Houseboats on the Mekong

Kampong Cham is on the tourist trail for houseboats on the Mekong, which seem to anchor here at least a few times a week.  At the   riverside in the town centre is a stretch of about 300 metres of expatriate-targeting restaurants and cafes with westernised food options, meals of $4 instead of the local usual of around $1, fans, air conditioning and free wi-fi use.  They all have wide frontages opening out to views of the river and it’s tropical looking shores on the other side (which I hope to visit soon).  On a Sunday afternoon the wide esplanade across from these restaurants provides a sleepy setting where teenagers congregate on their motorbikes under the trees catching up with friends, families stroll, children fly kites in the wind and the odd mobile, canopy-covered produce shop parks in hopeful wait of a customer.

Tonight I cycled from work to the riverside to sit at a cafe and make use of their free wi-fi.  My cycle took me through the centre of town, past horses, chickens, hens and roosters, all getting on with life amidst a thousand motorbikes and tuk tuks who debated right of way politely with me at the busy intersections.  A houseboat is anchored at one end of the esplanade, and dozens of traders have appeared in their sidecar shops hoping to feed the family tonight, courtesy of a tourist or two.  It has transformed the area from a sleepy village feel, to a small but bustling tourist hotspot.

Below are some photographs from the internet of the “mobile shops” I mention.  Some are sidecars to motorbikes; some are long flat platforms carried in tuk-tuk style by a motorbike; others are hand-driven much like a very large wheelbarrow.

Shop on wheels 002 Shop on wheels

Today I went to work without my predecessor for the first time, and things went very well.  My nursing team are lovely, as is my translator and shadow who not only knows the systems inside-out but has a good grasp of his own culture as well as mine, so he will be a great safeguard against many potential problems.

The highlight of my day was an hour spent in the Tuberculosis Laboratory where I received an orientation to their systems.  I have spent years reading about the microbiology of Tuberculosis, a unique and highly adaptable bacteria which often appears to be winning a microscopic battle with human populations.  Today I had the privilege of seeing many of the procedures and tests I know about but had never experienced outside of either a book or the macroscopic, patient level.  It was exhilarating to look down a microscope at Tuberculosis for the first time.  The laboratory is of a high quality, first world standard, with microscopy (Ziehl-Neelsen and Aurimine staining), solid and liquid cultures, GeneXpert PCR and Drug Sensitivity Testing (DST) available.  Most third world laboratories rely solely on microscopy, which is a useful but imperfect test and does not complete a diagnosis for Tuberculosis, rather only indicates the probability.  It’s use is determined by it’s cheap cost in low resource settings.  As with so many things, Tuberculosis has low prevalance with high quality resources in the first world, but in the third world TB has a high prevalence with extremely limited resources.  Kampong Cham breaks the cycle of low resources, a rare and notable exception for a population experiencing such high rates of Tuberculosis disease.

Another interesting aspect to my day was attending a case management meeting for Drug Resistant TB cases, where patients’ diagnoses, medical management and social circumstances are all discussed in a multi-disciplinary team.  The poverty here is something we cannot imagine in places like Australia, with people expressing concerns such as being unable to afford “being sick” because they need to go to work to feed their family; family members taking over the role of breadwinner whilst the usual breadwinner spends time in hospital with severe illness; family members required to attend the hospital as caregivers but having to balance this with their family and money making responsibilities.  I encountered new drugs and considerations which have all placed me on a very steep learning curve.

Yesterday I met a 12 year old boy who was admitted with a respiratory infection.  He was sitting upright on the wooden slats of his otherwise unfurnished room, forcing his drooping eyelids to stay awake, gasping for every breath, the pressure from each inhalation sucking at his ribs and throat.  Nasal prongs were delivering oxygen into his labouring lungs and an intravenous line was delivering fluid and broad spectrum antibiotics to his emaciated body.  He attended the hospital with his mother and older sibling, who have been homeless due to the floods and are sleeping on bamboo mats on the old and rough concrete ground next to his hospital bed.  His mother spoke openly to me (via my translator) with a friendly smile about his health, the diagnosis of Polio which caused his wasted legs to be useless from an early age, and his current symptoms which seem to have an acute onset (so perhaps not TB).  This morning I visited them again and was thrilled to see him alert and no longer agitated, with much improved breathing.  I had a small notepad with 12 colouring pencils for him, which I brought from Australia.  My translator explained that I had a gift, and I placed it on the bed for him.  He and his mother both responded with the Cambodian expression of respect – hands in a prayer motion, fingertips to the chin, and a slight bow of the head.  The respectful way of saying hello here is to perform this action and say “Chum reap suor”, so I call the action “Chum reap suor”.  As I left the boy’s room this morning, a mother and her 4 year old daughter in the neighbouring bed both farewelled me in the same manner.

A few nights ago I was using the wi-fi at one of the riverside restaurants and I asked the young, smiley waiter for a glass of Chardonnay.  A few moments later I was presented with a red wine, which I thanked him for (because what the heck!), using the “Chum Reap Suor” motion, and he walked backwards away from my table, repeating “Chum reap suor” many times until he had to turn and see where he was going!

Chum Reap Suor

Chum reap suor

The Cambodian people over and above any other aspect to this experience, have been the highlight of the last ten days.

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A Week in Cambodia

Phnom Penh is a city of wide boulevards crossing narrow litter-filled lanes.  The crowded streets are swarming with motorbikes ducking and weaving between trucks, mini buses and cars, all diligently transporting a surprising variety of people and goods.  The traffic rules are loose, if not completely absent.   Whole families travel on mopeds in various configurations, none of which look safe, with helmets an optional rarity.  Children stand in front of the driver grasping the handlebars, sit or lie between the driver and pillion passenger or hold on from the back.  One young boy was fast asleep on the back of a bike with his arms straddled around Dad’s waist.

Clusters of live poultry headed for market hang upside down on the back of many vehicles, occasionally lifting their heads up to get a view from their precarious and likely frightening position surrounded by noise and commotion.  Trucks loaded with mountains of produce – bicycles imported second-hand from Japan in their thousands stacked neatly on top of one another, fresh harvested crops and processed sacks of supplies all piled meters above the rim of the truck, some tied securely and many apparently not secured at all.   Every moving mountain of cargo has at least one but often multiple people perched  on top, looking down on the world moving below them.  Run-down French heritage buildings reminiscent of history that has long passed are now dilapidated apartment blocks.  The streets are teeming with rusty old stalls, marketplaces, produce and people.

The MSF compound in Phnom Penh is an aged but grand old sprawling French colonial with offices on the ground and middle levels, and guesthouse accommodation on the middle and upper levels.  Wide marble staircases, polished mahogany doors and furniture, decorative cast iron external doors and staircases, and a number of large verandah areas furnished with lounges and tropical plants.  The home is set in gardens behind a high dirty white rendered wall with cast iron spikes and a cast iron gate, where watchmen have a sheltered outdoor office area from which they allow visitors in and open the gate for those cars allowed into the garden, who honk from the street for access.

After some short briefings with the French headquarter staff, and a lot of sleep under my mosquito netted bed, on Tuesday I piled my overloaded cases into the MSF troupee.  With the driver, the French Project Coordinator (my direct supervisor and one of my new housemates) and the Cambodian Pharmacy Coordinator (visiting our project for a few days), we headed to Kampong Cham, three hours north east along the Mekong.

Recently 168 people lost their lives, 40% of them children, and 100,000 people were left homeless, when the Mekong broke it’s banks earlier this month and 20 of the country’s 24 provinces were flooded.  The highway travels through rice paddy fields, where it was impossible to tell where the river ended and the still-flooded fields began.  Occasionally we saw scattered herds of water buffalo standing waist deep in brown soupy fields or along the edge of the road.  One small herd were even walking across the highway, as though they knew exactly where they were going and why.  All the way along the highway we passed busy agricultural activity.  About two hours into the journey we stopped at one of the roadside bamboo huts to get a coconut, which the seller hacked with a machete on one side to make a flat bottom, and on the opposite side to make an opening through which she put a straw.  The driver also bought some freshly grilled bite-sized bananas and shared them amongst us – the heat forms a crust, encompassing warm sweet fruit.

My first impression of Kampong Cham City (the capital of Kampong Cham Province) was of a rather unglamorous small town with very wide streets and almost no traffic.  The streets come alive at night though, and the quietness allows for a laid back lifestyle which I have already embraced.  Not to mention the ability to cycle around safely with a fairly casual observation of any road rules.

The Kampong Cham house is another big old French colonial behind compound gates manned continuously by watchmen.  Not as sprawling or spectacular as the Phnom Penh home, but beautiful nevertheless, filled with wonky character and situated on the shores of the flowing muddy Mekong, where we can watch fishermen from our balcony sitting in canoes with their nets cast into the flows.

View from our balcony on a muggy day, over the road to the Mekong and the bridge to Tboung Khmoum District of Kampong Cham

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My first night in Kampong Cham I was given Bicycle 10, with it’s yellow tassled handlebars, and we cycled in procession through the dark streets to my predecessor Steffen’s farewell.  He arranged and paid for a local restaurant to feed around 50 of our colleagues, with the arrangement that everyone donate $2.50 to a local orphanage in return for their meal.  It was a highly entertaining night with good food, free-flowing beer, Karaoke singing and disco dancing on an elevated verandah under a thatched roof.  The first thing I learned about my Cambodian colleagues is that they like to drink beer, sing Karaoke, dance and have fun.  I sat next to the logistician, a very humble, engaging man who talked to me about his memories from the Khmer Rouge era.  His family escaped to Thailand, but were ejected back across the border in an area where many landmines were planted.  Some people ran back into Thailand to escape the landmines, only to be shot at the border.

I am employed by MSF as Nurse Manager of the Tuberculosis Department at Kampong Cham Provincial Referral Hospital, which serves the people of Kampong Cham Province, 80% of whom are sustenance farmers living in rural areas outside the city.

The patients have very basic accommodation in the TB Department, which is divided into three separate patient areas.  Beds with wooden slats are provided with no mattresses or bedding.  The traditional style for sleeping here is on a bamboo mat on a hard surface, so patients either bring their own mat, or they are provided with one, which is rolled out onto the wooden slats.  The bathrooms are a hole-in-the-ground latrine with a small bath sized concrete box filled with cold water and a scoop to wash from.

My role with MSF includes certain responsibilities for all three areas.  The first is a newly implemented (one year ago) “Screening Area” where patients with unconfirmed diagnosis await their sputum results / clinical decision about diagnosis.  Those for whom TB diagnosis is excluded are discharged or transferred to another area of the hospital, and those for whom TB is confirmed are transferred to the TB Inpatient area.  The Screening Area has been established in an old hospital building a few metres from the newer TB Department areas which are in a series of white stone buildings interconnected by wide verandah walkways.

The Outpatient Area

KC TB Department 002

The Inpatient Area

KC TB Department

Patients outside the Screening Area

KC TB Department 003

The Screening Area’s birthday cake, celebrating one year since inception.

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Across a gravelly patch of ground from the Screening Area is the Outpatient Area for new presentations with possible TB and follow up of patients on TB treatment.  Those presenting to the Outpatient Area for the first time are sent from an initial screening area at the main hospital when they are assessed as having possible signs or symptoms indicative of Tuberculosis.  They are given a mask and directed to our Outpatient Area.  Upon presentation at the Reception window they are registered, then join a queue for the vital signs table where clinical observations (temperature, nutritional status, heart rate etc) are undertaken.  From here they queue for a clinical assessment with one of the doctors in a clinic room.  There is a blood taking room for baseline tests and an outside sputum collection area where patients can provide a sample without risk of infection to others .

Via the verandah walkways on the other side of the Outpatient Area, is the Inpatient Area for patients with confirmed TB requiring hospitalisation.  This area is divided into a series of individual rooms for those with Drug Resistant TB near the back of the grounds.  A separate Prison area of three barred cells behind a white stone wall ventilated with slanting gaps to allow air flow whilst obstructing the view into and out of the cells.  Policemen / jail guards lie on hammocks outside this area, keeping watch.  Then two separate areas divided by patients’ status as either “BK negative” or “BK positive”.  In brief, BK is a French abbreviation for Bacille de Koch, meaning the bacillus of Koch, the microbiologist who, among other achievements, discovered the Tuberculosis bacillus.  Patients who are BK+ have Acid Fast Bacilli (AFB – the abbreviation used in English instead of BK) visible on sputum microscopy, meaning that the bacteria can be seen under the microscope before being cultured.  This suggests a high bacterial load, and these patients are considered infectious.  Patients who are BK negative do not have AFB seen on microscopy, and are not considered so infectious, even if the bacteria cultures at a later stage, confirming the diagnosis of Tuberculosis.

Other rooms and areas include a room for sputum induction (a process of nebulising high sodium concentrations to patients suspected of having TB who are unable to produce sputum, to induce sputum production), a pharmacy room, counselling rooms, reception and data collection room, medical records rooms.

For my first three days I received handover from Steffen, met various colleagues and became familiar with the department and some of the processes.  There are many Cambodian colleagues who have very similar names beginning with “So” – Soldea, Sotheara, Sopheak, Soty, Sodina, Sokhon, Solidem, and the list goes on.  I guess I will learn to distinguish them all!

Each morning we leave the house and cycle through the sleepy boulevards to the hospital, where my day begins with attendance at the first of two handovers.  The first handover occurs at the Screening Area.   The nurses in this area are a team of four young men and a young woman, all in their 20s, who work alone on a rotational roster.  All are employed by MSF.  The morning shift nurse provides a brief handover to the Nurse Manager (myself) and the medical team about the patients.  This is done in English when possible.  However, myself and the expatriate MSF doctor both have our own translator, who accompanies us throughout our day to ensure good communication.   My translator is a lovely man with perfect English, who I know I am going to enjoy working with.  English language is a desirable requisite for nurses here, but is not essential, and so varying levels of English are spoken throughout the hospital.  With so many expatriates from around the globe rotating in and out on Missions with MSF, Khmer is rarely (if ever) spoken by the expatriates, although I hope to at least get a basic grasp so that I can communicate a little easier whilst I am here.

After the Screening Area handover I have time to assess the area for any issues or concerns, talk with staff and undertake some of my official duties such as collecting data required for financial and HR reasons.  I then attend a second handover at the Inpatient Area, which is a much larger area with more nurses on duty, employed by the Ministry of Health.  My responsibilities in this area are of a more technical than supervisory nature.  After this handover I meet with various colleagues and ensure things are running smoothly throughout both the Inpatient and Outpatient areas.

Once everything appears to be running smoothly at the hospital, I cycle a few short blocks away to the office, where many of my duties are carried out at a computer desk.  At this stage my role appears to consist of training and supervision of staff at the hospital, ensuring good nursing care, processes and working equipment, plus organising rosters, ensuring good quality data and various other management tasks.  These are all responsibilities I have had before, and so I am not (currently) daunted by any of it, and in fact looking forward to the experience.

My week in Kampong Cham has been one of sensory and work overload.  There are many new people to get to know, new processes to learn and understand, new routines in and outside of my work environment, and a whole new life to lead for the next nine months.  Yesterday I began Khmer language lessons with Chanthy on the balcony at home.  She overloaded me with phrases and words to learn for the week, before my second lesson next Saturday.  From there five of the seven housemates cycled to a local small roadside stall for a delicious $1 lunch of rice flour crepes with lettuce, cucumber, herbs and sweet chilli sauce.  We cycled along the Mekong, past the ornate golden temple-like Buddhist University, and into a side street where expatriates are obviously a unique sight.  As we sat at the small plastic stools perched at a makeshift wooden table in front of our cook with her various pots, pans, jars and other paraphernalia, various people came out from behind gates and inside shopfronts to watch us, while others pulled up on their mopeds to order lunch or came past with their pastries to offer dessert from a basket on the back of a bike.

Lunch Roadside 26 Oct Lunch Roadside 26 Oct 002

Many of the new experiences are so unfamiliar to me, as to be highly entertaining.  One of the most entertaining parts of my week has been the experience of working for a French organisation in a Khmer speaking setting, with expatriates from around the world, all working in English.  It makes for some very funny translations.  German speaking Steffen wanted to order a “Do not urinate here” sign to go on an external wall of the TB Department.  It is a visual sign with a red cross marked across a cartoon figure of a male urinating.  Steffen wrote on the order form “Do not pie”, before asking me how to correctly spell “piss”.  When I informed him that this was a bad word, and he should use “urinate” instead, he and our Khmer translator fell about laughing with me – he has been saying “piss” for almost a year without being corrected!

Working with impoverished people also provides many different experiences, for example the cleaner who this week proudly announced (via our translator), that she had learned to write her name (in Khmer) so that she could sign the newly implemented sign-off sheets to indicate a room has been cleaned.  Our next job is to teach her how to sign against the correct date on the sheet!

The orphanage in town, Phter Koma, is apparently a place worth getting to know, which some of my Khmer colleagues are very involved in.  I look forward to joining them sometime soon!

Phter Koma Orphanage

Working in another culture is also a privilege filled with new and sometimes not-well-understood experiences.  At Inpatient Area handover one morning Steffen and I sat down behind the nurses.  Some conversation occurred in Khmer, and then handover began in English.  Everyone in the room was Khmer except Steffen and I.  A few moments later one of the translators, who had both been delayed, whisked himself onto a chair.  Everyone immediately clapped the nurse who had held his own in English, and handover switched to Khmer with translations.  The English handover had occurred especially for our benefit.

This weekend we have no internet at the guesthouse, so I have come to a riverside restaurant to use the free wi-fi.  This restaurant exists to train young local people in hospitality, who would otherwise have limited opportunities for training and employment.

My name in Khmer!  (“For Helen”)

442

One of the staff prayed for a Lottery win.  The other day she won the equivalent of US$70, and fulfilled her promise to thank the god(s) by offering a glass of water, a chicken and some burning incense!

443

Starting Out With Medecins Sans Frontieres

Medecins Sans Frontieres exists to deliver medical assistance to vulnerable populations in humanitarian crises.  The organisation was founded in 1971 by a group of French doctors and journalists who had been volunteers with the International Red Cross.  These men had signed an agreement with Red Cross which blocked them from speaking out when, whilst working in Biafra in southern Nigeria during a violent civil war, they witnessed unspeakable cruelties including deliberate starvation of the population, civilian murders etc.  Because of the agreement they had signed with Red Cross, who maintain silence in order to preserve their neutrality, they were not allowed to speak out.

There are many truly terrible images of starvation and death from Biafra during the Nigerian War, which were shared with us this week, mainly of children suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM).  This mass starvation resulted from Nigerian forces blockading supplies into Biafra, which wanted to become an independent state.  I was tempted to share one or two images here, but they are too terrible – you can find them if you want to.  Instead, I will use a map to make it “real” to those of us who have never heard of Biafra and don’t know where it is.

Biafra

Upon returning to France the silenced doctors and journalists, led by a doctor called Bernard Kouchner, spoke out against both the Nigerian government and the International Red Cross, and formed Medecins Sans Frontieres.  The English translation is Doctors Without Borders.  The purpose of this breakaway organisation was to continue humanitarian work, but without the restriction of silence when witnessing atrocities.  The French term for speaking out, as used by Medecins Sans Frontieres, is “temoignage”.  Like the International Red Cross, the underlying philosophies of MSF’s humanitarian work are neutrality, independence and impartiality.  Unlike the International Red Cross, MSF maintain this philosophy whilst simultaneously believing in the need to speak out on behalf of those without a voice.  The two areas of work MSF engage in are medical aid and temoignage.

Despite the criticisms Kouchner and his colleagues/friends had of International Red Cross, MSF obviously maintains strong links with Red Cross and other aid agencies, who they often work alongside.  This week one of our presentations was from an International Humanitarian Lawyer employed by Red Cross.

In 1999 MSF won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their “pioneering humanitarian work on several continents”.  Dr James Orbinski was the President of the International Council of MSF at that time.  When he accepted the prize in Oslo on behalf of MSF he used the opportunity to speak out to President Yeltsin, whose army were at that time indiscriminately bombing Chechnya and Grozny.  You can read Dr Orbinski’s full speech, which is well worth your time, here:
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1999/msf-lecture.html

Today MSF work in over 70 countries around the world, on at least 372 projects.  This week I had the privilege of becoming an MSF volunteer.  This morning I woke up in Australia for the last time for nine months, as I head to Cambodia tonight to begin my “First Mission”.

During the orientation days this week I have learnt about the organisation, underlying principles of humanitarian work in general and MSF more specifically, and my roles and responsibilities as an MSF employee.  It has been an evocative week of exotic stories from “the field”, seeing photographs and hearing stories from my colleagues returning from refugee camps, war zones and various other challenging situations.  I have also received information about protocols and guidelines, and in a class of 16 other new volunteers, we were led through many interactive activities touching on various scenarios from clinical issues to security and cultural challenges.

45% of the work MSF carry out occurs in stable contexts.  Thankfully my first mission to Cambodia will be in this context.  55% of their work is carried out in unstable contexts such as war zones.  Currently they are very involved in the Syrian crisis, but they also work in refugee camps such as Palestine and various crises occurring, mostly with limited media attention, in Africa.  A short but interesting article from MSF about Syria which featured in the Australian news is here:
http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2013/10/15/urgent-aid-needed-syria-msf
This week MSF also spoke out about atrocities occurring in the Central African Republic (CAR):
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/17/central-african-republic-msf-report-violence

MSF Australia are currently running a television advertisement campaign, which shows some of the work they do in various settings:

44% of the work carried out by MSF is non-medical (logisticians and security experts seem to feature heavily), 26% is medical and 30% paramedical, which is the umbrella I come under as a nurse.  The settings that they work in include conflict, post-conflict, violent, repressive and failed states, natural disasters, medical emergencies, epidemics/pandemics, high disease burden, complicated disease, neglected and/or stigmatised disease, displaced populations, excluded and marginalised groups, institutionalised violence, domestic violence.

Sadly the world we live in provides MSF and the many other humanitarian agencies doing similar work with an overload of appropriate settings to work in.  Tonight I am flying to Cambodia, where my work setting will be one of high burden of tuberculosis disease.  I feel privileged to have the opportunity to undertake such work with the world’s leading humanitarian medical aid organisation.  I feel motivated (long may it last!) by the opportunity to use my skills where need is greatest, and to contribute something to the world that isn’t just about me earning money to reinforce my already privileged existence.  I look forward to blogging about the experiences lying ahead of me.

A couple more links of interest include MSF Australia’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/msf.aus?fref=ts

The MSF Australia website: http://www.msf.org.au/

See you from Cambodia!

Arrivederci, Alice Springs

September 25

A few months ago we (two colleagues and I) did a vaccination drive at one of the town camps.  We had been approached by Department of Health and Aging (DoHA – the Federal department), asking if we had any way of providing them with photographs of indigenous people having their recommended vaccines, because they needed new material for the development of posters.  We approached this particular camp, where I know some people well, and they agreed.

DoHA sent a photographer and assistant on a pre-arranged day and we traveled to the camp in convoy, photograph consent forms in hand. There was a wide demographic range – babies, older people, pregnant women, teenagers, and we administered dozens of vaccines.  Mostly influenza, but various others as well.  It was, as vaccine drives always are, the best fun imaginable – hard work, chaos and hilarity all rolled into a few fast-lived hours of craziness.

Some of the photographs arrived on my desktop last week and we took them out to show the models, promising to return soon with proper copies.  Below are a tiny sample of the stunning photographs.  The elderly man with the cowboy hat (I’ve given him an alias) doesn’t speak English.  He looked at his photograph, broke out into an excited smile, and said excitedly “Bobby Wagner!”.  He then put his finger on his nose, and then on the photo, then back to his nose, repeating “Bobby Wagner” a number of times.

ATM

One of my favourite ladies

Bobby

Bobby

Cutie Pie

Cute

G Under a Tree

Bush vaccinations

R A and J

Our vaccine assistant

Ray

Bush vaccinations in Alice Springs

September 26

The other day I was driving into town behind a police paddy wagon.  Sitting on the floor of the caged area, was a dark silhouette of a thin figure, still as a statue, cross legged, arms (perhaps handcuffed?) crossed around behind his back, looking out of the cage towards me.  We pulled up at a roundabout and I was contemplating this sight in front of me – could this be one of my lingering memories of Central Australia, symbolising all of the social issues we are known for?  I wondered about his childhood and adult experiences which had led to him being transported to the police cells in a cage, his thin body probably knew malnutrition well, was he sober, how well did the police know him, where were his family, had he ever gone to school?

These contemplations flowed as we pulled up at a roundabout, when I was snapped into consciousness as I realised he was shouting out, and then it became apparent that his shouts were aimed directly at me.  No sooner did I realise this, than the wagon drove off around the roundabout, leaving me behind.  Was it someone I knew calling out?  Was it a stranger who saw me looking and shouted obscenities?  Perhaps neither, but these are the two most likely possibilities.  Another typical Central Australian interlude!

Police paddy wagon

September 27

The jacarandas are farewelling me in flower.  The second, less vibrant photograph below, is a jacaranda at the bend of Sadadeen Road, with Hidden Valley town camp and the East McDonnell Ranges (Yipirinya) as a backdrop.  Yipirinya is the Arrernte name for the McDonnell Ranges, which are divided into east and west by a narrow gap at the southern end of town, through which squeeze the dry Todd River, a two-lane road with a precarious footpath running parallel to it, and a railway line.

Yipirinya, or Ayeperenye, is also the name of a local native caterpillar which forms a long procession by biting the back end of the caterpillar in front of it.  Short trains of these caterpillars, probably somehow separated from the rest of the train, have occasionally ended up lost in my back yard.  Apparently on satellite image, a long caterpillar procession is exactly what these ranges look like.  This aerial view of the land is the foundation of dot art.

There are many indigenous stories about Yipirinya, which local children grow up learning in the same way that I grew up learning bible stories.  Some years ago I was driving through The Gap with Gloria who was about eleven in the front seat.  She pointed to an outcrop in the range and said “See that little caterpillar oba there?”.  “Ummmm…. no?”.  She looked at me like I was mad, “Right there, that one!”.  “Oh, okaaayyyy……?!”.  I’m going to miss the rusty red caterpillar ranges, but not as much as I’ll miss Gloria and her big extended family.

Jacaranda

Jacaranda in my back yard

Sadadeen jacaranda

Sadadeen Road, beyond Hidden Valley Camp towards the Yipirinya Ranges

Ayeperenye

Ayeperenye Processionary Caterpillars

View of The Gap from town centre looking south

View of The Gap from town centre looking south

September 29

For the first time in months, it rained.  King, my old remote friend, was here for lunch and we were sitting outside when he said to me “Big Rain coming”.  Really?  “Yeah, coming real quiet way”.  How do you know?  “Feel it! Real still”, as he put his hands out to feel the still air.  I put my hands out in imitation, hoping to learn how to sense the rain, but there was nothing.  About five minutes later a brief but heavy shower hit, complete with thunder.  “See?  I told you!”.

King spent his childhood walking from west of Kiwirrkurra, east into Haasts Bluff Community.  When he told me this story he said he was “this big” when they started out, and “this big” when they arrived.  His hand height looked to be about two years of growing, from around 6 to around 8 or 9 years old.  This would have been in the 1950s or perhaps early 1960s.  I asked him what he did when he arrived in Haasts Bluff.  Started going to school.  That must have been really different for you?  “Yeah, real different.  Teacher was real cranky”.  He didn’t see cars or white people, and had known nothing of sitting still while the adults instructed you in a classroom.  They travelled on foot, eating bush foods all the way.  Below is a photograph of Haasts Bluff as I know it (I last travelled there about 3 years ago).  There is a small indigenous community of perhaps 200 people there, with a clinic, school, womens centre, shop, etc.  And a watercolour by the original famous indigenous landscape artist, Albert Namatjira, whose biography is well worth reading.

Road towards Haasts Bluff Community

Road towards Haasts Bluff Community

Albert Namatjira's Haasts Bluff c.1956

Albert Namatjira’s Haasts Bluff c.1956

Later in the afternoon, on my way over to Sadadeen to photograph the jacaranda, I gave way to a Holden Sedan with a big dent in it’s side and no windows.  I wished I had my camera ready as this car passed me by with the back window completely missing and the back passengers sitting in their well ventilated car, looking ahead as though everything was as it should be!  Alas I didn’t, so instead here’s a photograph of the sun shining through our cloudy sky.

016

September 30

Today I was very busy with various preparations for my looming departure.  Tonight I had a barbecue with the boy I fostered for 2 years, and some of his family and current carers.  We sat under the outcrop of red rocks on the hill rising above the house, where the 8 year old boy climbed and explored until it was too dark.

As they were leaving after dark, I was standing in the cul de sac with his mother and baby sister, and in the corner of my eye I saw a dog run across the corner at the T-junction two houses up the road.  I turned to look, and the dog transformed into a large kangaroo bounding up the street!

October 1

A gusty, cool and overcast morning with ring necked parrots feasting at the back door.

Australian Ring Neck

Australian Ring Neck

002

Australian Ring Neck

Ring necked parrot feasting

Ring necked parrot feasting

October 2

I said my first farewells today, with some flowers arriving at work from my Darwin colleagues, and a friend arriving in town en route to a holiday which ends the day after I have left town.  We had dinner together with another friend at a popular pub called Monte’s, which has a great beer garden.  I knew Monte’s when it was a low budget burger joint called Dingo’s in the late 1990s, before becoming a more upmarket restaurant called Bluegrass.  The Monte’s outfit surpasses it’s predecessors by miles, with great food, decent beers and wines, a relaxed and busy atmosphere, play area with good toys for children, a stylish and unusual art deco interior and garden design, etc.  I love it there, and will miss it.

There is a local woman called Jennifer who is half-blind, usually unkempt, and often drunk.  She lives in various places, including the riverbed, and wanders the streets with a crooked walk, knocking on doors where she knows she will receive a friendly welcome, looking for food.  She once knocked on my door looking for food and when I could not offer her any, she asked instead for some shoes.  I had some spare thongs which I gave to her.  She put them on and then whispered to me “you got any spare undie?”.  I told her that I didn’t, because my undies would fall off her thin bottom.  I have encountered her numerous times since then, most recently when I was on my bike outside the house with some vegetables in the handlebar basket which she mistook for fruit – she looked at the red capsicum and asked for an apple, and when I said I didn’t have one she looked at a brown onion and said “what about orange?”.  I invited her in for a tuna sandwich instead, and she used the toilet.

Some other friends of mine, Sandy and Paul, had an experience with Jenny when her husband was still alive about ten years ago.  They were both well known figures around the streets.  Sandy and Paul had gone to bed forgetting to lock the front door.  They were traveling the next day and had made ham and mustard sandwiches for the journey, which were in the fridge.  After they had both fallen asleep, the air conditioning turned on, waking Paul, who got up to investigate.  Sandy woke to a shout by Paul, and followed him out into the kitchen, where she found Jennifer’s husband on the floor, having been knocked down by Paul, and Jennifer with a ham and mustard sandwich in her mouth, whose first words were “too much mustard, give me water”!  They called the police, who charged the intruders with break and entry.

As with many of the local pubs and restaurants, Monte’s has a security guard at the gate, keeping drunks outside.  This tends to make Monte’s, as with many of the other institutions, a “whitefella drinking place”.  We often sit at a booth table on the edge of the beer garden, a short distance from the wrought iron fence, giving us a good vantage point for various activity on the footpath outside the fence.  Last night three police officers were patrolling the strip on horses, various crowds wandered by, a young man outstretched his arms, putting each arm and his face through the gaps in the fence and shouted out excitedly towards the crowd in Monte’s for no apparent reason, while an older woman stood at the fence holding her canvas dot art in our general direction, hoping to score a sale.

Meanwhile, inside the gate after sunset, Jennifer appeared.  She wandered in cautiously, looking around (but I doubt she could see anything in the low-lit garden).  She walked past our booth and stopped at the booth next to us, where some small girls were sitting independently of their adults at a nearby booth.  She struck up a conversation with these girls, and soon enough she was sitting with them.  They seemed to engage happily with her.  At one point she sang a song to them at the top of her lungs, which the nearby booths including us turned to observe with amusement.  At another point, she and a girl of about 10 hugged each other like long lost friends.  Some young men, perhaps the girls’ fathers, came to the table and chatted with Jennifer, and a short while later she was eating a pizza which she definitely had not ordered herself!

Normally when someone like Jennifer gets into the beer garden, they are noticed by staff and moved on.  However, she was causing no harm, and the fact that this young family were so inclusive towards her seemed to blend her presence into the crowd.  I felt as though I had witnessed some out-of-the-ordinary kindness.

Farewell flowers from Darwin

Farewell flowers from Darwin

October 4

I moved out of my house in April in preparation for my trip overseas.  Initially I moved two doors away, to my old boss’ place and sub-let a room with a friend/colleague.  Eight weeks later I began house sitting, and from mid June until now I have had continuous house sits, most of them complete with use of a car – which was handy because I took the battery out of my unregistered old bomb, parked it in the shed and have packed it high with my stuff (and half the shed is piled high with my boxes).  Given that most of the world live with just the clothes on their back, I do wonder at my need to have so much stuff, but I am not yet ready to get rid of everything I have stored, so it sits there.  The tenants have been brilliantly hospitable, allowing me access to the shed whenever I ask.  Nevertheless I’m sure they’ll be pleased in ten days’ time when the landlady stops visiting!

Today I began my final, brief house (and dog) sit in the northern suburbs of Alice Springs, at a colleague’s lovely home.  The back yard rises up into the hills, beyond which the vast expanse of the Central Australian ranges and desert stretches into infinity.

Walking the dogs just before sunset:

Looking south towards Mt Gillen

Looking south towards Mt Gillen

Our path up the hill

Our path up the hill

Oscar spots a kangaroo

Oscar spots a kangaroo

Looking over the northern suburbs

Looking over the northern suburbs

Orange hills near sunset

Orange hills near sunset

The red rocks surrounding Alice Springs

Red rocks

October 6

Walking the dogs in the morning light.

Mt Gillen in the morning light

Mt Gillen in the morning light

This afternoon I moved to my final Alice Springs “home” until I return.  A self contained tin shed in Ameeta’s back yard, under the watchful eye of beautiful, wallaby-infested Spencer Hill.  At 38C I thought a dip in the pool was warranted, but it was like an ice bucket so I lasted about three minutes.

I sat under the verandah in my wet towel and moments later my new, temporary landlady appeared with two gin and tonics in her hands!  We sat chatting while a ring-necked parrot and a yellow-throated miner fought over the nectar on an eremophila directly in front of us.  I hope the bird life in Cambodia is as interesting as ours.

Humble Home

Humble Home

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October 11

It was a crazy week at work, not really worth writing about (writing a handover manual, hand over meetings with the team, cleaning up files, completing overdue jobs, that sort of thing).  I did have a few final catch ups with some different people, including Barb who came armed with photographs of her times in Cambodia, which gave me a glimpse of what lies ahead.  Also a morning tea on Thursday with my workmates, where Rebecca recited an ode she had written in my honour, highly amusing.  I went to the town camp where I have spent so much of my life in the past ten years, to say goodbye, and gave out as many hugs as I could.  After working in the same place for eleven of the past thirteen years, it was a reasonably big deal to be saying goodbye, but I am only leaving for two years, so I don’t feel a finality to my farewells, which makes it easier.

This evening I left work for the last time for two years.  I had my first glimmer of excitement as I drove home.  I showered, changed and walked from Spencer Hill, at one end of Old Eastside, to Chifleys Resort at the other end, for my farewell drinks.  Old Eastside is the oldest suburb outside of, and just across the river from, the CBD in Alice Springs.  It’s my favourite suburb and I have lived here for most of the past ten years, amongst the tree lined streets with old character filled Territorian style homes.  I wandered past a number of different houses where I have lived over the years, down to the riverside and along the river, to the resort, where a surprisingly large crowd of friends, neighbours, colleagues, and ex-colleagues gathered for some fun and frivolity.  It was a great final night out, with lots of laughs, and they even made me give a farewell speech.

She'll be almost 3 when I see her next

She’ll be almost 3 when I see her next

October 12

This morning I had my last Alice Springs hair cut and colour, bought a new suitcase and stocked up on thank you cards for a few people.  This afternoon I chilled out under the verandah.  Houdini, the neighbourhood chook who flies from one house to the next strutting her stuff around the yards, fluttered over the fence and bwarked around with one eye on me, following me to the laundry door, and out to the washing line.  Sasha the old cat lazed in the chair next to me, a few lizards whizzed around under the crispy ground leaves and birds flew in and out of the garden pecking at branches.

This evening I joined Megan, Sam, Jo, Katrien, John, three children and a dog named Lou-Lou, and we drove in convoy east out of town, along Undoolya Road which becomes a red dirt track a few short kilometres from the suburbs.  Past Whitegate Camp, where an extended indigenous family group live in three-walled tin sheds on the edge of the station where they were once stockmen, nannies and housemaids.  Now they sit in the dust, or walk the 8km or so into town to catch up with their urban responsibilities such as checking in at Centrelink or the bank, meeting up with family from other camps or communities, and having a drink at the Todd Tavern’s “Animal Bar”.  This bar is one of a few which open in the middle of the morning, and close at the same time the attached takeaway bottle shops open, meaning the drinkers leave the pub, stock up on takeaway alcohol, and continue their drinking elsewhere (home or various locations in the scrub around and just outside of town) .  The process keeps taxis busy, as they pick people up at the exit to the bottle store, drive around to the entrance, through the bottle store where their passengers make their purchase, then drop them off at the exit to pick up the next takeaway customers.  The police often park their paddy wagons, or sit on their horses, outside the bar at closing time, to try and monitor what is going on.  These thoughts all whizzed through my head as we passed Whitegate, where I’ve spent time in a work capacity, meeting people and learning a little about their lives.

Along Undoolya Road, at the beautiful bloodwood tree we veered left into the scrub, put the car into 4WD and climbed the rough track up Undoolya Hill.  Jo was in her little old car, which only made it about halfway up the hill, where she parked and joined our car, then we convoyed in the two Toyotas to the top of the hill.  We set up a picnic table, sipped wine, nibbled Megan’s gourmet bites, and watched the Yipirinya Ranges as the sun battled the rain clouds, and finally won with a beautiful sunset before the lights of Alice Springs slowly turned the darkness below us into a glow of urbanity.  Unfortunately I only had my iPhone so the photos are low resolution snaps.

Gillen Undoolya 005

Sun battling rainclouds over Alice Springs

Sunset over Mt Gillen

Sunset over Mt Gillen

October 13

Lunch out with a friend.  Then picked up 8yo and took him via the car wash (it’s always exciting going through the car wash!) to the Skate Park so I could watch his skills one last time.  Then over to say goodbye to King, and ended up taking him over to visit some family briefly before dropping him home again.  Then my last dinner in Alice, poolside on a cool evening at Chifleys Resort with Mairead.

Going to bed with bags still unpacked.  Nothing like leaving things til the last minute!

Skate Park

Skills on show at Alice Springs Skate Park

Skate Park 002

Chifleys Resort

Poolside at Chifleys, my last night in Alice Springs