Fifty at Wat Opot and One Who is Not

Yesterday I went by tuk tuk to Wat Opot Children’s Community to visit the staff and children and get another fix at one of the world’s most magical places.  I will never know how, in a nation so impoverished and challenged, anyone was able to create a place with so few resources, rising from the misery of AIDS suffering and deaths which permeated Wat Opot in the early 2000s, but today seems infused with magical fairy dust.  Sitting at around 50 children, amidst the throngs we met a couple of young men who grew up at Wat Opot and now work and live in Phnom Penh or elsewhere but who return “home” regularly.

One of Wat Opot’s main activities is working to return children to families as possible.  This may mean giving widowed mothers time to re-establish themselves; helping with funds to fix grandparents’ shacks to make them safe; dedicating time and energy working to locate family of an orphaned child and assess if anyone is able to take over their care.  Meanwhile, children find themselves in a safe, stimulating, structured, happy environment on a 1km-square piece of rural land scattered with various purpose-built buildings, such as a pre-school room, boy and girls’ dorms, volunteer dorm, large activity hall, kitchen, music room, art room, etc.

Various sponsors have involved themselves over many years in funding different areas of Wat Opot.  Most recently a Taiwanese philanthropic group provided funds for a fenced saltwater swimming pool which staff love and hope to use to offer swimming lessons to the whole village as a way of contributing to prevention of drownings.  Anecdotally about two children per year die in this village alone, from drowning, in ponds, rice fields and the many hundreds of other water sources that saturate rural Cambodia, particularly in the rainy season.  Within the past fortnight, amidst talk of drug dealing, police arrived at the local school.  Three young boys ran out of the classroom with police in pursuit.  All three jumped into a pond and when police arrived on the scene only one was caught.  Some time later, their prisoner finally informed them that his two accomplices were in the pond.  Both drowned.

UNICEF estimated in 2012 that each year 2,200 children drown in Cambodia, which translates to approximately six children per day, so about one child every four hours.  However the limited surveillance system in place for counting these deaths means that in reality this number is probably much higher.  These deaths are a direct result of poverty as children are left in the care of frail grandparents while parents leave home to search for work to feed their family; resources to protect children such as teaching swimming or health promotion such as Australia’s “Kids Alive, Do the Five” campaign are non-existent; and multiple other factors all directly resulting from the challenges that everyday Cambodians face with almost no structural supports in place.

Wat Opot rely on foreign volunteers for many of their activities.  A returning volunteer has built new playground equipment over the past three years; the children have learned to play music on a piano, guitars and drums; they have painted and built sculptures which take pride of place on the grounds, all courtesy of visiting volunteers with musical and artistic skills.  Most recently there have been no long term volunteers meaning that a tiny number of permanent staff, responsible for the community’s everyday operations such as meals, hygiene, school attendance, homework, pre-school activities and bed time routines, have no assistance and the children have no structured diversions.  Volunteers skilled in art, music, teaching, sports and especially, swim teaching, would be welcomed with open arms.  Anyone volunteering at Wat Opot has an exceptional experience, as evidence of returning volunteers who come to know the children over many years and who continue to stay in touch and contribute in various ways, demonstrates.

As often happens when I visit Wat Opot, criticisms of orphanages and voluntourism, such prominent subjects today, was up for discussion.  The children at Wat Opot and the village they belong to, benefit immeasurably from young volunteers offering from between two to twelve months of their time to this community.  Children arriving into care with no English become bilingual at surprising speed when they are immersed in a community of Khmer speaking children who communicate in English with their American “father” (who founded Wat Opot as an AIDS hospice in 1999) and “mother” (who has lived here for over seven years), as well as with the volunteers who pass through regularly.  Children separated from families for all sorts of reasons, such as parental death, neglect, abuse, family dysfunction, illness, economic instability as a few examples, do not only benefit from Wat Opot but many have survived because of Wat Opot.  They then thrive thanks to the opportunities Wat Opot offers.  Criticising all children’s homes or all volunteering activities is based on narrow minded thinking without viewing the bigger picture.  Anyone with a desire to volunteer in a developing country should do their homework and ensure they are contributing in a responsible way.  Wat Opot is an example of the opportunity to volunteer responsibly, contributing to a worthwhile cause.

We returned to Phnom Penh by 3pm and with my Khmer speaking friend it was an opportunity to visit “Boat Baby” who is now in Phnom Penh with his young parents.  We rang the number that grandma provided when I visited her in Kampong Cham last week.  Baby’s father spoke to my friend, suggesting we meet at the Bokor lights.  This is the intersection where a political activist was assassinated in 2016.  Tuk tuk met moto and followed him through the streets to a tiny little room with a single bed and a toilet in the corner, where Mum, Dad and baby are now living, across the road from Dad’s workplace, a tiny little restaurant squeezed between various other business endeavours on a busy street.  He earns $160 per month, $60 of which goes to rent for their room.  Mum and baby, both severely vision impaired, stay in the little room all day.  Baby has no toys, relying solely on his mother for stimulation all day everyday.  I put my state of shock down to being a first worlder experiencing the raw suffering of the third world, until my Khmer companion announced that “the couple with blind eyes made my heart broken”.

When I contacted my friend at Wat Opot to thank her for another great day, mentioning Blind Boat Baby, she promised to go through their baby toys and contribute something when I see her in town later in the week, also offering financial support as possible if we can find a way to improve their situation.  Baby is due to travel to Siem Reap again next month, for follow up of his eyes.  The hospital do not charge for their services but when you have $100 for three people per month, the bus trip, accommodation and time off work seem prohibitive.  Yet another example of tiny help from “my” world making a big difference to this “other” world.

Below is a brief example of the work Wat Opot Children’s Community do, funded by the smell of an oily rag and often using the staff’s own savings when they see a need and cannot raise the funds to support it.

When the now-single mother of two children placed at Wat Opot had managed to develop a small endeavour with pigs and chickens, she was able to keep the deed for her tiny plot of land beside the river.  The only thing keeping her from offering a safe home for her children now, was the “house” she was living in with her ailing mother.  Wat Opot raised the funds to build a new home.  Once it was constructed, the two children were able to return to their mother’s care with support for high school fees continuing to be offered by Wat Opot.  Contrary to fashionable arguments of today, Wat Opot is an example of a residential home working to keep children with their families.

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Peace and Drama

since wars begin unesco

It’s funny that a country still suffering from the ravages of a cruel and genocidal war which officially ended forty years ago yesterday but which merely seems to be in an evolutionary stage of the same ongoing war against it’s own people, is the place that taught me the most about peace and forgiveness.  People who have suffered, and continue to suffer, from barbarism and depravity are perhaps the most forgiving, understanding and charitable.  That’s a stereotype that I can’t prove but it’s my own perception of the grace, humility and goodness that I observe and experience in Cambodia on a daily basis.  It excludes the arrogance of certain factions who benefit from corruption, greed and pride which simultaneously thrives in a climate where the powerful are visible, opulent and often, as I recently heard described, “physically beautiful but with black hearts”.  Despising the poor is a well known mindset of the wealthy and proud here in Cambodia, despite the fact that almost all wealth is achieved through some level of corruption.  Given similar mindsets observed at home, this characteristic comes as no surprise.

On Christmas night 2018 a 25 year old chef was driving his moto home through the streets of Phnom Penh after his evening shift.  A car driving erratically hit him before speeding away from the scene.  Witnesses said they thought the driver was drunk.  His death does not appear to have been reported on in any media.  His death is unlikely to be investigated.  His killer, identified as wealthy by the fact they were in a car, will likely never be identified let alone held accountable.  The only reason I know of this story is that the victim was a friend’s relative.  He was identified by witnesses who contacted family via his telephone.  Upon discussing this with a number of unconnected locals, I have been told that it is not uncommon for car drivers who hit someone, to reverse back over their victim to ensure death, because monetary compensation is cheaper if the victim is dead compared to someone who needs ongoing health care.

The story probably sounds unreal and untrue to anyone living in a peaceful nation with a stable justice system.  Newspaper reports of high ranking officials and even members of the political “first family” being involved in hit and runs are easy to come by.  The average payout to impoverished families in mourning seems to be in the vicinity of US$4,000.  Infamously a nephew of the Prime Minister killed a man in 2008 in a hit and run accident in which he drove at high speed on a busy city boulevard, seemingly for nothing but a thrill.  It is alleged that police arriving on the scene attended to removing the number plates from the car to protect the culprits identity while his victim lay dying nearby, an arm and a leg having been torn from his body.  Last year this same nephew was promoted to status of Major General in the police force in January.  In May he was involved in a reckless  drunken “shooting incident”.  Not his first such incident, he was arrested and convicted in the space of a few hours – an exceptional response when on average suspects routinely spend months locked up before their cases can be heard.  It is said he was sentenced to 18 months in prison.  It is highly unlikely that his “prison” is the same dirty, overcrowded, inhumane place that most of the country’s prisoners rot away in.  Given the history of Cambodia, with dozens of opposition leaders killed or disappeared since the so-called “free elections” in 1993, it is hardly surprising that gangsterism thrives in the highest ranks here.  Organisations such as Human Rights Watch speak out routinely against the violence, corruption and repression which rule here.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) claims to have a unique role in “strengthening the foundations of lasting peace and equitable and sustainable development“.  They state that “…political and economic agreements are not enough to build a lasting peace.  Peace must be established on the basis of humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity“.  Their website describes projects in a range of elements including education, freedom of expression, protecting heritage, fostering creativity, preventing extremism, conservation, and others; all of which have the underlying ultimate goal of promoting peace.  A few months ago I learned about UNESCO’s role in protecting “intangible cultural heritage” (ICH), perhaps better understood as “living heritage”, referring to such concepts as handicrafts, oral traditions, dance, costumes, music, poetry, festivals and family life.  Throughout the world valuable heritage is threatened by multitudes of factors.  UNESCO aims to offer protection against these threats.

Cambodian and Thai social media has apparently erupted in controversy over the past few years due to competing views about where a well known regional masked dance based on the Indian epic Ramayana originated.  Consisting of many episodes performed separately, in brief Rama’s wife Sita is abducted by the demon god Ravana.  The Monkey god Hanuman leads his army of monkeys loyal to Rama, against giants fighting for Ravana, to rescue Sita.  Performances are narrated and accompanied by a traditional instrumental orchestra.  Evidence from inscriptions seen at Angkor Wat temple show that the Cambodian dance Lakhon Khol (“masked drama”) was performed as a classical court dance by all-male artists as early as the 9th century AD.  Almost, if not exactly identical, is the Thai dance named Khon which is said to have been performed since the Ayuthhaya Kingdom in  the 14th century AD.  Over many centuries the map of South East Asia has transformed dramatically, with kingdoms such as Champa, Funan, Ayuthhaya, Dai Viet, Siam and others all creating a blur in my confused brain.  It would seem on the face of it, that Lakhon Khol originated in the pre-Angkorian era and disseminated across the region over time.

In November 2018 UNESCO held the thirteenth session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, over six days in Port Louis, Mauritius.  Thailand’s Khon Masked Dance Drama submission was accepted onto the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  Their application described the dance as being regarded as a national heritage, consisting of professional artists who dance and teach at a variety of public institutions, private companies and independently; as well as artisans, traditional musicians, designers, mask-, costume- and jewelery-makers, production technicians; sponsors and patrons from all walks of life.  The training, performance and artistic centre for Khon is Bangkok, where dancers have trained and performed in the royal court, at noble class households and royal ceremonies for centuries.  At least 50 institutions across Thailand offer training and performance, as well as many private training opportunities.  Performances are elaborate and connected to a sense of national pride, described as constantly evolving to maintain modern meaning.  Today in Thailand both men and women perform Khon.  It has recently gained more public attention after Queen Sirikit began sponsorship of a revived form of the performance.  Thai performers are well paid and able to dedicate time and attention to their art without the need for financial concern.

In contrast, Cambodia submitted Lkhon Khol Wat Svay Andet to the same committee.  They were accepted onto a different list – the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.  Wat Svay Andet refers to the rural pagoda (Wat) 10km east of Phnom Penh where the performance has continued to be handed down from one generation to the next, serving as a ritual linked to rice farming cycles in two specific communities served by the Wat.  The dance is believed to please local deities, performed annually across three simultaneous nights, to seek blessings, prosperity, rain and good crops.  Rarely, other communities may ask Wat Svay Andet to perform for spiritual reasons to ward off calamities.  Previously across Cambodia there were eight Lkhon Khol troupes but due to the disruption of war and poverty, Wat Svay Andet is the only ongoing troupe.  Today there are two new troupes and the dance has been included in the curriculum at the Royal University of Fine Arts where between two and five Lkhon Khol dancers may graduate in any given year.

The Cambodian form remains vulnerable to extinction due to a number of factors.  One factor is the ageing state of master artists, including the death last year of Yit Sarin, at age 91.  He trained as a young boy at Wat Svay Andet before joining the Cambodian Royal Ballet in 1940 as a teenager and ultimately earning a professorship at the Royal University of Fine Arts.  Upon his death he was recognised as Cambodia’s Lkhon Khol Master, and had completed an as-yet unpublished anthology of the craft.  Finding funds for publication is an issue in an impoverished country whose leaders are not necessarily interested in art and culture.  Yit Sarin was one of a few artists who managed to survive the Khmer Rouge genocide which specifically targeted anyone with artistic or intellectual skill.  Another factor is the socio-economic vulnerability of villagers who are required to contribute time and resources to the art, but for whom finding food is often a more pressing issue.  Lack of resources such as that needed for maintenance and upkeep of costumes and equipment and environmental issues such as the erosion of the Mekong riverbank encroaching on performance space also challenge survival of the dance.

Despite its recent fame Wat Svay Andet is not marked on any map including Google.  Undeterred, a Khmer friend and I determined we could find it.  Our tuk tuk driver had never heard of it.  Following Google Maps instructions to a nearby village, about 5km south of town we stopped to ask for clarification.  Luck was on our side as the streetside seller informed us she came from there and we were taking the longest and most difficult route.  She advised us to return to the city and take the ferry across from near the Royal Palace.  The waters of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers join at Phnom Penh, the turbid brown Tonle Sap meeting the deeper green Mekong at a clearly defined line in the water.  Countless ferries travel back and forth between various shores approximately 3km apart at the widest point.  Past Cham fishers on their little wooden boats and big tour boats, we made it to the opposite shore with views of the Phnom Penh skyline from a very rural area.  Asking directions at the local restaurant where breakfast was served, we made our way past at least three other Wats a very short distance from each other before approaching the site of a Wat with dozens of boys and young men in dance rehearsal in a custom built open air performance hall!

Our arrival caused quite a stir and unfortunately the rehearsal disbanded before I could get any proper photographs of the whole troupe rehearsing.  The costume and equipment room behind the stage was unlocked for us to view.  Two older teachers led the way, telling us about their endeavour, excited to learn we had read about them via the UNESCO heritage listing news.  With rehearsal at an end we became feature of the day for a group of the boys, especially when our donation was excitedly announced, causing applause and then our being filmed as the teacher offered his gratitude in a speech I did not understand a single word of, short of the cheering and clapping!

Anyone visiting Phnom Penh and interested in art and culture would have an extremely enjoyable morning at Wat Svay Andet, where the troupe rehearse on Thursday and Sunday mornings, the two days when there is no primary school.  As well as the troupe, the Wat houses a large Buddhist temple, massive dragon boat artistically decorated, a large lake formed by the Mekong Delta and filled with green crops during the Dry Season; orange robed monks wandering the grounds; a golden carriage used by nobility as recently as the early 20th century; colourful statues and shaded rest areas.  Wat Svay Andet deserve a wider audience and recognition, as a community contributing to the cultural survival and peace of the Cambodian nation.

Temple at Wat Svay Andet

peace and music

Kingdom of Wonders

Kingdom of Wonder

The Kingdom of Wonder is a very flat land.  Consequently, any small hill is well known and often named as a “mountain”.  One of the first places I visited in Cambodia was perhaps the most well known mountain in Kampong Cham province, where I cycled with colleagues at the end of 2013.  During that visit, mesmerised by the beautiful views over the Mekong River and villages stretching along her shores, I took one of my favourite photographs, not knowing the hundreds of times I would travel these specific dirt tracks by bicycle, car, motorbike and tuk tuk, nor the significance that this tiny patch of the world was about to have in my life.  Most recently a new meditation resort has been established on this hilltop, where tourists can spend $40 per night on spiritual retreat, perched above extreme poverty that they can remain blissfully unaware of whilst lining the pockets of wealthy entrepreneurs making fortunes off the backs of the poor and vulnerable.

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There is a saying here, that Cambodia is the Kingdom of Wonder because everyone is frequently left wondering.  It’s an accurate comment.  I only returned ten days ago and I’m already reeling in wonder.

I wonder how to control the frizz that a combination of sweat, dust and wind transforms the mop atop my head into whenever I have to go anywhere in this hot, dusty country.  Why do I look like some sort of wirey-headed shaggy sheep alongside local women gliding about with straight, silken, shining elegant manes?  I wonder at the sensation of a small animal landing on the top of my earlobes before realising it’s beads of sweat which then trickle down my head, neck and back to drench me.

In Cambodia’s oldest and largest Islamic community, we encounter once more the generous hospitality of Cham people inviting us to their home during a crowded wedding celebration.  Cham people live in wooden elevated homes much like Khmer people only their houses tend to be built much closer together.  My educated guess is that this signifies the closer ties Cham people have with each other.  As the mini van pulls up an Islamic woman greets us and insists on taking my bag, wheeling it along the narrow street, then through some alleys, under some houses, and up the ladder of a small home decorated with a combination of satin, velvet and tinsel.  An excited bride appears in glittering white with henna imprints on her fingertips to symbolise her newly married status.  As we pose on faux velvet seating for photographs I wonder how many people are crowded into this tiny wooden home with one single fan offering the only air movement and just how much hotter I can feel sitting on this warm material with what feels like a thousand pairs of eyes smiling back at me from under an array of colourful hijabs.  The bride joins us on a floor mat in one corner of the room as dishes of food are placed in the centre.  Three of us dine on beef curry and rice together while the other thousand sit around us, staring and smiling.

We are then guided out of this house by a man in a pink tunic and matching skull cap who tells us about his community and invites us to visit anytime and if we ever need to rest, his home is our home.  I find my shoes at the bottom of the ladder, amongst hundreds of others.  We meander dirt tracks, past a row of five enormous steel pots sitting on five open fires lined along a tiny gap between two elevated houses with a woman standing at each pot, stirring many litres of beef curry and perhaps hundreds of kilograms of rice.  Many dozens of people are seated at tin tables on plastic chairs across at least eight elevated houses, all an extended part of the wedding congregation.  We reach the riverside and climb into another house where we are shown the bathroom downstairs past the wire bird coop and I take a shower with a pot of cold water to the rhythm of pigeons cooing, before climbing back up the narrow wooden ladder above the pigeons to pack away my things.  On my companion’s insistence I smear more make up over my sweating skin.  We are guided back to the brides’ home via a riverside stroll with our guide who talks about the Cham people’s history in Cambodia as a group of men watch him from the sidelines.  Back with the bride we pose for more photographs and squeeze ourselves into a space on the floorboards where plates of sweet food are served into the centre of every informal human circle.

Half an hour later the minivan calls to say he’s ready to return us to Chom’s family a little way downstream, where we are sleeping the night.  We spend the rest of the afternoon lazing on the wooden platform underneath the family home.  During my time here I wonder at how different my experience of being in a bathroom is, compared to most people in the world.  And my experience of a kitchen.  And my experience of home life in general.  As the sun sets over the Mekong, children wrestle each other in the dust; cows pull a wooden cart home from the rice fields; the hum of moto engines interrupts crickets chirping; dogs wander in and out of unfenced yards; neighbours wander the same tracks, stopping in on each other for a chat on dirt floors underneath elevated houses; chickens peck around my feet; a chicken that recently pecked fries with ginger and spices on an open fire beside a pot of boiling rice; customers pull up at the little wooden local store perched at the front of the house to purchase goods; sellers stop their bicycles to offer rice cakes, fruit and other snacks from baskets on their carriers.

As dinner time approaches I’m instructed to “take a bath”.  I make my way carefully in the dark to the back of the house and a little brick out house furnished with a hollow concrete block filled with “bath” water next to a squat pan toilet.  A plastic pot perched on the edge of the bath serves the purpose of flushing the toilet as well as for “showering” yourself.  Standing over the squat pan, I wonder where to hang my toilet bag, pyjamas and towel, then I wonder where to put my cleansers, then I wonder how to coordinate the process of washing, holding, rinsing, drying, in this tiny hot space where sweat and cold water compete fiercely with each other.

As darkness descends, life underneath the house moves upstairs and the wooden front door at the top of the 12 step ladder is locked for the night.  Dinner is served on shining wooden floor slats.  Grandad gets behind his mosquito net in one corner of the room as someone explains that today he is fasting as Buddha recommends once every seven days.  In the morning he puts his mosquito net away and starts to pray by 5am, facing some small monuments against the wall and chanting consistently despite wakeful children and women chatting as we wait for our mini van to arrive for the next leg of our journey. The upstairs bathroom is another new experience, with gaps between wooden slats big enough to send your water waste to the ground about 3 metres below.  I wonder if I can step on these slats safely as my hosts reassure me that they are solid and secure.  I take a plastic bowl of water from the clay tub to use for brushing my teeth, spitting out through the floor slats as my host places the torch strategically for me to see what I’m doing.

 

 

The way home is a combination of mini van, ferry, motorbike and tuk tuk.  Paula’s brother and sister arrive at the ferry on motorbikes, pile our cases on the handlebars and we climb on the back, the breeze whirling the wire on my head into even more of a spin just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse!  Today Paula weighs 48kg and she is the picture of good health – almost 2.5 times heavier than when I met her in 2014!  Another Islamic meal on floormats is shared with the family before our tuk tuk arrives, joins us for breakfast and then we make the final leg of the journey back into Kampong Cham town.

One final visit along the way is a tiny wooden shack sitting precariously on the riverbank underneath the mountain where tourists go for their spiritual retreats.  We picked up some noodles and soy sauce for the family along the way.  It’s almost two years now since this mother lost her three year old when he drowned in a pond at the base of the mountain.  Today she has a tiny newborn baby.  I wonder how I can possibly translate my newly acquired health promotion skills as a Child Health Nurse in this environment.  In Australia Child Health Nurses working with newborn babies focus on promoting and/or monitoring safe sleeping, smoke free environments, breastfeeding, maternal mental health, growth and development.  In this environment the baby is underneath a mosquito net on bamboo slats through which you can see the Mekong waters flowing below.  She looks small – perhaps premature or perhaps small for age?  There is no way to know.  There is no way to weigh her.  She has never been, and may never be, weighed.  Without appropriate translation I can’t do very much at all.  My tuk tuk is reluctant to translate my question about breastfeeding but it seems hopeful as it was a home birth and the family have no money, that Mum has not been targeted by any formula companies who tend to work out of private maternity clinics.  A pot of rice is cooking on an open fire as smoke bellows around the open room, the only saving grace being the massive gaps in the floors and walls allowing some dilution of the smoke.  I ask my tuk tuk friend to explain to Mum that smoke is dangerous to the baby.  I wonder how the house has not already burned down.  I don’t know how to address anything else this baby deserves as much as any other baby in the world, so we leave our meagre offerings and promise to visit again.

 

I wonder all the way home.

Motivations and Mentalities

I am really not convinced that I would want to work again with an international humanitarian organisation.  The subtitles on this photograph from a documentary on Vietnamese history explains why in a single brief sentence.

Vietnamese Inferior

Before I applied to Medecins Sans Frontieres, a friend told me of a mutual acquaintance who returned home to Australia unhappy with her MSF experience because “she had to live and work with French people who were horrifically arrogant”.  It sounded like a stereotype and I gave it little credence.

Five years on I have French friends, who were not arrogant and did not treat others as inferior.  I have visited France in that time and met friendly people and been welcomed into their homes and lives.

That aside, the general perception I developed from within a French-run international organisation is one in which a certain proportion of people who do consider themselves as superior, are able to travel to other countries for humanitarian reasons, at least on paper.  They are ensconced in positions of power and able to behave as colonialists over the local population and, to a lesser extent, non-French expatriates, who they perceive earnestly as their inferiors.  I expect this may not be specific to the French, but my experience was specifically French.

Some examples of the experiences I had include:

  • A doctor whose introduction included informing us repeatedly that her father was the mayor of her town.  This meant nothing to me until at least a year later when I watched a French comedy, The Belier Family and learned that French mayors have social status.  Part of her overt disapproval of me was highly likely to do with my lack of appreciation that to be the mayor’s daughter was to be someone important!
  • This same doctor, when informed by management that she was not entitled to the extra day off she had requested, informed me emphatically of her outrage which included, in the presence of a local colleague with fluent English, that “I am not just some local ‘oo ‘as no choice!  I am ‘ere as a ‘umanitaaaarian and they should look after me”!!
  • A young doctor who preferred not to speak to the non-French, non-medically trained expatriates and literally held her nose in the air at us whilst keeping her lips determinedly closed for some months.  This was quite some feat given our repeat attempts to engage with her over meals at the house we shared together or shared bicycle rides through villages.  I have one single memory of her speaking to me in more than a monosyllable, in which she informed me that her husband was a surgeon and her friends were dentists.  Arrogance does not make for riveting conversation, that’s for sure!
  • I have become passionately anti-selfie after watching so many expatriates take selfies alongside impoverished locals who often don’t know anything about social media, and have not given informed consent (or even any consent) to have their identities plastered over the internet.  This includes seeing expats put their cameras right into the face of complete strangers without even thinking about asking permission.
  • A nurse who spent a significant amount of time on an impromptu and lengthy lecture to a group of local doctors, some old enough to be her parent, of the ways in which patients can be spoken to in order to extract relevant medical information.  The humble locals sat in agreeable silence.  This nurse also sent an email to a group of doctors in which, to get her point across, she used capital letters by way of ORDERING A COMMAND.  This same nurse informed a local doctor who described a patient as being “in severe condition”, that the patient was in fact, not in severe condition at all.  The patient died within a few days.
  • A French doctor during a meeting offered to share a particular medical article to two doctors and a French, non-medical manager.  When I asked if he could also email it to me, he looked me up and down slowly, scoffed, and moved on to the next agenda item.  Suffice to say the article was never shared to me.
  • Another non-French expatriate I worked with was horrified to learn that a French nurse who had openly intimidated local staff, and been challenged a number of times on her unacceptable behaviour, left the Cambodian assignment and was promoted in her next assignment.  My colleague exclaimed that she couldn’t believe this person was able to remain employed, let alone receive a promotion.

In general, local staff are given no authority and are disciplined strictly should they get anything wrong.  Conversely, French staff can be significantly less qualified and experienced but will always hold higher positions within the organisation than their local peers.  Should French staff make mistakes or even significantly misbehave, they are perceived as being reasonably free from repercussions and in fact, able to climb the hierarchy.

I learned a lot about “humanitarianism” during my time with MSF.  It taught me about my own ego and the need to constantly self-reflect on my thoughts and behaviour in an environment where I have more power than local staff despite not having any contextual knowledge or insight.  Often my experience was limited in comparison to locals who were highly familiar with diseases of high prevalence and local management and issues, but which I had only learned about in books and study.

I could always return home and find work – which I since have.  Locals don’t have this privilege.  The prospect of long-term unemployment is a real and ever-present threat even to people with medical degrees, PhDs, multiple degrees and extensive skill and experience beyond anything most of us in the wealthy world can imagine aspiring to, because we don’t need to have such high aspirations for our mere survival or security.  The micro-economy of impoverished nations is a foreign phenomenon which those of us from wealthy nations can barely comprehend.  Even when we live in this micro-economy we don’t experience it because we have comforts and security external from it.  The impact this has on the power between locals and foreigners is difficult to describe.

At the same time as I was developing my own perceptions of the humanitarian world and it’s paradoxical complexities, a scandal erupted in Haiti where international staff with Oxfam were found to be exploiting locals.  The scandal has been identified by many as a predictable result of international staff not respecting locals in an environment of unequal power distribution between impoverished and vulnerable locals, and the “white saviours” who come to “help”.  Unsurprisingly it has also been shown as a widespread phenomenon across international aid agencies and across the globe.

MSF published a statement at that time, announcing an unequivocal commitment to fighting abuse and confirming that 19 staff across all of their projects had been dismissed on grounds of sexual abuse in the past year (2017).  Whilst this is a sound commitment to make, it does not address the underlying root of the problem, being an unspoken power imbalance which is easily embodied by both expatriates holding management positions and living in comfort in an impoverished environment; and locals who rely on the NGO for their employment prospects.  Counterbalancing this dynamic relies fully on the curiosity about local context, and the self-reflective inclinations, of the dominant foreigners.  Many have zero such inclination.

Afua Hirsch speaks for me when she says “I’ve seen for myself how agencies operate, and the toxic and exploitative relationships that can so easily develop“, in her article on the history of the aid industry’s white saviour mentality .

This short video How Not To Be a White Savior touches on the subject as well.

 

Outback Law & Order

Sound asleep a few nights ago, a rhythmic knocking sound woke me just before 1am.  It took me a while to register that this needed investigating and I eventually peeked through the bedroom blind.  I would never have seen the dark shadow hunched over on my front porch had s/he not been making such a racket trying to jimmy open my front door.  In my unnerved state I forgot the emergency number in favour of the non-urgent assistance line, whose automated system told me “If this is an emergency hang up now and dial 000”, which I promptly did.  They answered immediately with “Police, Fire or Ambulance?” and I was put through to a police line before I’d even spoken the word in full.

The next minute or so of my life went something like this:
“I am home alone and someone is breaking into my front door”
“What’s the address”
“<Address>…..  He’s gone quiet, I think he might already be inside!”
“Can you lock yourself in a room?”
“No there are no locks anywhere”
“Okay find somewhere to hide”
<Climbed into the wardrobe> “Okay I’m in the wardrobe”
“Stay on the line but don’t speak unless you have to.  I am here, the police are on their way, they shouldn’t take long.  You’re doing really well, the police know and they’re on their way, don’t hang up on me I’ll keep talking so that you know I’m here, you’re not alone and the police won’t be long, I am just letting them know that you are in the wardrobe…”
“<Whispering> I just saw a flash of a light”
“Are they in the bedroom with you?”
“I’m not sure”
“The police are going to arrive at any minute”.

I don’t believe I was in that wardrobe for longer than about two minutes when four uniformed officers arrived, knocking and shouting “Hello!  Police!”.  I climbed out of the wardrobe and opened the front door, relieved to learn the intruder had not succeeded to get inside.  Two policemen had jumped over my 6 foot front gate, frightening him into the back yard and losing him over the back laneway.

The 000 woman left me with the police and I am still thinking about her help that night, advising me based on what I told her was happening.  Had I not thought he was already in the house she would have advised that I turn on all lights, make noise and shout “the police are coming”.  Her ability to support me through a frightening few moments revealed someone well trained and highly skilled at her job.  There is no way of knowing who she is or where she was speaking to me from, so no way of thanking her.  This is not expected because she was doing her job, which it can be safely assumed she receives an acceptable living wage to do.

A female officer stayed with me while I calmed down; another went through the house to confirm no one was inside; two others scoured the yard where evidence of what had happened was collected.  The culprit had spent a significant amount of time at my back door, and only moved to the front door when he couldn’t get through the deadlock at the back.  The fact I had not heard anything while he was at the back likely made him assume no one was home.

An hour later various evidence had been taken, including fingerprints on both doors; I’d been led through the yard under an officer’s torchlight as he pointed out various clues such as a lighter, a water bottle, an open shed door; I’d given my statement; and I was assured they would be patrolling the area all night.  Cameras, iPads, torchlights, fingerprinting equipment; skilled teamwork and training to identify what had probably happened were all part and parcel of their excellent service.  I went back to sleep feeling safe and sound, unharmed, nothing having been stolen from me and not having to pay for any of the services that had just been spent on me.

This is another example of how we in wealthy countries are safe and cared for thanks to having such sound systems in place.  In most parts of the world, services with such levels of expertise, resources and skilled care for a complete stranger, do not exist and any attempt at providing a version of such a service comes at a cost to the provider on a user-pays basis.  In my world, citizens are valued and have a level of power and control we are not even conscious of, thanks to the strong systems which protect and respect us.

The difference is not cultural, but systematic.  When a country is left war-torn and not supported to full and proper recovery, then uneducated and amoral leaders have the chance to flourish.  This is happening in many countries around the world today, with millions of citizens suffering the long term consequences of wars, many of which ended decades ago.  Corruption established at the very top filters through every aspect of any system.  An example that I know of, is the way that government staff are paid unlivable wages (but guaranteed said wage until they die, which is more guarantee than most citizens have).  Applying for government positions costs a significant amount of money, with many taking loans, for the guarantee of a lifetime salary.  These fees filter up through the system, with higher level officials receiving the most benefit.  This largely explains why, when you visit a third world country, the rich-poor divide is so evident.  After years of living in Cambodia I have made some vague sense of these observations.

Earning an unlivable wage forces public servants to top up a number of different ways. One way is to have your own private business separate from your government employment.  This sees public servants spending minimal amounts of time at their government workplace, resulting in low quality of service in any government department.  Various user-pays demands are also made on anyone attending a government institution, such as a patient’s level of nursing care being determined by how much cash crosses their nurse’s palm at each encounter; school students required to pay a small daily cash fee to their teacher; police checkpoints where a fine with receipt will cost $X but if you don’t need a receipt you pay less; drivers licence applicants pay one fee for an exam with no guarantee of passing or a higher fee for a guaranteed pass; medical clinics and hospitals charge patients with no health literacy for treatments they don’t need.  The list of possibilities for corruption is infinite and a never-ending cycle of the poor indefinitely indebted in order to feed the rich.

A telephone number to call if you are in an emergency does not exist in most of the world, let alone one where skilled staff are on the other end of the line at the blink of an eye.  Four uniformed police turning up at one home within minutes of a reported break-in is an impossible fantasy, as is the idea that no cash or other benefit is required from the victim.  When my phone was stolen from me in Phnom Penh 8 months ago now, we attended a police station where a statement was written on letterhead for me which I was able to use for insurance purposes.  There was no talk of any investigation and local friends and colleagues all talked to me with the same theme: that the police often benefit from any robberies taking place in the area they patrol; they can be embroiled in, or even lead, robbery gangs; that I was lucky I didn’t have to pay cash for the statement; that usually locals don’t even report crime to the police because there is no level of trust in the system and a lot of suspicion and fear.  More than simply a lack of money, the real definition of poverty is a lack of protection.

Meanwhile the only follow up I can expect from the police – if any – is if they identify the person who attempted to enter my home the other night.  Any fingerprints they can lift will be placed into a computerised program and held indefinitely, so that if the culprit has never been fingerprinted yet, then it doesn’t mean he won’t be identified even years on from now.  Justice can’t be more complete than that and the world – for me – can’t be a fairer place.  If only everyone sharing the world with me could say the same.

Developing a Global Identity

This article in The Economist (copy-pasted below) is well worth a read given the current state of world affairs.

We need a post-liberal order now

The international, rules-based system is collapsing. Overhauling it means combining national identity with a global ethos, says Yuval Noah Harari, a historian and author.

Open Future
September 26th 2018, by Yuval Noah Harari

For several generations, the world has been governed by what today we call “the global liberal order”. Behind these lofty words is the idea that all humans share some core experiences, values and interests, and that no human group is inherently superior to all others. Cooperation is therefore more sensible than conflict. All humans should work together to protect their common values and advance their common interests. And the best way to foster such cooperation is to ease the movement of ideas, goods, money and people across the globe.

Though the global liberal order has many faults and problems, it has proved superior to all alternatives. The liberal world of the early 21st century is more prosperous, healthy and peaceful than ever before. For the first time in human history, starvation kills fewer people than obesity; plagues kill fewer people than old age; and violence kills fewer people than accidents. When I was six months old I didn’t die in an epidemic, thanks to medicines discovered by foreign scientists in distant lands. When I was three I didn’t starve to death, thanks to wheat grown by foreign farmers thousands of kilometers away. And when I was eleven I wasn’t obliterated in a nuclear war, thanks to agreements signed by foreign leaders on the other side of the planet. If you think we should go back to some pre-liberal golden age, please name the year in which humankind was in better shape than in the early 21st century. Was it 1918? 1718? 1218?

Nevertheless, people all over the world are now losing faith in the liberal order. Nationalist and religious views that privilege one human group over all others are back in vogue. Governments are increasingly restricting the flow of ideas, goods, money and people. Walls are popping up everywhere, both on the ground and in cyberspace. Immigration is out, tariffs are in.

If the liberal order is collapsing, what new kind of global order might replace it? So far, those who challenge the liberal order do so mainly on a national level. They have many ideas about how to advance the interests of their particular country, but they don’t have a viable vision for how the world as a whole should function. For example, Russian nationalism can be a reasonable guide for running the affairs of Russia, but Russian nationalism has no plan for the rest of humanity. Unless, of course, nationalism morphs into imperialism, and calls for one nation to conquer and rule the entire world. A century ago, several nationalist movements indeed harboured such imperialist fantasies. Today’s nationalists, whether in Russia, Turkey, Italy or China, so far refrain from advocating global conquest.

“The world will then be divided into distinct nation-states, each with its own sacred identity and traditions.”

In place of violently establishing a global empire, some nationalists such as Steve Bannon, Viktor Orban, the Northern League in Italy and the British Brexiteers dream about a peaceful “Nationalist International”. They argue that all nations today face the same enemies. The bogeymen of globalism, multiculturalism and immigration are threatening to destroy the traditions and identities of all nations. Therefore nationalists across the world should make common cause in opposing these global forces. Hungarians, Italians, Turks and Israelis should build walls, erect fences and slow down the movement of people, goods, money and ideas.

The world will then be divided into distinct nation-states, each with its own sacred identity and traditions. Based on mutual respect for these differing identities, all nation-states could cooperate and trade peacefully with one another. Hungary will be Hungarian, Turkey will be Turkish, Israel will be Israeli, and everyone will know who they are and what is their proper place in the world. It will be a world without immigration, without universal values, without multiculturalism, and without a global elite—but with peaceful international relations and some trade. In a word, the “Nationalist International” envisions the world as a network of walled-but-friendly fortresses.

The key problem with the network of fortresses is that each national fortress wants a bit more land, security and prosperity for itself at the expense of the neighbors

Many people would think this is quite a reasonable vision. Why isn’t it a viable alternative to the liberal order? Two things should be noted about it. First, it is still a comparatively liberal vision. It assumes that no human group is superior to all others, that no nation should dominate its peers, and that international cooperation is better than conflict. In fact, liberalism and nationalism were originally closely aligned with one another. The 19th century liberal nationalists, such as Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini in Italy, and Adam Mickiewicz in Poland, dreamt about precisely such an international liberal order of peacefully-coexisting nations.

The second thing to note about this vision of friendly fortresses is that it has been tried—and it failed spectacularly. All attempts to divide the world into clear-cut nations have so far resulted in war and genocide. When the heirs of Garibaldi, Mazzini and Mickiewicz managed to overthrow the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire, it proved impossible to find a clear line dividing Italians from Slovenes or Poles from Ukrainians.

This had set the stage for the second world war. The key problem with the network of fortresses is that each national fortress wants a bit more land, security and prosperity for itself at the expense of the neighbors, and without the help of universal values and global organisations, rival fortresses cannot agree on any common rules. Walled fortresses are seldom friendly.

But if you happen to live inside a particularly strong fortress, such as America or Russia, why should you care? Some nationalists indeed adopt a more extreme isolationist position. They don’t believe in either a global empire or in a global network of fortresses. Instead, they deny the necessity of any global order whatsoever. “Our fortress should just raise the drawbridges,” they say, “and the rest of the world can go to hell. We should refuse entry to foreign people, foreign ideas and foreign goods, and as long as our walls are stout and the guards are loyal, who cares what happens to the foreigners?”

Humankind today faces three common problems that make a mockery of all national borders, and that can only be solved through global cooperation. These are nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption

Such extreme isolationism, however, is completely divorced from economic realities. Without a global trade network, all existing national economies will collapse—including that of North Korea. Many countries will not be able even to feed themselves without imports, and prices of almost all products will skyrocket. The made-in-China shirt I am wearing cost me about $5. If it had been produced by Israeli workers from Israeli-grown cotton using Israeli-made machines powered by non-existing Israeli oil, it may well have cost ten times as much. Nationalist leaders from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin may therefore heap abuse on the global trade network, but none thinks seriously of taking their country completely out of that network. And we cannot have a global trade network without some global order that sets the rules of the game.

Even more importantly, whether people like it or not, humankind today faces three common problems that make a mockery of all national borders, and that can only be solved through global cooperation. These are nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption. You cannot build a wall against nuclear winter or against global warming, and no nation can regulate artificial intelligence (AI) or bioengineering single-handedly. It won’t be enough if only the European Union forbids producing killer robots or only America bans genetically-engineering human babies. Due to the immense potential of such disruptive technologies, if even one country decides to pursue these high-risk high-gain paths, other countries will be forced to follow its dangerous lead for fear of being left behind.

An AI arms race or a biotechnological arms race almost guarantees the worst outcome. Whoever wins the arms race, the loser will likely be humanity itself. For in an arms race, all regulations will collapse. Consider, for example, conducting genetic-engineering experiments on human babies. Every country will say: “We don’t want to conduct such experiments—we are the good guys. But how do we know our rivals are not doing it? We cannot afford to remain behind. So we must do it before them.”

Similarly, consider developing autonomous-weapon systems, that can decide for themselves whether to shoot and kill people. Again, every country will say: “This is a very dangerous technology, and it should be regulated carefully. But we don’t trust our rivals to regulate it, so we must develop it first”.

In order to survive and flourish in the 21st century, humankind needs effective global cooperation, and so far the only viable blueprint for such cooperation is offered by liberalism“.

The only thing that can prevent such destructive arms races is greater trust between countries. This is not an impossible mission. If today the Germans promise the French: “Trust us, we aren’t developing killer robots in a secret laboratory under the Bavarian Alps,” the French are likely to believe the Germans, despite the terrible history of these two countries. We need to build such trust globally. We need to reach a point when Americans and Chinese can trust one another like the French and Germans.

Similarly, we need to create a global safety-net to protect humans against the economic shocks that AI is likely to cause. Automation will create immense new wealth in high-tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, while the worst effects will be felt in developing countries whose economies depend on cheap manual labor. There will be more jobs to software engineers in California, but fewer jobs to Mexican factory workers and truck drivers. We now have a global economy, but politics is still very national. Unless we find solutions on a global level to the disruptions caused by AI, entire countries might collapse, and the resulting chaos, violence and waves of immigration will destabilise the entire world.

This is the proper perspective to look at recent developments such as Brexit. In itself, Brexit isn’t necessarily a bad idea. But is this what Britain and the EU should be dealing with right now? How does Brexit help prevent nuclear war? How does Brexit help prevent climate change? How does Brexit help regulate artificial intelligence and bioengineering? Instead of helping, Brexit makes it harder to solve all of these problems. Every minute that Britain and the EU spend on Brexit is one less minute they spend on preventing climate change and on regulating AI.

In order to survive and flourish in the 21st century, humankind needs effective global cooperation, and so far the only viable blueprint for such cooperation is offered by liberalism. Nevertheless, governments all over the world are undermining the foundations of the liberal order, and the world is turning into a network of fortresses. The first to feel the impact are the weakest members of humanity, who find themselves without any fortress willing to protect them: refugees, illegal migrants, persecuted minorities. But if the walls keep rising, eventually the whole of humankind will feel the squeeze.

In the 21st century we face global problems that even large nations cannot solve by themselves, hence it makes sense to switch at least some of our loyalties to a global identity“.

Yet that is not our inescapable destiny. We can still push forward with a truly global agenda, going beyond mere trade agreements, and stressing the loyalty all humans should owe to our species and our planet. Identities are forged through crisis. Humankind now faces the triple crisis of nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption. Unless humans realise their common predicament and make common cause, they are unlikely to survive this crisis. Just as in the previous century total industrial war forged “a nation” out of many disparate groups, so in the 21st century the existential global crisis might forge a human collective out of disparate nations.

Creating a mass global identity need not prove to be an impossible mission. After all, feeling loyal to humankind and to planet Earth is not inherently more difficult than feeling loyal to a nation comprising millions of strangers I have never met and numerous provinces I have never visited. Contrary to common wisdom, there is nothing natural about nationalism. It is not rooted in human biology or psychology. True, humans are social animals through and through, with group loyalty imprinted in our genes. However, for millions of years Homo sapiens and its hominid ancestors lived in small intimate communities numbering no more than a few dozen people. Humans therefore easily develop loyalty to small groups such as families, tribes and villages, in which everyone knows everyone else. But it is hardly natural for humans to be loyal to millions of utter strangers.

Such mass loyalties have appeared only in the last few thousand years—yesterday morning, on the timetable of evolution—and they coalesced in order to deal with large scale problems that small tribes could not solve by themselves. In the 21st century we face global problems that even large nations cannot solve by themselves, hence it makes sense to switch at least some of our loyalties to a global identity. Humans naturally feel loyal to 100 relatives and friends they know intimately. It was extremely hard to make humans feel loyal to 100 million strangers they have never met. But nationalism managed to do exactly that. Now all we need to do is make humans feel loyal to 8 billion strangers they have never met. This is a far less daunting task.

It is true that in order to forge collective identities, humans almost always need some threatening common enemy. But we now have three such enemies: nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption. If you can get Americans to close ranks behind you by shouting “the Mexicans will take your jobs!” perhaps you could get Americans and Mexicans to make common cause by shouting “the robots will take your jobs!”.

That does not mean that humans will completely give up their unique cultural, religious or national identities. I can be loyal at one and the same time to several identities—to my family, my village, my profession, my country, and also to my planet and the whole human species.

It is true that sometimes different loyalties might collide, and then it is not easy to decide what to do. But who said life was easy? Life is difficult. Deal with it. Sometimes we put work before family, sometimes family before work. Similarly, sometimes we need to put the national interest first, but there are occasions when we need to privilege the global interests of humankind.

What does all that mean in practice? Well, when the next elections come along, and politicians are asking you to vote for them, ask these politicians four questions:
* If you are elected, what actions will you take to lessen the risks of nuclear war?
* What actions will you take to lessen the risks of climate change
* What actions will you take to regulate disruptive technologies such as AI and bioengineering?
* And finally, how do you see the world of 2040? What is your worst-case scenario, and what is your vision for the best-case scenario?

If some politicians don’t understand these questions, or if they constantly talk about the past without being able to formulate a meaningful vision for the future, don’t vote for such politicians.

Yuval Noah Harari is a history professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of three best-selling books, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” (2014) and “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” (2016). His most recent book is “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” published in August.

Copyright © Yuval Noah Harari 2018

Of Children and Fish

Two weeks ago I made a rushed five day visit to Cambodia between study commitments.  Here are a few of the most interesting snippets of my week.

From the airport we went straight to Thomas House, a small NGO run by a retired Australian couple on the outskirts of the city.  Running off the smell of an oily rag in an impoverished slum area, they offer a basic health clinic and refuge for neighbourhood children to access a meal and a safe place to play, albeit in mud beside a busy road with rats sauntering around.

They are currently helping a 10 year old with a severe case of ichthyosis.  This condition causes dry, scaly, thickened and cracked skin.  The unsightly overgrowth of skin has led to his eyes being pulled permanently open, with permanent vision loss in one blank-staring eye and the other expected to render him completely blind within a couple of months unless specialist care can be made available.  He and his young father are staying at Thomas House in order to access specialist services in the city, which they can only afford thanks to the fundraising efforts of Thomas House.  Dad is also being taught how to treat the skin with exfoliants and moisturisers, again only affordable thanks to Thomas House.  The Khmer specialist involved has contact with overseas specialists and the family have had Skype consultations with America, Australia and the UK, generating much interest in the medical world apparently.

As well as spending time at Thomas House, learning how they work and some of the neighbourhood issues, we delivered a toy car set to the little boy who is badly teased and excluded by the other children.  They reported that he slept with his cars that night.

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Baby with Ichthyosis

The following day we started at Kung Future who were organising school uniforms for the new school year. With the river so high, the Cham peoples’ boats were moored right at the sidewalk, metres above where we usually have to climb down into their muddy community.  Organised chaos reigned as many dozens of different-sized school uniforms had to be dispensed in some way.

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Kung Future delivering school uniforms to landless fisher children in Phnom Penh  https://kungfuture.org/

From there we headed across to the other edge of the city to visit a couple of other families including the lady whose broken leg had left her destitute with three children and who my housemate and I raised funds for last year so she could have the surgery she needed while keeping her children in school.  Then the family of grandmother, two sets of parents and five young children living in a wooden shack two steps above ground with holes in the ceiling for the rain to fall through and holes in the floors for the children to fall through.

At lunch time we headed in yet another direction, finding a little crooked restaurant for $2 lunch of rice and chicken.  We then arrived for our appointment at the Liger Leadership Academy where a New Zealand friend working there had organised a tour for us.  Two young students with impeccable English and full of hope guided us through the large grounds, well resourced classrooms and stylish residential facilities, talking at length about the school’s mission and project-based teaching style.  We then joined a small class of eight students approximately 15 years old, undertaking a project about the Cambodian health system, for a Q & A session they invited us to after hearing of our visit.

As our hour-long Q & A came to an end Wat Opot called to say they were waiting to pick us up.  The Wat Opot children, unless there is no option, go home in the school holidays and our three Kampong Cham boys were waiting to say hello before leaving to spend their holidays with an uncle.  More than six months since we had seen them, they were all taller, bigger and different.  Reportedly nervous about seeing us, it didn’t stop them from greeting us excitedly with big hugs before disappearing in a crowded tuk tuk.

That evening was spent soaking up the joy of Wat Opot, including their melting pot of volunteers, the children, the routine of meals, play, meditation and bed time, when the staff and volunteers joined us for a catch up in the volunteer dorm area.  The next morning they were delivering the next set of children home for the holidays, and we were squeezed in amongst the crowds to be delivered en route for our trip south to Kep.

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Wat Opot Children’s Community vehicle delivering various humans to various locations

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My suitcase perched amongst crowds on the tray back

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Wat Opot convoy delivering kids to family for the holidays

After locating a couple of remote villages and signing children out for the holidays to extended family, we stopped on a busy corner and they offloaded us.  My Khmer travel companion negotiated with what seemed like a million taxi touts until we found one going in the right direction for the right price.  We found a vendor under a dusty canopy, plastic chairs and tin table teetering on sloping mud, offering chicken and rice for breakfast.  The driver waited while we ate, then led us to his mini van, with two seats left, heading about an hour south to Kep.

Kep was time to relax and we spent our days breathing in salty air, strolling alongside the Kampot river, eating seafood, watching fishers, visiting a hillside pagoda and abandoned French estates and generally feeling like we were actually on holiday!

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Governor’s estate in Kep.  Bullet holes in the wall from the Khmer Rouge battles that raged here nightly up until as recently as 2000.

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One of the many abandoned French homes around Kep

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Watching the fisher people from Kep’s Crab Market

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This guy waded from the shore to his boat in head-high waters, waves crashing over him as he occasionally disappeared entirely except for one arm devotedly held high into the sky protecting five coffees hanging from his wrist.  He climbed back on board unnoticed by his workmates but for the safely delivered coffee.

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Thatched wooden Khmer style hut accommodation in Kep

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An unexpected housemate

It is exactly fourteen weeks until my longer-term return to Cambodia.