rochelle Rochelle,” in the Seinfeld episodes (you know, “A Young Girl’s Erotic Journey from Milan to Minsk”). Joanie’s sister Katy gets full credit for the name. More about the Kalashnikov of motorbikes here.

Rochelle’s a cantankerous beast, to say the least. But what do you expect for 250 bucks? You have to kick start it (the ignition & key no longer work, as well as the speedometer). I’ve learned to shift using a clutch–which makes riding the Honda seem like a breeze. The Minsk is noisy and spews exhaust. I really shouldn’t drive it. The ghosts of Harvey Manning and Ira Spring are spinning in their graves every time I fire the thing up.

But I will say this. It has made me more aware of how a vehicle works–it’s a very simple machine, and just about every outing requires some sort of tinkering. Inevitably, it has trouble starting or does something a little screwy, and you have to adapt. Pretty quickly, you get a crowd of people offering help. Once, when it wouldn’t start after I left a cafe, a Canadian expat who also owned a Minsk had some words of advice to keep gas from getting on the spark plug. I have never pulled a spark plug out of anything before, but with Rochelle, one of my strategies for getting her running is pulling out the spark plug and using some sandpaper to clean the points.

Every Minsk has a built-in tool box, which is as essential as the gas tank and brakes.

You never get quite that intimate with how a vehicle works when you’ve got a modern Subaru you take to the mechanic and never even get a glimpse under the hood. It’s kind of like going to the markets here in Vietnam: you get to look under the hood, see what the meat you’re eating actually is, not just a shrink-wrapped slab of pink flesh in the refrigerated section of the supermarket. Likewise with the motorcycle. I’m learning how an internal combustion engine works and how to keep it running. I haven’t read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I think there’s probably something to the concept.

Does it justify running a polluting, noisy beast of a motorcycle? Probably not. But we’re not taking taxis anymore, which at least is freeing up traffic a bit. I know: rationalize, rationalize. I’m not sure if there’s a more cliche mid-life purchase than a motorcycle, but there you have it. Oh, and it’s red. And I just bought some fake Ray-Bans to go with it.

Sorry Bill McKibben and the Sierra Club. I do care about climate change. But I’m going to be a hypocrite for a little while. So be it.

It’s just another new challenge here in Vietnam, and as you quickly learn, efforts to do things like you do in Seattle are a bit more complicated here. Both in the bigger ethical picture and also in the day-to-day details. But every successful outing with Rochelle feels like a little victory.

For example. My computer printer ran out of ink. In Hanoi, you don’t just drive your Subaru down to the local Office Depot and buy a brand-new toner cartridge. I at least had the presence of mind when I bought the printer here to ask where to buy cartridges. The salespeople had scribbled down a company name and street in Hanoi.

So I went in search of toner.

I actually found the street, in the south part of town, pretty easily (only stalled the bike like three times had to stop for one cafe sua da!). But then I couldn’t find the shop. Every time I asked in my pantomine, I got a different answer with completely opposite directions. So next, I searched the local expat discussion site for printer cartridges.

I soon learned that of course, the Vietnamese don’t buy new toner cartridges! How wasteful! You hire a guy to refill them!

Perfect. So, armed with this information and a new address, I motored across town to another street of computers. And voila, there was the guy with the syringe and ink and in five minutes and 80,000 dong later (4 bucks) I had a full toner cartridge. That was pretty much a whole afternoon’s adventure. But at least now I know where to go when I run out of toner. Mission accomplished.

It’s this sorting out the puzzle of this dirty, crazy, logical, maddening, friendly, beautiful city that’s so rewarding. And that’s part of the fun of Rochelle. I probably won’t keep her for the whole duration in Hanoi, but for now, it’s another puzzle to solve.

One Response to “Rochelle”

  1. On a related note, a really nice article by Matthew Crawford in the New York Times magazine about the lost art of working with your hands. He has a Ph.D., and decided to leave the academic and white-collar world to earn his living as a motorcycle mechanic:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/magazine/24labor-t.html

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.

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