Disconnection Syndrome. Again.

When I was home in New Zealand at the end of last year, one of my stories about Cambodia had a strong impact on an aunt of mine.  The sister of a colleague in Cambodia is in her 60s, unmarried with no children and lives alone.  She is also completely blind, since birth.  Two of  her nephews are also blind, one of whom arrived on the balcony, led by a small child from their nearby home, during my visit.  Her brother, translating for me, explained that noone knows why the three family members are all blind.  Because of severe arthritis his sister stays home alone all day and is entirely reliant on family for survival.  Her blind nephews work in the rice fields alongside other family, which is their only source of survival.  They make no income, but can feed themselves from the rice they grow, which is a common survival method.  Both nephews are married with children, none of whom were born blind.

My aunt gave me some money to pass on to the lady, specifically to help her buy pain medication which is otherwise unaffordable.  Because of her remote location, when I returned to Cambodia I met with her brother and passed the money to her via him.  The family’s gratitude for this gesture was immense.  She is often in my thoughts as I roam the planet while she sits on that balcony going nowhere and totally reliant on others in a country where services are very limited and almost solely in the form of non-governmental organisations.  My thoughts are unknown to her and would likely be little consolation even if she knew.  Not that she ever gave the impression of needing consolation.  She made no complaint except to show me her painful arthritic knee which was keeping her immobile.

One of my favourite current affairs shows is a weekly American satire, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”.  Last week he covered the issue of cheap clothing, which is close to my heart due to the garment industry situation in Cambodia.  I’ve spoken before of the women who leave young children behind for months on end, to travel to cities and work in garment factories for US$100 per month, to ensure the children they are separated from have access to an income.  During harvest season these women return home to work in the rice fields, allowing them time beyond their heavy physical days, with their family.  This is such a normal Cambodian story that a surprising number of my colleagues tell their own version of it.  Most people seem to have connections in some way, to the garment industry.  A very common sight in Cambodia is the truckloads of factory workers being transported like cattle, to and from the workplace.

Oneday last month one of my favourite riverside restaurants closed down.  A waitress I had come to know well suddenly disappeared.  I was informed she had gone to Phnom Penh to work in a factory as she had no alternative.  Early last year I heard the chants of demonstrators near my office when the garment workers were protesting for a rise in their minimum wage of $70/month.  The park near our office was blocked by hundreds of armed guards, keeping demonstrators away from Provincial Hall across the park.  The warning PM Hun Sen gave in the media oneday to protestors was menacing.  The next day police fired indiscriminately into the crowds at a demonstration in Phnom Penh, killing at least five workers with absolute impunity.  The minimum wage for garment workers has since been set at $120/m although I am unsure how well it is implemented.

Garment workers going home

Garment workers going home

John Oliver tapped into this story with fervour, encompassing my point about the Disconnection Syndrome which we all suffer from.  He pointed out just how cheap clothing in American stores is, and that despite this fact the industry is highly profitable.  According to Forbes, the 28th richest person in the world today is a guy called Stefan Persson, Chairman of H&M clothing store and worth US$24 billion.  The fourth richest person in the world, worth US$64.5 billion, is Armancio Ortega, executive of Zara clothing store.  In 8th and 9th, 11th and 12th places on the same list are individual beneficiaries of America’s massive chainstore Walmart.

All of these companies source their labour in the poor world, where workers are cheap and exploitation is known to be commonplace.  Twice during my time in Cambodia I met people employed in America and the UK to visit factories sourced by wealthy companies and assess workplace standards.  Yet, as John Oliver highlighted this week, repeat breaches of these standards are universal.  This is not only demonstrated by last year’s shootings in Cambodia, but hundreds of other examples, most famous being the 2013 Rana Plaza factory complex collapse in Bangladesh which killed more than 1230 workers and injured another 2500.  Clothing manufacturers connected to this factory complex include Walmart, The Children’s Place and JC Penney.  Victims of this tragedy have filed a lawsuit in Washington DC against these companies, arguing that claims they did not know their orders were being subcontracted to Rana Plaza ignore the common knowledge that corruption in Bangladesh is rife, and that labour and human rights violations are the reason cheap clothing manufacture is possible in the first place.

John Oliver’s program covered the Kathie Lee Gifford controversy, an American television host with her own clothing line in the 1990s.  A human rights group publicised the fact that this clothing line, sold in Walmart, was being mass produced in a Honduras sweatshop which used children as young as 12 working 14 hour shifts for 22 cents an hour.  Today’s workers in Cambodia make a maximum of around 40 cents an hour by my rough calculation.  The commonly held belief in the first world that this is okay because living is cheap is incorrect.  Low wages merely provide people with a means to purchase food, often not enough food and usually nothing but food.  Kathie Lee became an outspoken lobbyist for labour rights, testifying to Congress in 1996 that “We are now morally compelled to ask, each of us, what can we do to protect labour rights in factories around the world and right here in America”.

Not only did John Oliver highlight the fact that 20 years after this anti-sweatshop movement began, clothing continues to be made in places where labour abuses are rife.  He also showed recent footage of Kathie Lee Gifford, America’s most famous defender of this cause, hosting a fashion segment of The Today Show, cooing over cheap clothes selling at The Children’s Place – one of the companies connected to Rana Plaza!

Will I return to the wealthy world and only shop for clothes which I know are made ethically?  I cannot say that I will, despite being quite passionate about the issue.  How can we know where the clothes we buy are made?  If an ethically made skirt costs significantly more than something from a chain store which is likely connected to the garment industries of the third world, can I or will I budget to buy the ethical item?  As John Oliver says, we are easily blinded by cheap prices.  We are also – all of us – very disconnected, even from causes which impassion us.  I am currently as disconnected from the blind arthritic Cambodian lady, as I am from any garment factory worker, despite caring about both of their causes.  Both physical distance and circumstantial dissociation seem to make this an inevitability.  Our comfortable lives are so far removed from the difficulties in “the other world”, that it is difficult to remain connected from afar, even with passionate interest.

Being aware of it may be the only way we can keep ourselves connected.  Reality as we, in the rich world experience, is altogether different to reality as 95% of those we share this world with, experience.  This week I have been dealing with an excessive water bill running into the thousands not hundreds.  This would usually stress me out in extremis and initially it did.  But reminding myself that my woes are nothing but First World Problems brought my stress levels down to a state of chilled-out.  Given the health benefits of a calm and peaceful state of mind, refusing to maintain an indifference to poverty, corruption and suffering in the poor world probably involves some selfish advantage?


Toddlers Toting Portmanteaus

Beheaded in Rome in 304AD at the age of 14 for refusing to renounce his Christian faith, Saint Pancras became the patron saint of children.  Quite fitting then, that London’s St Pancras Station is a place where you will see tiny children taking overseas holidays, following their adults through the throngs of travelers with their own tiny wheely suitcases.  One woman with a very Sloane Square accent, turned to her son as we crossed paths through the hordes towards the underground, to ask “Darling!  Would you like to go and see the Crown Jewels sometime?”.  Would that the likes of Dara and the blind lady’s young daughters in their bamboo leafed hut could even imagine such an indulgence!

Completed as a combined railway station and hotel in 1877, the station is a Gothic edifice of cathedral-like spires, arched windows and entranceways built with a distinctive red brickwork.  Euston Road is not short of beautiful and historic buildings but St Pancras dwarfs them, looming like a Harry Potter illusion.  A couple of rare collectible cars sit in lonely splendour in the residents-only car park on the cobbled stones outside the multi-million-pound apartments of the converted hotel.  Inside the station are enormous brass statues, plaques and sculptures commemorating various aspects of railway history and culture.  A massive arched, glass and steel ceiling towers above trains parked behind glass walls on a mezzanine floor overlooking the lower level of bars, restaurants, shops, currency exchanges, banks and platform entranceways.  Within the past eight years St Pancras Station received a £6 billion overhaul and became the arrival and departure point for the Eurostar railway between Britain and Europe.

Starting their international travel early, I am sure that in years to come the toddlers wheeling their tiny cases through busy concourses will know my following travel tips by osmosis, not making such foolish mistakes as I have. Alas, my last European travel was in 2003 when things were rather different to the way they are now for people wanting to jaunt across the English Channel. My excitement at the idea of a trip to Prague which so many friends have raved about, was boosted when I found a return flight for the total of £50.  Without giving it a second thought I booked immediately.  Here’s what I have learned since then:

  • Stansted International Airport is 40 miles and 45 minutes by train from Liverpool St Station in the City of London.  Tickets cost £19 one way or £32 return.  It is possible to purchase tickets online prior to departure at a discount price and you can also travel by bus for £10.  I arrived at Liverpool St this afternoon and bought the £32 open return train ticket, which is valid for one month. £50 ticket became £82.  Not much I could do about this.
  • The cheaper flights appear to leave at challenging times.  My flight tomorrow departs at 0645am.  Check-in is at 0445am.  So I decided to book an airport hotel for the night, who are giving me a wake up call in the morning.  For one night at this ordinary hotel with views out over the airport maintenance sheds, I have paid on a discounted deal, £116. £50 ticket became £198.
  • The cheap ticket only allowed for carry-on luggage of two bags with very clear measurement specifications.  In preparation for only taking carry-on, yesterday I culled myself even further, leaving with yet another accommodating friend, some liquids (shampoo etc) which the airline would not allow in a cabin bag.  Despite this cull, today I became concerned after seeing warnings at the airport about the strict airline enforcement of carry-on luggage.  So I got online and purchased a check-in bag, £20 which converts to £40 for the return flight. £50 ticket became £238!  In today’s exchange rate that’s US$361 or AU$462.  Not the deal it initially seemed.

A quick look online offers a midday flight on a standard rather than budget airline to Prague, return, tomorrow, for £134.  Advance bookings are always cheaper so I could have purchased a seat on this flight for significantly less, not needed to stay in an airport hotel, and have check-in luggage included in the cost.  Next time I’ll know, as those suitase-attached toddlers will when they begin booking their own travel, that the cheapest flight is not necessarily the cheapest flight!

Some other recent discoveries I’ve made include the magic of the Lake District in Cumbria, north-west England, where distances are so tiny that in 9 days I used half a tank of petrol.  Also tiny are the narrow old country lanes lined with granite stones piled onto one another into waist-high fences.  Villages consist entirely of granite stone cottages and/or mansions, some of them whitewashed.  The calm ribbon lakes mirror the sky even more precisely on a cloudy day when fog reaches down to gently kiss the water’s surface.  Restaurants heave with hungry walkers who spend their days hiking through farmland and forests and scrambling up rocky hillsides.  The market town of Keswick, capital of the Lakes, is one of the most enchanting places I’ve ever spent time in.  Tulips, cherry blossoms, dog-friendly pubs with canines catching chips at the bar or lazing under tables, the Lake Poets and their beautiful verses, Scottish Highland cows and Herdwick sheep, stalling uphill because second gear wasn’t low enough for the steep inclines and sleeping in medi-evil converted inns.  It was a magical time.

The Youth Hostel Association (YHA) costs £15 to join, although you don’t have to join to stay in YHA accommodation.  If you do join, each night will cost £3 less than the going rate.  I have now stayed in five YHAs in England and cannot recommend them highly enough.  Clean and comfortable, the only sacrifice is that you share a bunk bed in a same-sex dorm with up to six strangers and the bathrooms are communal,  usually in a hallway or sometimes ensuite to the dorm room.  Many YHAs are in big old mansions or other equally historic and charming addresses.  The Ambleside YHA sits on the shore of Lake Windermere; the Buttermere YHA is on a hillside above Lake Buttermere and downslope of some of the most famous and loved ridges in the area.  I had a six-bed dorm to myself one night; on other nights I met people to socialise with.  I have not paid more than £25 per night for a bed (mid-week rates, depending on where, are as cheap as £10).

Now I am heading to Prague for a week, staying in an AirBnB booked apartment in the Old Town with a local host.  Upon my return in a week I plan (which may change) to spend 10 days in London, whose charm remains as strong as ever.  I then have time in France with friends before the wedding in Norfolk, possibly via somewhere else in Europe.  Cycling in Holland appeals!  Time is disappearing quickly.

All the while Cambodia remains close in spirit.  The following quote from Scott Neeson of Cambodian Children’s Fund, which he wrote moments ago, sits on my shoulder whispering reminders to me of the other option I could have taken for these months and dollars I’m spending on myself.  Temptations from friends to stay on in Europe for longer than I intend are kept at bay by these reminders.

Below is Scott Neeson’s account of what he did on the same week that I lazed around in my airport hotel, blogging about what was wrong with my airport hotel.  Would that everyone of us who can stop, would stop as Neeson did on Wednesday.  Even just once.

“I have a very strong feeling that the opposite of love is not hate – it’s apathy. It’s not giving a damn”.

I wish I had said that but it was in fact Leo Buscaglia.

I mention this as much for my own sake as for any other reason. Driving to our community centre on Wednesday, I saw this granny pulling a cart toward the city – around a 90 minute walk – with her sad, malnourished grandson, Sokny lying inside. Being tired, knowing that CCF’s program’s are full and that stopping would be a chunk out of my morning, there was a temptation to drive on by.

I didn’t of course. I knew too that there was good chance of a restless, guilty-ridden night if I drove on by.

So I stopped and I am so glad I did. Sokny is 3 years old, sick from the garbage and weighs 11 kg’s ( 6 1/2 lbs). We talked a bit of chit chat at first, then discussed their situation.

The boy’s parents divorced and both took off, leaving him with granny. She and Sokny head to the city each night to scavenge enough for their daily survival. Every night.

I gave granny a little bit of money so she could turn the cart around and go home, then meet with Hoin and his Community team the next day. And they did.

Sokny will be joining our kindergarten classes soon while we work on an alternate and more sustainable living for the lovely granny. The granny’s emotion in the 2nd photo here says the rest.

So the moral for me is that I lost maybe a half hour and Sokny gained a life-time.

Disconnection Syndrome Misrepresents Reality

This brilliant article deserves to be shared far and wide.  The disgusting tactics of shock jock Katie Hopkins are one thing, placing her in the same league as the bigoted criminals most refugees are trying to escape from.  I hope that most of us could not relate to Katie if we tried, and of course that most of us would not even try.

Lady Anelay on the other hand, appears to be reasonable and fair.  But she has what could be called “Disconnection Syndrome”.  Her protected and comfortable life is so far removed from the perspective of those living through events and circumstances, that she cannot properly represent the reality people face.  The older I get, the more fascinating I find this disconnection between the privileged minority and those living with violence, poverty and oppression.  If I ever decided to do a research degree, it would be on this topic.

From The Guardian, Zoe Williams,
“Katie Hopkins calling migrants vermin recalls the darkest events of history”

The bodies have yet to be counted; from the latest tragedy in the Mediterranean only 28 have so far been saved.  There may have been 700 on board. The scale of the loss is extraordinary, but the manner of it entirely ordinary. These deaths are the result of politics; not complicated coups in faraway places, but bland decisions in beige EU meeting rooms resulting in the decision to halt search adn rescue operations.  In a statement to the House of Lords last October, the Foreign Office minister Lady Anelay justified the move and Britain’s support for it thus: “The government believes there is an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”.

This move was never going to stop the flight of refugees – people fleeing chemical weapons and public beheadings, political oppression, civil war and starvation do not emigrate to a place because they’ve heard good things about its coastguard services. Nor do they change their minds when they read that the safety features have had their funding cut.

The rationale as Anelay described it made no sense at all; yet at a deeper level it makes perfect sense. Because we scarcely ever talk about migrants except in terms of what they’re worth: how much they grow the economy or take from it, how much wealth they create in student fees or investment, what they do to wages with their pesky hard work and willingness to be exploited.

Political parties talk about migration as something to attract or repel, a tango between economic and political expediency. Human beings have no innate value in this worldview: there is no pride in representing the country that is safe and generous enough to offer a haven. Refugees, arriving with nothing, are worth nothing.

The controversialist Katie Hopkins, writing in the Sun 48 hours before the latest mass drowning, suggested using gun boats on migrants; her idea proved unnecessary, of course. Why waste the money when you can let people die by doing nothing, for free? But Hopkins’ phrasing was interesting: “These migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984’, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb.” The following morning, as an LBC shock jock, she rolled back her position slightly, suggesting the best way to solve the refugee crisis was not to shoot them once they were in the water, but to “burn all the boats in North Africa”.

The news that 700 would-be illegal migrants have died after their boat capsized off Libya has brought the issue of migration into Europe to a head. But what can be done about it?

A rather niche debate is underway about whether “Katie Hopkins” is a construct of its owner – like Mrs Merton, an entertainment turn spun out for money – or whether Katie Hopkins is a real person with an antisocial personality disorder. With more urgent questions and so many people dead, this distinction shouldn’t detain us. The fault is with those who broadcast her: this is serious stuff.

This characterisation of people as less than human, as vermin, as a “virus” (as she did elsewhere in the article) irresistibly recalls the darkest events in history. It is eerily reminiscent of the Rwandan media of 1994, when the radio went from statements such as “You have to kill the Tutsis, they’re cockroaches” to, shortly afterwards, instructions on how to do so, and what knives to use.

It is no joke when people start talking like this. We are not “giving her what she wants” when we make manifest our disgust. It is not a free speech issue. I’m not saying gag her: I’m saying fight her. Articulate the fellowship, the human empathy, that makes these deaths important. Stop talking about how many children were among the dead, as though only children matter. Start talking about everybody’s life as cherishable, irrespective of anything they might produce.

As the Hopkins column moved about social media, there gathered that peculiar sense of shame in objecting to it. A representative from Save the Children suggested we should channel that anger in a useful way, and give a donation. Others, scores of others, were of the opinion that if we ignored her she would go away. It’s a mixture of social embarrassment and moral nuance.

Are we validating the cockroach-view by engaging with it? Are we feeding off the suffering of others for a luxurious, meaningless ding-dong between people who manufacture conflict because they’re so far removed from what real peril feels like? With so much fresh loss, so much more that every one of us could have done, so much collective guilt, isn’t silence the only respectful response? I didn’t take to the streets in October last year when Anelay made her statement. I didn’t even write to my MP. I’ve never been to Calais to show solidarity with the refugees who are being beaten up there by French police. What right have I to say any of this is wrong?

Compassion is such a rich part of the human experience and yet such a shaming thing to express, because you will always fall short of what your own words demand from you. You will never do enough. It makes you wonder how the concept of human rights was ever born. How did anybody ever overcome the knowledge of their own failings for long enough to establish universal principles that they knew they would probably never do enough to propagate?

Because, fresh from the memory of “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”, people knew what the world looked like when nobody stood up to defend “the innate dignity of all the members of the human family”. People knew that insufficient was better than nothing. People knew that you don’t respect the dead by staying silent about what killed them.

Wandering, Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

William Wordsworth, 1804

It is so much easier to be in tune with things when you are near to, or immersed in, them.  As a seventeen year old school girl in New Zealand I sat through a year of European Art History lessons.  The subject was semi-interesting but I always wondered at the relevance of such olden-day, far-away subject matter?  My level of interest was well exhibited in class one day directly after lunch.  I was sitting at a front desk biting into an apple when Mister Boyd turned to me with a question.  Taken by surprise, I opened my mouth and unexpectedly, shocking myself at least as much as anyone else in the room, gave a loud burp!  Two years later I moved to England and one of the first visits I made was to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.  Paintings I’d studied in Art History were suddenly before me!  Cathedrals, castles, gardens, parks, statues and so much more all occupied space where famous people had stood and historical events had taken place.  It all seemed so much more real and relevant and it was exciting.  Would I have accidentally burped at Mister Boyd had I been learning European Art History from a school based in Europe?  Given the complete disinterest that my fellow passengers showed in the hilltop castle bearing down on us as we pulled into Lancaster railway station the other day, the answer is probably “yes”!

Standing in the carpark of Dove Cottage near Grasmere in Cumbria three days ago, a fighter jet thundered overhead at supersonic speed, disappearing over the nearest crag before my nerves had time to collect themselves.  Wordsworth, who wrote the above poem whilst living at Dove Cottage, could never have imagined such a phenomenon.  His imagination inhabited much more organic places, inspired by his rural lakeside life in the days before England’s Lake District became the tourist mecca that it is today.  Many of the millions of daffodils I’ve relished since arriving in England a month ago have made their way to my Facebook photo album, prompting Mum to refer me to the above poem.  If I’d ever seen it before, I didn’t remember – remotely distant as I usually am from such lofty verse!  What I didn’t know as I read his words, was that he was born, bred and wrote most of his work in and about, the Lake District, where I was headed.  Life seems full of such serendipity!

Parking at Dove Cottage, I was amused that the parking meter assumed I might stay for up to three hours.  How can looking at a little old cottage and museum about a long-dead poet take three hours?  That was before I entered through the 400 year old dark oak door of this charming 17th century whitewashed stone converted inn, into Wordsworth’s world!  The half hour guided tour through what was his home for only eight years, but at a time when his creativity was at it’s most prolific, was evocative of Wordsworth’s life here over 200 years ago.  The museum next to his home was riveting and I came away – almost three hours later – well informed about Wordsworth, his family, the other Lakeside poets, their travels and ideas, romanticism and so much else.

For me, the most interesting thing about Wordsworth, who loved and wrote so much about nature, was his social commentary.  He wrote about simple people – rural peasants, children and “idiots”, including one long poem called “The Idiot Boy“.  According to one exhibit in the museum, “…  William Wordsworth and his contemporaries challenged the established depiction of societies’ under-represented groups.  The era posed the opportunity for civil rights and civil liberties to be re-evaluated for all…”.  It seems he was an egalitarian, a fact which upset many of his peers.

I wondered about this as I drove along the steep and narrow stonewall-edged country lanes to the quaintly named, picturesque valley and lake of Buttermere that afternoon.  During 15 months in Cambodia I never once saw any aircraft in the skies above us.  Commercial flights do fly into and between airports at Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville airports, catering almost entirely to foreign visitors.  There is allegedly an airforce, but on the small runway of Pochentong International Airport in Phnom Penh, where they are apparently based, I never saw anything resembling military aircraft.  I can’t imagine who the pilots would be, or where they might have been trained?  Certainly nothing comparable to the British pilots who twist and turn with such precision in the skies above Lake Windermere on a daily basis.  Wordsworth died 165 years ago.  But there are still no civil liberties for all in this world.  Is injustice for the “lowly masses” born into bad luck an inevitability?  I ask this question to myself everyday as I continue to wander lonely as a cloud among the daffodils in my privileged world.

Today may be the grimmest day in history yet, of people trying to make it across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe.  A migrant boat has capsized and 700 people are missing.  BBC News have called the Mediterranean “a graveyard for people trying to escape”.  During the Khmer Rouge terror in Cambodia in the 1970s boat loads of Vietnamese and Cambodians turned the South China Sea into a similar graveyard as hundreds of thousands made desperate attempts to escape.  Many asylum seekers travel similarly on boats from Indonesia to Australia today and our government has brazenly taken steps to “stop the boats”, as though this somehow stops the crisis which leads to these desperate measures.  All in the name of “protecting Australia”, implying suspicious foreign intent and feeding on our prejudices.

Researching a possible side-trip to Greece the other day, I was surprised to read that approximately 100 Syrian, Afghani and Sudanese refugees are arriving on the tiny island of Kos every day.   Medecins sans Frontieres are launching a joint search, rescue and medical aid operation in the Mediterranean Sea and have been providing assistance and lobbying the Greek government to improve facilities for those arriving on the islands.  MSF’s general director Arjan Hehenkamp could just as easily be speaking about Australia in his claim that “Europe has turned its back on people fleeing some of the worst humanitarian crises of our time….  Ignoring this situation will not make it go away. Europe has both the resources and the responsibility to prevent more deaths on its doorstep and must act in order to do so.”  When people are so desperate to escape their homes using such drastic measures, the misery must be unimaginable.  Which is why so many of us in our privileged bliss make accusations of “illegal immigrants” and their alleged ill intent.  We are as disconnected from the subject we opinionate about, as the seventeen year old art historian I once was.

Everyday I hark back to Cambodia.  I should probably be there.  Or somewhere with Medecins sans Frontieres.  But this year off has been so long anticipated and so many others have told me that they regretted “working during my long service leave”, that I am forcing myself to spend these few months holidaying.  Very few people have such an opportunity and I need to revel in it.  But while it’s many positive things – relaxing, interesting, different, fun – my life has changed exponentially since the days that I thought my dream was to sit about in New York tasting wine and taking photography classes.  My happiness really does not lie in such self indulgent spoils.  It probably never did.  A message from Chom today said “We are very miss you”.  The feeling is mutual!

Opportunity Knocks

England, particularly London, feels very much like a second home even though it was 12 years since I last stepped foot on her soil.  My first encounter of the English last month involved two immigration officials stamping me in at Heathrow amidst feigned jealousy about my long holiday.  How I have missed the British and their wry sense of the ridiculous!  I spent my first ten days in and around London, revisiting old stomping grounds, playing tourist, catching up with old friends at our old haunts and meeting a few new people along the way too, including a political hopeful in the upcoming elections at a birthday party in Cambridgeshire.

The past week in rural England has flooded me with images of old farmhouse cottages, oceans of yellow daffodils, Tudor and Shakespearean style architecture, ancient churchyards and their crooked rows of gravestones, cosy nooks in pubs which have survived for centuries, houseboats floating past riverside beer gardens and public parks built around medi-evil ruins.  My English hosts are entertained that their daily mundane could be perceived with such excitement.  These same friends have been just as beguiled by my ordinary when visiting me in Australia.  They also, while claiming humdrum, make some very telling comments about the culture they are immersed in.  Last night I asked after the family of one friend, who nonchalantly stated “we don’t see much of each other, but we do catch up occasionally at the theatre or a concert”.  Music and performance art are a very strong feature of British culture.  Soccer, horse racing, golf and other sports also feature heavily, as I have experienced during my time in recent weeks as a house guest in a number of different English homes.  A cold day at Fakenham racecourse last Monday included.

Arriving at a friend’s father’s home two days ago, the British Grand National was running at Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool.  Apparently this steeplechase is watched by more than 500 million people in 140+ countries.  I sensed the fervor of these millions as we were ushered in excitedly to the televised sight of a string of jockeyed horses negotiating a hedge hurdle.  They landed safely before one faltered, sliding clumsily to the ground and narrowly avoided by the 30+ horses following him.  The race continued with tense anticipation, ending in lounge-room jumps and cheers as £100 in winnings was calculated.  Dad then turned the channel.

Now some very excitable football commentators were broadcasting between the studio and various football stadiums filled with roaring colour-coded hordes not unlike a scene from a modern day Gladiator.  The fast-paced commentary of Soccer Saturday bounced from one broadcaster and crowded venue to the next, with multiple games being reported concurrently, coordinated by a lead telecaster.  Millions of people must follow football in this country on a weekly basis, and the broadcast reeked of a multi-million dollar industry.  The mix of excitement, speed-talking and heavy accents reporting on teams in an unfamiliar game was both bewildering and hilarious.  Some of the commentators were speaking so fast and thick that they could have been speaking a foreign language as my friend and her father listened intently, alternating between rooted  silence and bouncing frenzy.  The two of them made a sudden frozen gasp, holding their breaths momentarily before jumping and cheering.  Once the room had calmed down a little, they translated that a last-minute goal in the Norwich-Bolton game was announced with a deliberately long pause before Norwich were named as the scoring team.  A game which was about to end in a draw was suddenly won 2-1 by the much-loved Norwich Canaries.  We then turned to yet another channel to watch the annual Womens Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge Universities on the Thames.  This historic event was all the more important because it was the first time in 160 years that the women have raced at the same location, on the same day and the same distance, as the Men’s Rowing team.

The sports excitement finally over, we headed out into the cold wind for a village stroll to the pub where we had a dinner reservation.  The local church dates from the 13th century.  It sits alongside towers behind a stone wall and grassed-in moat, which briefly housed Catherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII’s first wife, in the 1530s.  While we were admiring the medi-evil tombs, ceiling sculptures, bell tower and organ, the Church Warden arrived to lock up, heaving the huge, 13th century wooden door closed behind us and locking the thick iron grill.  Wandering past many charming olde worlde homes, we arrived at the local pub which has existed since the 1500s when it was a stage coach inn on the road between London and York.

My friend’s mother was a historical guide in this village.  She loved English history, loved to sing and was a regular at classical concerts and other performances up until her death last August.  She was a member of the John Clare Society and she also enjoyed composing music.  John Clare is a tragic figure in English history, a prolific poet whose work was not well recognised during his lifetime.  He was from a very poor background, known as a “peasant poet”, which was out of fashion at the time of his contemporaries such as William Wordsworth.  He spent the last 25 years of his life in mental asylums and it was only in recent decades that his work has become appreciated as some of England’s greatest poetry.

In memory of his wife, my friend’s father wanted to commission a piece of music.  He approached a composer whose musical performances he and his wife attended regularly for years.  Ralph Woodward and the Fairhaven singers perform a number of times each year, mixing Woodward’s own music with that of other composers including Handel, who was German but lived in London.  Next year their concerts have a nature theme and so the composition needed to be in connection with a written piece about nature.  Nature poems were a speciality of John Clare and so a poem has been selected and next July the new composition will premiere at a Woodward concert in Queens College, Cambridge.

Talk of my planned travels led us to a discussion about European christianity.  In the 600s AD a guy called Augustine travelled from Rome to encourage the Celtic population to convert to Roman Catholicism, from their Celtic form of religion. The power of Rome triumphed, but Celtic christianity has survived in certain places such as islands off the north-east and north-west coasts of Britain.  Some of these islands, for example Lindisfarne off the Northumberland coast, are tidal and can only be accessed at low tide.

It’s hard to write about this culture which, while it’s not entirely mine, is connected to my own heritage.  It’s far more familiar here than the foreign world of Cambodia where I’m separated by language, opportunity and cultural norms so that everything I witness seems to be occurring outside of my reality.  Here, things are “foreign but familiar”.

A year or more ago a Cambodian friend informed me he was hoping to follow his cousin to Australia, to enter on a tourist visa and work illegally picking fruit on an orchard.  His cousin earns $1000 per month on this orchard and will return in a few years with enough money to buy a house and be secure for life in Cambodia.  I showed my friend an online episode of Border Security, the Australian documentary series about Customs and Border Protection.  He was genuinely surprised to see people being turned around at the airport and sent home, and authorities working to find visa overstayers.   He recognised from this, that his plan is a bad idea with too many pitfalls.  This morning here in England I watched an episode of this series, in which an Indian family were detained at the airport and sent home on the next flight after evidence suggested they had intentions to work illegally.  Apparently immigration agencies in poor countries thrive, promising people a new life in the rich world for a fee.  Sadly, destitution and desperation breed exploitation.  It was dismal to see the anguish of this family, who had probably surrendered their entire livelihood for the fraudulently promised opportunity to live in the rich world, as they were deported.

An ex-colleague, a nurse with a Master of Public Health, is considering moving to Japan to work as a farm labourer, where she can earn triple her Cambodian income.  This colleague has a disabled baby whose health and welfare is a constant source of emotional stress.  Last week this 18mo boy was taken to a health centre by his grandmother with a fever.  The nurse or doctor suggested there was no point in helping him, because he is brain damaged.  His mother’s distressed messages about the incident were intense.  There are no safeguards in Cambodia against systemic discrimination, as there are in the western world.  Once such prejudice also flowed freely in our institutions but in recent generations we have established protective policies, procedures and structures.  Enforcement of such systems is not possible in a weak and corrupt economy where people feel powerless to speak out and there are no processes in place to offer protection if they do.

One of Chom’s friends, another tuk tuk driver, traveled to Ireland some years ago for three months to work as a labourer under sponsorship of an Irish friend.  He returned home, bought a house and has been able to put his sons through university.  When we talk about this particular friend, the strongest message about him is that he had an opportunity in the rich world that most others do not have.  Chom regularly alludes to the fact that if he could work outside Cambodia for a short time, he would be able to ensure his family’s security.  I have promised to sponsor Microphone’s education but I know that Chom’s preference would be the ability to do so independently, which he recognises is unlikely and speaks openly and honestly about.  Not because he is seeking assistance but because it is just how life is for most Cambodians and so it is a topic of conversation.

This lack of opportunity and the vulnerability it creates is impossible to imagine for us in the rich world.  Here in England, when I mention I’ve been living in Cambodia, there is a serious sense of disconnection as we order our £25 meals in quaint olde worlde pubs and discuss our home renovations, overseas travel and other affluent pursuits.  The incredible disparity in lifestyles and perspectives between the rich and poor worlds is intensified to me, by a (completely understandable) lack of awareness about what it means to be immersed in poverty.  The adversity which exists in most of the world is as alien to us, as the possibilities and comforts which avail themselves to us, are to the poor world.  Neither of us is particularly good at comprehending the other’s life experience.  It’s hardly surprising given how very different our life experiences and world views are.

The Gate

Francois Bizot worked in Cambodia as a young Frenchman in the 1960s and 1970s.  An ethnologist employed by the Angkor Conservation Office, he restored ceramics and bronzes from the temples and researched Buddhism.  He lived in a village near Angkor Wat with his Cambodian partner and their infant daughter when, in 1971, he was captured by the Khmer Rouge.  They had already surreptitiously infiltrated large tracts of the countryside, recruiting child soldiers from rural peasant areas and training them for the revolution.  Battles raged between these revolutionaries and the Vietnamese who had crossed the border areas as a part of their own war, using Cambodian soil for military bases and other strategic purposes.  This Vietnamese presence attracted the wrath of America, under the leadership of President Richard Nixon and his Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger.  They ordered a top secret bombing campaign on Cambodia which dropped more bombs than the whole of World War II and is said to have given rise to Khmer Rouge support.

Alongside two Khmer colleagues who he was traveling with, Bizot was chained and marched off to a remote and very primitive Khmer Rouge prison where he was interrogated amid accusations of being an agent for American imperialism.  The head of this small but brutal prison where an unknown number were tortured and murdered, was a Khmer Rouge leader known as Brother Duch.  Through the interrogations Bizot and Duch developed a mutual respect for each other.  Duch eventually fought, at some personal risk to himself, for Bizot’s innocence and release, petitioning the highest ranks including Pol Pot.  After three months Bizot was released.  He learned years later that he was the only survivor of this camp.  His two companions were taken to the forest and bludgeoned to death, as was the case for most prisoners of the Khmer Rouge.  Bizot is also the only westerner arrested by the Khmer Rouge, to have survived.

Upon his release Bizot remained in Cambodia.  When the Khmer Rouge marched on Phnom Penh in April 1975, his wife and daughter were forced to evacuate the city along with all other Cambodians.  Bizot found himself in the French Embassy with a thousand western refugees who were held captive behind the embassy gate for months until they were finally convoyed to the Thai border.  Fluent in Khmer, Bizot acted as intermediary between the embassy’s refugees and their revolutionary captors.  He wrote The Gate thirty years after these experiences, as an account of his time as a Khmer Rouge prisoner both at Duch’s rural prison in 1971 and again at the Phnom Penh embassy in 1975.  His exposure to the cruel, irrational and all-encompassing power of the Khmer Rouge and the brutality he witnessed, haunts him to this day.  As he watched one young girl he had tried to save, marched to her inevitable death, he says “she looked at me, and her eyes, hollow with fear, bored two black holes into my brain that have never stopped deepening”.

Brother Duch, who was responsible for Bizot’s survival in 1971, became the head of the Khmer Rouge security police and director of Tuol Sleng Prison, also known as S21.  This was the biggest of the many interrogation and torture prisons established by the Khmer Rouge and is now known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  These prisons were used to force false confessions out of people to prove that an internal enemy was working from within Cambodia, which justified the Khmer Rouge’s brutal and murderous actions in the name of protecting Cambodia.  When they were overpowered by the Vietnamese in 1979 only seven prisoners survived Tuol Sleng, which had imprisoned, tortured and executed tens of thousands of innocent victims.  At the very last minute, before fleeing Phnom Penh, Duch arranged a few last-minute executions.  During a visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in 1988 Bizot was shocked to recognise a photograph of Duch, identified as the Director of the prison and known as “The Butcher of Tuol Sleng”.

Now 72yo, Duch remained free for many years before surrendering to authorities in 1999 after being discovered by two western journalists who recognised him from photographs in Tuol Sleng.  His trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Extroardinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia only took place in 2010.  The ECCC continue to hold trials against former Khmer Rouge cadre to this day.  Unlike many others who remain unrepentant, Duch expressed regret and sorrow for his actions during his trial, although he then also made a plea for release!  His capacity for cruelty is astonishing and distressing, made all the more so by the knowledge that he was academically quite brilliant, and by Bizot’s portrayal of him as someone with a desire for morality and justice.

The Gate is a terrible, insightful look at the destruction which was poured on Cambodia by power hungry beasts of inhumanity.  It is not just a biographical account of one man’s experience, but a portrayal of the ambiguous nature of humankind, existing at once as good, moral, heartless and cruel.  My favourite quote from the book remains relevant in the political climate of today’s world.  Bizot could be describing any number of today’s world leaders in this comment about a specific young cadre who helped lead the convoy of westerners to the Thai border and out of Cambodia in 1975.

He was the sort of man who is never deterred by obstacles, but as a consequence, like so many power fanatics, he looked on the suffering of weak and anonymous creatures with total contempt.

Francois Bizot, The Gate

As an addendum, The Gate does not provide detail about the fate of Bizot’s wife and daughter so I Googled it.  He discovered in 1979 that they had survived the revolution.  They were reunited and married but the relationship did not last.  He remarried and had children with a French woman.  His first daughter is Helene Bizot, who has a child with French actor Gerard Depardieu.  She is often mistaken erroneously for a French actress of the same name.


Although my European holiday is wonderful, I miss Cambodia very much.  Everything I do here is coloured by questions as to whether this is the best use of my time and money.  As one example of many, today the landmine victim who I support messaged me to say hello.  He mentioned in his limited English (although far less limited than my Khmer!), that the very important Khmer New Year holiday is approaching.  I asked if he was going away and was told no, because his tourist-reliant income is currently non existent due to the Hot Season, also the low season for tourists.  The bus ticket to his home town is “too expensive”.  Knowing what I do about bus travel in Cambodia, this would not be more than $5 per person.  But with a wife and two children, it is beyond his budget to purchase four tickets.

The juxtaposition of my expensive international wayfaring against the many examples I now know so intimately, of inexpensive yet unaffordable aspirations, is with me like a travel companion, whispering reminders into my ear almost constantly.  I have an English wedding to attend at the end of May, so I am forcing myself to stay until then.  Not that it is difficult to be here, catching up with old friends, revisiting my old stomping grounds, sightseeing and experiencing Europe in Spring.  Despite my whispering travelmate, I am actually having a great time!

In the past few days Khmer friends have written to me about a young boy whose story is share-worthy.  He is 7 years old, HIV positive and recently diagnosed with Multi-Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (MDRTB).  Both diseases were contracted from his mother who is now dying.  His father abandoned the family, including two HIV negative siblings, some time ago.  Abandonment by an HIV- parent is not especially uncommon, due to the heavy stigma HIV carries with it.  The family have been living in dire conditions with daily food shortages.  Despite chronic malnutrition and his HIV-TB coinfection this boy is otherwise in good health and reportedly very smart.  His siblings were recently accepted into an orphanage who rejected their brother due to his HIV status.

The boy is currently with his mother who is now bedridden, unable to sit up independently and dying of what we call AIDS.  World Health Organisation definitions of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome are complicated, depending on a variety of factors.  In short, anyone with Human Immune Deficiency Virus in their blood, who develops an AIDS-defining illness, the most common of which is Tuberculosis, is considered to have AIDS.  HIV kills 1.5 million people annually, making it the biggest infectious killer worldwide.  Coming a close second, TB kills only slightly fewer people globally.  The two diseases work in partnership with each other very efficiently.  Exposure to both micro-organisms is more likely to occur if you are living in poverty, with conditions such as overcrowding, high stress, low health literacy, lack of lifestyle choices, and other factors which decrease your power and increase your vulnerability.

Exposure alone does not guarantee that you will become unwell from either disease and other factors come in to play for illness to take hold.  The infectious dose of each micro-organism plays an important role.  If you are not exposed to a high enough dose, it will not affect you.  This is why both organisms, despite their relatively high infectivity, do not infect everyone who comes into contact with them.  Physical conditions including malnutrition, ailments such as chronic disease, psychological stress, smoking and many other factors which are too complicated to explain here, also affect your chances of becoming unwell once you have been infected.  The conditions which increase risk of disease tend to occur much more frequently in the poor world where people are already struggling to survive in challenging circumstances.  Explaining these circumstances to friends in the rich world is an almost futile exercise as it is literally not possible, living in even ordinary privilege, to envision such poverty and powerlessness.  It is equally impossible in a place like Cambodia, to accurately portray life in a country where hunger does not exist.  I regularly sense when I am with Cambodian villagers, an element of “unfathomability” about who I am, where I come from and how I got to be there.

In the past few days the boy has commenced his 20 month treatment regime, including eight months of daily injections, for MDRTB.  His mother also admitted to staff that she knew he had HIV and has been sharing her anti-retroviral medications with him. With different doses required and many other considerations, this is unsafe, indicating someone with very low health literacy.  It also suggests, as is so often the case in Cambodia, that she has little trust in the health care system.  This lack of trust is justified.  The public health system is poorly resourced, poorly coordinated, expensive to the point of overburdening a large portion of the population with chronic debt, and prone to corruption.

In the words of the Khmer doctor treating this young boy, who is trying to find him a home before his mother dies, “I feel depress to learn his poor life“.  A Khmer friend replied to me on Facebook this morning, after I requested translation of a Khmer post depicting a photograph of a visibly distressed, elderly street seller in Phnom Penh.  “Helen it is happened in Cambodia.  It says, if some body know this guy please contact me because there are some people will support him.  Thank. For me it is very usual in my country.  Alot of people got difficulties“.  These communications about such extreme hardship remain alien and distressing to me.  The distress exists for my Khmer friends too, whilst such things are also common and familiar to their life experience.

It’s easy to assume that people in the poor world don’t have the same feelings of grief and distress as us, about the hardship and destitution which they know so well.  During my last days in Phnom Penh this incorrect assumption was highlighted to me with Dara.  He and his mother were hospitalised while I was there and I saw them a number of times.  One day I picked them up in a tuk tuk and we went out for a day trip.  I took them to a hotel with a 9th floor rooftop bar overlooking the Mekong.  Dara had never experienced an elevator before and he did not know what was happening as the electronic doors opened and we coaxed him to enter the tiny little room.  His excitement when the doors opened onto a different level was hilarious, and equalled his excitement at being so high above the city.  From there we had a $2pp lunch at a Khmer restaurant before visiting the beautiful Royal Palace.  His mother has lived in Phnom Penh and was on the construction team who built the city’s tallest skyscraper (there are only two!).  But she had never been to a riverside hotel or to the Royal Palace and on her keypad mobile took many more photographs than me that day.

Many people approach Dara to ask about his amputation, particularly when he is not wearing his prosthesis and on our day out he was on crutches with his stump still sutured and healing.  At the Royal Palace a young Khmer woman spoke at length with his mother and I gathered from my limited Khmer that they were talking about his leg.  The woman then approached me to say that she was “so pity for him”, that she has children of her own and that “life is so difficult for him in the future in Cambodia”.  As she spoke tears welled in her eyes.

Some of the most powerful images you’ll ever see, by photojournalist James Nachtewy, depicting MDRTB patients from around the world, are in this link.  “Struggle to Live – the fight against TB”.


After seeing this slideshow of Nachtwey’s photographs I found a 20 minute TED talk by him which is also very powerful.  He talks of bearing witness, of good people being placed in very bad situations, of the desire to show people what is going on because the general public’s influence and opinions matter.  He says that photographers aim their pictures at our best instincts – being generosity, a sense of right and wrong, an ability and willingness to identify with others and a refusal to accept the unacceptable.  I liked these words as they describe my motivation for this blog.  This is my attempt at bearing witness to the injustices in this world and to the fact that we can act to address these injustices.


Three days ago I took the below photograph of a housing estate in South-East London, from the train window.  When I lived in London 25 years ago I travelled past this estate twice a day.  As the buildings came into sight on Monday I wondered how many residents were still living there 25 years later and realised that this is poverty, London-style.  Whilst the poor in rich countries do not starve and do have back ups such as first world quality health systems and welfare payments, they do also have struggles and challenges.  They are not highly mobile and life is no doubt less than ordinary for many, with an array of known population health, education and justice related problems specific to the poor demographic.  Communicating this concept to a Cambodian person is incredibly difficult.  The western shade of poverty is not conceivable to third world brains anymore than death by starvation and lack of basic resources can be conceived by a first world brain.  We are all confined by our own “unfathomables”.