After one of the worst weeks I’ve experienced here, it is nice to finally be able to report on something positive. Bad work experiences here are far less to do with the extreme emaciation, shocking breathlessness and brink-of-death states that surround us (horrific as they are). Rather, they have to do with trying to work inside a system that is tied up in knots, the results of which affect patient care – sometimes to the extent that it determines life or death. Until someone said to me “they make it complicated in order to stop the corruption”, I could not understand why there was so much seemingly ridiculous bureaucracy in the government system. It makes better sense now. But commonly witnessing easily-avoidable, mass-scale suffering and death is a tragedy which makes life seem so cheap.
Yesterday I traveled out of town and had the privilege to meet up again with Paint, the adoptive father of our deceased 14yo AIDS victim. I traveled 40km to a satellite town and he traveled 8km from his village, along dirt roads on a beaten up, rusty three-wheeled motorbike contraption that is hooked up to an equally beaten up, rusty, very small trailer, to meet me. Two of his three young daughters came with him, one sitting on his lap on the motorbike and the other perched on the side of the trailer. I then followed them to their home, through rubber plantations, past gold roofed pagodas, on shaded tree-lined dirt tracks and past many agricultural scenes of farmers transporting produce, working in fields, etc.
Paint is building his own home! This astonishing information was revealed to me only because I happened to see the house and had to tread around the piles of timber stacked in the front yard. In their poverty stricken humility, Paint and his family see nothing particularly extraordinary about a man who mobilises on his buttocks with his hands, building a home! An elevated wooden affair with bamboo floors, very similar to the design of the middle home in the picture below, it is currently about 3/4 complete. Upon arrival he manouvered off his three-wheeled engine with superb agility and “walked” on his hands over the piles of long timber and bamboo, across the rubble-covered, sloping and uneven dirt floor underneath the house, to a wooden bed base with bamboo slats, which he climbed onto and sat down.
I joined him underneath the house and we sat talking via an English speaking colleague with his wife and three children. Various other members of the family / village joined us, turning up and leaving again on motorbikes or from the school over the road, some staying and others coming to look at me shyly before leaving again. It became apparent that my presence was something of a novelty to them all. I enjoyed their company immensely. We talked about the recent death, the building of the house which has taken “a long time” and other aspects to their lives. The children attend school over the road at the Pagoda, where children’s noisy laughter and excitement was emitting from the open-shuttered windows of a long concrete building directly across the dirt track from us. The baby, sleeping in a swinging hammock slung between two of the house posts, woke and was immediately undressed and put into a little jumpsuit that I’d brought with me, courtesy of family in New Zealand. She was passed around, and I had a cuddle as she gurgled at the smiling faces around her.
Looking up into the house above us was not unlike the view in this photograph from Google. These gapped bamboo floors look so fragile, but they hold a (furniture-less) household of weight and provide great ventilation.
Amenities under the house where the family of four currently live are extremely basic, but no different to many other Cambodian households. Open to all the elements, I asked what happens when it rains and was told that the roof of the house two storeys above us does not leak, but the dirt floor turns to mud and it can get very windy, making me wonder about the dust that must fly about during our current dry, windy season. There are no walls in this area, so torrential rain probably affects them – the monsoon season starts in June, so hopefully the house will be complete and they will be properly sheltered upstairs by then. They must cook over an open fire, I didn’t see where. There was no evidence of any running water or electricity. Two large bed bases sit in the central area, used as tables and chairs by day and for sleeping on by night. A rusted tin roofed shack adjoins the house at the back, which I assume was previously their home. The land is sizable compared to some plots I see here and until recently when they sold their cows to earn some money, they kept them in the back yard.
Paint’s wheelchair/bicycle is there and in good order. He uses it to get around in the village when he doesn’t need to use the motorised bike. A gold lined (yellow) doll house-sized pagoda on a stand, similar to the photographs below (very common sights in front yards here), was in the front corner of the yard, looking in at the house, housing the young girl’s ashes, with some sticks of incense in front of the bag of ashes. They brought me a photograph of her taken 2 years ago and she was unrecognisable – strong and healthy – from the wasted bag of bones that I met in hospital prior to her death.
It was very special to meet them in their own environment instead of the hospital and to learn a little more about their lives which are so extraordinary to me. Paint is someone who in the First World would be highly successful in his chosen endeavours. I expect that is also how he is seen here, despite being trapped in the all-pervasive poverty of Cambodian village life.
This morning a colleague picked me up and drove me to a nearby Pagoda (Wat in Khmer) where we had agreed to conduct a mutual English-Khmer lesson with her husband and some of his English language classmates wanting extra opportunity to converse in English. As well as being my first (very enjoyable) experience trying to teach English, this also taught me a little more about Wats.
There are more than 300 Wats in Kampong Cham Province. Each village or town is attached to one, and Kampong Cham town has many, each belonging to a certain neighbourhood. They are often located at the end of long dirt tracks adorned with painted statues of elephants, tigers, other animals, mythical creatures and gods. There is always a solid painted fence enclosing the Wat grounds, with an open gateway entrance. The tall golden peak-roofed temples which have a very typical Khmer architectural design, as in the photographs below, are the central focus point but also only one characteristic of life on these communal estates. There is usually an open-walled shelter housing a large Buddha statue and often other decorative, colourful buildings apparently used for purposes of worship. The appearance of ornamental graves suggests that Wats also accommodate cemeteries, although it seems that many families take the ashes of their loved ones home for safekeeping.
There is also a very practical aspect to life at a Wat. There are always homes, usually the wooden elevated style, in the enclosure where the Monks reside together. It is possible to become a Monk from a very early age, and not uncommon to see very young boys living as Monks. It seems that these are often boys from families unable to financially support the child, who is sent to the Wat for a temporary period to receive shelter and education in exchange for domestic duties in the commune. I understand little about them but I know that as well as their spiritual importance, the Monks lead many community activities and are seen as a political force in matters of social justice. They often appear in the media, leading or lending support to various protest movements. Worship takes place at Wats daily and it is so common to hear the haunting incantation of prayers that yesterday I heard a very young child chanting as she perched in the dirt on the hospital grounds, coaxing her small friend to imitate her.
Most if not all Monks appear to learn / teach English as well as other academic pursuits and so the Wats are often attached to local schools, especially in the villages. They also have their own classrooms for use by the Monks. Today we drove into the Wat, past the graves and temples, and over to the school area, where we accessed a classroom with wooden shutters on the windows looking out over the long undercover verandah to the Wat grounds. The shutters were opened, the chairs dusted off and we sat at one of the front row wooden desks and held our language session for an hour. Conversational English in return for some basic Khmer instruction. It was very ad hoc, but also a lot of fun and such a unique experience. Tomorrow we are holding another hour long session in the same location, and twice a week from now on.