It’s my last day in Cambodia after a whirlwind final week.
By the time I returned from the US last weekend, Chom hadn’t seen his family, including his new baby, for five weeks. We made arrangements for an overnight visit to them a few days later. We traveled almost three hours upstream on the western shore, crossing to his mother in law’s village by ferry, and the following day almost three hours downstream on the eastern shore, in effect doing a full circle through remote Kampong Cham. It was a humdrum journey for Chom who has been travelling this route, sometimes at the helm of a wooden fishing boat on the river, since childhood. For me however, it was one last (for now) intrepid adventure into a peculiar, foreign and fascinating world.
Our first stop was the market for a stock of noodles and soy sauce. Balanced on top of our bags, a handlebar-high pile sat between Chom’s legs. Passing another moto with a couple of 50kg bags of rice between the driver’s legs, upon which a small child was perched, his legs swinging over the front of the handlebars, we looked very ordinary in comparison. Nevertheless, with a middle aged white female pillion passenger, we seem to draw much more attention than the various and often hilarious scenes of innovative transport which are ignored as everyday sights by the locals.
Second stop, about 30km upstream, was a shack on the riverbank where Chom introduced me to the mother of a young impoverished fisher family with two of her four children at her ankles. The youngest could only have been about 7 or 8kg, the size of a six month old, but walking confidently so probably at least 16 months old. In the rich world a toddler in this condition would be hospitalised for feeding and have a team of social workers and health professionals case managing them. In the poor world no such support exists and in Cambodia almost 50% of children suffer from chronic malnutrition. Between passing the noodles and soy sauce from moto to mother, Chom fished into my bag for my camera and instructed us into a pose “because you have to show everyone in Australia what you do for the poor people so that they give you more money”. Okay, does she understand why you’re photographing us? “No problem, no problem!”.
Continuing on past the shining pagodas and mosques central to each wooden village, surrounded by rice and corn fields busy with people and ox-driven carts, we arrived at Paula’s home where the family were expecting us. Appearing from all corners of the village, a small crowd instructed us over the wooden plank bridge above the mud brown pool at the front steps, and into the large, wooden room that is their home. Paula’s stretcher bed is conspicuously absent from underneath the barred hole in the wall which has provided her only connection with the outside world for almost five years. The empty space felt somehow exciting and frightening at the same time.
A bamboo mat was rolled out onto the wooden floor slats and we sat in a circle around it. “Cambodian Cake” (sticky rice and banana steamed inside a bamboo casing) and bottled water were placed in the centre. I dished out a small token from America for each of the younger family members as well as something for grandad, as head of the family. The photographs I had taken in America were keenly passed around and I talked about the hospital, her surgery, the Cham community, our flight and other relevant details of what has happened to her since our airport farewell in Phnom Penh. I tried to explain a photograph of her neatly meshed abdominal wound but Chom refused to translate this for me, telling me later that my lack of warning as I passed the photograph to him, had made him suddenly nauseous! I gave them the envelope of cash that I was entrusted with from the Cham community in USA and Chom counted it with grandad, confirming the amount matched the count Samantha and I had done with Paula’s mother in the hospital room a few days earlier.
Grandad and Paula’s younger sister then led us on their motorbike past crowds exiting the mosque. Boys and men in colourful long tunics with patterned skull caps; women and girls in black niqabs, only their eyes visible, slowed down to watch us as I stared back in equal fascination. Down the road we turned onto a dirt track towards the riverbank to enter another elevated home. Fried banana and more bottled water were presented on another bamboo mat in the middle of a large wooden floored room with barred holes in the wall framing the tops of trees against a blue sky. I sat beside the door as bodies seemed to appear from nowhere. Children stood on the top step staring at me and at one point I counted sixteen women and five men sitting before me. Most of them were related to people who I had spent time with in USA not even a week prior. A long conversation ensued, much of which wasn’t translated to me because Chom was too busy enjoying himself! With a crowd of smiling faces all staring at me warmly, it felt like an experience in it’s own right!
After about half an hour we continued in our two-moto convoy, following Paula’s grandfather and younger sister to the nearest town, where we pulled in at the bank. They were there to deposit the cash, paying off almost half of their previously-crippling health care debt. We said goodbye outside the bank, thinking we would not see each other until next year. With tears in Grandad’s eyes, Chom said “I don’t know how to say in English because it means he thanks you a LOT, impossible to say”. Back on the road towards Chom’s little family, through fields of cashew and rubber plantations, red dirt and rice fields, we continued on for about another two hours. At the ferry crossing we joined a white Brahman rope-led by his human escort, motorbikes galore, a homemade truck with an open-air lounge chair perched at the steering wheel, and any other number of interesting sights which were all ignored in favour of smiling stares at me!
Through the grounds of a riverside pagoda, passing underneath the golden gates onto a shady tree lined dirt track, we reached Chom’s mother in law’s home where his new son was sleeping to the rhythm of a swaying hammock tied to beams under the elevated house. Mum and grandma were busy at pots sitting atop open fires in the dirt and big brother was playing hide and seek from the wooden stairs leading inside the house. We wiled an afternoon away sharing a delicious meal, before lazing in swinging hammocks underneath a hay shed. Throughout the afternoon and evening we were visited by a steady stream of neighbours. In the early evening we took a motorbike cruise to a nearby pagoda complex where we photographed each other standing inside a forest of trees smothered in ribbons and flags and beside various Buddhist statues. Driving through a hive of early evening activity in the nearby Cham fishing village, I wondered if the crowds we passed by were related to any of the many people I met in America. Back at the house various visitors sat with us underneath the house, amused at me photographing the neighbours as they steered their oxen home after a day ploughing the fields. From groups of children to families a range of people cruised by on motos, boats returned home with the day’s catch and a million other sights typical of rural Cambodia kept me interested during an evening of conversation that I mostly didn’t understand.
After a “shower” at a concrete tub with a plastic pot, I was guided to “the bedroom”, a walled-off corner of the large open-plan wooden-beamed upstairs room. A bamboo mat was unfurled onto the floorboards and a green mosquito net tied from each corner to a beam in each corresponding corner of the room. Similar mats and nets were set up in each corner of the large open plan room over the wall from me, housing Chom and his little family under one, his mother in law in another, and her father in another. I climbed into my private little sanctuary and soon dropped off to sleep, smoke from nearby fires wafting up through the floorboards, the baby cooing from under the family’s mosquito net nearby, roosters crowing occasionally and by morning, the hum of motorbike and boat engines alerting us before sunlight, that day was about to dawn.
Another “shower” with the plastic pot refreshed me for the day ahead. I took an early morning walk through the village, accompanied by Chom’s 4yo son and 7yo nephew whose incessant chatter made no sense but sounded intriguing nevertheless. Fish twitched on lines of string as they were delivered to doorways from the water’s edge by men who returned to their wooden boats to continue collecting the day’s breakfast. Women with baskets of produce on the carriers of their bicycles asked my small bodyguards where they were going and were informed matter-of-factly “we are walking with Helen”. Motorbikes purred past, slowing down to wave and say hello. At the nearby pagoda the boys showed me the newly-painted long boat sitting outside of it’s wooden shed in preparation for the upcoming Water Festival boat races. School children were crowded inside the forested area of the pagoda complex, apparently cleaning the grounds. Later Chom informed me that cleaning the yard was a usual start to the school day in Cambodia. We took his moto to a nearby village where I purchased some checked krama scarfes to take back to Australia as gifts. They were cut and hemmed while we waited. After mid morning brunch with the family we said our farewells and made our way back downstream. Another three hour journey through mixed Buddhist and Islamic villages, I tried to memorise a thousand sights which I will not see again until I return to Cambodia next year.
The rest of my week has been spent visiting people to say farewell. En route to Dara’s village we visited “Toilet Two” where a pinwheel for their 4yo daughter elicited a super cute response of delight. Chom informed them that Sally and Jack, the chickens they gifted to him in thanks for the toilet, were no longer with him. Sally was run over on the road outside the house and Jack, missing his wife, had wandered away and settled in at a neighbour’s house where he has a gaggle of girlfriends. This caused a big debate and eventually Chom agreed to accept three more chickens from them. A farewell visit to Dara’s family where a frisbee and some balls caused wild commotion. We returned to Toilet Two briefly to pick up the chickens. This time housed in a rice sack with manually-ripped ventilation holes, my newfound chicken-grip skills were not required! A visit to Phter Koma with a new ballgame from America, where we spent a few hours playing games with the children. These and various other brief farewells have kept me busy all week.
Yesterday an expat friend suggested we take a tour somewhere as a final outing. There is a beautiful hillside pagoda complex above the Mekong river not far from Paula’s village. After breakfast of “bowng dea drey brawmar” (fish omelette with fresh vegetables and rice) at Central Market with Win, we headed off in Chom’s tuk tuk with two of his young female hotel staff. A Seattle contact had emailed me asking if I would visit a sick woman in Paula’s village. Aware of the perception that may have developed in a village where the rich world must seem mysterious and inaccessible, and where everyone knows of Paula’s miracle treatment in America, I said I would visit on condition that everyone understands that what happened for Paula was a unique situation which I would never be able to replicate.
Happy to see grandad again, earlier than expected, he and Paula’s younger sister accompanied us to the house of their unwell neighbour. Shoes off, up the wooden stairs into the big open room again, this time I was greeted by the sight of a small bag of bones lying alone on a bamboo mat in a corner of the room. Unable to move her legs, she has been paralysed for twenty years and noone knows why. I am not qualified to diagnose her and explained this. Chom and I had an argument when he told them that she “probably carried salt” after giving birth to her now 20-something daughter, evidenced by the fact that she became unwell when her daughter was about ten months old.
“What do you mean?”
“If the women carry salt when they are pregnant or just gave birth, they will get sick”
“No they won’t?”
“Yes they will”
“No. That is not correct”
“In Cambodia this is correct”.
Trying unsuccessfully to hide my frustration, while Chom tried unsuccessfully not to seem startled by my reaction, we agreed to continue our debate on this surprising and confusing topic later on! I have since learned that a universally held belief here, is that women should never carry salt or rice, especially not heavy bags, and especially not during their child bearing years. Women who fall sick during this time of their life often blame it on contact with salt! Chom’s own sister, when pregnant and with a newborn, would not touch salt except to eat, so that if she needed to sprinkle it on her food, someone else would have to do this for her!!
I explained to the family how and why they should access a wheelchair from Handicap International in Kampong Cham town. Otherwise powerless to really help, I promised to visit again when I return to Cambodia next year, feeling aghast at yet another person in the very same village, with yet another debilitating disease, helplessly and invisibly waiting to die. Simultaneously, the meticulous care she receives from family was evident in her clean and well presented appearance, the unified replies to my questions about her clinical condition, and her basic but decent level of comfort. As we left, Chom informed me later, she had asked if it would be possible for someone to sponsor her with a monthly stipend. Outside the house Paula’s grandfather apparently told Chom of another unwell person they wanted me to visit. With three friends waiting in a hot tuk tuk, Chom said no to the request without telling me, so we headed off to our afternoon of playing tourist. Grandad also invited us to join him for a meal “because I want to kill one cow and sit with you to eat beef”. I had to decline, promising to return next year for this novel experience and telling Chom the cow needs to die before I know it exists! Today I received a message from the US-based daughter of some villagers that “my mother and father waited for you since yesterday, they prepare food and so I told them you already been and cannot go again because you have no time”. It doesn’t help my constant underlying thoughts of how to possibly stay, when all of this unfinished business lies in wait for me!
The French founder of Phter Koma is currently in Kampong Cham and this afternoon, after I said goodbye to the children, she cycled past with fourteen children following her on their bicycles. About half an hour later we had the first tropical storm since I returned a week ago, and she and her small horde appeared underneath the verandah cover of our shared hotel, drenched and looking for cover. With thunder and lightning blasting out of the densely white sky, we stole a final few moments together. Breakfasts, lunches and dinners have kept me busy all week and now, just over 12 hours before I leave, I have a final dinner and drinks and am yet to pack my bag. Obviously blogging about my week took precedent over departure preparations. But now a quick bag-pack is in order and so I am publishing this without any proof-read.