Making Sense of Another World

A first impression of Phnom Penh for any newcomer will likely relate to the traffic.  Sitting at intersections beside trailers piled disproportionately high, their loads towering ludicrously into the sky, you may have fleeting images of death-by-crushing.  Ladders stand tall on seats of motos between the back of the driver and the front of the first passenger, who often has a paint pot hanging from the crook of an elbow and a third passenger behind.  Other ladders balance horizontally along the length of their moto.  Motos and moto-pulled trailers carry long rods of steel protruding into the surrounding traffic space, causing images of death-by-impalement.  None of these near-death visions are helped by the way that everyone weaves around each other, edging into crossroads slowly but persistently so that you are eventually in the middle of an intersection with traffic purring towards you from all directions.  It takes some experience to learn that it’s probably going to be okay and you’re probably going to make it across the intersection without incident.  At major junctions children, elderly women and disabled men wait at the centre barrier for lights to turn red before venturing out into the crowded vehicles to beg for a morsel, knocking on car windows or waiting hesitantly at tuk tuk steps.  Often they have chains of jasmine for sale or dusters made from chicken feathers fixed to a stick of wood, offering to dust car windows.  Many have nothing to sell, only mumbled words of begging.  Blind people busk along congested sidewalks, amputees sit at the same corners where naked and malnourished children play with loose bricks or dirt while scavenging parents rest beside their parked, hand-pulled wooden barrows on what must be a long, hot and dirty work day.

It’s all very interesting.  At the same time there is a harshness and injustice to it which many of us might only fleetingly consider before making our way again towards our comfortable lives.

Local elections are imminent and both major parties have been parading through the streets with megaphones blaring from tuk tuk roofs, crowds piled into trucks, pick ups, tuk tuks and trailers, party flags flying jubilantly.  According to Cambodia Daily, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who makes regular televised monologues of many hours long in parliament, said two days ago he was willing to “eliminate 100 or 200 people” to prevent his overthrow.  Smashing teeth, slitting throats, burning homes, references to war (far from trivial in a place still traumatised by years of violent war), imprisoning journalists and bloggers, are all a part of the rhetoric being reported, little of which appears to make news beyond Cambodia’s borders.

Yesterday I had a particularly grueling lesson in my ever-emerging comprehension of the “lot” of tuk tuk drivers.  During my 2015 year-long holiday I met a tuk tuk driver who I will call “TTM” (Tuk Tuk Madame), in a seaside resort town who showed me some sights and transported me around for a few days. During this interaction I learned that until recently TTM had worked at a shoe factory in Phnom Penh where he had to rent a room and buy food-for-one as well as budgeting to feed his wife and family separately.  The micro-salary was essential to his family’s survival but it came at some cost including the sacrifice which so many Cambodians make, of living away from a young family.  Sometime before I met him, he had resigned from the factory job and bought a tuk tuk and moto to generate income from home.  Reliant solely on paying customers, I knew even in 2015 that it was a hard gig.

Caz and I visited his town in March for a few days and since then we have had more contact, as I’ve returned again for a long weekend and he occasionally says hello on Messenger.  Last night it came as no surprise when he said hello out of the blue, until he shared a crying emoji.  I asked why he was sad and he slowly but determinedly told me in very broken, misspelled, almost indecipherable written English.  Slightly horrified and slightly cautious, I rang Samantha who agreed to call him and find out the detail for me.  A number of conversations later, by Messenger with him and telephone with Samantha, I had the full story, my caution demolished and my horror bolstered.

The purchase of his moto and tuk tuk had been made via a loan from a well-known, prevalent micro-finance company.  This particular company feature in my mind because when we were looking for ATMs in Siem Reap recently I was moved by Seth’s reference to them as “the PLC Bank”, highlighting the minimal cause he has had to ever notice financial institutions.  The ubiquity of such inexperience is highlighted by TTM’s need to use a micro-finance company, with extremely high interest rates, over a bank, because without a bank account there is no choice.  It is not viable if you earn a tiny amount of money, to have a bank account, as the fees can exceed your income.  In 2013 the World Bank reported that less than 4% of the Cambodian population had a bank account.  This makes people immediately susceptible to exploitation.

According to Investopedia the intention of micro-finance is to give low income people an opportunity for self sufficiency, most often associated with low-interest lending but some offer additional services such as bank accounts and information to increase financial literacy.  As with so many well-intentioned activities in unregulated nations such as Cambodia, micro-financing has been corrupted into an exploitative enterprise, offering loans to the very poor who have no other available options, at excessively high interest rates.

TTM took a loan of $2,000 to purchase his moto and tuk tuk, thinking that by being close to home (with less expenses), and in a resort town (with the chance of paying customers), he could pay the loan off over the contracted 20 months and be in a better financial situation than he was, working at a shoe factory.  With Samantha’s final phone call this morning I learned that he has been committed to $100 in principal repayments and $35 in interest repayments, every month since his venture began (ie 35% interest rate).  In a place where the monthly average income is about $90, this is a massive commitment which he has struggled to maintain.  He took an extra $500 loan last year to help relieve the repayment stress, but he remains $800 in debt.  When Samantha called me to explain she said “last month and this month is wet season and not so many tourist, and also is election season, so he cannot find customer so he cannot find money to pay back the loan”.  I asked her what election season had to do with it?  She replied “because when it is close for election Cambodian people are afraid of the war again, and we will not go anywhere and we will not spend any money because we might need it if the war happen.  If you ask all Cambodian people, maybe 80% of us think like this”.

With no customers, TTM has had no way of repaying the lending institution, who sent him a letter informing him that the tuk tuk would be repossessed in two weeks unless his repayments were honoured.  He photographed the letter and his repayment information and sent them to me this morning.  I forwarded them to Samantha for translation and she confirmed the loan, remaining balance, principal and interest amounts.  With the threat of losing the family’s only income-generating asset, TTM was desperate and I was his only connection to anything resembling possible assistance.  I did assist him a little and he has some time now, to try and earn enough to pay the rest of the loan.

Recently Caz and Rav both informed me that the hotels who have their own tuk tuk drivers, often in some sort of hotel uniform or numbered tuk tuk, charge these drivers a commission in order to be connected to their hotel.  Fees differ per hotel, but are usually between $400 and $1000 as a one-off payment.  Keen to earn a regular income, drivers will take loans to pay this fee in order to have a guaranteed income with exclusive access to a niche customer market.  Once connected, drivers are guaranteed a small daily stipend (smaller than most fares), regardless of whether they transport customers or not.  If you book into a hotel advertising a “free tuk tuk”, your driver is the one paying the price for your saving.

I hope that anyone thinking of visiting Cambodia who comes across this blog, can know one thing.  The fun and smiling, or humble and quiet character who calls “tuk tuk Madame” or “tuk tuk Sir” at you, is one of this country’s poor.  He probably has no education and he may well be struggling with debt.  His tuk tuk might be rented, reducing his revenue further.  Look at his moto, the upholstery of the seat you’re sitting on, the condition of the roof and floor of the carriage you’re riding in.  Ask him about his life.  While you need to pay a fair market price for the sake of the micro-economy you have entered, you also should not negotiate him down to an unlivable tariff and if there’s anything you can do to help him, maybe you would both benefit from the experience.  When you touch a tuk tuk in Cambodia, you are touching the essence of this nation’s austerity.

Saturday Lunch Musings

How you grow

One morning about 13 months ago I was unsuccessfully trying to help Mum with her iPad.  The Siri feature kept turning on at inopportune moments so I was showing Mum how Siri works, as well as how to turn her off.  I turned Siri on to ask her a question just as Mum spoke, which of course interrupts and confuses Siri so I said “you have to be quiet” to which Siri responded “that was rude”!  I liked Mum’s iPad so much that I bought myself one passing through Duty Free on my way home from that visit.  Siri occasionally turns on inconveniently and I have always ignored her but this morning in a moment of distraction I began messing with her.  Our conversation went like this:
Me: Do you have a boyfriend?
Siri: There was a Roomba once that followed me around everywhere
Me: Do you have a boyfriend?
Siri: No but drones are always trying to pick me up.
Me: What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
Siri: I don’t eat.  Though if I did, I’d eat chocolate.
Me: Where do you live?
Siri: Here
Me: What is the average income in Cambodia?

Cambodia income

“The answer is about 1070 US dollars per year per person”

This makes sense of Seth’s excitement the other day at holding multiple $100 bills in his hand, and of his elderly father joking with me that he would like to visit my country but he would have to stowaway.  I have no idea how many aeroplanes I’ve traveled on or international journeys I’ve made in my life, and there’s a reason for this which is the same reason as this equally deserving man has never traveled – our fortune at birth.  This iPad which I purchased on a whim for the sake of entertaining myself, cost in the vicinity of an average Cambodian person’s annual income.  Yet Cambodia doesn’t come anywhere near on the list of countries with the lowest GDP.

South Sudan comes in lowest, at an average of $210.28 per person per year, compared with the highest in Luxembourg, at $105,829.05.  In a list of 189 countries at StatisticsTimes.com Australia sits as twelfth highest per capita GDP and Cambodia sits at 34th lowest.  There are so many more details than this and the situation is not all doom and gloom, for example in 2016 the country with the highest GDP growth rate was Iraq, at 10.3%.  Cambodia came in at a global seventh with 6.99%.  Nevertheless those of us from high income countries, even if we are not earning a high income, have all sorts of benefits which most of the world do not, such as access to minimum standards of education and health, back-up systems such as welfare, imperfect yet functioning law and order, or even just connections within our community.  That is not to say we don’t have poverty and struggles, which we do.

Social connections are perhaps one of the most significant enduring forces for all of us, influencing our lives in subtle but powerful ways.  Rav’s comment about being happy if I help Seth because of the positive domino effect he expects it to have on him, his family and networks was a wise and egalitarian notion.  It impressed me in the same way as the communal approach of the Cham people who, from Paula’s village to Seattle, rallied around Paula, her mother, Samantha and I, forming the strongest support network I’ve ever been a part of.  In high income countries, private schools make a good example of my point, with one of the strongest reasons to aim for private school enrollment being the social networks, thus potential opportunities, it will expose your child to.  Rav recognised this when we enrolled his sons in an English school he would have been otherwise unable to consider, saying “our children come to school by tuk tuk but everyone else comes in nice cars.  This is unbelievable for my children”.

Just as it’s not all doom and gloom, it is also not just a one way street.  Knowing and socialising with people from other places, cultures, languages and networks can only amplify our insight and appreciation of the world.  Yesterday I spent six hours in a car with Samantha, her mother, sister, two children and our Khmer driver, surrounded by Khmer language.  Arriving at Paula’s home, we feasted on Islamic food, surrounded by Cham language which was translated to Khmer before it could be translated to English for me.  I sat silently most of the day, enjoying the hustle, bustle, smiles, children, food and hospitality of dozens of people.  Only when I saw the photographs on my iPad this morning of my rumpled, overheated self, did I comprehend why my hosts insisted on taking turns to wave a piece of cardboard at me like my own personal punkhawallahs, despite my insistence that it was unnecessary!

Just before the call to prayers reverberated over a megaphone from the mosque across the road, Paula’s grandfather said something to Samantha, who looked at me and said “he want to say many things to you but he cannot”.  I replied that it is difficult that we can’t speak, but I was so happy and thankful to simply be there with him.  He nodded in agreement before leaving to the mosque.  A small orphan was sitting beside me, punkhawallah-ing.  After his parents died, a sickly single woman with no children took him in as her own in typical Cham rallying fashion.  I asked him about school and was informed that the school (inside the mosque grounds) teaches Cham, not Khmer.  I asked something about the Koran and suddenly an old worn out copy appeared.  On instruction from his carer, the reluctant seven year old read a couple of lines to me, all in Arabic.  Everyday I continue to learn new and exotic things in this captivating place.

Koran reading

Rainbows of Raincoats

The other day we saw a full-size fridge standing upright between two men, the guy at the back balancing it in place against the back of the guy in front as he drove them to their destination through dense traffic on a motorbike.  Unprepared, no cameras were at the ready.  It takes quite a lot these days, to surprise me transport-wise, but occasionally someone pulls something out of the box.  When it rains in Phnom Penh, 1,000 riel (25c) raincoats made from dyed plastic bags sewn together turn the city into a rainbow of colour.  It’s usually raining too heavily to get any good shots but I managed a few on the way home tonight in light drizzle.

Rainbow of Raincoats

A few weeks earlier in a much heavier deluge we passed a bloated rat, unable to escape the sewers in time, floating around in the city’s poorly maintained, flooded storm drains as people bucketed water out of their shops and front rooms.  Trying to walk around in it, my shoes broke in the fast-flowing waters and I had to wade bare foot and knee deep, calming my hookworm obsession with silent conversations of reassurance to myself.  The next downpour saw me in close contact with a rat trying to recover from a near-drowning incident, too focused on coughing and gasping for air to move or even care as I posed beside him for a photograph.

Phnom Penh is an overload to the senses which I do enjoy, but it doesn’t have the same charm as rural Cambodia.  This morning a moto came up on the inside to pass my tuk tuk as we were turning left.  He had to turn left with us to avoid a collision.  In true Phnom Penh style, the drivers exchanged a couple of polite-probable-expletives at each other as the moto u-turned around us and back to the main road.  Recently I was talking about the polite way Khmer people travel with each other on the chaotic roads with Win.  He says that Khmer people get stressed and angry as much as anyone, but know how to contain it.  He embellished by saying, with general reference to those of us with “FWPs”, that “we are more tolerant than you because we have to be”.  More tolerant in bad traffic?  “No, just generally more tolerant”!  There’s no argument to that one.

Cambodian hospitality is something I haven’t described enough.  Seth’s family, post-motorbike, invited me for dinner and we had one of the most special evenings of my life sitting on a wooden platform under their palm leaf-tarpaulin-tin shelter.  I counted at least 17 bodies living in this one little series of lean-tos.  Dinner was cooked on open fires beside children pumping well water to splash over themselves as their evening bath, while others lazed in hammocks caring for babies, or played in the dust.  Husband, wife, elderly parents and young children all worked together at the open fire, chopping vegetables, pulling pans down from hooks on the wall, stirring pots, dishing food out and instructing me to climb onto the platform as two fans were positioned near and pointed towards me.  Seated cross-legged, we formed a circle around a tray of plates with a large pot of rice on the edge of the platform which was dished into bowls before we served ourselves from the plates of meat, vegetables, fish and omelette.  The plates placed centre-circle were continuously refilled by one of the women who ate between tasks.  The children waited, playing and relaxing, and I was told they’d already had a snack, which explained their patience as the adults ate in front of them.  Seth’s elderly parents and the smaller children spoke directly to me in Khmer while Seth and Rav did an exemplary job at translating for me.

Perhaps the funniest story of the night was the only other time a foreigner came there for dinner.  He was from “a country near to Russia”.  Uzbekistan?  “No.  It’s next to Russia and with many problems”.  Ukraine?  “Yes.  Many foreigners cannot sit like this <cross legged> and he could not and he did not know how to eat with us so he lie down to eat his food like this”, bending an elbow and putting it to his ear to suggest a side-ways repose.  The image of a big Ukrainian lying down to eat seriously tickled my fancy, partly because of the amusement of Seth and Rav as they told the story.

Paula’s brother called me last night and when we couldn’t understand each other I said Samantha would call them.  Samantha’s messages to me ensued as follows:
I talk to her she ask us to go to visited her house one day. coz her mom will come home tomorrow. and she will stay 10 day. and on 27 is ramadam. so if good come before 27 may
Oh okay.  When can you go?  For me only Saturday or Sunday.
No problem, you decide, for me is okay any day. so excited I miss kampong cham.
Okay, can you ask your driver if he is free and how much to <village> and home again? And ask Paula, are they free if we come on Saturday?  Time for a Seattle reunion!
she said is okay, sound so happy
After a few discussions on arrangements, Samantha said:
she call me again she said not lie her. ha ha and i told her is true, she so happy.

Cham hospitality coming up tomorrow.  Meanwhile, here are some photographs from Seth and his family’s Khmer hospitality three nights ago.

 

When you are 3-foot-nothing and your only water comes from an underground well pump, having a shower is great exercise.

Cooking and eating: a fun team effort

Returning from the shop on instruction from Mum to buy some paper serviettes

Grub’s Up!

Kids keeping the food flow in action

The Frangipanis Above Me: Part 2

Giving is the essence of Abundance

It’s a five hour bus ride from Kampong Cham to Siem Reap.  I was the only Barang on the bus which is a reasonably unusual experience, especially on a route to the very touristic town of Siem Reap.  Seat 29 was my allocation but someone had already taken it.  One of the many young men surrounding me asked as I stood in the aisle, “excuse me madame, what is your number?”.  I showed him my ticket and a reshuffle ensued on my behalf, despite my protestations that I could take one of the vacant seats near the back.  A short way along, the young man in the aisle diagonally opposite me began taking selfies.  When he positioned himself to get a selfie with me firmly in the background, I gave his telephone a smirk.  A few moments later, admiring his shots, he spotted my photo bomb and turned to smile at me.  From then on I was included in his crowd of friends.  When he turned to offer his mates some bread, the first overture was made to me; when he offered everyone a piece of fruit, it came via me first.  It’s hard to imagine such geniality being extended to an old girl from a twenty-something young man in my world, but it’s considered normal here in Cambodia, I suspect as a consequence of the communal living experience.  They were en route to a friend’s wedding together and there was a very definite feel of celebration in the air.

Rav was at the station to pick me up just after lunch.  In the afternoon we sat for a drink together, joined by an apologetic Seth, who should not have told me his problems, etc.  To cut a long story short, Rav has a decent tuk tuk with a decent moto meaning he can attract better paying passengers.  Both of these vehicles were given to Rav by grateful and generous customers in the past year or two.  Nevertheless he also struggles with many tuk tuks competing in a tight market of tourists.  Many days pass with no income and on a good day he can hope for $15 to $20 for a full day’s work.  Prior to his good luck, he also had a worn out moto, attached to a rented tuk tuk.  Seth, despite his good English, cannot attract the same passengers or income because his tuk tuk is run down and his moto is so archaic that it cannot travel as far as Angkor Thom, the walled city of temples.  He is restricted to taking people around town or as far as the airport.  He has four children and their living conditions are much more dire than Rav’s, mostly because of his severely limited income.  This was difficult to imagine because I’ve been to Rav’s little room where he and his wife share a bed with their two children inside four walls.  During our discussion I scored an invite to Seth’s home and he picked me up this morning.

Last week his 6yo son was playing near the front of their so-called home, a series of home made shacks put together on his brother in law’s land, when he was attacked by wasps.  Looking up into the palm trees, the little boy spotted a nest and decided that throwing stones at it would be fun.  Multiple stings later his mother rushed him to hospital with an anaphylactic reaction. I saw the tree, wasp nest and shacks that they call home, this morning and again, it unraveled me.  This young, strong, healthy, well dressed guy who interacts so competently with tourists from across the globe, lives like this?

Bitumen turns to muddy streets which turn to muddy lanes leading to a muddy little driveway where I walked up a muddy single lane path along the side of the palm leafed shack in the front, belonging to his brother in law.  Brother-in-law has agreed to Seth, his wife and their four sons, living on a raised platform behind the shack, rent-free.  They’ve been here five years but will have to find alternative accommodation next year when the in-laws plan to build a home and will not have room for so many extras.  The family eat, sleep, shower and live on a square of wooden slats about 3m x 2m, about 1m above the muddy ground below.  Their allocated section of platform is between Seth’s parents’ share of the platform further inside the enclosure, and the open air entranceway.  All of it is covered with tin and tarpaulin, beside an ice-making factory over a brick wall which growls constantly from 3am to 9pm daily.  I side-stepped around the back to view the little open air toilet between their platform and the ice maker’s boundary fence.

It became a no-brainer and I explained that while it is not possible to help everyone, I wanted to help Seth.  However, I needed him to have a plan so that I can attract donations because noone donates if you ask for “free money”.  His plan was expressed immediately – he needs a decent motorbike so that he can take customers to Angkor Thom.  I then explained that I don’t have enough money to buy a motorbike but I do have access to a loan from the bank, so rather than wait for donations, I would take this money and buy him a motorbike.  Rav, in his ever-modest style, replied “congratulations”.  I’d asked him earlier how he would feel if I helped Seth, and was told without hestitation that “the more people who you help, the better it will be for everyone including me.  I don’t get jealous, and if my friends can have customers then when I have money problems, there are more people I can ask to help me”.

We traveled back to town over the jarring muddy roads, Rav shouting out to Seth “wow your road is very bad!  My heart fell out to the ground!”.  We stopped at a number of different motorbike shops over the course of about an hour.  With no interest in motorbikes and their various dimensions or features and aware that my presence would require everything to be translated, plus risk an automatic rise in assumed price, I left the boys to shop while I waited, a dissolving lump of lard on the synthetic tuk tuk seats.  Eventually we came across a shop with a motorbike in our price range and of an acceptable quality to pull a tuk tuk for long distances.  The next chore was for me to find enough ATMs to withdraw the money I needed, which was complicated by one machine only dispensing riel currency; three machines not recognising my card and another machine wanting to charge an excessive withdrawal fee.  Finally I had enough $ in my possession and we made our way back to the motorbike shop.  Seth invited me in to pay but I declined, passing the money to him without even thinking about it, and asking him to check it.  He stopped to count it slowly in front of me.  During lunch Rav laughingly announced that Seth took a photograph of the motorbike money when he took it to the shop counter.  Seth added “because I never touched so much money in my life”, before pulling his phone out to show me the fanned-out crisp $100 notes sitting on the shop counter.  More unraveling of my world perceptions courtesy of these composed young people who have not had a fraction of the advantages that I take for granted.

With Rav riding Seth’s new wheels beside the tuk tuk, we lurched our way back to the shacks where I was invited to lunch by an overjoyed family filled with thank yous.  We ate on the platform where all of this family’s life plays out.  Rice with fish soup cooked on an open fire in the mud.  A conversation ensued between Seth and his wife about whether I would be okay to eat this food, but Rav assured them that “she is not like the tourist, she lives with the Cambodian people, it’s okay”.  He also translated at another point in the mostly-Khmer conversation, “you came from Australia and brought some Australian lucky with you for all of us”.  During the conversation I mentioned that I like Bowng Dea Drey Broarmar, a fish-pancake served with fresh vegetables and rice, which it turns out is Mrs Seth’s speciality.  Tomorrow night we’re sharing another meal together on the infamous platform so she can share her culinary skills with me again.

After lunch Seth drove me home to my hotel.  This afternoon I lay for hours on my back in the hotel pool, looking up at the cloudy sky through blooming frangipani flowers hanging from branches peering over the fresh blue water.  I get to sleep under a solid roof tonight, unaware if it is even raining outside my sound proof walls.  I handle $100 bills with an air of irritation because they need to be changed to smaller currency.  And when I look to the sky, where so many see wasp nests, I get to view flower blossoms.

Seth Family Blog

Seth and family on the platform they call home. The children to the right are trespassing on grandma and grandpa’s territory. Seth and his wife share the small square they are sitting on with their children, as a bedroom, dining room, bathroom and lounge.

Seth Family Blog 02

Taken from Seth’s section of the enclosure, looking inside at his parents’ section and out of the open entranceway at the mud track below.

The Frangipinis Above Me: Part 1

A friend was telling me the other day about her experience on a medical mission in Haiti.  In 2010 a catastrophic earthquake killed at least 100,000 people, maimed many more and destroyed existing infrastructure and services.  Many countries responded with humanitarian aid.  By the time my friend’s mission began, some years later, she witnessed examples of what unsustainable humanitarian aid can leave behind.  Lives can be saved at the expense of abandoning people with chronic needs when well resourced, short term services withdraw.  My friend saw people with conditions which would be treatable with appropriate ongoing medical intervention but which, in a place so destroyed, left victims behind to exist with harrowing illnesses and deformities and no treatment or assistance.  She wondered aloud at the ethics of providing assistance which is not sustainable.  In turn, it made me wonder at the ethics of the appeal that acute disasters seem to hold (at least from media attention and donor interest angles), over chronic adversity which is no less damaging to it’s victims.

When Caz was in Cambodia she claimed that “Helen adopts tuk tuk drivers”.  It is beginning to feel as though she was right!  I hate negotiating prices and I like having some sort of rapport with the person driving me around, so I tend to find someone I like and stick with them.  This inevitably results in my having “a tuk tuk in every port”, so to speak.  I have bonded with drivers in a number of different places, been introduced to families, eaten at peoples’ homes and referred to as “bong srey” (older sister) and “mak” (mother) many times.

The thing that bonded me to “Rav”, my guy in Siem Reap, was his willingness to help when Kim asked him to translate for us.  He was kind, enthusiastic and humble, giving nothing away about himself such that I figured he was probably living a comfortable life.  It was only after we’d spent some significant time together, that I slowly learned he was just as poor as Kim, who he was helping so earnestly.  It was one of my Cambodian unraveling experiences, where I began to comprehend that poverty does not have a face, and that the people who are most helping the poor, are the poor themselves.

When I was last in Siem Reap there were four of us with occasional competing interests meaning that we needed two tuk tuks.  My friends were at the temples with Rav when I arrived so he arranged his good friend “Seth” to meet me at the bus station and bring me to the hotel.  Soon enough I had another tuk tuk adoptee.  A young father of four, he lives with his parents at his brother in law’s home “in a very small space”.  Rav had obviously told him about me, as he already knew about the school sponsorship of Rav’s sons, the crowdfund I did for Rav’s motorbike and the help I’d given Kim until recently.

Last week Seth sent me a distraught message with a photograph of his son in a hospital bed, saying “the dogs in my street have better life than my sons”.  I couldn’t understand much of it and he apologised that he could not explain “because my English so bad”.  Win was nearby so I asked him to call and the story came back that his 6yo son had been attacked by a swarm of wasps.  The hospital treated his son without charge so I still did not really understand how I could be of help, only that he seemed to think that in some way, I could be.

With the Kings Birthday weekend upon us, I had things to do in Kampong Cham.  Siem Reap is always a relaxing place to visit thanks to my favourite hotel in Cambodia being here.  So I said I might come to Siem Reap at the weekend, from Kampong Cham.  Such snap decisions are just another example of the freedoms in my life.

Last Christmas some extended family in Australia pooled their present money together and sent it to me instead of buying each other presents.  I’ve mentioned this before, and my plan to buy a cow with the gift, for John (remote villager with a probably-Polio-deformed leg) and his wife Sarah.  On Saturday I arrived in Kampong Cham in time for lunch before Dan picked me up for some jaunts through the countryside.  We started with a visit to the “house that Caz built”, where the family are very happy and have asked for a framed photograph of me to put on their wall!  Not a project I am feeling terribly inspired by!  For the first time in their lives they have a toilet and electricity; and after years of living on the edge, Simona (blind widowed mother of two young daughters) can safely move around without threat of her house structure breaking underneath her.

Village 1 House 02

Dan, Project Manager, standing on the steps of the finished product. New toilet just visible to the right and back of the home.

We then made our way back into town and via the bus station for my ticket to Siem Reap, then continued out towards Dara’s village.  Passing the Little House in Rice Fields, Dan called out to the excited children that we would stop in on our way back from Dara’s home, a short way further along.  At Dara’s home I was met with a bunch of about 15 wide-eyed village children looking dumb struck at me.  Luckily I’d thought to bring a bunch of 3D bookmarks from Australia which have been sitting in wait of just such a moment and even luckier, there appeared to be enough for everyone.  Much excitement was generated when the children realised that by moving the bookmark slightly, they could make the kangaroos in the photograph jump!  Dara’s mother said that he was having problems getting to school, about 1km away, as his friends don’t always want to take him on the carrier of their bike.  I agreed to donating a bicycle to him and the next morning before catching the bus, Dan and I made our way to a second hand bicycle dealer.  Before I’d left Kampong Cham, Dara and his parents had arrived in town to pick up his new wheels.

Bicycle 06 cropped

Two wheels going home on two wheels with three humans, a pretty ordinary sight really!

Leaving Dara’s home, we made our way back down the dusty track, past many little houses in soaking rice fields, towards John and Sarah’s home, as I studied every cow we passed.  Once more, Sarah was not home.  She is employed as a construction worker now, in Kampong Cham.  She leaves home before 7am and returns to the family after 6pm, with no days off.  It is hard to imagine this tiny pretty woman working on a construction site, but it’s a common phenomenon across Cambodia.  His disability precludes John from being able to make such a contribution to the family’s income so he stays home with the children.  I came with colouring books and a set of pencils, whose approval rating soared immediately.

I also came with cow money.  We discussed our business deal with Dan as translator and everyone understands that Collins, named after the family who donated the money, is my cow, but her progeny will belong to John and Sarah, whose idea this novel business plan came from.  Once Collins has had a baby, John and Sarah will identify someone in or near their village who is as needy as them, who can take over the care of Collins and earn ownership of her next baby.  I’m unsure how many times I can expect Collins to procreate on this plan, perhaps twice might be the limit, we will have to see.  The following day Dan forwarded me photographs of Collins and her transport home.  The seller wanted US$740 for her, but agreed to negotiate down to $700 including transport, in Dan’s exact words, “to help the poor family”.  The photograph of the seller, standing on a dusty track in her wrap around skirt and matching blouse, didn’t exactly suggest signs of a non-poor-family, but she did have US$700 in her hand, more than most around here have ever touched.

On the way home we stopped in to visit the Phter Koma children at their new digs.  I guess we sat for maybe an hour, under a tree as the sun drew slowly towards the horizon.  The children are doing well in school, settled with their new abode and carers, and all very keen that I take them “skiing” (skating) or swimming next time, so we’ll arrange that.  They always understand when all I can offer is a quick visit and never seem anything but happy to see me.  Some of them are approaching adulthood, at 17 and 18 years old; the younger ones are changing before my eyes, having growth spurts and their little faces transforming out of the cherubic stage.

The final colouring books and pencils caused a stir with the children of the cleaner at my hotel, who live next door to the hotel and who I have known for about three years now.  Their father is in prison as a subject of the infamous “government crackdown” on drugs, I don’t know the story behind that.  Their mother, as a consequence, is working two jobs; cleaning by day and waiting on restaurant tables until 10pm each night.  Her 12yo daughter plays second mother to the four younger children.  I spent an evening being asked whose colouring was “good or not?” as little heads concentrated on doing the best job possible.  It seems they go to bed hungry so when I was ready for some Me Time, I ordered three takeaway fried rices which were scooped up hastily with pencils and all small people suddenly vanished from my exhausting but very happy day.

Colouring for blog 02

Disability Detective

Today I visited Chey Chumneas Referral Hospital in Kandal Province, near the Ta Khmau roundabout a short drive south of Phnom Penh, with my friend “Samantha” and  her severely disabled son who I will call “Alex”.  He is 3.5 years old now, immobile, contracted, unable to speak or even so much as turn his head, yet very alert and observant.

Chey Chumneas

Her intimate involvement from the day Paula arrived into our TB Department’s care, through to her surgery in Seattle, appeared to make Samantha acutely hopeful of a similar miracle for Alex.  During the same months that Paula lay on her hospital bed in our department, hopeless and dying, Samantha was recognising something wrong with her tiny first-born baby.  We shared an office at that time and I often found her at lunch time, sitting at her computer researching the symptoms becoming increasingly apparent as Alex began to skip various developmental milestones.  In recent months I have observed Samantha coming to terms with the permanency of his condition and her hopes transition to a more realistic search for assistance in making Alex’s life more comfortable.

Information is hard to come by in Cambodia.  Multiple internet searches for various combinations of paediatric-disability-health-services offer misellaneous results, none of which serve much practical benefit to someone looking for help.  After learning that Caritas are connected to the disability service we visited today, when I search “Caritas Ta Khmau”, no result tells me they are in Ta Khmau, let alone what they are doing there.  A search for “Caritas Cambodia” brings up their page, showing a range of programs but nothing connecting them to a paediatric disability service anywhere in the country. [Caritas Cambodia].  The same happens even on a search for the very words written on the facility building, “Comprehensive services for children with special needs“.  It seems literally impossible to know, except via word of mouth, that this service exists.  Thankfully Samantha, a functional mother and a literate, trained nurse, did learn about the facility when she took Alex to another service in search of assistance.

Comprehensive Services 02

Comprehensive Services

This was Samantha and Alex’s second visit.  The appointment system appeared planned and methodical.  Last month a local paediatrician spent time with Samantha, listening to Alex’s history and assessing his clinical status.  Today was an Occupational Therapy assessment with a young and well informed OT.  After spending a significant amount of time listening to Samantha, asking questions and taking notes, she got on the floor with them and taught Samantha a number of useful strategies for positioning, lifting and holding Alex.  He is regularly distressed, apparently due to pain and he does not sleep at night.  The OT suggested that he may have more severe muscle pain and/or spasms at night and she recommended “nesting” him.  Tonight Samantha sent me a photograph of Alex nestled between pillows, ready and hopeful for a night of sleep.  Given the family’s collective exhaustion, I am hopeful that this simple but brilliant concept may give everyone some respite.

Services such as this are not conspicuous here, as they are in countries like Australia where departments and organisations have a much higher visibility and accessibility courtesy of a more inclusive and better resourced health system.  Data for Cambodia is unreliable but disability rates are probably at least as high as 5% of the total population living with at least one physical or mental impairment.  At the same time there are extremely limited services available to disabled people, who are often forced to resort to begging as their only means of income.  Samantha’s husband earns a reasonable local salary meaning they are able to afford the transportation to Ta Khmau for monthly appointments.  Many Cambodians are not so fortunate.  Knowing about the service, and being able to access the service, appear to be two of the fundamental problems for parents with disabled children who are already living with poverty and stress which exacerbate these obstacles.  Handicap International published a Disability Facts in Cambodia Briefing Paper in 2009 which goes some way to describing the situation.

One of Samantha’s next challenges is to find out if there is some way to access an appropriate wheelchair for Alex.  Unlike Australia, where services connect with each other and relevant referrals are common inside a networked system, the staff at Chey Chumneas were unable to offer any advice in this regard.  If even one person connected to a disabled child in Cambodia accesses the Paediatric Special Needs service at Chey Chumneas in Ta Khmau courtesy of this blog,  then these 800 words were worth writing.  An integrated list and description of the services available in Cambodia for disabled children, published online in English as well as Khmer and made available across the services, for providers and clients, would be even better.

Far Flung Fishing Friends

When I first met Paula and her family, her father invited me to visit their village with the offer that he would take us out on his fishing boat.  Now that I know them well, he lives in Malaysia in order to earn enough money to continue paying off the family’s debt, incurred throughout the five years of Paula’s illness.  So the offer to go out on his fishing boat remains on hold for now.  When I last visited Kampong Cham, Paula’s brother rang me on the Saturday morning to enquire of my whereabouts.  I was able to say that I planned to visit the next day, but unable to give any detail due to our language barrier.  Dan and I arrived unannounced at about 9am, having left my fellow expatriates at the bottom of 200+ stairs leading up to a temple complex at a nearby hilltop.  A few kilometers later, a newborn baby boy was one of the first to greet me along with various villagers who I am often unsure if I’ve met before, due to the volume of people who always form my welcoming party.  It was a happy visit as always although they were disappointed that I couldn’t stay for a meal and I had to repeatedly insist that my friends were waiting for me at the nearby temple.

Dan makes a quiet and unassuming translator, quite different to Chom’s style of doubling as the paid entertainment!  I am often unsure of exactly what I am being told, usually because the assumptions behind peoples’ stories are laden with histories and perceptions that I don’t fully comprehend.  Paula and her mother talked about their memories of America, that they really wanted to stay but they could not.  Her mother said that “we travel with nothing but you travel with many bags and even your children have bags at the airport”.  A poignant observation of wealth from impoverished eyes.  Her neighbour told me that her husband works as a fisherman on boats off the Thailand coast which is “very dangerous” but he has no choice because they need to eat.  These are just daily conversations, not requests for help or for pity.

Whilst in the village I visited the parents of a young Cham woman who I met in Seattle.  She met her husband when he returned to Cambodia for a visit and she now lives near Seattle with him.  When I met her in Seattle, the conversation was amazing for both of us, as I asked where she was from?  Cambodia.  “Yes, but where in Cambodia?” Oh it’s a place called Kampong Cham.  “I know Kampong Cham, where is your home?”.  When she named Paula’s village I was surprised beyond belief and when I claimed to know this village, she was equally surprised.  Recently I told Paula’s family via Dan, that before I came to Cambodia I had never heard of Cham people, but now I feel very connected to them.

On return to the temple to meet the others, my bag fell off it’s perch behind Dan’s moto and was hit by the tuk tuk wheels underneath my seat, veering us off course so that for a moment I thought we were going to drive over a bluff into the rice fields below the elevated road.  Thankfully a small tear in my case, salvaged from the roadside a short distance behind us by an apologetic Dan, was the only damage done.  We picked the others up at the bottom of the stairs, filled with excitement at the Khmer New Year ceremony they had gate crashed by chance, on the mountain.  They had photographs galore showing hundreds of people dancing and making offerings to dozens of processional monks.

Back in Kampong Cham town we had another delicious and inexpensive market meal before our hired van met us for the drive back to Phnom Penh.  Within 2.5 hours we were arriving at the apartment gate.  That night we headed out for dinner to the historic Foreign Correspondents’ Club, an open air restaurant on the trendy tourist strip river front.  Not far from the Royal Palace, the FCC as it’s known, overlooks from its first  and second floor terraces, the massive new Sokha Hotel on the opposite shore of the Tonle Sab river.  If you had not been to that shore, which most tourists and expatriates have not, you would not know that the Sokha rises above a community of Cham fisher people, who live on small colourful wooden boats which double as their livelihood, allowing them to fish and therefore to eat, as well as to make a small income if they are lucky enough.  You also may not know, that the promontory it sits on is the junction where the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers converge.  During the wet season, the Mekong delta floods push the Tonle Sap river flow backwards into the lake which swells to four or five times it’s usual size.  This is the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia, feeding some of the largest freshwater fish in the world.

Cambodia map showing the Tonle Sab and Mekong rivers meeting in Phnom Penh

Tonle Sab flow reverses into the Tonle Sab Lake during the wet season

River catfish in Cambodia, 2002. Photograph courtesy Zeb Hogan, University of Nevada

Sokha Hotel as seen from the city side of Phnom Penh

On May 24 last year I wrote a blog called Pay It Forward in which I talked of my uncle, an open sea fisherman in New Zealand who refused to take anything from me as a thank you, insisting that I “do something for Cambodia” on his behalf.  Maintaining fishing boats in a place like Cambodia is a constant challenge for their owners who need to work the boats everyday and rarely have enough money to keep them maintained.  Determining to offer repair of a fishing boat on behalf of my uncle, Bree who works with the Cham people living on the shores of the Mekong/Tonle Sab confluence, was my obvious contact.  She tells tales of severely disabled children living on these small wooden boats and spending hours everyday on the river while parents fish; of boats sinking with whole families on board; of a vigilant community constantly looking out for each other due to the dangers of their worn out boats.  Yesterday, a year after my promise to my uncle, I finally organised a boat repair on his behalf.

My day started with breakfast at Brown, a trendy coffee shop in a trendy area of town, where I met Bree who had arranged for us to meet up with Ben, the CEO of Kung Future.  We caught a tuk tuk across the river, where we met up with Ny, who had been informed of the boat repair plan and been scouting the community to determine who was most in need.  Somewhere between trendy Phnom Penh and the Mekong/Tonle Sab confluence shoreline, your perception of the world is thrown into turmoil.  When I first visited here with Bree three years ago, there was talk that the Cham people would be forced away from this shore once the hotel was built, to keep them out of sight of tourists.  The fact that the hotel remains largely unoccupied may be the reason that this threat has not been carried out.  Many dozens of empty rooms with running water and ensuite toilets watch down on this active community where dozens of families live without a single toilet.  Among their many useful interventions, Kung Future have supplied water filters so that families can drink the river water safely.  If the community move too far uphill, they are moved back down by police.  When the river waters rise, they are forced to dismantle their huts and pile the materials onto the boats.  Bree talks of visiting the community during the wet season, stepping warily on tiny patches of mud or balancing one foot in front of the other on narrow wooden planks to reach moored boats.

Life in the shadow of a near-empty hotel

Boat repair at the Tonle Sab/Mekong confluence

Bree and Ben thought we might end up visiting a community on the Tonle Sab shore, where many more boats are delapidated.  The Tonle Sab waters are calmer and less rippling than the Mekong, so once your boat becomes dangerously ramshackle it is safer to fish on the Tonle Sab.  However Ny already had a plan for a family living in the shadow of the Sokha Hotel.  On 8 April an early monsoonal storm hit Phnom Penh.  The family consisting of Mum, Dad and six children were on shore in their tarpaulin-covered bamboo hut.  The next morning Dad walked down to the water’s edge and his boat had disappeared, along with all of the paraphernalia they had stored on-board.  The story of retrieving the boat made no sense to me, as Ny tried to describe, with accompanying photographs, the lowering of large water drums which in some way helped to raise the boat off the riverbed and haul it to the surface.  It has been sitting on the shore for a month now.  The family are impoverished but functional, their children have good school attendance, thanks to their fees being covered by Kung Future.  Their parents generate a small income by selling produce from the so-called house, but without the ability to fish they have been forced to live on little else but rice for the past month.  Ny told me their story before walking with me down a packed-mud slope to the boat, filled with gaps in the wooden panels and holes in the strips of glue holding the panels together.

When she was comfortable that I agreed to this being the boat we repair, we went to meet the family.  Dad was sitting under the shade of his tarpaulin roof, on a bamboo floor suspended about 60cm off the ground.  One hand rocked a hammock hiding a sleeping baby and the other hand rested on the edge of a broken foam eskie with smoke wafting out of it’s open top.  When I looked closer, an open fire burned on stones inside this eskie, on top of which a pot of rice boiled!  When I expressed my concern at the peril of a fire in such flammable surroundings, Ny explained that it was okay as long as he did not move away and this was why he was leaning on the edge of the eskie.

Ny introduced me and talked to Dad about my uncle, who fishes in very cold sea water, jumping off his boat with a long spear and swimming around, spearing fish.  Dad listened with a smile, nodding occasionally and I wondered if he thought I was spinning him a tall tale.  We explained that my uncle wants to help a fisherman in Cambodia and that repairing the family’s boat was the choice we’d agreed upon.  This led to a photograph session just as Mum arrived on a clackity motorbike from the market.  Except the two youngest, their children were all at school.  With Mum and Dad as witnesses, I handed my envelope containing the donation to Kung Future.  Ny asked Dad to make a list of the supplies he would need so that they could go shopping together this week.  He can repair the boat himself so there will be no labour costs and he predicts it should take about a week.  I asked if I could return to see the boat once it’s fixed, and Ben announced “we can do better than that!  We will go out on the boat with him!”.

From here we wandered through the community, visiting young families, tiny stunted and malnourished children, elderly women lying down under tarpaulin shades, grandparents pulling potatoes from the ground with infants at their ankles and men working on their wooden boats.  I was a sweltering mess but it was the best morning I’ve had in ages.

Harvesting potatoes

Destined to be back on the water very soon