Three weeks in Timor Leste in 2012 did something new and weird to my hair. When I returned to Australia, I attended my hairdresser and the conversation went:
“What have you been up to?”
“I’m not long back from three weeks in East Timor”
“Oh, how was that?”
“Well it was amazing, but look at my hair”.
He stopped in his tracks, fluffed his dainty fingers through my fuzzy locks, and in horror announced “East Timor has RUINED your hair!”.
Well, Cambodia also ruins my hair, such that when I lived here, I had it cut very short as the only way I seemed to be able to control the mess. I’m writing this from the safety of touristic Siem Reap, where I have air conditioning and a hair dryer, so my hair has reverted to it’s normal state (as long as I stay in my hotel room), which is less than ordinary at the best of times. But for the past few days I’ve been in the countryside where the humidity owns everyone. Including me and the cow licked mop of wool that sits atop my embarrassed head as soon as I step onto Cambodian soil!
I landed in Phnom Penh on Sunday afternoon to the welcoming embrace of Bree (my Belgian, Phnom Penh based friend) and Chom (my Khmer friend and character extraordinaire). My hair must have immediately recognised the place because after a half hour taxi ride to the hotel, it was as though someone had sneakily applied a fuzzy wig onto me without my noticing. After two unsuccessful attempts at wet-combing the fuzz out, I had to bravely appear in front of people sporting my brand new afro-wings.
Apart from the hair disaster, the past few days back on Khmer turf has been a whirlwind of meeting people I have not seen in thirteen months. Dinner in Phnom Penh with ex-colleagues who are soon to be colleagues once more started things off on Sunday night. The fun of seeing everyone was dulled when Chom knocked on my door as I was heading to bed to tell me “Bree want me to tell you, tsunami in New Zealand”. Initially unconcerned, I replied “Oh Mum lives on a hill, she will be fine”. But I went online and learned that in fact, her town had been hit hard by a strong earthquake. Messages began flying at me asking after Mum and I had no news, so a worrying 24 hours ensued until she managed to get a brief message via my cousin that “I’m okay”. I stopped worrying but details since then have been reasonably horrific. My aunt and uncle were tipped from their bed, before a wall fell onto the bed! A very lucky escape. Various other stories but everyone is okay and supporting each other through the after-shocks and clean up.
On Monday Chom and I took the three hour bus trip to Kampong Cham. Part of my reason for having this holiday at this time was to catch up with Yasmin, my French friend who has been in Kampong Cham sorting out various goings-on with Phter Koma Children’s Home. Our last encounter was 18 months ago in her home town of Toulouse so we had much to talk about. On Monday afternoon we visited the children who are all doing just fine and the English skills of some of the teenagers, who did not speak English at all when I met them only three years ago, is surprisingly fluent! That night we shared a meal with a Dutch couple visiting Cambodia as part of their work with an NGO. Now retired, the husband spent years as a high level official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Under these auspices they had lived in various African nations, Armenia, Laos and many other challenging places.
Chom was accepted by the Japanese employment agency and is based in Phnom Penh now, where he is studying Japanese in preparation for a move to Japan. He plans to stay there for three years, where the $7 per hour salary picking vegetables or fruit will allow him to save enough money to set the family up with a home and a small business. He is living on $1 a day in Phnom Penh and only seeing his children every few weeks, which is more than he will see them in the ensuing three years. When I suggested that it would not be possible, in a rich country, to save anything on a $7/h salary he assured me that it is, because he will live and eat communally and send every spare penny home.
En route to Kampong Cham, Chom called Joe to let him know that I was back in town. The conversation sounded worrying and when he hung up he informed me that Joe now stays in bed all day. I visited him on Wednesday (minus Chom, who had returned to Phnom Penh for school) and learned that he has been swollen all over for five months now, and has lost all use of his already-weakened legs. When I first met him and asked what happened to his legs, the reply was “when he was a child he got a fever and then his legs stopped working”. My amateur conclusion is that it was probably Polio and that now, he is perhaps suffering from Post-Polio Syndrome? I asked if he wanted to go to see a doctor with me and he bowed at me repeatedly with many “oor kun”s (thank you). Unfortunately this cannot happen until I return near the end of January, when I plan to spend a few weeks prior to starting my assignment with MSF. Meanwhile I will try to find out where the best place would be to take him. Someone will need to carry him down the ladder of about twelve narrow wooden shelves, to get him down from his elevated hut, but a strong Khmer man will do it with ease. He will need to go in a car so that there is room to lie down. These are things that without support, a poor villager has no hope of ever affording. So many die invisible to the world in this way.
Joe’s wife was home with him when we arrived and she called her daughter who cycled home from school with her 5yo and 6yo daughters, all very excited to see me. She is blind but after the operation in Phnom Penh last year her sight has improved such that she has some short distance vision, and can use a bicycle. We called her other sister, who shouted excitedly down the phone at me. She works as a cleaner for a wealthy family near to Paula’s village so we will visit her next week when we return to see Paula.
On Tuesday we made an impromptu visit to Paula. Chom no longer has a tuk tuk so we went with his friend, “Skinny Tuk Tuk”. I am returning to Paula’s village next week for a community meal/celebration. Her mother, working as a street seller in Malaysia, is returning home for the occasion. She earns more in Malaysia than it is possible to earn in Cambodia (but not at the “high” salary Chom will earn in Japan). Paula, now healthy, can stay home with her younger siblings and take care of the household in her mother’s absence. I wasn’t able to be so close and wait a week before seeing Paula. Last time I saw her she was lying in a Seattle hospital bed, weak and semi-conscious, hooked up to machines and I had only ever known her as someone knocking on death’s door. So I was excited to see the transformation and couldn’t wait a whole week. They knew I was in Cambodia but our visit was a surprise, and it was fun springing ourselves on them. She remains tiny but is now perfectly strong and healthy! There were tears and hugs and various villagers joined in on our reunion. We sat on the wooden slats of the big open room in her elevated home, looking through the gaps to the muddy puddles below. Her brother, who I have been sponsoring to a local English school, spoke shyly to me in broken English which was a thrill to hear. We attended the school, underneath the teacher’s home, where I paid eight months of school fees for two brothers, and we waited as the teacher painstakingly wrote out sixteen separate receipts!
Paula’s grandfather is a village doctor, who Chom says attended training thirty years ago. That training would have been soon after the Pol Pot era, when all but a small handful of the country’s teachers and doctors had been exterminated, meaning it was at best, very basic. He has a stethoscope and travels local villages on his moto. Chom and Skinny both sat with grandad talking while I was encircled by Paula, her younger siblings and the women, some with babies in their arms, trying patiently to understand each other in a group bonding session. Some time later I looked across the room to the sight of Chom lying flat and grandad taking his blood pressure! Later, en route to English school, grandad led the way on his moto. On our return we stopped outside a small “pharmacy” where grandad purchased some foils of medication, handing the same three foils to Chom and Skinny with the same set of instructions to both. A strip of Paracetamol, a strip of ant-acids and – to my horror – a strip of Amoxycillin! Antibiotics are unregulated in the poor world and treated as over-the-counter medications. I will talk more on this another time as it is a subject to itself.
That afternoon Yasmin was taking the Phter Koma kids to the new town pool, so I joined. “The Chinese” built this pool for Kampong Cham and it is HUGE. I have never seen such a massive pool complex. We spent almost all of our time in the diving pool which must be 40m x 40m and at least 5m deep. The children were full of fun and excitement. Yasmin and I returned to the hotel for a much needed wine, completely shattered from racing, teaching, catching, towing, being towed, jumping and all manner of other games.
After Chom left for Phnom Penh I solicited the tuk tuk services of “Dan”, who was previously a guard at the home I lived in during my time with MSF. A gentle and humble character, he is totally different to Chom but just as valuable. After promising Joe that we will return to visit him next week with some Paracetamol and other supplies, we returned to town for a two hour lunch break. Dan then picked me up and we headed out in another direction, towards the village of Dara, the small boy with the amputated leg who I have talked about many times. The road was appalling and I’m astounded that Dan got us there and back without rolling the tuk tuk in the massive potholes of mud and dust.
En route we stopped off at the little wooden hut amongst the rice fields, of “John”, the disabled guy who we built a toilet for last year, and his wife “Sara”. With their three children they came dashing out excitedly as the tuk tuk pulled up. An open fire was burning on the dirt floor inside and a small white Brahman calf was asleep in the doorway under the tin roof. During our visit of about an hour, they served us freshly boiled broad beans from the garden and boiled water from an old 2L bottle, which we drank by sharing a single pink plastic cup. John grabbed his kramar and wiped the surface of the wooden slat table on the dirt under the tin roof before instructing us to sit and Dan translated for us as we caught up on news. The baby daughter, now over a year old and walking, was asleep upon our arrival but she woke before we left and when she appeared I enquired about the blisters on the inside of her forearm. Three days earlier she had burned herself on a fire they had lit to control the mosquitoes. They had nothing and no way of treating it so yesterday Dan purchased Aloe Vera and took it out to them with instructions to keep her very clean to avoid the blisters becoming infected.
Dan translated to me from Sara that “she want to make a business with you”. Uh-oh, I thought. He continued “If you buy a cow, then when the cow has a baby they will give you the first one or two babies, then they will keep the cow and can have more cows”. My western brain laughed internally at images of traveling back to Australia with my new white Brahman calves in tow. But that night over a wine with Yasmin, the idea became less ridiculous. To buy a cow for an impoverished villager can actually change lives and to do so as an exchange rather than an act of charity does actually make it a business deal. But what to do with the calf when they pay their debt? Give it to someone else, with the same business deal in mind! I laughingly sent an email to Rebecca about the idea, who replied “sounds like a good deal to me, I come from a farm and I reckon it’s a goer”! I already have a few friends “in on the cow” so it won’t have to cost me the US$500 that is the going rate for such prized possessions. My reply to Sara at the time was a very reluctant “I don’t have $500 but I will ask my friends” and I am sure she got the impression I wasn’t keen. She may be in for a surprise! When I asked about the cow asleep in the doorway Dan informed me that it belonged to someone else and they were taking care of it to earn some money.
We said our farewells there and drove on the few short kilometres to Dara’s village. The mobile phone numbers I had for his parents and grandparents were all disconnected so I wasn’t sure I’d find them but we pulled in and I was mobbed excitedly by Mum and grandma. A big family group were sitting on a double bed base in the shade under the house and we joined them for a big chat. Dara was at school but big sister disappeared and returned a short time later with Dara who hobbled shyly over to me and gave me a hug! The main news from them was that Mum and Dad no longer work in construction (a relief as it is very dangerous work) but as a result there is little money and Dara’s prosthesis is getting too small for him, has been rubbing badly and making his skin sore. Before I left, I gave Mum enough money for transport and costs on the promise that she would take him to town the next day, to Handicap International who can fit him out with a new prosthesis. Dara looked at me and in his husky little voice spoke a sentence which Dan translated as “I wanna come with you”. I promised him we will go swimming when I come back in January.
Yesterday I took the five hour bus trip to Siem Reap. More on this leg of my trip another time. You could wonder, given the prison sentence of owning my hair, why I would want to come back here. I think the past few days of experiences show why.