This Week’s Perceptions

All our knowledge has it’s origins in our perceptions

Leonardo da Vinci

I regularly tell people in Cambodia that I come from a rich country, but that I am not rich.  Each time I hear these words from my mouth, I wonder how someone from a poor country who has never experienced societal prosperity, processes such a statement.  They see someone living in their country by choice, in comfort, obviously having travelled here from afar, and clearly unfamiliar with hunger and deprivation.  My own impressions of the things I see and experience, and the exchanges I have with people everyday, obviously stem from my own perceptions which are steeped in my “rich world brain”.  Below are some examples of my daily contemplations this week alone, from inside a country I can only understand from a privileged outsider’s perspective.

Day One

After breakfast at the market I noticed a little boy walking with a baby on his back, secured by a krama.  Dressed in rags, he looked about eight by body size but was probably around twelve based on his facial features.  Sobbing loudly, he walked to the gutter and sat down, where he released the severely malnourished toddler, who was naked except for a grubby and ripped t-shirt.  The baby pottered around on the muddy pavement behind his big brother who continued to sob.  Keeping them in sight, I crossed the road and bought two chilled coconuts.  The tops were cut off and a straw pushed into each.  As I approached the little guy with his feet in the filthy gutter, he immediately stopped sobbing and stared at me in astonishment.  I had to coax him to take the coconuts and when he finally did, he offered me a weak smile.

My attempts to speak Khmer with him were met with wide-eyed silence and so, reassured that he had stopped crying, I cycled off.  For the rest of the day I wished I had bought a proper meal for them both rather than a watery drink with next to no calories in it.  I haven’t seen them since but I have wondered about them and hope that the coconuts didn’t cause more problems for him.  If he’s in an abusive situation, which is quite possible for a beggar boy wandering the streets in charge of a baby, then it’s possible that being found in possession of food or drink could cause more problems than it solved.  I will probably never know, although I continue to keep an eye out for them.

Day Two

Dara is back in hospital with his amputation stump which continues to cause pain despite having the bone shortened only four months ago.  Chom and I traveled out to his village for our weekly visit with him and he was already in Phnom Penh.  The usual line up of wide eyed small people appeared, some of them summonsed by messengers who ran off excitedly to let the village know a Barang was in town.  Dara’s grandparents came outside and sat underneath a tree while kids milled around staring at me, hiding behind grandma or tree trunks and others played hopscotch on the dusty track just outside the yard.  We called Dara’s mother and he shouted down the telephone line at me in Khmer while I shouted back “ot yul te” (I don’t understand), amidst laughter on both ends of the line.

When I told grandma that I had to go away for a while to get my visa re-issued, but we’ll visit again in a couple of weeks, she asked Chom how much I spent to travel here from Australia.  I said I didn’t want to tell her and he said that it was fine to say.  I randomly picked $600.  She replied that she has never known such an amount of money.  But they have land, upon which their banana-leaf and bamboo shack sits, in a remote place which hopefully shouldn’t attract the attention of wealthy land grabbers.

Chom looked to the sky in the distance and shouted “we better go, look!  Rain is coming!”.  We boarded his moto and took off along the dust tracks.  Before we could reach the bitumen on the outskirts of town, the heavens opened and dust turned to mud.  We arrived at his house, trod through the mud to the front door which he pounded on before his wife opened it, laughing hysterically at the drowned and muddy rats before her.

Day Three

While sitting on the riverside socialising with an Australian and a Khmer friend, a tiny girl suddenly appeared between the bushes behind us, her hands clasped together, obviously begging for money.  She surprised us but our Khmer friend spoke gently to her and within a moment she walked around to the side of his chair to continue conversing with him.  He runs an NGO involved in trying to address the problem of street kids and he walked home with her to find out where she lives so that his colleagues could attend the next day to follow up with the family.  She is told each night by a grandmother that until her begging earns her 5,000 riel (US$1.25), she cannot come home.  It’s difficult to say no in such circumstances, but giving to child beggars perpetuates the problem.  Thankfully the right person was in the right place at the right time.  She has approached me each subsequent evening so her situation is not yet resolved, but being “on the books” is a step in the right direction.

Day Four

Sitting in my usual evening spot, the blind amputee came past on his nightly rounds.  A Khmer friend was with me so I got the chance to finally have a bit of a conversation with the guy, who I will call Chai.  His daughter has a scholarship to attend primary school and the family of four (parents and two children) “stay in a guest house in <location>”.  To my western brain this sounded very positive and I concluded that there was probably no need to think further about trying to support them.

Day Five

Chom and I visited the kids at Phter Koma, who were immersed in their English studies with the young French volunteers.  Next week I am going on a field trip with Chaz, the home’s manager, to visit some other children’s homes and explore their systems as a way of assessing our own.  I sat with Chaz for a while to discuss our plans and he knew how to locate Chai, so Chom and I headed over to find him at his “guest house”.  We pulled up at a roadside shack and after some conversation Chom disappeared into the back yard.  Once he located Chai, he waved me in.

Shock is a daily occurrence when you’re surrounded by privation.  This time my shock had more to do with the ongoing ambiguity that exists in my head, where I seem to constantly perceive the things around me in one way (eg the blind amputee is doing fine), when in fact the reality is something else entirely (ie no, he’s living in extreme destitution).

Day Six

A young German couple staying at my hotel joined me on a couple of evenings for drinks and a chat.  The husband of the couple stated that obviously people here are “not so poor”.  Why do you think that?  He used the example of the children cycling past in their crisp white shirts and navy shorts or skirts, well presented and obviously attending school.  First World Brain Syndrome will naturally assume such conclusions from such images.  Yet Chai’s daughter, in her crisp white shirt and pleated navy skirt, has no running water in her home.  She washes herself and her clothes, along with dozens of neighbours who share this water, in the round rain water tanks at the bottom of the stairs in the below picture.

The fact that she manages to look crisp and white out of this environment, is testimony to the drive that people have to maintain a level of dignity no matter how undignified their circumstances.  It also shows that poverty is not necessarily a visible thing.  Most rural Cambodians, who I encounter everyday and who invariably look clean and well presented, live in abject poverty.  Yet the beautiful women and children and the handsome men could easily pass for middle class “rich worlders” if your only clue was an individual’s physical appearance.

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Day Seven

Paula and her mother came to town for an appointment and I met them with a friend who translated for me.  We spoke at length about the ongoing plans to try and get her to the USA for curative surgery.  After reading about “Muslim filth” on Facebook once too often, and being told that just because I don’t agree with comments like this, it doesn’t make them untrue, I could not stop looking at them in their colourful headscarves.  What will the experience of standing in line at Border Control in the USA with these innocent women, be like?  Given the recent experience of an MSF friend returning from West Africa with an ignorant Border Control officer lecturing her about the threat her work posed to himself and his country, it could go either way.

My translating friend explained the need to sit in an aeroplane for perhaps 15 hours and Paula, at 29kg, suggested she would have to fast to stop her abdominal wounds from excreting faeces during the journey.  I explained that there are toilets on the aeroplane which everyone uses for every bodily function and it will be important for her to eat.  We talked about Halal food and her mother said that they will eat any food if it means her daughter getting better.  She also said that “even if my daughter dies in America, it is better than her life now and I will say goodbye to her”.  We talked about the experience of arriving at Border Control and what they can expect.  My translating friend turned to me, mid-Khmer and said laughingly “it sounds like I am telling them about the experience but I never went on a plane!”.  Most Cambodian people haven’t.  Flying in and out of Cambodia, a tiny percentage (if any) of passengers and none of the airline staff, are Cambodian.

That night the American Infectious Disease consultant confirmed that Paula’s documented TB treatment and outcome means she is safe to travel and receive treatment without any infection control concerns.  That ticks off step one of the process and we are now approaching the next hurdle, seeking charity care from the hospital.  If this is successful we then have passports and visas to arrange before finally booking our travel.

It is a hopeful and anxious time for Paula, her family, the medical team here, myself and no doubt the team in America as well.  One of the Khmer doctors called this unexpected situation “a miracle”.  The first time I laid eyes on Paula 14 months ago, she was a crumpled up mass of tiny bones in her father’s arms and I knew she was about to die.  That she continues to survive, and that a chance encounter in a faraway country connected us with a specialist who can help, is probably the most phenomenal thing to have ever happened in my life, let alone hers.

It’s nice to write about some hope amidst the wretchedness which sometimes consumes me.

Perception and Reality

The Krama

As a young child I remember seeing footage on the television of scenes such as this coming from Cambodia.

Child soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, 1975

Child soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, 1975

My enduring memories include a guy called Pol Pot, said by Mum to be “a very bad man”, and soldiers in black pyjamas with a checked scarfe.  With the exception of the occasional elderly person, the population have generally rejected black for bright, floral pyjamas, worn to my amusement at all times of day or night and in all public places, from shopping at the market to working on a construction site.

The checked scarfe, known as a “krama”, remains an abiding item of Cambodian attire.  Often the only thing men appear to have on, it has a wide and surprising variety of uses.  The many Khmer people I have asked all admit owning and using a krama.  Sold for between $1 (local marketplaces) and $5 (tourist hotspots), I too now own and use kramas, mostly as a bandana against the dust and sun when I’m out cycling.

Traditionally a gingham pattern of red (most commonly as you can see by my photographs) or blue, kramas are made in “silk villages” using cotton or silk.  A “silk village” seems to be any village where the dirt floor area under someone’s traditional elevated wooden home contains a foot-pedalled loom used to weave krama.  There are many “silk villages” dotted throughout Cambodia where you can visit to observe this traditional weaving.

Krama weaving at a silk village in Tboung Khmum Province, last year

Krama weaving at a silk village in Tboung Khmum Province, last year

It’s probably impossible to provide an exhaustive list of the uses of a krama because I doubt I’ve seen or imagined them all.  But I do see them everyday and it is astounding just how many practical functions one smallish strip of material has.

Perhaps most commonly, men wear them as a skirt in the hot and steamy climate.  They also come in handy when bathing in public, as most people do, in either the river or from the large pottery rainwater tanks most villagers have in their open yards.  You can wash without getting naked.  They are also used as a towel by most people.

Man Skirts

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Perhaps the next most common use of a Krama is as a sunhat of sorts, either on it’s own or in combination with a hat.

Ideal for use by one or many at the same time.

Ideal for use by one or many at the same time.

Usually wrapped or tied, this villager goes freestyle with her krama

Usually wrapped or tied, this villager goes freestyle with her krama

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When you don’t need full sun protection but you want your krama nearby, they tie nicely around your scalp like a turban.  This can also help as a way of stabilising the trays of produce people carry on their heads.

Head ties

Women tend to wear them in a looser style unless using it to anchor a tray of produce.

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They make great slings and carry-bags.

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They can be slung between structures including the handlebars of bicycles, as a makeshift hammock for babies and small children.  I’m yet to capture a pic of this.  And they’re also used as decoration, which I suspect is in order to have it on you for when you happen to need it next.

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There are apparently regional varieties to krama, which I am yet to work out.  They were described by a Chinese visitor to Angkor Wat in the 13th century, indicating their historical significance.

Next to wearing your bright floral pyjamas in broad daylight, the krama must be one of present day Cambodia’s most symbolic cultural statements.

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Dilemma of Departure

Most evenings I sit in a particular spot beside the Mekong River watching the evening cruisers go by on their variously populated motorbikes as I sip a glass of white wine.  That’s a $2 luxury I can afford to spend on myself among the billions of other luxuries I take for granted in this lucky life.  With the Wet Season underway many evenings now involve sitting inside an open doorway listening to the rain pounding on the tin verandah roof.  Another luxury as I wonder exactly how many thousands of people don’t have proper shelter from the downpours.

A blind amputee walks by each evening, led by his small daughter whose shoulders he holds from behind.  By Australian standards she looks about six years old.  But that’s probably the result of stunting due to chronic malnutrition and she is more than likely at least ten.  They don’t stop to ask for money because it’s a tourist spot and tourists don’t have a reputation for giving away their hard earned dollars to beggars, especially non-English-speaking beggars.  Foreigners tend to be from cultures where suspicion leads us to prefer to give, if we give at all, to organisations over individuals who may squander it.  This is not without merit, but it’s also easier when you see someone regularly, to get an idea of their situation.  This guy is sober and clearly doing what he can for his impoverished family.  There are very few options for a blind amputee here beyond starvation or begging.  I keep an eye out for them and most nights offer something.  Chom or one of his staff will call out to me if I am not looking and I sometimes have to chase them down the street.

Yesterday afternoon the child of one of my previous staff members came to see me.  He was in my English class last year, although not a resident at Phter Koma.  His mother knew I’d started teaching English at Phter Koma and told me that her son was desperate to learn English but that she had no way of affording private classes for him.  I thought about it for a while because I know from my time in Central Australia how these things can get out of hand.  The vision of myself standing before hundreds of keen eyed students kept me strong and I said “no” on an almost daily basis to requests for new students to join our classes.  But something about this particular staff member’s story, alongside the homeless girls, stirred me more than most.  So I agreed to let her son attend.  He came in the tuk tuk with the homeless hospital children, Chom, Bea and I.  He was a quiet, interested and keen little student with an even keener smile and he had a great rapport with the other children.

The children at Phter Koma are now receiving English lessons via some young temporary French volunteers and a few of the older, more interested students are also enrolled in private English classes.  The homeless hospital girls have moved to Thailand to be with their parents who are working in a washing machine production factory somewhere.  This young boy doesn’t have the so-called “advantage” of the Phter Koma kids, who have an, albeit tight, institutional budget supporting them.  So I told his mother the other day that if they found out the cost of English class and if it was affordable, I would sponsor him.

As I headed out to the riverside for my nightly ritual yesterday, he was sitting on his bike across the road, waiting.  Chom was around and so I called upon his translation <ahem> “skills” – a whole lot of talk, almost the same amount of uproarious laughter, and about three sentences in English for every 30 sentences worth of Khmer dialogue.  I get the gist, but I get no more!  If only I hadn’t spent a year with a trained translator, I might not feel quite so detached from Chom’s highly entertaining but mostly mysterious translations!  An hour per day at English class from Monday to Saturday will cost $6.  Per week?  No, per month.  You can make the biggest difference to a life with – by western standards – the smallest amounts of money.  I looked at the boy and nodded my head.  He turned his gaze to Chom who translated that I will sponsor him to English school.  His little face ignited.

We discussed logistics because my biggest obstacle soon, will be the tyranny of distance.  Getting money from the rich world to the poor world is an administrative nightmare.  Less than 5% of Cambodians have operational bank accounts, which is the first hurdle.  Chom has one, but relying on him to dispense money to fellow Khmers could open a minefield of potential issues.  He’s a resourceful, clever and trustworthy person but having him look after my affairs could place him at risk of obligations or accusations from others.  I need to protect him by minimising my expectations of him, even though he’s happy to help.

Then there’s the inordinate amount of bank fees which come with each transaction and the loss of currency due to exchange rate differences.  Chom says I should not pay more than three months of school fees at a time, as “many problems can happen and you might lose your money”.  Sending $18 every three months could incur more than $50 or more in fees and currency exchange costs, making this small amount far less affordable than it sounds.

We gave our eager student the first month’s fee of $6 so that he could enrol immediately.  He backed his way out of the door, bowing and beaming all the way.  Within ten minutes he reappeared to show me the activity book he’d purchased, on instruction from his new teacher.  Did he need more money for the book?  No.  So the monthly cost includes resources!  We will go to the school in a few days to sort out the following few months’ worth of fees.

A couple of hours later I went to the Night Market on my bike for chicken fried rice.  $1.50 later I was riding home when I spotted the blind guy and his daughter.  I called out, crossed the road to say hi and offered my measly donation to their raggedy lives.  It occurred to me as I told them I’d see them tomorrow, that I can probably put a big positive dent in their lives at next to no personal sacrifice, similar to the independent sponsorship I’ve had in place for the landmine victim in Siem Reap for the past 18 months.  Chom doesn’t know it yet, but his next job is to interrogate this family on my behalf.

With only two months left in Cambodia, I have to come to terms with my pending departure.  I will probably have to stay away for about twelve months this time as I settle back into life as an employee with no leave owing.  I’ve already booked my ticket at the $165 work Christmas party amidst thoughts of how wrong it seems and how much better the money could be spent.  Departing Cambodia is one thing.  Readjusting to absurd self indulgence will be a more chronic and challenging dilemma.

Desmond Tutu

Doctor Beatocello

If you are interested in Cambodia then you definitely need to know about this guy, whose real name is Dr Beat Richner.  He is a Swiss paediatrician who first travelled to Cambodia as a young graduate in 1974 with the Red Cross.  He left when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975.  In 1991 he returned and was asked by the Cambodian government to rebuild Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital in Phnom Penh.  Since then he has established a total of five hospitals in the country, four of them in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap.  All are named Kantha Bopha (and numbered to distinguish them from each other), after a daughter of King Norodom Sihanouk, who was born in 1948 and died of Leukaemia in 1952.

Cambodian Ministry of Health hospitals operate a fee-heavy system, leaving a significant proportion of Cambodians in debt.  Many basic interventions will not be performed without a private cash fee being paid to the individual doctor, nurse or other health staff first.  This can be crippling for people who barely have enough to keep themselves nourished, which is the cause of much ill health here in the first place.  Most Ministry of Health staff have their own private clinic or work in a private setting outside their government job.  They often leave the hospital grounds during shift hours to attend to their private paid work, which is unofficially accepted practice, largely due to the appallingly low pay received in government employment.  From my observations, Cambodians have learned to have very low expectations of health care, gravitating towards NGO or private services wherever possible on the usually correct assumption that resources and care will be of a higher standard.  People with enough income will travel to neighbouring Thailand or other Asian countries to receive treatment, but this option is unavailable to most.

A total of 2500 Cambodian staff are employed at the Kantha Bopha hospitals, providing treatment free of charge.  No payment is required from patients and no staff work outside of their hospital employment.  This makes for a corruption-free system in a country where corruption is normalised in many government departments.  The standard of care is also closer to western standards than in government hospitals which provide a horrifically low level of care in an equally horrific environment.  During my time based in a collaborative position as Medecins Sans Frontieres staff working alongside the Ministry of Health I blogged about some of these appalling standards.  For example sewerage seeping out of the ground and hospital waste being burned adjacent to patient care areas, or cardboard boxes overflowing with potentially infective sharps and children playing amongst infectious waste including sharps.  On a daily basis my tolerance levels were confronted in ways which were abhorrent to my “first world brain” but accepted as normal by my colleagues.  This is the case even outside a hospital setting.  For example, sitting at an outdoor cafe having a meeting the other day, a skeletal father and son scavenging team walked past us, dressed in rags with sacks on their backs.  I stopped in my tracks while my Cambodian friends discussed how easily shocked the likes of me can be about things which they have spent their lives becoming sensitised to.  They still care, and in fact dedicate a lot of their livelihood to helping others.  But there is no shock for them to such sights.

A good example of the difference in standards of care at Kantha Bopha is the shock lesson I had recently when my ex-colleague’s cerebral palsy affected infant was afflicted with a mystery illness causing very high fevers of unknown origin.  He really seemed to be on death’s door and the family travelled with him to Siem Reap so that he could be admitted at a place they trusted he would receive good care.  During a previous illness his grandmother had taken him to a health centre and been refused treatment for him as the clinic staff deemed it unnecessary to treat a disabled baby!  Requiring admission to Intensive Care, his mother shared an agonising photograph to friends on Facebook of her son, unconscious and intubated.  Initially happy to see that he was receiving a level of care which is usually unavailable here, I was then shocked when a European paediatrician with experience in Cambodian ICUs instructed her to make sure that someone continued to manually ventilate the bag!  He was intubated but he was NOT ventilated and the tubes could actually increase his respiratory distress and risk of respiratory arrest, unless someone was manually pushing air through the breathing bag and connected tubes into his lungs, at the correct pressure and rate.  This is a skill that medical and nursing staff in wealthy countries learn thoroughly before being trusted to perform manual ventilation, which is usually only required in emergency situations, due to the many associated life threatening risks.  Anyone requiring ventilation in a wealthy country will be hooked up to a sophisticated, computerised ventilator with a highly skilled nurse/technician providing 1:1 care.  In this higher standard Cambodian facility, untrained family members put themselves on rotating shifts to keep their baby breathing!  So while the level of care at these hospitals is far better than elsewhere in the country, it remains incomparably inferior to standards considered normal in western hospitals.

The Kantha Bopha hospitals treat 85% of Cambodia’s seriously ill children, and 92% of all paediatric cases of Dengue Haemorrhagic Fever, an endemic and potentially lethal mosquito-borne virus which infects thousands of Cambodians each year and occurs at higher rates in children under the age of seven.  Each day across these five hospitals, 3,000 children attend Outpatient departments, 400 severely sick children are hospitalised, 75 surgical procedures are performed, 500 pregnant women are seen and 60 babies are born.  Without this essential service, many of these people would die or be maimed for life, in a country where premature death and disability are all-too-common.

The reason that Dr Richner is known as Beatocello, is that he is also a cellist.  He has developed a cello-playing clown persona who entertains crowds using comedy and has also published a number of books based on the Beatocello character.  Since beginning his work with the Kantha Bopha hospitals in 1991, he has held many cello concerts in Switzerland and Siem Reap, for the purpose of raising funds for the hospitals.  85% of the annual budget of all five hospitals relies on private donations. It is reported that since 1991 upwards of $370 million has been raised by private donation in order to keep the hospitals operational.

Dr Richner is now 68 years old and has begun expressing his concerns about how the hospitals will remain viable once he is too old to participate.  He expects that much of the private funding will dry up once he is no longer involved.  This week he wrote a letter to the European Union, who are allegedly planning a political boycott against the Cambodian Government in the region of US$700 million.  Dr Beat requests that the EU pledge to donate half of this boycotted money to the Kantha Bopha hospitals over the following ten years, in order to keep them operational at the same standard as they are able to function now.

Will the European Union consider maintaining support of the Cambodian people while boycotting their government?  Beatocello seems to have given them a very realistic option to do so.  I watch with an anxious heart.

Cambodian Chicken Farm

Today I learned a new term.  I could have done without knowing, actually.  But now I know, I’m sharing.  Not everyone who comes to Cambodia, does so with good intent.

Today Chom and I met Joe, the elderly Polio victim, as arranged for his admission to the inpatient area of Handicap International, to be fitted out for a new wheelchair.  He travelled to town from his remote village with his daughter as an escort and we picked him up at Shackville.  As Shackville came into sight, we spotted him standing on the roadside, alone and holding his large wooden walking pole.  As we approached, it became apparent that he was upset.  After some discussion Chom translated that his daughter had been “stolen”.  She had taken a moto taxi to pick up some water and had not returned.  I suggested that maybe she was just shopping at the market but Chom was emphatic that she was probably taken because this happens “many many times everyday in Cambodia”.  Joe climbed aboard, hoisting his legs in with his arms, and we drove slowly through the town centre looking for her.  She was nowhere to be found.  The old man was almost crying as we stopped to ask people if they’d seen his daughter anywhere.  Noone had.  So we drove back to Shackville to check if she’d returned.  She had not.  Joe asked us to please take him home, he didn’t want to be fitted for a wheelchair, he was too distraught to think about it.

I quizzed Chom, who was distracted and upset, about why someone would steal a young woman (naiive, I know!).  “To take them to Thailand, or take them to the chicken farm, do you know the chicken farm?”.  Why would they take her to a chicken farm?  “Because they want to steal her and make her do bad things, you know?”.  What does a chicken farm have to do with it?  “Do you understand?”.  Yes, you mean human trafficking and prostitution, but I don’t understand chicken farm?  He couldn’t find the words to explain it so I remained in the dark.

It’s difficult to find statistics on the prevalence of human trafficking in Cambodia, but Chom is an intelligent and streetwise source.  His conviction that trafficking occurs “many many times everyday” here, is supported by the fact that a number of organisations work within Cambodia solely to address the issue of human trafficking.  One example of many is the organisation AFESIP, who say they are a legally registered non-governmental, non-partisan, and non-religious organization that cares for and secures the rights of women and girls victimized by human trafficking and sex slavery.  It was established at the grass-roots level in 1996 because of the dire situations of thousands of victims forced into exploitation in and across Cambodian borders.

Decimation of Cambodian society and values during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s is identified as the main reason that the country remains poor and destabilised today.  AFESIP outlines the resulting persistent poverty, unemployment and lack of education as factors contributing significantly to the population’s vulnerability to exploitation.  Traffickers are usually powerful and organised crime syndicates, often from distant and foreign lands.  However family members, friends and neighbours are often also involved in selling people into these rings.  A friend in Phnom Penh regularly posts reminders to Facebook about a young woman she knows who disappeared almost three years ago.  My friend believes that the woman’s mother sold her into a syndicate for prostitution.

Later this afternoon Chom and I spoke some more about the chicken farm and he said that traffickers see village people as easy targets “because they see that these are stupid people and they can easy steal them and force them to do things”.  This is obviously his way of describing the connection between illiteracy, poverty and human trafficking.  Despite living only about 20km from town, the family are not familiar with town.  With only one daughter earning US$90 per month on a tobacco farm, to feed the extended family of four adults and two children, travel into town is a highly unusual event for any of them.  I liken Joe’s presence here, in some ways to the 20yo me who landed in London – a foreign and overwhelming place even though I spoke the language.

Sitting in the tuk tuk outside Shackville wondering what to do, thoughts of reporting her disappearance to a notoriously corrupt police force did not sit well with me at all and I wondered how we were ever going to begin finding her.  Chom was thinking similarly and planned to report to both the police station as well as a radio station who could alert the general public to be on the look-out for her.  The experience was also eerily familiar to some of my Central Australian ordeals.  It’s not the first time, or even the second or third, that I  have driven through town looking for a missing person, albeit my first time in this town.  The common denominator is the pandemonium that exists in distressed communities, something Australian indigenous communities have in common with disempowered and impoverished communities across the globe.

As we sat on the edge of Shackville wondering what to do, Joe’s face suddenly lit up and he pointed to a lone figure walking towards us in the distance.  She had in fact, been shopping at the market as I had initially suggested. The moto taxi did not wait for her and so she had to walk back, hence the delay. I can’t begin to describe the relief of all three of us, nor the stern words Chom appeared to have with her as she joined us!  We took them for breakfast at a local market but they ate like sparrows, which Chom explained later was because they were self conscious being amongst so many people in a busy urban market place.  We then stopped off to buy them a cheap mobile phone so that we can keep in contact with them while they stay the few days at Handicap International.

At Handicap International I got to experience this favourite NGO of mine a little more closely, following Joe through the registration process, his poverty assessment and then the line-up for his physical assessment.  A young man was practising walking on his obviously new prosthesis up and down the verandah we waited on, and at the end of the verandah the gymnasium bars were in use by a number of other amputees.  A young boy of about 15 was walking around on a severely deformed foot and an infant was lying on a plastic mattress with a man in a white coat assessing his obviously delayed milestones.  Joe and his daughter are staying a couple of days while he is assessed and fitted for a wheelchair. This afternoon I visited them with some extra food and Joe was ecstatic because tomorrow he will receive his wheelchair, which they will then train him to use and care for.

I returned home and spoke some more to Chom who was still talking about the chicken farm and how afraid and angry he had been when he thought Joe’s daughter had been stolen. So I Googled Cambodian chicken farm to figure out what he was trying to tell me. Courtesy of YouTube I watched a big baboon of a character with an English accent called Nick Swift, talking from behind a covert camera as though some sort of undercover reporter, about how to reach “the chicken farm” in Koh Kong, and how much you can expect to pay for services there.  An extremely seedy YouTube, some of the comments which appear below the footage include:
Aaron d 3 months ago
This place is still open . I went there on 04/04/2015  . Went to  Vietnam gals . saw 4 there only 1 of which was just about ok . Cost $15 at 2.30 am . she took me to her room, not quite as bad as i expected    worth it just to see , certainly not for the faint hearted. . I had a good shower as soon as i got back to my  room. I actually felt sorry for the poor gal to be honest.
Glenn McGee 11 months ago
It would have been nice to have seen some of those “chickens” and what kind of quality the cost of poultry in that area gets you. I was thinking of you when I heard about Thailand’s new visa regulations. Are you still living in Hua Hin or will Cambodia be your new digs? Good to see you are okay, Nick.

Later on I saw Chom and another tuk tuk driver and told them that I had Googled chicken farm and now I understood. The other driver said “last year I had three customers, one was Australian, and they told me they wanted to go to a chicken farm. So I took them to a chicken farm! They saw many chickens but they told me no! We don’t mean this type of chicken farm! I was so confused because I didn’t hear this word before!”. He then said that some people say that “tourists like this” are important too because they bring tourist money, but that he – and Chom and I – disagree. Unfortunately human trafficking is considered bigger business than the arms and weapons trade, easier and more lucrative than drug smuggling.

I guess not everyone has care factor? But I hope that anyone Googling Cambodian chicken farm for seedy purposes who might be led to this blog, maybe thinks twice about travelling to Cambodia for sex tourism. Do you really want to be a part of such an ugly and sinister enterprise?

Rock ‘n Roll

On my first full day back in town Chom was taking a day off work to travel the 60km to his wife’s village, to pick her up and bring her home.  He works up to 18 hours a day, six days a week now, in two jobs (tuk tuk driving and managing the hotel I am staying at), so she has been staying with her mother and grandfather.  Their second child is due in a few weeks and she should be near town and health services.  Her mother’s home is a typical elevated wooden style set beside a beautiful shady, treelined dirt track running parallel to the Mekong.  The drive there involves crossing the busy bridge over the Mekong, then turning into the riverside villages onto ungraded, weather damaged rural dirt lanes.  You can also travel on the southern side of the Mekong which is bitumenised for a longer time, for two thirds of the journey, then take a ferry to the other side.  We took this route on our way home as he thought it would be less uncomfortable for his very pregnant wife.  The journey along either route by tuk tuk takes between 2.5 to 3 hours, which gives a vague idea of how rough it is.

At 7am our first stop was a rice warehouse for 50kg of rice to deliver to the blind widow and her frail parents.  They live in a village hidden behind acres of corn fields off the beaten track, probably 20km from town.  We last visited them in March, at which time her lame father, who has an extremely debilitated gait, explained that his legs have been deformed and crippled since he was very young.  He developed a fever, from which his disability emerged.  That is all he knows about why his legs are so maimed.  My guess is Polio.  He told us then, that he has been trying to get a hand-pedalled wheelchair, via the relevant people in the village, for “a long time”.  They (perhaps the local health centre?) always agree but it has never been forthcoming.  Yesterday we arrived to the sight of Dad and his brother sitting in the doorway of their elevated, banana leaf and bamboo shack.  When he realised who we were, he climbed down the ladder to greet us while calling out to everyone excitedly. We were directed to climb the ladder into the house, Chom with 50kg of rice on his back and me following behind, kicking our shoes off at the bottom step.

During our visit I asked again about the wheelchair and Dad repeated that “they” continue to be agreeable without acting.  I told Chom how easy it was for me to get a chair like this for another person and suggested maybe we could do it ourselves for him?  Chom was surprised and questioned me somewhat before turning to translate my offer.  As he did so, the old man’s face lit up and he beamed at me.  Immediately his brother launched into a monologue aimed at me, which Chom translated as “it is really nice that even though you are from another part of the world, they had good luck to meet you and we can be friends and work together.  They are really lucky that they meet you”.  He then explained that the old man goes to the pagoda every week and it is very difficult to get there, sometimes he crawls on his bum, other times he goes on the back of someone’s bicycle, but his legs get mangled in the wheels.  We arranged a time and day to meet in town next week so that we can get the ball rolling.  This morning Chom and I went to Handicap International who confirmed they can supply a chair and gave us some more detail about arranging this.  Chom then called the family to explain the logistics involved and it’s all going ahead.  Project Number One underway!  I can also tick off my to-do list, that this week I “just stopped” to help an elderly person in some small way.

After about half an hour sitting on the bamboo strip floorboards looking below us to the chickens wandering on the dirt floor under the house, we headed off towards our destination.  About half an hour into this leg of our journey we turned at a fork in the road and found ourselves in an Islamic village where a lot of interesting activity kept me entertained.  Grass being manually chopped with small knives, motorbike loads of grass hiding all but the driver’s head, so that it seems a human head is being transported by a mobile bundle of grass.  Herds of free range goats wandering across the road, mosques instead of pagodas, and all of a sudden a black motorbike with three grown men departing the front yard of a house and stopping almost still across the middle of the single lane track and staring at us, wide-eyed!

In what seemed like slow motion Chom swerved to the side in an attempt to avoid them, crashed into their front wheel and the tuk tuk wheels veered into a sandy embankment.  Unable to keep up with the swerving, the tuk tuk rolled, and I was flung out of the side.  As my head hit the ceiling, then the side bars, before I was launched out of the cab, I was thinking “my life is supposed to flash before my eyes but it’s not, so I must be going to survive this”.  We were traveling at around 20km/hr, after all!  I landed on the sandy mound lining the side of the road and the tuk tuk followed, landing neatly on it’s side squarely around me so that I was inside an enclosed patch of sand, invisible to the world outside the four walls of my temporary cage.  A lump on my forehead, a lump on the back of my head, a swollen and painful little finger seemed to be the only pain and after a moment, surrounded by dead silence on what had been a busy road in an active village, I called out to Chom “are you okay?”.  I heard a “Yes!” from somewhere outside my cage.

A woman in green walked onto the embankment and leaned under the roof of the tuk tuk which had stopped short on the trunk of a banana plant, to peer in on me.  She walked away saying something which sounded like reassurances that the Barang was okay.  I grabbed the trunk of the banana plant, pulled myself up, leaning down to avoid hitting my head on the tuk tuk cage enclosing me, and awkwardly climbed through the overturned tuk tuk, jumping through the other side onto the track.  A crowd of villagers was growing along the opposite side of the road, staring silently at me as though anticipating a reaction.  Chom was standing on the side of the track in stunned silence but when I appeared he began an animated discussion with the other driver.  They re-enacted events on foot, apparently arguing.  When I asked was the other driver blaming him, he replied “no!  I am blaming him!  What was he doing staying there like that!”.  Some of them pulled the tuk tuk upright and pushed it over to the roadside and Chom started assessing the damage.

Shaking myself off, rubbing the dirt from my clothes and noticing some mud which smelled suspiciously like cow pooh on one sleeve, the crowd continued to stare at me.  I made eye contact with a young Islamic guy in a flat white scalp-hugging kulfi, smiled at him and he looked taken aback.  This, combined with what felt like a village full of people staring at me in apparent astonishment that a Barang had just been thrown from a tuk tuk on their land, I began laughing.  This set the crowd off and we stood around laughing uncontrollably while Chom and the other driver beat each other up verbally.  .

Satisfied that it was only minor damage, Chom said “let’s go” so I climbed into the tuk tuk, waved at my new friends, and we disappeared from each other’s lives as the laughter faded out, replaced by some worrying moans and groans from Chom’s old motorbike until he managed to get up to a normal speed.  Clearly shaken, he was very quiet for the first twenty minutes or so, as I sat quietly behind him trying to look serious.  Soon enough he looked at me in the rear vision and we started laughing.  He shouted out to me “Helen!  Now I am not handsome!  Look at me!  I put this shirt for my wife but now I am dirty!”.  Not handsome?  That set me off again!  Then he shouted out “Please don’t tell anyone!  Because I am shy!”.  “I won’t” I replied, thinking slyly except for the blog I’m writing about it.  Then he called out “I wanted to ask if you were okay but you asked me first!  You said the words first and I was so shocked because when I looked inside my tuk tuk, you were not there!  I thought oh my god, where did she go?  Then I found you, and you were lying inside the banana leaves and flowers!”.  We have not stopped laughing since, and he keeps telling me “you said the words I wanted to say but you were not there!”  Sworn to secrecy, I had to hug his wife smothered in dirt, smelling like cow pooh, with a straight face!  She did a double take at me and he apparently told her there had been a small accident “but I will not tell her that you were lying on the ground, she will be very upset if I say this”.

She and her mother had cooked fried beef and ginger with vegetable soup and rice which we ate at a wooden bed base on the dirt floor underneath the house, joined by free range chickens and roosters pecking at our feet.  What a contrast between this delicious meal and the last delicious home cooked meal I’d had, on the hillside at Patricia Wells’ luxurious property in Provence a fortnight ago!  Lunch was followed by a snooze in a hammock under an elevated hayshed on the riverbank before Microphone’s bicycle was tied into the tuk tuk and we climbed aboard and headed home.  As we approached the ferry terminal, very near to the scene of our accident, Chom decided to turn off and take the ferry over to the other side, where we had, albeit pothole-ridden, bitumen almost the whole way home.

The route home passes Paua’s village, so we stopped in on her and I managed to chat with the family about the possible American mercy mission we are hoping will happen for her.  Various logistics were discussed with Chom as translator.  The family are thrilled and when I explained that it might not happen because there are many possible obstacles, her mother said “even if it does not happen, we really appreciate that this doctor knows about her and wants to help her”.  I took photographs of her wounds, and of their home and village life, which I’ve since sent to America.  Project Number Two underway!

Between our projects, the accident, the motorbike engine seeming to fail, the bike kangaroo hopping as we ran out of petrol (thankfully only about a kilometre from the next bamboo stall selling fuel out of coca cola bottles) and then the usual unexpected help and friendliness that people offer along the way, it was an adventurous, entertaining and productive day.  No wonder I slept like a baby last night!

Elevated hayshed on the Mekong embankment

Elevated hayshed on the Mekong embankment

IMG_5269

Getting the tuk tuk from the ferry below, to the road above. An easy task thanks to the eagerness of complete strangers.

“Just Stop”

If you wait until you can do everything for everybody, instead of something for somebody, you’ll end up doing nothing for nobody.

These words appear at the end of a short video currently doing the rounds on Facebook.  In it, a young homeless man in a ripped t-shirt stands on a cold Manhattan street, holding a cardboard plank with a handwritten message and a cup for donations.  He is shivering and eventually he gets so cold that he climbs into a black rubbish bag and lies on the pavement.  For two hours he stayed in this one spot, clearly suffering in the cold, as people walked around him.  Eventually a man approached him, removed his jacket and gave it to the boy.  This guy turns out to be homeless himself.  He stayed with the boy, talking reassuringly.  His words along the lines of “I’m homeless too and we homeless, we got to help each other”, show where the man’s empathy stemmed from.  The boy’s brothers then appear and explain that their brother is not actually homeless, they staged and filmed the situation as a social experiment.  Gratefully they give the homeless guy a $500 reward, eliciting a very emotional response.

What I noticed when I watched this video, is that most people did not even appear to notice the young boy lying on the pavement, everyone walking around him without seeming to even realise he was there.  But once the homeless guy stopped and started to engage with the boy, others also stopped, or slowed down to notice.  So while we tend to ignore things which are in front of us, once someone takes the lead, we also tend to follow by example.

Departing the highly efficient, well resourced, indulgent world of Europe and landing 15 hours later in the chaotic, impoverished and dishevelled world of Cambodia requires some conscious mental readjustment.  The macro-economy of high speed trains, cosmopolitan cities, high-end and expensive designer produce on display at every turn, has exited my life.  In it’s place I am confronted with the micro-economy of motorbikes, overcrowded and run-down vehicles, rule-free traffic pandemonium and almost every pedestrian some sort of street vendor of homemade produce, or scavenger collecting recyclable rubbish.  This was my third time arriving in Phnom Penh from overseas and the first time that it felt completely un-alien, almost normal except for the rich-to-poor-world absurdity which will take me a few days to shake.

At lunch today I reacquainted myself with some of the stories my friend always shares, of lives in a landless Cham community of fisherpeople who she works with via a small NGO.  Leaking fishing boats patched with polystyrene or wads of material, an elderly disabled man who uses his homemade wheelbarrow as a walking frame at the same time as it serves him in his livelihood of walking the streets collecting recyclable rubbish.  A very difficult and unstable woman whose children mostly fend for themselves because there are no protective systems in place for vulnerable children.  Her 17yo daughter has been missing for almost three years, probably trafficked and possibly done so via her own mother’s arrangement for financial gain.  Her five year old requires regular hospital attendance due to a genetic disease and he is usually escorted to his appointments by his 10 year old sister.  The stories of this woman have frequently frustrated and upset me.  Today I discovered that black crows surround her every night as she lies in bed, haunting her sleep.  As a child she witnessed her father murdered by the Khmer Rouge.  Her brother was held prisoner in a small cage on the outskirts of her village.  Oneday she secreted a small amount of food to him.  He was caught with unauthorised food and she was forced to watch his murder.  These are all relatively “everyday” stories for Cambodians of my generation and older.  It can seem futile to want to do anything to help.  Yet there are many people here, most of them Cambodian, who do help, often making significant personal sacrifices to do so.

I’ve often been told that it’s too difficult to help under such circumstances, because it’s a bottomless pit and to help one person only opens the door for others to want your help.  It is a bottomless pit, that is true.  But if you can recognise when to tell both yourself, and others, the important word “no” then it is not too difficult to help.  It is okay to say no – we are all only human, with individual limitations.  But also with individual capacities to make a difference.  Sometimes, in an environment such as Cambodia, a “no” can result in suffering and even death.  But the times when you say “yes”, are the times of monumental value to another human being.  Shying away from helping anyone because you can’t help everyone is never the right answer.

A few months ago Scott Neeson shared a story on his Facebook page, about a grandmother collecting garbage for a living, with her three year old grandson traveling in her wheelbarrow every night.  This was the only way she had to care for her grandson, who was malnourished and sick from the garbage surrounding him, and whose parents had abandoned him.  Neeson was tempted, as he drove past them, to keep driving, but he told himself to stop because he could, and therefore he should.  Half an hour later grandmother and grandson were connected to Neeson’s NGO, Cambodian Children’s Fund, who can offer her child care and an alternative occupation from garbage collection.  All because someone who did not have to stop, but could stop, decided to stop.  More recently Neeson made the following challenge to his followers, a challenge I intend to meet:

So, with over 100,000 of us on this page, can we make a commitment to help just one elderly person in the next week? It need be as small as helping them cross a busy street or get onto transport. If you are in with me on this, then share with friends and see if they will also make an effort this week.

If you don’t want to, that’s fine too. However before you say “I can’t do this because…” stop for a moment and ask yourself whether the real reason is that “I don’t especially care…”.

Or maybe you think “what do I get out of helping them?”.

The answer is that you make this a better world.

If all of us stopped, even once, when we could, imagine the ripple effect that this could have on the world we live in?  The homeless man approaching the hypothermic boy in Manhattan caused people who would otherwise have walked on by, to stop and think.  Neeson and other similar philanthropists share their stories on social media which reinforce to me, that I must stop whenever I can.  Maybe this blog will encourage even one person, to stop next time they can.  All of us – even the most privileged – deserve to live in a world where people stop.

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