All of the Village Chickens

Ghandi poverty

Despite the amount of poverty that pervades my observations here, there is a charisma to Cambodia which is steeped in characteristics such as humour, dignity, respect and sense of community.  Recently, in three separate visits, I spent a chunk of time in the bustling centre of Cambodia’s tourism hub Siem Reap, observing the world.  My perceptions of the place may not be correct but I think they might be.

The tuk tuk drivers are a sub-culture unto their own, competing for business in all kinds of often-hilarious ways.  Rav says he’s one of a thousand or more in town, he knows about 60% of his fellow drivers and more of them “just to look at”.  The low season is about to begin so with times about to get even tougher the pursuits for custom appear more conspicuous and a lot of comedic charm and wit is coming out of the woodwork.  At my restaurant on the corner oneday, drivers were calling to any foreigner who stood up from their chair or came within a certain radius of their watchful eyes.

The tuk tuks seem to have regular corners where they park and scout for custom, where friends meet, hang out together and look out for each other while they wait and hawk.  I was walking through town one afternoon and Rav was parked at his usual intersection, sound asleep in the carriage of his trusty vehicle, a couple of hours before my pick-up time.  On other days I observed groups of drivers milling around a single tuk-tuk, their own parked nearby, talking animatedly with each other and with street vendors who pass by.  On a couple of evenings we drove past a police convoy on a corner, blowing whistles and pulling over vehicles seen to be breaking the law, eg motorcyclists and tuk-tuk drivers without helmets.  We passed through without incident and each time, a short distance up the road Rav waved out to a fellow tuk-tuk driver heading towards the checkpoint, pointing to his helmet in warning at what lay ahead.  One driver slowed down and reached around for his helmet from the platform behind, while the other pulled over to get his from the passenger seats in the carriage.

They are not only friends with each other, they also seem to know the various street vendors and beggars who share the town centre with them, which is after all, how Kim came to choose Rav the first time we met, as our driver and translator.  It had appeared to be a random pick the day it happened, but I now realise it was a gesture of friendship that Kim asked, and that Rav agreed.  It has become clear that they know each other well and see each other on a semi-regular basis.  From a repeat observer’s point of view, it seems to be a close-knit community of locals all sharing a reliance on the tourists for income.

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Driver taking his own advice on a corner in Siem Reap

As well as thousands of tuk-tuk drivers, Cambodia is also home to many motorbike drivers who work as taxis.  When public buses pull into the small dusty market towns scattered throughout the country, these drivers run towards the bus in unison, never pushing or shoving each other, with the code appearing to be that the first to touch the front door of the bus with their hand gets first option of any custom.  It always seems a jovial event, watching from the seat of the bus as they laugh and race each other.

In today’s news alone violence and injustice abounds.  A Dutch woman stabbed in her Phnom Penh home, a mob of 600-strong in Takeo Province beating and stoning a traditional healer to death after accusing him of sorcery, a family home attacked by arsonists thought to be connected to a real estate tycoon who wants their land in Phnom Penh.  Land grabbing by government supported tycoons, or the government itself, is a particularly common theme in the experiences Cambodians relay to me.  Recently a local I was talking with said that his family had purchased and were paying off a section of land 15m2 x 6m2.  Since purchasing this tiny patch of land, the government had sliced through it with a new road, subdividing it into a third of it’s previous size, without any discussion, warning or form of compensation.  Real estate is clearly not a reliable form of investment as it is considered to be where I come from!  Many thousands of families have been forcibly removed from their homes with no alternative and no restitution, at the hands of wealthy “developers”.  This includes one company funded by the Australian New Zealand (ANZ) Bank who are under fire in current media reports for funding an activity which led to the eviction of almost 500 poor village families left homeless with no redress.

Robbery is reportedly a common problem, particularly in the rural villages where 80% of the population live.  Yesterday a colleague was late to work because he had gone home for lunch and hung his work pants outside to air, which by the time he returned to put them back on had been stealthily removed!  This morning another colleague was lamenting the loss of his chicken which had disappeared overnight.  The police attended his home to ask if he had lost any chickens because it appeared that overnight all of the village chickens had been burgled!  The profiteering chicken thief is estimated to have taken around 40 chickens, at about US$4 a piece.  US$160 from a single night’s thieving is a big deal in a country where the average income amounts to $750pa and many villagers make far less than this.  The loss of a valued food source is also significant.

During my most recent trip to Siem Reap I got to know my tuk tuk driver friend Rav a little more.  It became apparent after some (typical language-related) miscommunication over a payment, that he had some financial stress.  With the low season looming I determined to help his family out a little extra as a gesture of appreciation for his driving, translating, assisting and general friendship.  On the morning of my departure he arrived to take me to the bus stop.  By way of expressing his gratitude for the bonus I’d paid the previous afternoon, he brought his pride-and-joy with him – a beautiful 5yo son, as well as a big bag of homemade food from his wife.  Entrusted with the care of this tiny button boy on the back of Dad’s tuk tuk while he babbled away to me in Khmer as Dad drove us through the busy streets, is one of the richest experiences of my time in Cambodia yet.

There is certainly truth to the idea that when we help others, we are significantly happier.  The purpose of my application to MSF was to try and give something back to the world in return for my charmed life.  Six months of life-changing experience in Cambodia has been more enriching than I could ever have envisioned.  I have received far more from Cambodia than any of the small offerings I have given.  What was intended to be an experience of giving, has inverted on itself into an experience of receiving.  Thanks, Cambodia!

Anne Frank Giving

Tuk Tuk, Madame?

This has probably become the most often quoted proposition of my life, courtesy of both the fact that I rarely get propositioned, as well as the flood of multi-lingual tuk tuk drivers vying for foreign custom in Siem Reap.  Rav was waiting for me this afternoon in a sea of tuk tuks calling to me hopefully, as I gave the customary wave of a waist-height hand to indicate no, then said “no because my friend is waiting for me”.  A jocular driver replied with a teasing and high pitched question as Rav put his helmet on and I climbed into the carriage, “He is your friend?!”.  Amused at his sense of the ridiculous I replied “Tya” laughingly.  There’s nothing like winning over customers with a good dose of humour.

We drove into Pub St and I was about to text Kim when he appeared from over the road, carrying his basket of books.  He got in the carriage with me and we drove over to his small rented room.  As we pulled in his wife was sitting at her sewing machine in the open shuttered, barred front window space.  Their youngest daughter spoke to me in clear English “Hello, how are you?” as both girls smiled shyly at me from the sides of their mother.  We sat on the floor and she spoke to the girls, one of whom jumped up and, bowing low as she walked through the circle, disappeared for a few minutes.  She returned with a coconut speared in the centre top with a straw in place and sliced flat on the bottom, placing it like a large cup on the floor before me.  Bottles of water were pulled out of the plastic eskie beside the only bed and given to each of the adults.  I looked on the wall ahead of me to the unexpected sight of a typed piece of paper taped above the sewing machines which read “Donations by Madame Helen from Australia”!

I asked how the sewing venture was going and his wife held up a small girls’ dress, explaining via Rav’s translation that the dressmaker employing her had brought it to the house this morning and asked her to replicate it with the supplied material.  I asked how much she would earn making these elastic-chested sundresses and was told that she would be given 1/3 of the cost, which comes to 500 riel.  That is US12c.  Twelve cents per completed dress.  Cambodia continues to hurl surprises at me on a daily basis.

We sat talking casually for perhaps half an hour, before leaving the family behind and heading back to the tourist-centred Old Market where Rav left me for a few hours of cruising the shops and reading my book under a ceiling fan in a cafe.  As I left the cafe, a young woman in rags carrying a baby drinking milk from a bottle came my way and followed me briefly, asking for assistance with “I want to get milk for my baby”.  I said sorry and kept walking.  Then I thought better of it and walked back to find her but she had disappeared up one of the alleyways.  Why is a young poor woman using bottled milk and not breastfeeding, I wonder?  Where do they sleep and how does she survive day-in, day-out?  What lies ahead for her baby and for her?

At the next corner a hand propelled bicycle-trolley contraption appeared with a walled carriage upon which a message was painted in both French and English about not wanting to beg, then going on to describe in some way, his need.  I did not get a clear picture of the driver’s disability from within his carriage, but it seemed similar to the young man I’d seen earlier, walking along on his hands, with small feet protruding from each stumped thigh – the look of a thalidomide disability.  Was thalidomide ever used in Cambodia?  It is more likely that these are victims of Agent Orange, a chemical used indiscriminately by the American military during the Vietnam War.   The Ho Chi Minh Trail, a thickly forested series of jungle pathways extending from North Vietnam, through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam, was used by the Vietcong to transport supplies and troops.  America smothered the region with aerial sprays of Agent Orange (named for the orange stripe on the drums it was carried in), to denude the jungle canopies and give their warplanes visibility of human movement.  The chemical breaks down into dioxin, a poison which has been linked to many human diseases and birth defects.  Decades later, children continue to be born in the areas affected, with serious birth defects.  The Vietnames Red Cross claim that a million children in Vietnam alone are living with physical deformities and mental disorders caused by Agent Orange.

The impact of Agent Orange on Cambodia’s people is largely unknown, but the following brief explanation is interesting, as much for the insight into the power differential between countries as for the questionably deviant morals of America’s National Security Advisor during the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger:
Unlike Laos, Cambodia was not systematically sprayed.  There was likely some mist drift into Cambodia as areas close to the border in Vietnam were sprayed.  The one recorded direct spraying of herbicides in Cambodia took place from April 18–May 2, 1969, when 173,000 acres of French and Cambodian rubber plantations in Kampong Cham Province in Cambodia were sprayed. 24,000 of these acres were seriously damaged.   The spraying took place at night and it was unclear who carried out the spraying, but it was not believed to be by the US Air Force.  Evidence points to CIA and Air America aircraft. In 1969, the Cambodian government filed a claim for $12.2 million in damages.  Though we never admitted we were responsible, we made plans to pay the claim to promote “broader interests.”  Henry Kissinger, at the time the National Security Advisor, attempted to delay paying the claim until FY1972, writing “Every effort should be made to avoid the necessity for a special budgetary request to provide funds to pay this claim.”
http://www.agentorangerecord.com/agent_orange_history/in_cambodia_laos/

While talking with Rav and Kim earlier, I learned that while Kim’s home is a little way out of town, making transport an issue for his work looking for sales in the central tourist area, it is peaceful for his family situation.  Others “like him” (disabled), said Rav, live closer to town but they drink alcohol and it’s noisy and not so safe.  Kim says that his long driveway, which appears to house at least eight other families in similar small adjoining rooms of two long buildings, is safe and quiet, with a landlord who does not accept disruptive tenants and that this is important for his family life.  His girls are neatly presented, clean and pretty, just as most impoverished people here are – a tribute to their parents’ love and responsibility despite such difficult circumstances.  Clearly, as with the disadvantaged communities I have worked with in Australia, not everyone copes as well with their difficulties as Kim, with alcohol and hopelessness affecting at least some of the beggars who Rav says “come from other places because of the tourists”.

Perhaps the appeal of Siem Reap is it’s parallels with Central Australia?  The absurd blend of humour with hardship, affable yet penniless characters, international tourists alongside local vagrants and the markets of art, craft and entertainment targeting visitors with money.

Magical Realism

We woke today to news of the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Columbia’s President has described him as the “greatest Colombian of all time”.  This is surely thanks to his ageless and captivating writing, celebrated by millions of ordinary readers and the Nobel Academy alike.  His prose has been described as Magical Realism, which combines reality with fantasy such that it becomes difficult to differentiate in the plot, where the two merge.

In some ways I think that the difference between reality and fantasy always merges somewhere in all of our minds.  An anonymous blog reader sent me a message about a year ago now, accusing me of living in a fantasy world and lying about some of my experiences.  How they possibly knew this I have no clue, but I am happy to appreciate that my reality is never going to match others’.  Our memories are formed by repeatedly processing sensory perceptions of an event until it becomes embedded as a memory.  With each repeat encoding our imperfect brains misremember small to major details.  This is why no group of people will ever remember the same event in the exact same way.  It is also, put very simply, how false memories can be formed, as well as very likely being connected to phenomena such as Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD).  Ultimately I guess, it is also why we all have differing perspectives on life – because we form and develop opinions and attitudes based on what we learn over time and none of us share the exact same experiences or biological make-up (responsible for the way we process things).

With this in mind, I marvel at the efforts that people in a place like Cambodia will go to, for what seems to people from a place like Australia, as paltry amounts of money.  My Cambodian per diem of $390 per month, at almost $100 per week, is by no means small in Cambodian terms, where the average income is approximately $2 per day and I can live well with just myself to support and many of my expenses (eg rent) covered.

My time in Siem Reap has been relaxing and mostly spent behind the rendered brick wall of my paradise-like, balcony-encircled poolside hotel with it’s high timber ceilings, timber floors, tropical gardens and lavish poolside restaurant.  Over the wall from me is a large Pagoda where children from poor families are robed as monks, serving the Buddhist clergy in exchange for food and education which would be otherwise unavailable to them.  Down the road a short way, hammocks are slung between every tree, housing obviously homeless men, women and children who set up stalls near their beds to sell coconuts, cardboard and various other wares for a tiny price.  Tuk tuks transporting wealthy foreigners putter past them many times per day, apparently taking little notice of the poverty playing out before us, perhaps because it is such a foreign concept that we really don’t understand or appreciate it’s significance to the people living it daily.

My tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, Rav, a young man with a wife and small children, has been with me whenever I leave the hotel compound.  This afternoon we visited Kim’s young family, after which I decided to sit at an al-fresco restaurant in town for a few hours, to soak in some atmosphere and sip lemon juice while reading my book.  Rav knew he had another $5 due for the day (I had paid him half already) and he relaxed in the cab of his tuk tuk patiently waiting for me, for this reason.  Coming from a country where the average wage is $35/hour, over two hours for $5 seems somehow …. corrupt?

But corruption is a consistent theme in Cambodia.  By no means the only, nor the first, nor the most recent example of the way Cambodians have been and continue to be used and abused by their own leaders, but also leaders of the world employed to improve their lot, is the presence of the multi-national United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).  In the 18 months from March 1992 until September 1993, the presence of UNTAC in Cambodia is credited with bringing six thousand foreigners into the previously completely-isolated (and highly traumatised and decimated) country from places as far-flung as Hungary, Uruguay, Canada, the Ivory Coast, Australia, and pretty much everywhere in between.  UNTAC civilians, in addition to their regular salaries, received a per diem of $130 per day.  The average income in Cambodia at that time, with widespread malnutrition and poverty affecting swathes of the population, was approximately $130 per annum!  Not only did UNTAC fail in it’s billion-dollar mission to restore peace and security to a country being held captive by their own self-serving political and symbolic leaders.  They also boosted prostitution and are credited with spreading Human Immuno-deficiency Virus through a country previously unaffected by the epidemic, which rose to a prevalence of 2% in 1998, before steadily declining to a prevalence of approximately 0.2% in 2012.  (See http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/cambodia_statistics.html#116).

Being born into this circumstance of extreme violation, I guess Rav is used to being on the receiving end of all kinds and levels of corruption, be it specifically due to individuals, or of a more systematic nature.  He is one of the luckier young drivers I have met, in that he is very accepting of the inequity surrounding him in this city of extreme disparity.  Some drivers I have encountered have been full of anxiety and despair, expressions I have full empathy for given the history and damage that has become a part of the identity of Cambodia.   Rav is casually but politely grateful for the comparatively reasonable amounts I am willing to pay him and happy to relax and wait while I “do my thing”.  In return, I get to have my very own driver / guide / translator who will chauffeur me around in a manner to which I have become well accustomed during my time of living well in Cambodia.  As a general rule, paying more than market value for such things as tuk tuk rides is advised against, as it drives the market value up, disadvantaging the majority of locals who cannot afford to pay more.  This happened in an extreme way during UNTAC’s time in Cambodia, when the highly paid international visitors inflated prices to ridiculous levels which were way beyond what the already-struggling general population could afford.  It is common for bartering to take place between wealthy foreigners and poor locals, over what are actually small amounts to the customer, but amounts that can make a difference to those serving them, who always seem acutely aware of the disparity.  There is a fine line between being generous to someone providing you an otherwise cheap service, and causing harm to the overall economy in an already destitute environment.

If I had a snippet of Garcia Marquez’ skill, I could translate this lifestyle into a story of magical realism, which is certainly a sensation that Cambodia conjures with it’s high pinnacles of affluence and depths of hardship.  Alas, the best I can do, is an unremarkable journalistic summary of my personal perceptions.

Daring to read on the bus

When you board a bus in Cambodia, the decision to read instead of looking out the window means you are going to miss out on some astonishing sights.  In the past 36 hours I’ve traveled 560km, from Mondulkiri in the north-east, back to Kampong Cham for a night, then up to Siem Reap this morning.  Becoming ever so slightly accustomed to the sights that have astounded me for six months now, I did put my head in a book for a large portion of each journey.  Still, whenever I looked up, there was something worth seeing, and I managed to get some shots of a few sights flashing by me.

Three little pigs went to market

Three little pigs went to market

Did I really just see that?

Did I really just see that?

I did!  Baby asleep on the highway outside Kampong Cham.

I did! Baby asleep on the highway outside Kampong Cham.

Just before my 20th birthday in 1989, I traveled from my home in New Zealand to London, embarking upon six years living in England.  In those days I had no comprehension that such options belong to a very privileged and tiny global minority.  My first few months in England were a struggle.  In the European summer that year I had a well paid job, a room in a beautiful big house full of young people and things were looking up.  With  the first pay I received in which I had some spare spending money, I went away for a long weekend.  As I walked over London Bridge en route to the train station, the feeling of complete freedom that washed over me is a sense that has accompanied me on every traveling holiday I have taken since.  The past few days in Mondulkiri and now Siem Reap are no different, with images of the Thames River, English meadows and cottages drifting into my mind as I pass by the Cambodian equivalents of muddy rivers and dusty rural villages.

The young girl sitting next to me must surely be used to traveling on the crowded garment worker trucks because she has no appreciation of my personal space.  I tried to remember this as she planted her knees firmly in front of my seat, pushed her bum into mine and elbowed me (albeit gently) in the ribs.  I am sure I seemed like a cranky old hag when I finally asked her to please move her body parts back to her own seat.

Rav, the tuk tuk driver who transported and translated for me last time I was in Siem Reap to visit Kim, was at the station to meet me and brought me to the hotel that I have checked into for eight days, partly as a birthday present from my mother – thanks Mum!  It was nice to see a familiar and friendly face.  Tomorrow I expect, with Rav in tow, I’ll meet up with Kim, the landmine victim I have talked about previously, but also another young man, also called Kim, whose family are the reason I am here.

Last week I had to spend two nights in Phnom Penh to attend a court hearing via video link to Australia.  With a holiday due and not wanting to leave Cambodia, I contacted a non-profit organisation offering to volunteer with them.  The following day I was sitting across a table beside the hotel pool near Boeung Keng Kang Market with a Belgian photographer / translator who came to discuss the possibility of my assisting a young family in Siem Reap.  In a country with such a high burden of need, that’s how quick things happen!

My holiday started as three nights with a friend/colleague in Mondulkiri.  Off the five hour bus trip which took us from the red dusty plains of Kampong Cham and Kratie provinces, into the elevated rainforests of Mondulkiri, a beaten up old RAV4 driven by local tour guide and happy character Mr Den took us to the Nature Lodge.  A shady tree-lined haven on the side of a hill with log cabins set along a rural path leading down from the central elevated open air timber restaurant/bar, we spent two glorious days here, mostly perched on cushions at the low set tables on elevated platforms flanking the bar.

Upon check-in we had the delight of seeing two travelers who we had struck up conversation with over dinner a few nights earlier, on the riverside in Kampong Cham.  A professor of law and his teacher wife from Portland, Oregon, she had worked for the American Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, where they are about to return to as soon as the Ebola outbreak calms down, to visit families she has maintained long term contact with despite civil war, corruption and lacking technology.   Another very interesting evening of intelligent conversation was spent with them and a young, friendly and funny Swedish couple.  The following two nights were spent with an equally interesting pair of young Spanish women who are cycling through Cambodia, promoting water awareness through arts in remote villages.  Counted among their skills are lawyer, sign language interpreter, multi linguists (who except me is not?!), artist, teacher, photographer.  With a flair-fuelled Mediterranean passion for their cause, they really were a treat.  I expect them to feature in my future life when they return through my part of the country in a month or two.  Their blog is worth a read at http://artwatereness.com/.

As well as the fabulous accommodation, new and interesting company, we saw elephants, a very dry, brown and sorry-looking waterfall next to a hydro-power plant, village life celebrating Khmer New Year, drove through the hilly agrarian town of Sen Monorom with Mr Den who also took us to a Bunong Hill Tribe village inhabited by this indigenous minority population who live in very unique thatched houses.  More can be read about the Bunong people here http://www.globalteer.org/the-bunong-people.aspx.

Sadness of a captive elephant

Sadness of a captive elephant

Bunong homes near Sen Monorom

Bunong homes near Sen Monorom

Laundry airing at the water well in a Bunong Village

Laundry airing at the water well in a Bunong Village

Elderly Bunong villager

Elderly Bunong villager

For all that, the biggest impression of my time in Mondulkiri was the unusual experience of trees.  In 1970 Cambodia’s Chief Forester Suon Kaset, later murdered by the Khmer Rouge, is quoted by journalist Henry Kamm as saying “Cambodia is a country of forests”.  Today the Cambodia that I have seen is very much a country of infinite expanses of deforested dust and of highways transporting seemingly limitless truckloads of timber.  Cambodian friends and colleagues often refer to Ratanakiri, the province north of Mondulkiri, as one whose forests are being plundered, replaced with rubber plantations which are the only common trees seen in Kampong Cham now.  The timber is transported on overloaded trucks, allegedly destined for neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand.

Back in Siem Reap a short six weeks after my last visit, I am looking forward to spending time with the various people I have come to know here and the young family I am about to know.  Again, here more than anywhere else in Cambodia, I have the paradoxical experience of having evident wealth in a place teeming with privation.  Whilst lavishing myself somewhat in beautiful accommodation, I am also here to contribute in some small way to the need that surrounds me.  That I am in a position to live comfortably whilst simultaneously doing something useful and constructive emphasises my privilege.  Perhaps the biggest imprint Cambodia may leave on me will be exactly that – “emphasis of privilege”.

Cambodian Revelations

Someone is burning the remnants of a fallen tree on a side street near the hospital.  Thick smoke billows out, giving a hazy hue to the torrid air.  As I cycle through the hospital grounds I wish I could photograph the family of four parked on their motorcycle under a tree.  One child stands on the floorboard of the scooter wedged between Dad’s knees and encircled by his arms which reach around her to the handlebar that she peeps over.  Behind Dad the second child stands on the seat peeping over his shoulder, in front of Mum who has one arm wrapped around the child’s waist, her other hand holding the wooden pole towering overhead, suspending the intravenous fluid bag connected to her child.

The young guy responsible for operating the boom gate at the hospital entrance smiles and waves goodbye as he releases the bar so I can cycle under it.  Will I ever get used to seeing floral pyjama-clad women walking the streets and traveling around on motorbikes?  In quick succession two couples on motorbikes turn the corner ahead of me, en route to the market, with a stack of vegetables between the out-turned knees of the driver and another pile stacked on the seat between the driver and his passenger who steadies herself against the high stack and peers around the side for a view of the street ahead.  A truck piled 1.5 times above it’s own height with tightly packed sacks comes next,  with a human head spotted between the sacks.  Then a number of trucks carrying people, with motorbikes, chairs, overfilled bags of unidentified stuff and wooden boxes tied to the bars of the cargo frame surrounding the crowd of passengers seated on wooden benches inside the cage-like enclosure.

Days earlier I was sitting on the bus from Phnom Penh next to a young mother with her son of around 18 months who spent a large part of the journey “tickling” me with his little finger pushing into my arm.  As we pushed slowly through the crowded streets on the city outskirts I marveled at the sights passing by.  A small child sat on a raised bamboo platform under a crudely thatched roof, naked and crying, as a woman in floral pyjamas ran towards him, past a rooster strutting it’s stuff on the side of the busy motorway.  Naked except for the kromar wrapped around his waist like a sarong, a man with a long bamboo pole bridged across his back between both shoulders, from which some cane baskets were hanging, wandered along holding the hand of a small boy.  Horse drawn carriages click-clacked along beside the motorcars, motorbikes, trucks and tuk-tuks.  One horse had a fluorescent coloured rubber head dress which bounced from side to side as he trotted, I guess being the equivalent of a headlight?  White cows meandered along in the dust, occasionally crossing the road and causing the traffic to slow down in order to duck and weave around them.  Two young boys traveled alongside each other, one on a motorbike, the other on a bicycle.  The cyclist had one hand on his handlebar and the other on the shoulder of his motorised friend, who pulled him along, negating the need to pedal.  Motorbikes laden with all kinds of agricultural produce traveled with passengers often sitting atop the produce, high above the driver over whose head they watch the world unfold.  A family on a motorbike come towards us, the youngest member standing in front of his driving Dad, eyes protected by red framed dark sunglasses.  A motorbike is parked on the roadside as boxes of beer are stacked onto the seat behind the driver, who holds them steady with one arm reached around behind his own back and the other holding the handlebar.

At each informal roadside stop, groups of men suddenly appear from nowhere, running towards the door of the bus.  They are motorbike drivers hoping to meet a customer off the bus who they can drive home for a small price.  Mostly they walk away slowly with disappointed looks on their faces.  As the sun sets and night falls I realise that there are no street lights on the motorway.  Many of the vehicles sharing the road with us also have no lights.  Fires burn in the front yards of many homes, I guess as open fire ovens?  Except for the headlights on the bus and the occasional television set lighting up rooms through open front doors of the hundreds of elevated wooden homes passing us by, these fires provide the only disruption to the pure black of night.

Off the bus, my week at work plays out over five days and as always, merges into a range of interesting, challenging and rewarding experiences.  Visiting colleagues join us from Phnom Penh and Tokyo to assess the project and provide support and advice.  As a “first missioner” there is still so much to learn and the world of humanitarian work is unfolding slowly but steadily into a lifestyle that I might choose to continue with in coming years.

Another unfolding revelation over the last few months, has been that of the lives of my Cambodian colleagues.  The economic reality of being Cambodian means that the choices available to and assumed by me, can only be imagined by my national counterparts.  I work with fathers who live away from their families for weeks and months at a time, sometimes only seeing their children a few times per year and often telling of spouses who work in rice fields for part of the year and travel to the city to work in garment factories once the rice is harvested, leaving children with various extended family members.  I also work with young people who work to support elderly parents and/or unemployed siblings and with mothers of very young babies who spend weeks at a time away from their infants who are raised by grandparents.  There are many other variations on the theme of family separation and communal support.  A surprising number of my workmates seem to share accommodation with each other, in conditions that have also surprised me.  All in order to earn the $400 to $500 per month that is considered profitable enough to warrant such extreme personal sacrifice.

Far less conspicuous than the overt poverty seen in the streets, these are the tangible experiences of Cambodia’s more prosperous and educated “middle classes” who embody the statistics of Cambodia as much as those living in extreme poverty.  The World Bank at http://data.worldbank.org/country/cambodia state that the average annual income in Cambodia is $880.  According to the United Nations Development Programme at http://www.kh.undp.org/cambodia/en/home.html, 46% of Cambodians live in multi-dimensional poverty.  This is more than double the 21% of people identified as living on less than $1.25 per day, the standard indicator of extreme poverty (http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/cambodia_statistics.html).

The shared struggles of my colleagues have slowly revealed themselves to me as a rule and not an exception.  It is a phenomenon that I am still trying to process and comprehend, and a phenomenon that I suspect is far more prevalent in the world than my privileged existence could ever have previously imagined possible.